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A modern black powder substitute for muzzleloading rifles in FFG size
For other meanings, see gunpowder (disambiguation).

Gunpowder, also called black powder, is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate. It burns rapidly, producing a volume of hot gas and a solid residue which can be used as a propellant in firearms and as a pyrotechnic composition in fireworks. The term gunpowder also refers broadly to any propellant powder. Modern firearms do not use the traditional gunpowder (black powder) described in this article, but instead use smokeless powder. Antique firearms or replicas of antique firearms are often used with black powder substitute.

Gunpowder is classified as a low explosive because of its relatively slow decomposition rate and consequently low brisance. Low explosives deflagrate at subsonic speeds. High explosives detonate, producing a supersonic wave. The gases produced by burning gunpowder generate enough pressure to propel a bullet, but not enough to destroy a gun barrel. This makes gunpowder less suitable for shattering rock or fortifications, where high explosives such as TNT are preferred.



The term black powder was coined in the late 19th century to distinguish prior gunpowder formulations from the new smokeless powders and semi-smokeless powders.(Semi-smokeless powders featured bulk volume properties that approximated black powder in terms of chamber pressure when used in firearms, but had significantly reduced amounts of smoke and combustion products; they ranged in color from brownish tan to yellow to white. Most of the bulk semi-smokeless powders ceased to be manufactured in the 1920s.)[1][2][3]

Black powder is a granular mixture of

  • a nitrate, typically potassium nitrate (KNO3), which supplies oxygen for the reaction;
  • charcoal, which provides carbon and other fuel for the reaction, simplified as carbon (C);
  • sulfur (S), which, while also a fuel, lowers the temperature of ignition and increases the speed of combustion.

Potassium nitrate is the most important ingredient in terms of both bulk and function because the combustion process releases oxygen from the potassium nitrate, promoting the rapid burning of the other ingredients.[4] To reduce the likelihood of accidental ignition by static electricity, the granules of modern black powder are typically coated with graphite, which prevents the build-up of electrostatic charge.

The current standard composition for the black powders that are manufactured by pyrotechnicians was adopted as long ago as 1780. Proportions by weight are 75% potassium nitrate, 15% softwood charcoal, and 10% sulfur.[5] These ratios have varied over the centuries and by country, and can be altered somewhat depending on the purpose of the powder. For instance, power grades of black powder, unsuitable for use in firearms but adequate for blasting rock in quarrying operations, is called blasting powder rather than gunpowder with standard proportions of 70% nitrate, 14% charcoal, and 16% sulfur; blasting powder may be made with the cheaper sodium nitrate substituted for potassium nitrate and proportions may be as low as 40% nitrate, 30% charcoal, and 30% sulfur.[6]

Combustion rate

The burn rate of black powder can be changed by corning. Corning first compresses the fine black powder meal into blocks with a fixed density (1.7 g/cm³). The blocks are then broken up into granules. These granules are then sorted by size to give the various grades of black powder. In the United States, standard grades of black powder run from the coarse Fg grade used in large bore rifles and small cannons, through FFg (medium and smallbore arms such as muskets and fusils), FFFg (smallbore rifles and pistols), and FFFFg (extreme small bore, short pistols and most commonly for priming flintlocks). In the United Kingdom, the gunpowder grains are categorised by mesh size: the BSS sieve mesh size, being the smallest mesh size on which no grains were retained. Recognised grain sizes are Gunpowder G 7, G 20, G 40, and G 90.

A simple, commonly cited, chemical equation for the combustion of black powder is

2 KNO3 + S + 3 CK2S + N2 + 3 CO2.

A more accurate, but still simplified, equation is[7]

10 KNO3 + 3 S + 8 C → 2 K2CO3 + 3 K2SO4 + 6 CO2 + 5 N2.

Another reaction may be:

6 KNO3 + C7H4O + 2 S → 2 K2S + 4 CO2 + 3 CO + 2 H2O + 2 N2

Charcoal does not consist of pure carbon; rather, it consists of partially pyrolyzed cellulose, in which the wood is not completely decomposed.

The burning of gunpowder does not take place as a single reaction, however, and the byproducts are not easily predicted. One study's results showed that it produced (in order of descending quantities): 55.91% solid products: potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, potassium sulfide, sulfur, potassium nitrate, potassium thiocyanate, carbon, ammonium carbonate. 42.98% gaseous products: carbon dioxide, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen, methane, 1.11% water.

Black powder formulations where the nitrate used is sodium nitrate tend to be hygroscopic, unlike black powders where the nitrate used is saltpeter (saltpeter (also saltpetre) in the context of this article means specifically potassium nitrate and not other definitions). Because of this, black powder which uses saltpeter can be stored unsealed and remain viable for centuries provided no liquid water is ever introduced. Muzzleloaders have been known to fire after hanging on a wall for decades in a loaded state, provided they remained dry. By contrast, powder that uses sodium nitrate, which is typically intended for blasting, must be sealed from moisture in the air to remain stable for long times.



In firearms, black powder allows loading by volumetric measure, where as smokeless powder requires precise measuring of the charge by weight to prevent damage due to overloading, though damage by overloading is still possible with black powder.

In quarrying, high explosives are generally preferred for shattering rock. However, because of its low brisance, black powder causes fewer fractures and results in more usable stone compared to other explosives, making black powder useful for blasting monumental stone such as granite and marble.

Black powder is well suited for blank rounds, signal flares, burst charges, and rescue-line launches. Black powder is also used in fireworks for lifting shells, in rockets as fuel, and in certain special effects.


Black powder has low energy density compared to modern smokeless powders and produces a thick smoke that can impair aiming and reveal a shooter's position.

Combustion converts less than half the mass of black powder to gas. The rest ends up as a thick layer of soot inside the barrel. In addition to being a nuisance, the residue from burnt black powder is hygroscopic and an anhydrous caustic substance. When moisture from the air is absorbed, the potassium oxide or sodium oxide turns into hydroxide, which will corrode wrought iron or steel gun barrels. Black powder arms must be well cleaned both inside and out to remove the residue. The Matchlock musket (an early gun) would be unusable in wet weather due to powder in the pan being exposed and dampened, in which case soldiers would use the ends as clubs or use bayonets.


The UN Model Regulations on the Transportation of Dangerous Goods and national transportation authorities, such as United States Department of Transportation, have classified Gunpowder (black powder) as a Group A: Primary explosive substance for shipment because it ignites so easily. Complete manufactured devices containing black powder are usually classified as Group D: Secondary detonating substance, or black powder, or article containing secondary detonating substance, such as firework, class D model rocket engine, etc., for shipment because they are harder to ignite than loose powder. As explosives, they all fall into the category of Class 1.

Energy content

Gunpowder contains 3 megajoules per kilogram, and contains its own oxidant. For comparison, the energy density of TNT is 4.6 megajoules per kilogram, and the energy density of gasoline is 47.2 megajoules per kilogram.[8]

Sulfur-free gunpowder

The development of smokeless powders, such as Cordite, in the late 19th century created the need for a spark-sensitive priming charge, such as gunpowder. However, the sulfur content of traditional gunpowders caused corrosion problems with Cordite Mk I and this led to the introduction of a range of sulfur-free gunpowders, of varying grain sizes.[9] They typically contain 70.5 parts of saltpetre and 29.5 parts of charcoal.[9] Like black powder, they were produced in different grain sizes. In United Kingdom, the finest grain was known as sulfur-free mealed powder (SMP). Coarser grains were numbered as sulfur-free gunpowder (SFG n): 'SFG 12', 'SFG 20', 'SFG 40' and 'SFG 90', for example, where the number was a BSS sieve mesh size, being the smallest mesh size on which no grains were retained.

The main purpose of sulfur in gunpowder is to decrease the ignition temperature. A sample reaction for sulfur-free gunpowder would be

4 KNO3 + C7H8O → 3 K2CO3 + 4 CO2 + 2 H2O + 3 N2


Early Chinese rocket
A Mongol bomb thrown against a charging Japanese samurai during the Mongol invasions of Japan after founding the Yuan Dynasty, 1281.

Gunpowder was invented, documented and used in ancient China where the Chinese military forces used gunpowder based weapons technology (i.e. rockets, guns, cannons) and explosives (i.e. grenades and different types of bombs) against the Mongols when the Mongols attempted to invade and breach the Chinese city fortifications on the northern borders of China. After the Mongols conquered China and founded the Yuan Dynasty, they used the Chinese gunpowder-based weapons technology in their invasion of Japan. Chinese also used gunpowder to fuel rockets. However, it has also been argued that, like the wheel, gunpowder was "coinvented" or "co-discovered" prior to, simultaneously or slightly after the Chinese, by cultures separated from the Chinese by vast distances, with minimal direct contact between one another.[10][11][12]

A major problem compounding unbiased academic study is rapid access to original sources. Moreover, the major dilemma of accurate transliteration of original sources, especially of medieval Chinese texts, from then-understood metaphor and/or prose employed to describe (then) hitherto unexplained phenomena into contemporary languages with their well-established and rigidly defined terminology. The difficulty in transliteration lends itself readily to errors or latitude bordering on artistic licence in the interpretation [13][14]

An evaluation of all arguments and thorough literature review is beyond the scope of this article. Rather than take a position, the article will present all arguments to the reader.


Saltpeter was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD and there is strong evidence of the use of saltpeter and sulfur in various largely medicinal combinations.[15] A Chinese alchemical text dated 492 AD noted saltpetre burnt with a purple flame, providing a practical and reliable means of distinguishing it from other inorganic salts, thus enabling alchemists to evaluate and compare purification techniques.[16] The Chinese word for "gunpowder" is Chinese: 火药/火藥pinyin: huŏ yào /xuou yɑʊ/, which literally means "Fire Medicine." [17]

The first reference of gunpowder is possibly the passage of the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe, a Taoist text tentatively dated to the mid-800s CE:[16]

Some have heated together sulfur, realgar and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.[18]

By the 9th century Taoist monks or alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality had serendipitously stumbled upon gunpowder.[19][20]

The Chinese "Wu Ching Tsung Yao", written by Tseng Kung-Liang in 1044, provides encyclopedia references to a variety of mixtures which included petrochemicals, as well as garlic and honey. A slow match for flame throwing mechanisms using the siphon principle and for fireworks and rockets are mentioned. Academics argue the Chinese wasted little time in applying gunpowder to warfare, and they produced a variety of gunpowder weapons, including flamethrowers, rockets, bombs, and mines, before inventing guns as a projectile weapon.[21] Invention of gunpowder preceded that of firearm.There was once a great deal of confusion and controversy surrounding the invention of firearms, but it is now generally accepted that firearms originated in China. Although there is no solid evidence for firearms in Europe before the 1300s, archeologists have discovered a gun in Manchuria dating from the 1200s, and a historian has identified a sculpture in Sichuan dating from the 1100s that appears to represent a figure with a firearm. Since all the other evidence points to Chinese origins, it is safe to conclude that this was in fact the case. The Europeans certainly had firearms by the first half of the 1300s. The Arabs obtained firearms in the 1300s too, and the Turks, Iranians, and Indians all got them no later than the 1400s, in each case directly or indirectly from the Europeans. The Koreans adopted firearms from the Chinese in the 1300s, but the Japanese did not acquire them until the 1500s, and then from the Portuguese rather than the Chinese. The time frame of the spread of firearms corresponded well with the Mongol's ruling of China (Yuan dynasty) when cultural and technological exchange between China and other Mongolian ruled territories were promoted. Therefore, from all the sources involving the alchemy (chemistry) of gunpowder and the invention and the spread of firearms,it seems that the Chinese invention of gunpowder was hundreds of years before other cultures obtaining the knowledge (or invention as some claim) of gunpowder.

Islamic world

The Sultani Cannon, a very heavy bronze muzzle-loading cannon of type used by Ottoman Empire in the siege of Constantinople, 1453 AD.

The Arabs acquired knowledge of gunpowder some time after 1240 AD, but before 1280 AD, by which time Hasan al-Rammah had written, in Arabic, recipes for gunpowder, instructions for the purification of saltpeter, and descriptions of gunpowder incendiaries.[22] However, because al-Rammah attributes his material to "his father and forefathers", al-Hassan argues that gunpowder became prevalent in Syria and Egypt by "the end of the twelfth century or the beginning of the thirteenth".

A picture of a 15th century Granadian cannon from the book Al-izz wal rifa'a.

Al-Hassan claims that in the Battle of Ain Jalut of 1260 AD, the Mamluks used against the Mongols in "the first cannon in history" gunpowder formulæ with near-identical ideal composition ratios for explosive gunpowder.[23][24] However, Khan claims that it was invading Mongols who introduced Chinese gunpowder to the Islamic world[25] and cites Mamluk antagonism towards early riflemen in their infantry as an example of how gunpowder weapons were not always met with open acceptance in the Middle East.[26] Similarly, the refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.[26]

The earliest surviving documentary evidence for the use of the hand cannon, considered the oldest type of portable firearm and a forerunner of the handgun, are from several Arabic manuscripts dated to the 14th century.[27] Al-Hassan argues that these are based on earlier originals and that they report hand-held cannons being used by the Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260.[24]

Hasan al-Rammah included 107 gunpowder recipes in his text al-Furusiyyah wa al-Manasib al-Harbiyya (The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices), 22 of which are for rockets. If one takes the median of 17 of these 22 compositions for rockets (75% nitrates, 9.06% sulfur, and 15.94% carbon), it is near identical with the modern reported ideal gunpowder recipe (75% potassium nitrate, 10% sulfur, and 15% carbon).[24]

Mainland Europe

C. F. Temler interprets Peter, Bishop of Leon, as reporting the use of cannon in Seville in 1248 AD.[28]

In Norwegian the Konungs skuggsjá of 1250 AD mentions in its military chapter, the use of two key ingredients: "coal and sulphur" as the best weapons for ship-to-ship combat.[29]

Dated around 1257 AD, among the earliest extant written references to gunpowder in Europe, are Roger Bacon's texts Epistola, "De Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae et de Nullitate Magiae," dated variously between 1248[30] and 1257,[31] he states:[30]

We can, with saltpeter and other substances, compose artificially a fire that can be launched over long distances... By only using a very small quantity of this material much light can be created accompanied by a horrible fracas. It is possible with it to destroy a town or an army ... In order to produce this artificial lightning and thunder it is necessary to take saltpeter, sulfur, and Luru Vopo Vir Can Utriet.

Cannons forged in 1667 AD at the Fortín de La Galera, Nueva Esparta, Venezuela.

The last part has been interpreted as an elaborate coded anagram for the quantities needed, but other academics holding contrary viewpoints argue this may be erroneous transcription of a passage read with much difficulty.[32][33]

In the Opus Maior of 1267 AD, Bacon describes firecrackers:[32]

a child’s toy of sound and fire and explosion made in various parts of the world with powder of saltpetre, sulfur and charcoal of hazelwood.[34]

The Liber Ignium, or Book of Fires, attributed to Marcus Graecus, is a collection of incendiary recipes, including some gunpowder recipes. Partington dates the gunpowder recipes to approximately 1300.[35] One recipe for "flying fire" (ingis volatilis) involves saltpetre, sulfur, and colophonium, which, when inserted into a reed or hollow wood, "flies away suddenly and burns up everything." Another recipe, for artificial "thunder", specifies a mixture of one pound native sulfur, two pounds linden or willow charcoal, and six pounds of saltpeter.[36] Another specifies a 1:3:9 ratio.[36]

Some of the gunpowder recipes of De Mirabilibus Mundi of Albertus Magnus are identical to the recipes of the Liber Ignium, and according to Partington, "may have been taken from that work, rather than conversely."[37] Partington suggests that some of the book may have been compiled by Albert's students, "but since it is found in thirteenth century manuscripts, it may well be by Albert."[37] Albertus Magnus died in 1280 AD.

A common German folk-tale is of the German priest/monk named Berthold Schwarz who independently invented gunpowder, thus earning it the German name Schwarzpulver or in English Schwarz's powder. Schwarz is also German for black so this folk-tale, while likely containing elements of truth, is considered problematic.

The major and uniquely European advancement of gunpowder was corning: the addition of moisture to the gunpowder to form regular greater grains which much increased the reliability and consistency of gunpowder. This occurred around the late 1400s AD, as European powdermakers began adding moisture to gunpowder to reduce dust and with it the risk of dust explosion. The powdermakers would then shape the resulting mush of dampened gunpowder, known as mill cake, into corns, or grains, to dry.

The new "corned" powder remained potent and more reliable to store as it was far less hygroscopic than the former powder (due to net reduced surface area). Gunners also found it was more powerful and easier to load measures of it into guns. The main advantage of corning is that the combustion flame spreads evenly between the grains, thus igniting all grains before significant gas expansion (when the gunpowder actually "explodes"). Gunpowder not corned results in much unburnt powder blown away from the ignition flame and combustion chamber due to localized miniature gas expansions within the powder.

Europeans innovated by experimentation and discovering different kernel sizes combusted at differing rates, and thus were more suitable for one gun or for another. Otto notes that without corning, gunpowder like all dry mixtures, has a tendency to gradually demix back into its original components and thus too unreliable for effective use in guns as mixtures would not be of uniform composition, noting the use of corning technique is commonplace in the modern pharmaceutical industry to ensure uniform proportions of active ingredients for each tablet.[38]

Shot and gunpowder for military purposes were made by skilled military tradesmen, later called firemakers, and were also required to craft fireworks for celebrations of victory or peace. During the Renaissance, two European schools of pyrotechnic thought emerged, one in Italy and the other at Nürnberg, Germany. The Italian school of pyrotechnics emphasized elaborate fireworks, and the German school stressed scientific advancement. Both schools added significantly to further development of pyrotechnics, and by the mid-17th century fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular even at resorts and public gardens.[39]

By 1788, as a result of the reforms for which Lavoisier was mainly responsible, France had become self-sufficient in saltpeter, and its gunpowder had become not only widely considered the best in Europe but more importantly, inexpensive.[40]

The introduction of smokeless powder in the late 19th century led to the contraction of the gunpowder industry.

British Isles

Gunpowder production in England appears to have started in the mid 13th century AD with the aim of supplying The Crown.[41] Records show that gunpowder was being made, in England, in 1346, at the Tower of London; a powder house existed at the Tower in 1461; and in 1515 three King's gunpowder makers worked there.[41] Gunpowder was also being made or stored at other Royal castles, such as Portchester Castle.

The old Powder or Pouther magazine dating from 1642 AD, built by order of James VI. Irvine, North Ayrshire, Scotland.

By the early fourteenth century, according to N.J.G. Pounds's study The Medieval Castle in England and Wales, many English castles had been deserted and others were crumbling. Their military significance faded except on the borders. Gunpowder made smaller castles useless.[42]

Henry VIII of England was short of gunpowder when he invaded France in 1544 AD and England needed to import gunpowder via the port of Antwerp.[41]

The English Civil War, 1642-1645 AD, led to an expansion of the gunpowder industry, with the repeal of the Royal Patent in August 1641.[41]

The introduction of smokeless powder in the late 19th century led to a contraction of the gunpowder industry. After the end of World War I, the majority of the United Kingdom gunpowder manufacturers merged into a single company, "Explosives Trades limited"; and number of sites were closed down, including those in Ireland. This company became Nobel Industries Limited; and in 1926 became a founding member of Imperial Chemical Industries. The Home Office removed gunpowder from its list of Permitted Explosives; and shortly afterwards, on 31 December 1931, the former Curtis & Harvey's Glynneath gunpowder factory at Pontneddfechan, in Wales, closed down, and it was demolished by fire in 1932.[43]

The last remaining gunpowder mill at the Royal Gunpowder Factory, Waltham Abbey was damaged by a German parachute mine in 1941 and it never reopened.[9] This was followed by the closure of the gunpowder section at the Royal Ordnance Factory, ROF Chorley, the section was closed and demolished at the end of World War II; and ICI Nobel's Roslin gunpowder factory which closed in 1954.[9][44]

This left the sole United Kingdom gunpowder factory at ICI Nobel's Ardeer site in Scotland; it too closed in October 1976.[9] Since then gunpowder has been imported into the United Kingdom. In the late 1970s / early 1980s gunpowder was bought from eastern Europe, particularly from what was then the East Germany and former Yugoslavia.


A 17th century forge-welded iron cannon, at Thanjavur's eastern entrance (India).

Gunpowder had arrived in India by the mid-1300s, perhaps introduced by the Mongols as early as the mid-1200s.[45][46]

It was written in the Tarikh-i Firishta (1606–1607) that the envoy of the Mongol ruler Hulegu Khan was presented with a dazzling pyrotechnics display upon his arrival in Delhi in 1258 CE.[47] Firearms known as top-o-tufak also existed in the Vijayanagara Empire of India by as early as 1366 AD.[47] From then on the employment of gunpowder warfare in India was prevalent, with events such as the siege of Belgaum in 1473 AD by Sultan Muhammad Shah Bahmani.[48]

By the 16th century, Indians were manufacturing a diverse variety of firearms; large guns in particular, became visible in Tanjore, Dacca, Bijapur and Murshidabad.[49] Guns made of bronze were recovered from Calicut (1504 AD) and Diu (1533 AD).[50] Gujarāt supplied Europe saltpeter for use in gunpowder warfare during the 17th century.[51] Bengal and Mālwa participated in saltpeter production.[51] The Dutch, French, Portuguese, and English used Chāpra as a center of saltpeter refining.[52]

War rockets, mines and counter mines using gunpowder were used in India by the time of Akbar and Jahangir.[50] Fathullah Shirazi (c. 1582), a Persian-Indian polymath and mechanical engineer who worked for Akbar the Great in the Mughal Empire, invented an autocannon, early multi-shot gun. As opposed to the polybolos and repeating crossbows used earlier in ancient Greece and China, respectively, Shirazi's rapid-firing gun had multiple gun barrels that fired hand cannons loaded with gunpowder.[53]

Both Hyder Ali and his son Tippu Sultan used black powder technology in iron-cased war rockets with considerable effect against the British, which inspired the development of the Congreve rocket.[54]


The Javanese Majapahit Empire is argued to have grown to span most of modern day ASEAN due to its Javanese mastery of bronze-smithing and unique within the immediate region to the Majapahit court, the technology and mass manufacture (via cottage industries which contributed to a central arsenal). Documentary and archeological evidence indicate that Arab or Indian traders introduced gunpowder, gonnes, muskets, blunderbusses, and cannon to the Javanese, Acehnese, and Batak via long established commercial trade routes around the early to mid 1300s CE.[55] Early European aggressors of Portugal and Spain were unpleasantly surprised and outgunned on many occasions.[56] The resurgent Singhasari Empire overtook Sriwijaya and later emerged as the Majapahit who rigidly established fire-arms and cannonade as a feature of warfare.[57]

Circa 1540 CE the Javanese always alert for new weapons found the newly arrived Portuguese weaponry superior to that of the locally made variants. The Javanese bronze breech-loaded swivel-gun, erroneously termed the lantaka, more correctly known as a meriam was used ubiquitously by the Majapahit navy and unfortunately pirates and rival lords. The demise of the Majapahit empire and the flight of disaffected skilled bronze cannon-smiths to Brunei, modern Sumatra and Malaysia, and the Philippines lead to near universal use of the swivel-gun, especially on trade vessels to protect against prevalent marauding pirates, especially in the Makassar Strait.

A Chinese pirate or commercial shipwreck site unearthed a double-ended swivel gun, which enabled swift firin: one barrel would fire whiles its opposite would be reloaded, though this is a rare and unique piece. Other archeological finds have unearthed some triple-barrel and some double-barrel swivel-guns, which were not widely duplicated.

The saltpetre harvesting was recorded by Dutch and German travelers as being common to even the smallest villages and collected from the decomposition process of large goat dung hills specifically piled for collection this saltpetre, a most unpleasant job. Saltpetre must be remembered by today's reader as being a key food preservative agent in a period of no refrigeration.

The Dutch punishment for possession of unpermitted gunpowder appears to have been amputation.[58]

Ownership and manufacture of gunpowder was later prohibited by the colonial Dutch occupiers.[55] Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, from his The History of Java relates the process of powder manufacture, perhaps of noteworthy relevance considering at the time it was a military-related craft and not always recorded:

the best sulphur is supplied from a crater from a mountain near the straits of caverns in irregularly formed beds of earth, which being impregnated with the native nitre, saturated with the evacuation of the enumerous bats that haunt these caves is mixed with a compound of wood ashes, supplies the liquid that is boiled in large kettles and afterward left to cool and crystallize.[57]

Manufacturing technology

Edge-runner mill in a restored mill, at Eleutherian Mills

For the most powerful black powder meal, a wood charcoal is used. The best wood for the purpose is Pacific willow,[59] but others such as alder or buckthorn can be used. The ingredients are mixed as thoroughly as possible. This is achieved using a ball mill with non-sparking grinding apparatus (e.g., bronze or lead), or similar device. Historically, a marble or limestone edge runner mill, running on a limestone bed was used in Great Britain; however, by the mid 19th century AD this had changed to either an iron shod stone wheel or a cast iron wheel running on an iron bed.[5] The mix is sometimes dampened with alcohol or water during grinding to prevent accidental ignition.

Around the late 14th century AD, European powdermakers began adding damp to the constituents of gunpowder to reduce dust and with it the risk of explosion.[60] The powdermakers would then shape the resulting paste of dampened gunpowder, known as mill cake, into corns, or grains, to dry. Not only did corned powder keep better because of its reduced surface area, gunners also found that it was more powerful and easier to load into guns. Before long, powdermakers standardized the process by forcing mill cake through sieves instead of corning powder by hand.

During the 18th century gunpowder factories became increasingly dependent on mechanical energy.[61]

Other uses

Besides its habitual use as an explosive, gunpowder has been occasionally employed for other purposes, After the battle of Aspern-Essling (1809), the surgeon of the Napoleonic Army Larrey combated the lack of food for the wounded under his care by preparing a bouillon of horse meat seasoned with gunpowder for lack of salt.[62][63] It was also used for sterilizing on ships when there was no alcohol.

Christiaan Huygens experimented with gunpowder in 1673 in an early attempt to build an internal combustion engine. He did not succeed in making a practical engine.

Fireworks and Firecrackers also use gunpowder but use different brands and different chemicals.

See also


  1. ^ The History of the 10.4×38 Swiss Cartridge
  2. ^ Blackpowder to Pyrodex and Beyond by Randy Wakeman at Chuck Hawks
  3. ^ The History and Art of Shotshells by Jon Farrar, Nebraskaland Magazine
  4. ^ Buchanan. "Editor's Introduction: Setting the Context", in Buchanan 2006, p. 4.
  5. ^ a b Earl 1978, Chapter 2: The Development of Gunpowder
  6. ^ Julian S. Hatcher, Hatcher's Notebook, Military Service Publishing Company, 1947. Chapter XIII Notes on Gunpowder, pages 300-305.
  7. ^ Flash! Bang! Whiz!, University of Denver
  8. ^ workshop first week
  9. ^ a b c d e Cocroft 2000, "The demise of gunpowder". Chapter 4
  10. ^
  11. ^ St. C. Easton: "Roger Bacon and his Search for a Universal Science", Oxford (1962)
  12. ^ Jack Kelly Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, Perseus Books Group: 2005, ISBN :0465037224, 9780465037223: 272 pages
  13. ^ George Ingham-Brown, The Big Bang: A History of Explosives, Sutton Publishers: 1998, ISBN 0750918780, 9780750918787: 256 pages: vi
  14. ^ Jack Kelly Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, Perseus Books Group: 2005, ISBN :0465037224, 9780465037223: 272 pages: 22
  15. ^ Buchanan. "Editor's Introduction: Setting the Context", in Buchanan 2006.
  16. ^ a b Chase 2003:31–32
  17. ^ The Big Book of Trivia Fun. Kidsbooks. 2004. 
  18. ^ Kelly 2004:4
  19. ^ Needham 1986, p. 7 "Without doubt it was in the previous century, around +850, that the early alchemical experiments on the constituents of gunpowder, with its self-contained oxygen, reached their climax in the appearance of the mixture itself."
  20. ^ Buchanan 2006, p. 2"With its ninth century AD origins in China, the knowledge of gunpowder emerged from the search by alchemists for the secrets of life, to filter through the channels of Middle Eastern culture, and take root in Europe with consequences that form the context of the studies in this volume."
  21. ^ Chase 2003:1 "The earliest known formula for gunpowder can be found in a Chinese work dating probably from the 800s. The Chinese wasted little time in applying it to warfare, and they produced a variety of gunpowder weapons, including flamethrowers, rockets, bombs, and mines, before inventing firearms."
  22. ^ Kelly 2004:22 'Around 1240 AD, Arabs acquired knowledge of saltpeter ("Chinese snow") from the East, perhaps through India. They knew of gunpowder soon afterward. They also learned about fireworks ("Chinese flowers") and rockets ("Chinese arrows"). Arab warriors had acquired fire lances before 1280 AD. Around that same year, a Syrian named Hasan al-Rammah wrote a book that, as he put it, "treats of machines of fire to be used for amusement or for useful purposes." He talked of rockets, fireworks, fire lances, and other incendiaries, using terms that suggested he derived his knowledge from Chinese sources. He gave instructions for the purification of saltpeter and recipes for making different types of gunpowder.'
  23. ^ Hassan, Ahmad Y. "Transfer of Islamic Technology to the West: Part III". History of Science and Technology in Islam. 
  24. ^ a b c al-Hassan
  25. ^ Khan 1996
  26. ^ a b Khan 2004:6
  27. ^ Ancient Discoveries, Episode 12: Machines of the East, History Channel, 2007  (Part 4 and Part 5)
  28. ^ C. F. Temler, Historische Abhandlungen der Koniglichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Kopenhagen ... ubersetzt ... von V. A. Heinze, Kiel, Dresden and Leipzig, 1782, i, 168, as cited in Partington, p. 228, footnote 6.
  29. ^ "King's Mirror, Chapter XXXVII: The duties, activities and amusements of the Royal Guardsmen". Retrieved 2008-07-20. , from the Konungs skuggsjá.
  30. ^ a b "Gunpowder", Encyclopedia Britannica, London, 1771 . "frier Bacon, our countryman, mentions the compofition in exprefs terms, in his treatife De nullitate magiæ, publifhed at Oxford, in the year 1248."
  31. ^ Partington 1960:70-71
  32. ^ a b Partington 1960:74
  33. ^ Cocroft 2000:1 A picture of this handwritten paragraph, taken from the Sloan MSS, held in the British Library is given on page one of Cocroft (2000).
  34. ^ Kelly 2004:25
  35. ^ Partington 1960:60
  36. ^ a b Partington 1960:48-49, 54
  37. ^ a b Partington 1960:82–83
  38. ^ Molerus, Otto. "History of Civilization in the Western Hemisphere from the Point of View of Particulate Technology, Part 2," Advanced Powder Technology 7 (1996): 161-66
  39. ^ "Fireworks," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Archived 2009-10-31.
  40. ^ Metzner, Paul (1998), Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill, and Self-Promotion in Paris during the Age of Revolution, University of California Press .
  41. ^ a b c d Cocroft 2000, "Success to the Black Art!". Chapter 1
  42. ^ Ross, Charles. The Custom of the Castle: From Malory to Macbeth. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1997. [1] pages 131-130
  43. ^ Pritchard, Tom; Evans, Jack; Johnson, Sydney (1985), The Old Gunpowder Factory at Glynneath, Merthyr Tydfil: Merthyr Tydfil & District Naturalists' Society 
  44. ^ MacDougall, Ian (2000), "Oh! Ye had to be Careful": Personal Recollections by Roslin Gunpowder Mill Factory Workers, East Linton: Tuckwell Press, ISBN 1-86232-126-4 
  45. ^ Chase 2003:130
  46. ^ Khan (1996a).
  47. ^ a b Khan 2004:9-10
  48. ^ Khan 2004:10
  49. ^ Partington (Johns Hopkins University Press edition, 1999), 225
  50. ^ a b Partington (Johns Hopkins University Press edition, 1999), 226
  51. ^ a b "India." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2008 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  52. ^ "Chāpra." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2008 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  53. ^ A. K. Bag (2005), "Fathullah Shirazi: Cannon, Multi-barrel Gun and Yarghu", Indian Journal of History of Science 40 (3), pp. 431-436.
  54. ^ "rocket and missile system." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica 2008 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008.
  55. ^ a b Dipanegara, P. B. R. Carey, Babad Dipanagara: an account of the outbreak of the Java war, 1825-30 : the Surakarta court version of the Babad Dipanagara with translations into English and Indonesian volume 9: Council of the M.B.R.A.S. by Art Printing Works: 1981.
  56. ^ Atsushi Ota, Changes of regime and social dynamics in West Java: society, state, and the outer world of Banten, 1750-1830: BRILL: 2006, ISBN 9004150919: 275 pages.
  57. ^ a b Thomas Stamford Raffles, The History of Java, Oxford University Press, 1965, ISBN 0195803477: 1088 pages.
  58. ^ "no gunpowder greater or shot greater than permitted under the penalty of corporal punishment similar to that inflicted for theft": Thomas Stamford Raffles, The History of Java, Oxford University Press, 1965, ISBN 0195803477: 1088 pages.
  59. ^ U.S. Department of Agriculture (1917). Department Bulleting No. 316: Willows: Their growth, use, and importance.. pp. 31. 
  60. ^ Kelly 2004:60–63
  61. ^ Frangsmyr, Tore, J. L. Heilbron, and Robin E. Rider, editors The Quantifying Spirit in the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1990. p. 292.
  62. ^ Harold T Parker. (1983 reprint) Three Napoleonic Battles. (2nd Ed). Duke University Press. ISBN 0-82230547-X. Page 83 (in Google Books). Quoting Dominique-Jean Larrey, Mémoires de chirurgie militaire et campagnes, III 281, Paris, Smith.
  63. ^ Larrey is quoted in French at Dr Béraud, Études Hygiéniques de la chair de cheval comme aliment, Musée des Familles (1841-42).


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  • Buchanan, Brenda J., ed. (2006), Gunpowder, Explosives and the State: A Technological History, Aldershot: Ashgate, ISBN 0754652599 .
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  • Urbanski, Tadeusz (1967), Chemistry and Technology of Explosives, III, New York: Pergamon Press .

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

GUNPOWDER, an explosive composed of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur. Very few substances have had a greater effect on civilization than gunpowder. Its employment altered the whole art of war, and its influence gradually and indirectly permeated and affected the whole fabric of society. Its direct effect on the arts of peace was but slight, and had but a limited range, which could not be compared to the modern extended employment of high explosives for blasting in mining and engineering work.

It is probably quite incorrect to speak of the discovery of gunpowder. From modern researches it seems more likely and more just to think of it as a thing that has developed, passing through many stages - mainly of improvement, but some undoubtedly retrograde. There really is not sufficient solid evidence on which to pin down its invention to one man. As Lieutenant-Colonel H. W. L. Hime (Gunpowder and Ammunition, 1904) says, the invention of gunpowder was impossible until the properties of nearly pure saltpetre had become known. The honour, however, has been associated with two names in particular, Berthold Schwartz, a German monk, and Friar Roger Bacon. Of the former Oscar Guttmann writes (Monumenta pulveris pyrii, 1904, p. 6): "Berthold Schwartz was generally considered to be the inventor of gunpowder, and only in England has Roger Bacon's claim been upheld, though there are English writers who have pleaded in favour of Schwartz. Most writers are agreed that Schwartz invented the first fire-arms, and as nothing was known of an inventor of gunpowder, it was perhaps considered justifiable to give Schwartz the credit thereof. There is some ambiguity as to when Schwartz lived. The year 1354 is sometimes mentioned as the date of his invention of powder, and this is also to be inferred from an inscription on the monument to him in Freiburg. But considering there can be no doubt as to the manufacture in England of gunpowder and cannon in 1344, that we have authentic information of guns in France in 1338 and in Florence in 1326, and that the Oxford MS. De officiis regum of 1325 gives an illustration of a gun, Berthold Schwartz must have lived long before 1354 to have been the inventor of gunpowder or guns." In Germany also there were powder-works at Augsburg in 1340, in Spandau in 1344, and Liegnitz in 1348.

Roger Bacon, in his De mirabili potestate artis et naturae (1242), makes the most important communication on the history of gunpowder. Reference is made to an explosive mixture as known before his time and employed for "diversion, producing a noise like thunder and flashes like lightning." In one passage Bacon speaks of saltpetre as a violent explosive, but there is no doubt that he knew it was not a self-explosive substance, but only so when mixed with other substances, as appears from the statement in De secretis operibus arils et naturae, printed at Hamburg in 1618, that "from saltpetre and other ingredients we are able to make a fire that shall burn at any distance we please." A great part of his three chapters, 9, 10, 11, long appeared without meaning until the anagrammatic nature of the sentences was realized. The words of this anagram are (chap. II): "Item ponderis totum 30 sed tamen salis petrae luru vopo vir can utri 1 et sulphuris; et sic facies tonitruum et coruscationem, si scias artificium. Videas tamen utrum loquar aenigmate aut secundum veritatem." Hime, in his chapter on the origin of gunpowder, discusses these chapters at length, and gives, omitting the anagram, the translation: "Let the total weight of the ingredients be 30, however, of saltpetre... of sulphur; and with such a mixture you will produce a bright flash and a thundering noise, if you know the trick. You may find (by actual experiment) whether I am writing riddles to you or the plain truth." The anagram reads, according to Hime, "salis petrae r(ecipe) vii part(es), v nov(ellae) corul(i), v et sulphuris" (take seven parts of saltpetre, five of young hazel-wood, and five of sulphur). Hime then goes on to show that Bacon was in possession of an explosive which was a considerable advance on mere incendiary compositions. Bacon does not appear to have been aware of the projecting power of gunpowder. He knew that it exploded and that perhaps people might be blown up or frightened by it; more cannot be said. The behaviour of small quantities of any explosive is hardly ever indicative of its behaviour in large quantities and especially when under confinement. Hime is of opinion that Bacon blundered upon gunpowder whilst playing with some incendiary composition, such as those mentioned by Marcus Graecus and others, in which 1 These words were emended by some authors to read luru mope can ubre, the letters of which can be arranged to give pulvere car, bonum. he employed his comparatively pure saltpetre instead of crude nitrum. It has been suggested that Bacon derived his knowledge of these fiery mixtures from the MS. Liber ignium, ascribed to Marcus Graecus, in the National Library in Paris (Dutens, Enquiry into Origin of Discoveries attributed to Moderns). Certainly this Marcus Graecus appears to have known of some incendiary composition containing the gunpowder ingredients, but it was not gunpowder. Hime seems to doubt the existence of any such person as Marcus Graecus, as he says: "The Liber ignium was written from first to last in the period of literary forgeries and pseudographs... and we may reasonably conclude that Marcus Graecus is as unreal as the imaginary Greek original of the tract which bears his name." Albertus Magnus in the De mirabilibus mundi repeats some of the receipts given in Marcus Graecus, and several other writers give receipts for Greek fire, rockets, &c. Dutens gives many passages in his work, above-named, from old authors in support of his view that a composition of the nature of gunpowder was not unknown to the ancients. Hime's elaborate arguments go to show that these compositions could only have been of the incendiary type and not real explosives. His arguments seem to hold good as regards not only the Greeks but also the Arabs, Hindus and Chinese (see also Fireworks).

There seems no doubt that incendiary compositions, some perhaps containing nitre, mostly, however, simply combustible substances as sulphur, naphtha, resins, &c., were employed and projected both for defence and offence, but they were projected or blown by engines and not by themselves. It is quite inconceivable that a real propelling explosive should have been known in the time of Alexander or much later, and not have immediately taken its proper place. In a chapter discussing this question of explosives amongst the Hindus, Hime says: "It is needless to enlarge the list of quotations: incendiaries pursued much the same course in Upper India as in Greece and Arabia." No trustworthy evidence of an explosive in India is to be found until the 21st of April 1526, the date of the decisive battle of Panipat, in which Ibrahim, sultan of Delhi, was killed and his army routed by Baber the Mogul, who possessed both great and small fire-arms.

As regards also the crusader period (1097-1291), so strange and deadly an agent of destruction as gunpowder could not possibly have been employed in the field without the full knowledge of both parties, yet no historian, Christian or Moslem, alludes to an explosive of any kind, while all of them carefully record the use of incendiaries. The employment of rockets and "wildfire" incendiary composition seems undoubtedly of very old date in India, but the names given to pieces of artillery under the Mogul conqueror of Hindustan point to a European, or at least to a Turkish origin, and it is quite certain that Europeans were retained in the service of Akbar and Aurangzeb. The composition of present day Chinese gunpowder is almost identical with that employed in Europe, so that in all probability the knowledge of it was obtained from Western sources.

In the writings of Bacon there is no mention of guns or the use of powder as a propellant, but merely as an explosive and destructive power. Owing perhaps to this obscurity hanging over the early history of gunpowder, its employment as a propelling agent has been ascribed to the Moors or Saracens. J. A. Conde (Historia de la domination de los Arabes en Espana) states that Ismail Ben Firaz, king of Granada, who in 1325 besieged Boza, had among his machines "some that cast globes of fire," but there is not the least evidence that these were guns. The first trustworthy document relative to the use of gunpowder in Europe, a document still in existence, and bearing date February 1326, gives authority to the council of twelve of Florence and others to appoint persons to superintend the manufacture of cannons of brass and iron balls, for the defence of the territory, &c., of the republic. John Barbour, archdeacon of Aberdeen, writing in 1375, states that cannons (crakys of war) were employed in Edward III's invasion of Scotland in 1327. An indenture first published by Sir N. H. Nicolas in his Histery of the Royal Navy (London, 1846), and again by Lieutenant-Colonel H. Brackenbury (Proc. R.A. Inst., 1865), stated to be 1338, contains references to small cannon as among the stores of the tower, and also mentions "un petit barrell de gonpoudre le quart' plein." If authentic, this is possibly the first mention of gunpowder as such in England, but some doubts have been thrown upon the date of this MS. From a contemporary document in the National Library in Paris it seems that in the same year (1338) there existed in the marine arsenal at Rouen an iron weapon called pot de feu, for propelling bolts, together with some saltpetre and sulphur to make powder for the same. Preserved in the Record Office in London are trustworthy accounts from the year 1345 of the purchase of ingredients for making powder, and of the shipping of cannon to France. In 1346 Edward III appears to have ordered all available saltpetre and sulphur to be bought up for him. In the first year of Richard II (1377) Thomas Norbury was ordered to buy, amongst other munitions, sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal, to be sent to the castle of Brest. In 1414 Henry V ordered that no gunpowder should be taken out of the kingdom without special licence, and in the same year ordered twenty pipes of willow charcoal and other articles for the use of the guns.

The manufacture of gunpowder seems to have been carried on as a crown monopoly about the time of Elizabeth, and regulations respecting gunpowder and nitre were made about 1623 (James I). Powder-mills were probably in existence at Waltham Abbey about the middle or towards the end of the 16th century.

Table of contents

Ingredients and their Action

Roger Bacon in his anagram gives the first real recipe for gunpowder, viz. (according to Hime, ch. xii.) saltpetre 41 2, charcoal 29.4, sulphur 29.4. Dr John Arderne of Newark, who began to practise about 1350 and was later surgeon to Henry IV, gives a recipe (Sloane MSS. 335, 795), saltpetre 66.6, charcoal 22.2, sulphur I 1.1, "which are to be thoroughly mixed on a marble and then sifted through a cloth." This powder is nominally of the same composition as one given in a MS. of Marcus Graecus, but the saltpetre of this formula by Marcus Graecus was undoubtedly answerable for the difference in behaviour of the two compositions. Roger Bacon had not only refined and obtained pure nitre, but had appreciated the importance of thoroughly mixing the components of the powder. Most if not all the early powder was a "loose" mixture of the three ingredients, and the most important step in connexion with the development of gunpowder was undoubtedly the introduction of wet mixing or "incorporating." Whenever this was done, the improvement in the product must have been immediately evident. In the damp or wetted state pressure could be applied with comparative safety during the mixing. The loose powder mixture came to be called "serpentine"; after wet mixing it was more or less granulated or corned and was known as "corned" powder. Corned powder seems to have been gradually introduced. It is mentioned in the Fire Book of Conrad von Schongau (in 1429), and was used for handguns in England long before 1560. It would seem that corned powder was used for hand-guns or small arms in the 15th century, but cannon were not made strong enough to withstand its explosion for quite another century (Hime). According to the same writer, in the period 1250-1450, when serpentine only was used, one powder could differ from another in the proportions of the ingredients; in the modern period - say 1700-1886 - the powders in use (in each state) differed only as a general rule in the size of the grain, whilst during the transition period-1450-1700 - they generally differed both in composition and size of grain.

Corned or grained powder was adopted in France in 1525, and in 1540 the French utilized an observation that large-grained powder was the best for cannon, and restricted the manufacture to three sizes of grain or corn, possibly of the same composition. Early in the 18th century two or three sizes of grain and powder of one composition appear to have become common. The composition of English powder seems to have settled down to 75 nitre, 15 charcoal, and 10 sulphur, somewhere about the middle of the 18th century.
































The composition of gunpowders used in different countries at different times is illustrated in the following tables: English Powders (Hime). This represents the composition of English powder at present and no doubt it has remained the same for a longer time than the above date indicates.







































Foreign Powders (Hime). 1 Brown or coco-powder for large charges in guns. The charcoal until brown, and is made from some variety of straw, not wood.

When reasonably pure, none of the ingredients of gunpowder absorbs any material quantity of moisture from the atmosphere, and the nitre only is a soluble substance. It seems extremely probable that for a long period the three substances were simply mixed dry, indeed sometimes kept separate and mixed just before being required; the consequence must have been that, with every care as to weighing out, the proportions of any given quantity would alter on carriage. Saltpetre is considerably heavier than sulphur or charcoal, and would tend to separate out towards the bottom of the containing vessel if subjected to jolting or vibration. When pure there can only be one kind of saltpetre or sulphur, because they are chemical individuals, but charcoal is not. Its composition, rate of burning, &c., depend not only on the nature of the woody material from which it is made, but quite as much on the temperature and time of heating employed in the making. The woods from which it is made contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, and the two latter are never thoroughly expelled in charcoal-making. If they were, the resulting substance would be of no use for gunpowder. 1-3% of hydrogen and 8-15% of oxygen generally remain in charcoals suitable for gunpowder. A good deal of the fieriness and violence of explosion of a gunpowder depends on the mode of burning of the charcoal as well as on the wood from which it is made.

Properties of Ingredients

Charcoal is the chief combustible in powder. It must burn freely, leaving as little ash or residue as possible; it must be friable, and grind into a non-gritty powder. The sources from which powder charcoal is made are dogwood (Rhamnus frangula), willow (Salix alba), and alder (Betula alnus). Dogwood is mainly used for small-arm powders. Powders made from dogwood charcoal burn more rapidly than those from willow, &c. The wood after cutting is stripped of bark and allowed to season for two or three years. It is then picked to uniform size and charred in cylindrical iron cases or slips, which can be introduced into slightly larger cylinders set in a furnace. The slips are provided with openings for the escape of gases. The rate of heating as well as the absolute temperature attained have an effect on the product, a slow rate of heating yielding more charcoal, and a high temperature reducing the hydrogen and oxygen in the final product. When heated for seven hours to about 800° C. to 900° C. the remaining hydrogen and oxygen amount to about 2% and 12% respectively. The time of charring is as a rule from 5 to 7 hours. The slips are then removed from the furnace and placed in a larger iron vessel, where they are kept comparatively air-tight until quite cold. The charcoal is then sorted, and stored for some time before grinding. The charcoal is ground, and the powder sifted on a rotating reel or cylinder of fine mesh copper-wire gauze. The sifted powder is again stored for some time before use in closed iron vessels.

Sicilian sulphur is most generally employed for gunpowder, and for complete purification is first distilled and then melted and cast into moulds. It is afterwards ground into a fine powder and sifted as in the case of the charcoal.

Potassium nitrate is eminently suitable as an oxygen-provider, not being deliquescent. Nitrates are continually being produced in surface soils, &c., by the oxidation of nitrogenous substances. Nitric and nitrous acids are also produced by electric discharges through the atmosphere, and these are found eventually as nitrates in soils, &c. Nitre is soluble in water, and much more so in hot than in cold. Crude nitre, obtained from soils or other sources, is purified by recrystallization. The crude material is dissolved almost to saturation in boiling water: on filtering and then cooling this liquor to about 30° C. almost pure nitre crystallizes out, most of the usual impurities still remaining in solution. By rapidly cooling and agitating the nitre solution crystals are obtained of sufficient fineness for the manufacture of powder without special grinding. Nitre contains nearly 48% of oxygen by weight, five-sixths of which is available for combustion purposes. Nearly all the gases of the powder explosion are derived from the nitre. The specific gravity of nitre is 2.2: 200 grams will therefore occupy about 100 cubic centimetres volume. This quantity on its decomposition by heat alone yields 28 grams or 22,400 c.c. of nitrogen, and 80 grams or 56,000 c.c. of oxygen as gases, and 94 grams of potassium oxide, a fusible solid which vaporizes at a very high temperature.


The materials are weighed out separately, mixed by passing through a sieve, and then uniformly moistened with a certain quantity of water, whilst on the bed of the incorporating mill. This consists of two heavy iron wheels mounted so as to run in a circular bed. The incorporation requires about four hours.

The mechanical action of rollers on the powder paste is a double one: not only crushing but mixing by pushing forwards and twisting sideways. The pasty mass is deflected so that it repeatedly comes under first one roller and then the next by scrapers, set at an angle to the bed, which follow each wheel.

Although the charge is wet it is is not burnt black but roasted possible for it to be fired either by the heat developed by the roller friction, by sparks from foreign matters, as bits of stone, &c., or possibly by heat generated by oxidation of the materials. The mills are provided with a drenching apparatus so arranged that in case of one mill firing it and its neighbours will be drowned by water from a cistern or tank immediately above the mill. The product from the incorporation is termed "mill-cake." After this incorporation in the damp state the ingredients never completely separate on drying, however much shaken, because each particle of nitre is surrounded by a thin layer of water containing nitre in solution in which the particles of charcoal and sulphur are entangled and retained. After due incorporation, powders are pressed to a certain extent whilst still moist. The density to which a powder is pressed is an important matter in regard to the rate of burning. The effect of high density is to slow down the initial rate of burning. Less dense powders burn more rapidly from the first and tend to put a great strain on the gun. Fouling is usually less with denser powders; and, as would be expected, such powders bear transport better and give less dust than light powders. Up to a certain pressure, hardness, density, and size of grain of a powder have an effect on the rate of burning and therefore on pressure. Glazing or polishing powder grains, also exerts a slight retarding action on burning and enables the powders to resist atmospheric moisture better. Excess of moisture in gunpowder has a marked effect in reducing the explosiveness. All powders are liable to absorb moisture, the quality and kind of charcoal being the main determinant in this respect; hard burnt black charcoal is least absorbent. The material employed in brown powders absorbs moisture somewhat readily. Powder kept in a very damp atmosphere, and especially in a changeable one, spoils rapidly, the saltpetre coming to the surface in solution and then crystallizing out. The pieces also break up owing to the formation of large crystals of nitre in the mass. After the pressing of the incorporated powder into a "press-cake," it is broken up or granulated by suitable machines, and the resulting grains separated and sorted by sifting through sieves of determined sizes of mesh. Some dust is formed in this operation, which is sifted away and again worked up under the rollers (for sizes of grains see fig. 1). These grains, cubes, &c., are then either polished by rotating in drums alone or with graphite, which adheres to and coats the surfaces of the grains. This process is generally followed with powders intended for small-arms or moderately small ordnance.

Shaped Powders

Prisms or prismatic powder are made by breaking up. the press-cake into a moderately fine state, whilst still moist, and pressing a certain quantity in a mould. The moulds generally employed consist of a thick plate of bronze in which are a number of hexagonal perforations. Accurately fitting plungers are so applied to these that one can enter at the top and the other at the bottom. The lower plunger being withdrawn to the bottom of the plate the hexagonal hole is charged with the powder and the two plungers set in motion, thus compressing the powder between them. After the desired pressure has been applied the top plunger is withdrawn, and the lower one pushed upward to eject the prism of powder. The axial perforations in prism powders are made by small bronze rods which pass through the lower plunger and fit into corresponding holes in the upper one. If these prisms are made by a steadily applied pressure a density throughout of about 1.78 may be obtained. Further to regulate the rate of burning so that it shall be slow at first and more rapid as the powder is consumed, another form of machine was devised, the cam press, in which the pressure is applied very rapidly to the powder. It receives in fact one blow, which compresses the powder to the same dimensions, but the density of the outer layers of substance of the prism is much greater than in the interior.

The leading idea in connexion with all shaped powder grains, and with the very large sizes, was to regulate the rate of burning so as to avoid extreme pressure when first ignited and to keep up the pressure in the gun as more space was provided in the chamber or tube by the movement of the shot towards the muzzle. In the perforated prismatic powder the ignition is intended to proceed through the perforations; since in a charge the faces of the prisms fit pretty closely together, it was thought that this arrangement would prevent unburnt cores or pieces of powder from being blown out. These larger grain powders necessitated a lengthened bore to take advantage of the slower production of gases and complete combustion of the powder. General T. J. Rodman first suggested and employed the perforated cake cartridge in 1860, the cake having nearly the diameter of the bore and a thickness of 1 to 2 in.

with perforations running parallel with the gun axis. The burning would then start from the comparatively small surfaces of the perforations, which would become larger as the powder burnt away. Experiments bore out this theory perfectly. It was found that small prisms were more convenient to make than large disks, and as the prisms practically fit together into a disk the same result was obtained. This effect of mechanical density on rate of burning is good only up to a certain pressure, above which the gases are driven through the densest form of granular material. After granulating or pressing into shapes, all powders must be dried. This is done by heating in specially ventilated rooms heated by steam pipes. As a rule this drying is followed by the finishing or polishing process. Powders are finally blended, i.e. products from different batches or " makes " are mixed so that identical proof results are obtained.

Sizes and Shapes of Powders

In fig. 1, a to k show the relative sizes and shapes of grain as formerly employed for military purposes, except that the three largest powders, e-f-g and h are figured halfsize to save space, whereas the remainder indicate the actual dimensions of the grains, a is for small-arms, all the others are for cannon of various sizes.


0.75 --->- FIG. I.

Proof of Powder

In addition to chemical examination powder is passed through certain mechanical tests :- I. For colour, glaze, texture and freedom from dust. 2. For proper incorporation. 3. For shape, size and proportion of the grains. - The first is judged by eye, and grains of the size required are obtained by the use of sieves of different sizes.

4. Density

The density is generally obtained in some form of mercury densimeter, the powder being weighed in air and then under mercury. In some forms of the instrument the air can be pumped out so that the weighing takes place in vacuo. 5. Moisture and absorption of moisture. - The moisture and hygroscopic test consists in weighing a sample, drying at Ioo° C. for a certain time, weighing again, &c., until constant. The dried weighed sample can then be exposed to an artificial atmosphere of known moisture and temperature, and the gain in weight per hour similarly ascertained by periodic weighings.

6. Firing proof

The nature of this depends upon the purpose for which the powder is intended. For sporting powders it consists in the " pattern " given by the shot upon a target at a given distance, or, if fired with a bullet, upon the " figure of merit," or mean radial deviation of a certain number of rounds; also upon the penetrative power. For military purposes the " muzzle " velocity produced by a powder is ascertained by a chronograph which measures the exact time the bullet or other projectile takes to traverse a known distance between two wire screens. By means of " crusher gauges " the exact pressure per square inch upon certain points in the interior of the bore can be found.

In the chemical examination of gunpowder the points to be ascertained are, in addition to moisture, freedom from chlorides or sulphates, and correct proportion of nitre and sulphur to charcoal.

Products of Fired Powder and Changes taking place on Explosion

With a mixture of the complexity of gunpowder it is quite impossible to say beforehand what will be the relative amounts of products. The desired products are nitrogen and carbon dioxide as gases, and potassium sulphate and carbonate as solids. But the ingredients of the mixture are not in any simple chemical proportion. Burning in contact with air under one atmosphere pressure, and burning in a closed or partially closed vessel under a considerable number of atmospheres pressure, may produce quite different results. The temperature of a reaction always rises with increased pressure. Although the main function of the nitre is to give up oxygen and nitrogen, of the charcoal to produce carbon dioxide and most of the heat, and of the sulphur by vaporizing to accelerate the rate of burning, it is quite impossible to represent the actions taking place on explosion by any simple or single chemical equation. Roughly speaking, the gases from black powder burnt in a closed vessel have a volume at 0° C. and 760 mm. pressure of about 280 times that of the original powder. The temperature produced under one atmosphere is above 2000° C., and under greater pressures considerably higher.

Experiments have been made by Benjamin Robins (1743), Charles Hutton (1778), Count Rumford (1797), Gay-Lussac (1823), R. Bunsen and L. Schiskoff (1857), T. J. Rodman (1861), C. Karolyi (1863), and later many researches by Sir Andrew Noble and Sir F. A. Abel, and by H. Debus and others, all with the idea of getting at the precise mechanism of the explosion. Debus (Ann., 1882, vols. 212, 213; 1891, vol. 265) discussed at great length the results of researches by Bunsen, Karolyi, Noble and Abel, and others on the combustion of powder in closed vessels in such manner that all the products could be collected and examined and the pressures registered. A Waltham Abbey powder, according to an experiment by Noble and Abel, gave when fired in a closed vessel the following quantities of products calculated from one gram of powder: Fractions of Fractions of a molecule or atom.

Potassium carbonate. 00189 molecule Potassium sulphate. 00072 thiosulphate 00087 sulphide. 00017 „ 00004 atom o0608 molecule 00121 „ 00765 atom 0008 „ 00023 molecule From this, and other results, Debus concluded that Waltham Abbey powder could be represented by the formula 16KN03+21.18C +6.63S and that on combustion in a closed vessel the end results could be fairly expressed (rounding off fractions) by 16KN03+ 21C +5S = 5K 2 CO 3 +K 2 SO 4 +2K 2 S 2 +13CO 2 +3C0+8N 2. Some of the sulphur is lost, part combining with the metal of the apparatus. and part with hydrogen in the charcoal. The military powders of most nations can be represented by the formula 16KN03. +21.2C +6 6S, proportions which are reasonably near to a theoretical mixture, that is one giving most complete combustion, greatest gas volume and temperature. The combustion of powder consists of two processes: (i.) oxidation, during which potassium carbonate and sulphate, carbon dioxide and nitrogen are mainly formed, and (ii.) a reduction process in which free carbon acts on the potassium sulphate and free sulphur on the potassium carbonate, producing potassium sulphide and carbon monoxide respectively. Most powders contain more carbon and sulphur than necessary, hence the second stage. In this second stage heat is lost. The potassium sulphide is also the most objectionable constituent as regards fouling.

The energy of a powder is given, according to Berthelot, by multiplying the gas volume by the heat (in calories) produced during burning; Debus shows that a powder composed of 16KNO 3 to 8C and 8S would have the least, and one of composition 16KN03+ 24C+165 the greatest, when completely burnt. The greatest capability with the lowest proportion of carbon and sulphur to nitre would be obtained from the mixture =16KN03+22C+8S.

Smokeless and even noiseless powders seem to have been sought for during the whole gunpowder period. In 1756 one was experimented with in France, but was abandoned owing to difficulties. in manufacture. Modern smokeless powders are certainly less noisy than the black powders, mainly because of the absence of metallic salts which although they may be gaseous whilst in the gun are .l (half-size.) (half-size.) C (half-size.) Sulphur Carbon dioxide Carbon monoxide Nitrogen Hydrogen Hydrogen sulphide Potassium thiocyanate Nitre Ammonium carbonate a gram.

2615 1268 1666 0252 0012 2678 0339 1071 0008 o080.0004 0005 0002 certainly ejected as solids or become solids at the moment of contact with air.

Brown Powders

About the middle of the 19th century guns and projectiles were made much larger and heavier than previously, and it was soon found that the ordinary black powders of the most dense form burnt much too rapidly, straining or bursting the pieces. Powders were introduced containing about 3% sulphur and 17-19% of a special form of charcoal made from slightly charred straw, or similar material. This "brown charcoal" contains a considerable amount of the hydrogen and oxygen of the original plant substance. The mechanical processes of manufacture of these brown powders is the same as for black. They, however, differ from black by burning very slowly, even under considerable pressure. This comparative slowness is caused by (I) the presence of a small amount of water even when air-dry; (2) the fact that the brown charcoal is practically very slightly altered cellulosic material, which before it can burn completely must undergo a little further resolution or charring at the expense of some heat from the portion of charge first ignited; and (3) the lower content of sulphur. An increase of a few per cent in the sulphur of black powder accelerates its rate of burning, and it may become almost a blasting powder. A decrease in sulphur has the reverse effect. It is really the sulphur vapour that in the early period of combustion spreads the flame through the charge.

Many other powders have been made or proposed in which nitrates or chlorates of the alkalis or of barium, &c., are the oxygen providers and substances as sugar, starch, and many other organic compounds as the combustible elements. Some of these compositions have found employment for blasting or even as sporting powders, but in most cases their objectionable properties of fouling, smoke and mode of exploding have prevented their use for military purposes. The adoption by the French government of the comparatively smokeless nitrocellulose explosive of Paul Vieille in 1887 practically put an end to the old forms of gunpowders. The first smokeless powder was made in 1865 by Colonel E. Schultze (Ding. Pol. Jour. 174, p. 3 2 3; 1 75, p. 453) by nitrating wood meal and adding potassium and barium nitrates. It is somewhat similar in composition to the E. C. sporting powder. F. Uchatius, in Austria, proposed a smokeless powder made from nitrated starch, but it was not adopted owing to its hygroscopic nature and also its tendency to detonate.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. - Vanucchio Biringuccio, De la pirotechnia (Venice, 1540); Tartaglia, Quesiti e invenzioni diversi (lib. iii.) (Venice, 1546); Peter Whitehorne, How to make Saltpetre, Gunpowder, &c. (London, 1573); Nic. Macchiavelli, The Arte of Warre, trans. by Whitehorse (London, 1588); Hanzelet, Recueil de plusiers machines militaires (Paris, 1620); Boillet Langrois, Modelles artifices de feu (1620); Kruger, Chemical Meditations on the Explosion of Gunpowder (in Latin) (1636); Collado, On the Invention of Gunpowder (Spanish) (1641); The True Way to make all Sorts of Gunpowder and Matches (1647); Hawksbee, On Gunpowder (1686); Winter, On Gunpowder (in Latin); Robins, New Principles of Gunnery (London, 1742) (new ed. by Hutton, 1805); D'Antoni, Essame della polvere (Turin, 1765) (trans. by Captain Thomson, R.A., London, 1787); Count Rumford, "Experiments on Fired Gunpowder," Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (1797); Charles Hutton, Mathematical Tracts, vol. iii. (1812); Sir W. Congreve, A Short Account of Improvements in Gunpowder made by (London, 1818); Bunsen and Schiskoff, " On the Chemical Theory of Gunpowder," Pogg. Ann., 1857, vol. cii.; General Rodman, Experiments on Metal for Cannon, and Qualities of Cannon Powder (Boston, 1861); Napoleon III., Etudes sur le passé et l'avenir de l'artillerie, vol. iii. (Paris, 1862); Von Karolyi, "On the Products of the Combustion of Gun Cotton and Gunpowder," Phil. Mag. (October 1863); Captain F. M. Smith, Handbook of the Manufacture and Proof of Gunpowder at Waltham Abbey (London, 1870); Noble and Abel, Fired Gunpowder (London, 1875.1880); Noble, Artillery and Explosives (1906); H. W. L. Hime, Gunpowder and Ammunition, their Origin and Progress (1904); O. Guttmann, The Manufacture of Explosives (1895), Monumenta pulveris pyrii (1906); Notes on Gunpowder and Gun Cotton, published by order of the secretary of state for war (London, 1907). (See also EXPLOSIVES.) (W. R. E. H.)

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Simple English

Gunpowder (or gun powder) is a mix of chemical substances (charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter). It burns very rapidly, and creates gases. Those gases use up more space than the gunpowder they come from, so they push outward. If the gunpowder is in a small space, the gasses will push on the walls of the space, building up pressure. A bullet is pushed on in this way inside of a gun, causing it to fly out at high speeds. The pressure is not high enough, though, to destroy the gun barrel (the long metallic tube).

Gunpowder was probably invented by the Chinese, the first references of black powder, which is a form of gun powder date to the 13th century, when Roger Bacon described the formula of black powder.


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