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During this period, the major natural sources of potassium nitrate were the deposits crystallizing from cave walls and the accumulations of bat guano in caves. During the 19th century and until around World War I, potassium nitrate was produced on an industrial scale by the Birkeland–Eyde process. An alternative way of producing potassium nitrate without a by-product of ammonia is to combine ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride, easily obtained as a sodium-free salt substitute. Potassium nitrate can also be produced by neutralizing nitric acid with potassium hydroxide.
Potassium nitrate has an orthorhombic crystal structure at room temperature, which transforms to a trigonal system at 129 °C. Potassium nitrate is moderately soluble in water, but its solubility increases with temperature (see infobox). Potassium nitrate is mainly used in fertilizers, as a source of nitrogen and potassium – two of the macro nutrients for plants.

In the process of food preservation, potassium nitrate has been a common ingredient of salted meat since the Middle Ages, but its use has been mostly discontinued due to inconsistent results compared to more modern nitrate and nitrite compounds. Potassium nitrate is an efficient oxidizer, which produces a lilac flame upon burning due to the presence of potassium.
Potassium nitrate is the main component (usually about 98%) of tree stump remover, as it accelerates the natural decomposition of the stump.
Potassium nitrate successfully combats high blood pressure and was once used as a hypotensive. Potassium nitrate was once thought to induce impotence, and is still falsely rumored to be in institutional food (such as military fare) as an anaphrodisiac; however, there is no scientific evidence for such properties.
Traditionally guano was the source used in Laos for the manufacture of gunpowder for Bang Fai rockets. Today practically all nitrates are produced from the oxidation of ammonia made by the Haber process.

Other nitrates and nitrites such as glyceryl trinitrate(nitroglycerin), amyl nitrite and isosorbide derivatives are still used to relieve angina. Dung-heaps were a particularly common source: ammonia from the decomposition of urea and other nitrogenous materials would undergo bacterial oxidation to produce various nitrates, primarily calcium nitrate, which could be converted to potassium nitrate by the addition of potash from wood ashes. Potassium nitrate is also one of the three components of black powder, along with powdered charcoal (substantially carbon) and sulfur, where it acts as an oxidizer. The name Peru saltpetre or Chile saltpetre (American Peru saltpeter or Chile saltpeter) refers not to potassium nitrate but to a similar chemical sodium nitrate.

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