I'm writing a story in medieval era where gunpowder is newly discovered. The formula is held by a secret group of people who call themselves magicians and don't want to share the ingredients, so the powder itself is considered as a magical substance. Its trade is forbidden due to the lack of full knowledge and its dangerous effect making the trade very profitable but very risky. Everybody caught in possession of gunpowder or gunpowder's wepons (bomb, grenade, fire arrows ...) will be punished.

The story is about fights between gunpowder merchants. Most of them are selling the powder rather than the weapons because :

  • Once you have the powder you can create the weapons easily.
  • The powder is easier to transport.

My question is how this merchant could do this trade ? First the transport and the packaging used (barrels or boxes or something else) then how could they hide it, and finally where/how they will sell it ...

  • $\begingroup$ Please tell us a little bit more...What country(s) is the merchant trying to trade in/between? How large is the group of people who know the formula? Thanks!:) $\endgroup$
    – Luna Xenia
    Jul 27 '17 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ Do the "magicians" hold monopoly to sell gunpowder, or do they just keep the stuff in secret from the society? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 27 '17 at 23:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a fun concept, but the question is so broad it will certainly be closed. Try narrowing it down: for example to the "hide it" aspect. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jul 27 '17 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ I forgot to mention that it's my own world, so let's just say that the trade is between countries around a sea like the Mediterranea. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 '17 at 23:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ By "tools" you mean weapons, yes? By "fire arrows" you mean rockets? I'm asking because you really must explain how come the production of gunpowder isn't a state monopoly, which is the expected situation. Please also note that making effective black powder bombs / grenades is not easy; the first effective firearms were cannons. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jul 28 '17 at 0:19

Your gunpowder merchants would face the same issues as modern drug dealers and bootleggers during Prohibition time. Namely, there is a robust demand for their product, but the government does not want to participate in this trade and tries hard to stop it.

Manufacturing should be well hidden and separated from trade. There must be a complex logistical chain from the gunpowder mill to consumer, and people at each link should have no knowledge of the origin or the ultimate destination of the product.

Bribery has to be common. Gunpowder trade in an area can not last for long unless some official is turning a blind eye to it.

Competition between the merchants can be fierce. People could be best partners one day and become mortal enemies on the other. I imagine setting each other's stock on fire would be a favorite method of feuding.

Ultimately, the government would be forced to adopt the gunpowder, especially after law enforcement officers would find themselves bringing a knife to a gunfight with criminals.


In a medieval era, I'd suggest they could sell it any which way they liked. It seems like the only plausible means of detection is visual inspection, and the only real restriction to trade is that it can't be done openly.

I'd suggest that the best way to hide it would be mixed in with something it can be easily separated from - the first thing that comes to mind would be something that the gunpowder can be sifted from. Rice, cereal grains, etc. It could be easily shipped in bags, baskets or pouches in predetermined quantities.

I'd expect the wealthy, established merchants would have standing agreements with their clientele - shipping it to them directly; while smaller operators could sell at market to anyone with the "secret handshake". The primary risk to either operation is knowledge - the powder can be so easily concealed, it really comes down to a war of "intelligence". Hiding your clandestine operations from your rivals and the law, while finding ways to monitor and disrupt other operators.

I'd look to draw upon prohibition, smuggling and the illicit drug trade for inspiration. To crassly simplify, you're effectively dealing with the gunpowder mafia. The actual trade part is remarkably mundane - the meat of your story is going to be in how the traders interact with one another - and how they interact with the lawmakers.


1. Transport

Have the merchant set up a legal trading company, which deals in something legal* that comes in whatever it is you're storing the gunpowder in. That way, you can ship it without the notice of the crew. However, have some secret marking on the containers with gunpowder in them, so you can tell which they are. As for packaging, barrels will probably work, but you will need to be careful with them.

*preferably also fragile and/or flammable

2. Storage/Hiding

You already have a warehouse or storage area for your legal shipping enterprise. Store your gunpowder in there with the other merchandise. Make sure that you have trusted workers who know not to take the marked barrels to the market.

3. Sale

Don't sell your wares straight from the warehouse. It will attract attention, and even if it doesn't, it will be easy to trace. Sell the gunpowder incognito in a different city from the one your warehouse is in. This will be a bit of a pain, because you'll have to take small loads for sale at a time. Also sell your legitimate product there, in the normal market. Sell gunpowder on the outskirts of the city or in the same district as other questionable enterprises. You'll blend in better and the authorities may have stopped bothering about the criminal activities in that part of town. Send one wagon with gunpowder and one wagon with legal stuff to the market city. If questioned about why you sell there instead of in the city that the warehouse is in, say that you have friends or family ties or creditors there. Choose erratic times and places for when and where you sell, but make sure that your clientele knows when and where to expect you. Send a different salesperson each time. Take indirect routes to the market so that you'll be harder to track. If the authorities begin to catch on, take the remainder of what's in your warehouse back to the place that you make the gunpowder and lie low just selling your legal wares for a few years until everything has calmed down.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.