Sulfur and Alternative History

Gunpowder played a critical role in history of warfare. In European history, it resulted in the decline of importance of mounted and armed Knights as a “commoner” with a matchlock could take out the medieval symbol of wealth and power.

Along with the Knight, the stone castle fell before the onslaught of cannon fire and explosives.

A blacksmith hammers a white hot iron ingotTwo factors limited in the development and use of gunpowder. The first concerned the metallurgy required to fabricate the guns and cannon. This will be the subject of a future post.


The second factor was the acquisition of gunpowder components, which consists of a mixture of 75% Saltpetre (Potassium Nitrate), 15% Carbon (charcoal) and 10% Sulfur.

Remains of saltpeter miningSaltpetre (Potassium Nitrate) can be found in caves, the result of nitrate in the soil being dissolved and percolating downwards to anaerobic soils. There it is converted into ammonium. If caverns are present, it can evaporate at the cave surfaces, where it can be oxidized to potassium nitrate by bacteria (1).

In the absence of the appropriate geology, this process can be artificially produced by letting wood ash and organic material soaked in urine age in a barn or other shelter (2). These sources are limited. But with the event of global trade, Saltpetre could be obtained from India and South America.

The making of charcoal is a well known skill, the only question being the choice of wood. Dogwood, willow and alder are commonly used (2).

Hot springs with sulfur depositesSulfur is an element. This ingredient was probably the limiting factor in the use of gunpowder in European history. Two main historic sources were Sicily and, later by the 14th century, Iceland. The source in each location being volcanic vents.


Of Metallurgy, Charcoal, Saltpetre and Sulfur, it would be hard to control the first three. Sulphur however is extremely localized resource. If a group or state could exert dominion on two relatively small regions of Europe, they could control gunpowder and thus warfare.

An excellent scenario for alternative history would be introducing the technology of metallurgy into pre-gunpowder Middle Ages. Access to one of the sources of sulphur would insure the availability of gunpowder. Exclusive access would insure domination. From there, it’s an adventure story.

1. “Geology and History of Confederate Saltpeter Cave Operations in Western Virginia”, Virginia Minerals, Vol. 47, November 2001, No.4.

2. “The Big Bang: A History of Explosives” by George Ingham Brown, November 1998, Chapter 2 “Making Gunpowder”

3. General reference:

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