Fantasy book research #3 – guns and gunpowder

First question, I suppose, is what the hell are guns doing in a sword and sorcery fantasy? In short – I’m writing this story and I get to choose. When most of us think about guns and gunpowder images of white smokeless powder come into our heads. This is the stuff that you’ll find inside of modern cartridges, let’s say a .22 round, for example. My story doesn’t involve this sort of thing, otherwise it would be a lot easier. For my purposes, I’m more interested in black powder, the sort of stuff you’d find on an old wooden tall ship, or in a revolutionary war musket.

This proved to be one of the more difficult things to easily dredge up. Largely because there are thousands (millions? possibly approaching trillions?) of blogs and forums on the interwebs about guns, and you have to wade through a lot of unhelpful junk in order to find anything useful. Even then, since guns and gunpowder are so dangerous, there’s not a lot of easy to find general information out there. Most folks offering advice have an interest in making sure you don’t accidentally blow yourself up. Let’s say we ask the question: What is the volume of a pound of black powder? The answer you’re likely to find time after time is: ‘it depends’. What about: How much powder is required to fire a cannon? Again, this can be a ‘it depends’ situation. As a hapless writer who really just needs to know what is reasonable and plausible, none of this ‘it depends’ crap is helpful. In the end, I did manage to locate enough detail to sketch out an island of ‘reasonable’ for my story, here are my notes on the topic:

Black gunpowder consists of roughly seventy-five parts of saltpeter (Potassium Nitrate KNO3) to twelve and one-half parts of sulfur, and twelve and one have parts of charcoal. Once upon a time, Saltpeter was extracted mostly from animal waste through various methods OR could be mined. Either way producing it was NOT cheap (

Powder kegs are considerably smaller than kegs to transport anything else. Most traditional oak barrels run anywhere between 160-300L (about 40 to about 80 Gallons), which take up a space of something like 28” in diameter and 35” tall. One source (I’d cite it here, but I didn’t write it down. I think it was associated with the US Civil War, or possibly the British navy. In any case, I couldn’t find it when I went looking.) describes a common powder keg as containing 25lbs of powder, which translates to a container roughly 10” in diameter by 14” tall. This makes sense, because it’s a very transportable size.

The consumption of powder for a cannon can be assumed to be 1/3rd the weight of the ball (Can’t locate the source for this again), for example, a 32 pounder would consume roughly 11lbs of powder per round ( If you scale this down for a musket (and I suspect it scales reasonably well), the amount of powder consumed per shot is negligible compared to the volume of a full powder keg, something on the order of 6-8 grams ( You could easily get 1500-1800 rounds out of a powder keg.

And finally, (only because it’s in my notes, and was actually important for my story) rust rate of cannons:

Basically, if you have a cannon sitting in open air next to the ocean for five hundred years, after a bit of cleaning, you could still probably fire it.

Anyhow, all of this looking around got me enough information to write the bits I needed to, and I think what I have seems plausible. Perhaps not perfectly accurate, but good enough.

Fantasy book research #2

The question of this research topic is: How far can a person walk in a day? The answer is always: it depends. Once again, this is the least helpful response for someone who just needs to know what’s a reasonable distance for a human being to travel. Now, this is a topic I researched some time ago, and is buried in my notes. Also, I’ve tacked in my own opinion on the matter by applying my various, albeit limited, hiking and hunting experiences.

Easy terrain – a road, or well worn trail, with gradual slopes or short stretches of steeper terrain. This would include game trails. A fit person over relatively easy terrain can travel about 30 miles in an 8-10 hour day. If well trained, and pushing it, a person could plausibly go 40-50 miles. Keep in mind that over the course of 10 hours, stops have to be made for food and bodily functions.

Moderately difficult terrain –  This would include some steep terrain in open forest with limited trails. Imagine a forest with lots of big mature trees, few thickets, some windfall trees mostly knee-deep grasses, bracken and similar foliage. A few creek fords might be thrown in there. My experience is that you could probably cover about 20 miles, pushing 30 in a full day. The terrain isn’t really that difficult, and the slow-down comes largely from navigating around obstacles, and being a little more careful with footing.

Hard terrain – This is where you have lots of steep bits, dense thickets of willow and alder (or similar depending on your climate). I’d say something like 10 miles per day would be reasonable. Part of this comes with elevation, you tire much faster when you climb, so you have to stop and rest more often. You may still cover a lot of ground, but you won’t make much actual distance across the landscape.

Painful terrain – Knee-deep (or deeper) fresh snow on reasonably flat ground, I bet you could make 10 miles, but it would hurt, and you couldn’t keep up the pace for long. On hard-packed snow, you might be able to make it closer to 20 or even 30 miles. The thing about walking through snow, even with snowshoes, is that it’s like walking with thirty pound weights on each leg.

Don’t ever do this terrain – Deep snow up the side of a mountain – A very fit person is going to make 600feet in an hour without having a heart attack. There will be a lot of switch backs, and slipping around on uncertain footing. In this case, it really does depend on how steep the mountain is. Bottom line is that over the course of a day you could make it up and over two or three 600 or 800 foot ridges, and the actual distance covered is going to be on the order of 3-5 miles or a lot less.

I’m not going to promise these are the best estimates ever, but this is generally what I think is reasonable for a fantasy book adventurer beating his or her way across some exotic landscape.

Prologue – War of Shadows

When I first started this blog, my original intent was not to post big excerpts of my story. Really, I was just looking for a place to talk about problems, approach and my experiences as an aspiring writer. However, after doing this for a short while, it occurred to me that perhaps it would be worthwhile to share a tad-bit of my story – As context for what I’m up to. So, here is my moderately polished prologue to the the book I’m calling War of Shadows. I am going to avoid putting much more of the actual text of my story on line in future, though I will continue to post in-world stuff like languages and maps. The excerpt below is about 1000 words. Enjoy, and let me know what you think – even if you think it stinks.

Notes in pronunciation: The eo you see in the names are pronounced as in Beowulf, and the dh in the names is a voiced th – pronounced the same as the th in the word this.



“It would seem the enemy has been defeated utterly. Yet, in my bones I feel this war is not over. The price already has become too much to bear. It will be upon the shoulders of another to finish what has started here.” – Tolbara Runë

  Aldredh rested one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other tight around the reins, and shifted in his saddle. The air was crisp for an early summer morning. He exhaled, expecting to see his breath. With a side-long glance, he eyed his father off to his left. A tall, stern man with thinning gray hair, he sat in the saddle as if nothing in the world could possibly harm him. A brass broach, in the shape of a diamond ash leaf, fastening his traveling cloak, glinted unexpectedly in a ray of sunlight which had broken through the canopy of stunted, tangled trees. It made Aldredh turn his whole head toward his father.
  “You seem jumpy this morning,” his father said, his voice low and steady.
  “We’re too close to the Ghost Road,” Aldredh replied.
  His father shrugged. “Makes no difference. Someone out here is causing trouble, and it’s our responsibility to take care of it.”
  With an anxious sigh, Aldredh looked over his shoulder at the group of two dozen men following them. Each of them looked quite as nervous as he felt. Some even had their swords drawn, their full attention on the surrounding forest. A flutter of motion in the brush to his right caught his attention. When he turned to see what it was, there were only shadows. Bird, he thought.
  “If you ever expect to lead, you must show far more confidence,” Aldredh’s father said.
  “I’d feel a lot more confident if I knew what we were up against,” Aldredh replied.
  “When you become lord, you will need to take each threat as little more than a routine inconvenience, regardless of the danger you face. Today though, we seek men no different than you and I.”
  Aldredh raised an eyebrow. “How do you know that?” He asked.
  His father nodded down the road. A cloaked and hooded man stepped out of the forest into the knee-deep grass to face them. Aldredh hauled back on the reins to stop the horse and pulled his sword from its sheath. His father, however, calmly halted his mount, and did not reach for his sword.
  “Who is he?” Aldredh asked in a low hiss.
  Before his father answered, the man in the middle of the road ahead flipped back his hood. Aldredh’s mouth fell open. He recognized the pale face, which looked all the more weaselly under scraggly bits of facial hair.
  “Lord Feorun?” Aldredh asked.
  “Aldredh, so nice of you to join your father on this errand,” Lord Feorun said, his eyes fixed on Aldredh’s sword. “You have saved me some trouble.”
  “I think not,” Lord Togredh said. “It’s time we end this.”
  “I suppose you’re going to challenge me to a duel?” Lord Feorun asked with a smile. “Well, get on with it then.”
  Lord Togredh dismounted in a whirl of cloak. He strode confidently toward Lord Feorun. Aldredh glanced back at the men, all bore expressions of uncertainty and concern. Not more than ten paces from Lord Feorun, Lord Togredh unsheathed his sword.
  “Is that your sword?” Lord Feorun asked nodding at the blade with some disdain. “I’ve seen dirt farmers with better.”
  “It’ll take your head off just fine.”
  “I don’t think it will.”
  Feorun shook his head, still smiling, and took a few steps back as if he was going to make a run for it. Aldredh knew him as a man who never backed down from a fight.
  “Ambush!” Aldredh shouted, raising his sword.
  It was too late. The quiet, overgrown road was flooded with screaming soldiers. One of them emerged from the brush just to Aldredh’s right and rammed a long pike into his horse. It reared up and tossed him off. He hit the ground hard enough to knock the air from his lungs. His sword thudded to the dirt next to him. Gasping for breath, he flailed uselessly to try and reclaim his sword. The pike-man approached, his weapon raised high in the air. A sick grin spread across his face as he prepared to sink the pike into Aldredh’s chest.
  “Do not kill him just yet,” Lord Feorun called from up the road.
  The order drew the attention of the soldier. It was just a moment, but long enough for Aldredh to gain his wits. He seized hold of the hilt of his sword and immediately swung it at his attacker’s legs. The blade connected with flesh and then dug into bone, dropping the soldier to the ground, screaming in agony. Still struggling for each breath, Aldredh rolled over and managed to get to his hands and knees.
  “You won’t survive,” Lord Feorun said from just above him.
  Aldredh tried to bring his sword up, but Lord Feorun’s boot slammed down on the blade, pinning it to the ground. His hand still tightly clenched around the hilt of his sword, he waited for the lord to drive cold steel into his back.
  “Get it over with already,” Aldredh said.
  A strong hand grabbed Aldredh by the collar of his cloak, pulling him to his feet and causing his sword to be ripped from his hand. Aldredh looked Lord Feorun in the eye as the hand let him go.
  Lord Feorun took a step toward Aldredh so he was only inches from his face and said, “I am not going to kill you.”
  Aldredh’s heart was pounding, but his breathing had begun to return to normal. He looked around at a bleak scene. His men were dying all around and his father lay in a pool of blood not far away.
  “Going to have someone else do it then?” Aldredh asked.
  Lord Feorun smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. “What I have in mind for you is far worse than death.”
  With strength and speed that even surprised himself, Aldredh grabbed Lord Feorun’s arm and swung him around into the man standing behind him. It wasn’t much of an opening, but it was the best he could manage. He ran as hard as he could into the deep shadows of the forest without looking back, awaiting the arrow or cold steel that surely would come, but none did.