In our world, it is widely accepted that black powder was created by the Chinese in an attempt to find a compound for immortality. What if this doesn't happen, and gunpowder isn't invented until at least a good understanding of atoms, molecules, and generally why certain compounds work as they do, in the late 19th century or beyond. Presumably, at this point, it would be reasonable that chemists would be able to devise black powder and other explosive compounds using atomic theory (I'm not a chemist so if this point is earlier please correct me).

Barring any accidents before this point in time/scientific advancement, what would weapons technology look like right before this point? Presumably, technologies such as the steam engine would already be created, and metallurgy has advanced much since then, so I can see some interesting development for warfare.

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    $\begingroup$ "and won't do so until chemistry has developed to the point" - but that's exactly what really happened, as far as I know. So what's the difference from real life history? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jul 5 '17 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Mołot As I understand, the invention of black powder was an accident when Chinese alchemists were trying to create a potion for immortality. I'm merely suggesting the lack of that accident and any future accidents. $\endgroup$ – Jim Wu Jul 5 '17 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ At some point, if you're suggesting that a very long string of convenient accidents didn't occur, you're running down a very low-probability path. The odds of this world being completely and utterly unrelated to ours is very high. However, one thing to remember is that we are very good at finding ways to force our will on the environment (and thus on others). We will find ways. However, those ways may not fit on our personal definition of "less advanced" to "more advanced." Those definitions are tricky $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 5 '17 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ As an example, the kind of movie-kung fu we see in characters like Marco Polo's Hundred Eyes is often considered advanced to the point of being unrealistic, but even Hundred Eyes is going to have trouble with a Predator drone lofting a Hellfire at him. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 5 '17 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ There are several branches of non-explosive military technology. Tactics and strategy, training -- physical training, disciple, unit cohesiveness, etc. Weapons technology offensive and defensive, materials science, logistics (far more important than commonly realized) and transport, intelligence, and probably others overlooked in this quick summary. I.e., you are asking for a quite complicated multi-part answer $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Jul 5 '17 at 17:15

Without gunpowder, weapons are mostly limited to muscle power and mechanically stored energy. It is conceivable to forge better metals in hotter furnaces without the discovery of explosive combustion.

  • The metallurgy of swords, pikes, axes, maces, etc. can be improved. Better steel is available at lower cost and in greater quantities.
  • Metal armor will improve as well, and it will probably stay around longer because there are more swords and no muskets.
  • Crossbows will use steel springs. Compound bows will use steel parts as well. Steel is used for the tips of bodkin arrows.
  • Canned food would revolutionize logistics. Both glas jars and rubber seals might be available before gunpowder.
  • At the improbable end, somebody could come up with bicycle-mounted dragoons for greater strategic mobility.
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In S.M. Stirling's Dies The Fire, modern humanity looses both harnassed electricity and explosives. One result of that loss is a sudden reversion to pre-gunpowder military technologies. People went back to swords, bows and crossbows. Calvary and Siege Weapons re-emerged as effective tools of war. Defensive walls and motes also became effective again.

Your situation is a little different, as you still have electricity and so your people would eventually figure out how to create high temperature forges. Steel and other military grade alloys would then be available, as would molten-metal throwing trebuchets which would be horrifically destructive weapons.

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