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.