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Black powder for muzzleloading firearms and in FFFg granulation size. U.S. quarter (diameter 24 mm) for comparison. Black Powder Close Up.jpg
Black powder for muzzleloading firearms and in FFFg granulation size. U.S. quarter (diameter 24 mm) for comparison.

Gunpowder, also known as black powder to distinguish it from modern smokeless powder, is the earliest known chemical explosive. It consists of a mixture of sulfur (S), charcoal (C), and potassium nitrate (saltpeter, KNO3). The sulfur and charcoal act as fuels while the saltpeter is an oxidizer. [1] [2] Because of its incendiary properties and the amount of heat and gas volume that it generates, gunpowder has been widely used as a propellant in firearms, artillery, rockets, and fireworks, and as a blasting powder in quarrying, mining, and road building.

Smokeless powder propellant used in firearms and artillery

Smokeless powder is the name given to a number of propellants used in firearms and artillery that produce negligible smoke when fired, unlike the gunpowder or black powder they replaced. The term is unique to the United States and is generally not used in other English-speaking countries, which initially used proprietary names such as "Ballistite" and "Cordite" but gradually shifted to "propellant" as the generic term.

Explosive reactive substance that contains a great amount of potential energy that can produce an explosion

An explosive is a reactive substance that contains a great amount of potential energy that can produce an explosion if released suddenly, usually accompanied by the production of light, heat, sound, and pressure. An explosive charge is a measured quantity of explosive material, which may be composed of a single ingredient or a combination of two or more.

Sulfur Chemical element with atomic number 16

Sulfur or sulphur is a chemical element with symbol S and atomic number 16. It is abundant, multivalent, and nonmetallic. Under normal conditions, sulfur atoms form cyclic octatomic molecules with a chemical formula S8. Elemental sulfur is a bright yellow, crystalline solid at room temperature.


Gunpowder was invented in 9th-century China and spread throughout most parts of Eurasia by the end of the 13th century. [3] Originally developed by the Taoists for medicinal purposes, gunpowder was first used for warfare about 1000 AD. [4]

Gunpowder is classified as a low explosive because of its relatively slow decomposition rate and consequently low brisance. Low explosives deflagrate (i.e., burn) at subsonic speeds, whereas high explosives detonate, producing a supersonic wave.

Brisance is the shattering capability of a high explosive, determined mainly by its detonation pressure. The term can be traced from the French verb "briser" ultimately derived from the Celtic word "brissim". Brisance is of practical importance for determining the effectiveness of an explosion in fragmenting shells, bomb casings, grenades, structures, and the like. The sand crush test and Trauzl lead block test are commonly used to determine the relative brisance in comparison to TNT.

Deflagration combustion propagating through heat transfer (different from detonation)

Deflagration is subsonic combustion propagating through heat transfer; hot burning material heats the next layer of cold material and ignites it. Most "fires" found in daily life, from flames to explosions such as that of black powder, are deflagrations. This differs from detonation, which propagates supersonically through shock waves, decomposing a substance extremely quickly.

Detonation supersonic combustion of an explosive material

Detonation is a type of combustion involving a supersonic exothermic front accelerating through a medium that eventually drives a shock front propagating directly in front of it. Detonations occur in both conventional solid and liquid explosives, as well as in reactive gases. The velocity of detonation in solid and liquid explosives is much higher than that in gaseous ones, which allows the wave system to be observed with greater detail.

Ignition of gunpowder packed behind a projectile generates enough pressure to force the shot from the muzzle at high speed, but usually not enough force to rupture the gun barrel. Gunpowder thus makes a good propellant, but is less suitable for shattering rock or fortifications with its low-yield explosive power. However, by transferring enough energy (from the burning gunpowder to the mass of the cannonball, and then from the cannonball to the opposing fortifications by way of the impacting ammunition) eventually a bombardier may wear down an opponent's fortified defenses.

A projectile is any object thrown into space by the exertion of a force. Although any object in motion through space may be called a projectile, the term more commonly refers to a ranged weapon. Mathematical equations of motion are used to analyze projectile trajectory. An object projected at an angle to the horizontal has both the vertical and horizontal components of velocity. The vertical component of the velocity on the y-axis given as Vy=USin(teta) while the horizontal component of the velocity Vx=UCos(teta). There are various terms used in projectiles at specific angle teta 1. Time to reach maximum height. It is symbolized as (t), which is the time taken for the projectile to reach the maximum height from the plane of projection. Mathematically, it is give as t=USin(teta)/g Where g=acceleration due to gravity(app 10m/s²) U= initial velocity (m/s) teta= angle made by the projectile with the horizontal axis.

Gun barrel firearm component which guides the projectile during acceleration

A gun barrel is a crucial part of gun-type ranged weapons such as small firearms, artillery pieces and air guns. It is the straight shooting tube, usually made of rigid high-strength metal, through which a contained rapid expansion of high-pressure gas(es) is introduced behind a projectile in order to propel it out of the front end (muzzle) at a high velocity. The hollow interior of the barrel is called the bore. The measurement of the diameter of the bore is called the caliber. Caliber is usually measured in inches or millimetres.

Bombardier (rank) military rank

Bombardier is a military rank that has existed since the 16th century in artillery regiments of various armies, such as in the British Army and the Royal Prussian Army. It is today equivalent to the rank of corporal in other branches. The rank of lance-bombardier is the artillery counterpart of lance-corporal.

Gunpowder was widely used to fill fused artillery shells (and used in mining and civil engineering projects) until the second half of the 19th century, when the first high explosives were put into use. Gunpowder is no longer used in modern weapons, nor is it used for industrial purposes, due to its relatively inefficient cost compared to newer alternatives such as dynamite and ammonium nitrate/fuel oil. [5] [6] Today gunpowder firearms are limited primarily to hunting, target shooting, and bulletless historical reenactments.

Mining The extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the earth

Mining is the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the earth, usually from an ore body, lode, vein, seam, reef or placer deposit. These deposits form a mineralized package that is of economic interest to the miner.

Civil engineering engineering discipline and economic branch specialising in design, construction and maintenance of the built environment

Civil engineering is a professional engineering discipline that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of the physical and naturally built environment, including public works such as roads, bridges, canals, dams, airports, sewerage systems, pipelines, structural components of buildings, and railways. Civil engineering is traditionally broken into a number of sub-disciplines. It is considered the second-oldest engineering discipline after military engineering, and it is defined to distinguish non-military engineering from military engineering. Civil engineering takes place in the public sector from municipal through to national governments, and in the private sector from individual homeowners through to international companies.

Dynamite Explosive made using nitroglycerin

Dynamite is an explosive made of nitroglycerin, sorbents and stabilizers. It was invented by the Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel in Geesthacht, and patented in 1867. It rapidly gained wide-scale use as a more powerful alternative to black powder.

History of gunpowder

Earliest known written formula for gunpowder, from the Wujing Zongyao of 1044 AD. Chinese Gunpowder Formula.JPG
Earliest known written formula for gunpowder, from the Wujing Zongyao of 1044 AD.
A 'magic fire meteor going against the wind' bomb as depicted in the Huolongjing c. 1350. Huolongjing bomb.jpg
A 'magic fire meteor going against the wind' bomb as depicted in the Huolongjing c. 1350.
Stoneware bombs, known in Japanese as Tetsuhau (iron bomb), or in Chinese as Zhentianlei (thunder crash bomb), excavated from the Takashima shipwreck, October 2011, dated to the Mongol invasions of Japan (1274-1281 AD). tetsuhau(Zhen Tian Lei ).JPG
Stoneware bombs, known in Japanese as Tetsuhau (iron bomb), or in Chinese as Zhentianlei (thunder crash bomb), excavated from the Takashima shipwreck, October 2011, dated to the Mongol invasions of Japan (1274–1281 AD).


Based on a 9th-century Taoist text, the invention of gunpowder by Chinese alchemists was likely an accidental byproduct from experiments seeking to create the elixir of life. [7] This experimental medicine origin of gunpowder is reflected in its Chinese name huoyao, which means "fire medicine". [4] The first military applications of gunpowder were developed around 1000 AD. [8] The earliest chemical formula for gunpowder appeared in the 11th century Song dynasty text, Wujing Zongyao , [9] however gunpowder had already been used for fire arrows since at least the 10th century. In the following centuries various gunpowder weapons such as bombs, fire lances, and the gun appeared in China. [3]

Elixir of life magical potion

The elixir of life, also known as elixir of immortality and sometimes equated with the name philosopher's stone, is a potion that supposedly grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth. This elixir was also said to cure all diseases. Alchemists in various ages and cultures sought the means of formulating the elixir.

Song dynasty Chinese historical period

The Song dynasty was an era of Chinese history that began in 960 and lasted until 1279. The dynasty was founded by Emperor Taizu of Song following his usurpation of the throne of the Later Zhou, ending the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. The Song often came into conflict with the contemporary Liao and Western Xia dynasties in the north. It was eventually conquered by the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. The Song government was the first in world history to issue banknotes or true paper money nationally and the first Chinese government to establish a permanent standing navy. This dynasty also saw the first known use of gunpowder, as well as the first discernment of true north using a compass.

<i>Wujing Zongyao</i>

The Wujing Zongyao, sometimes rendered in English as the Complete Essentials for the Military Classics, is a Chinese military compendium written from around 1040 to 1044.

Saltpeter was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD and was primarily produced in the provinces of Sichuan, Shanxi, and Shandong. [10] There is strong evidence of the use of saltpeter and sulfur in various medicinal combinations. [11] A Chinese alchemical text dated 492 noted saltpeter 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; the earliest Latin accounts of saltpeter purification are dated after 1200. [12]

The first reference to the incendiary properties of such mixtures is the passage of the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe, a Taoist text tentatively dated to the mid-9th century: [13] "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." [14] The Chinese word for "gunpowder" is Chinese :火药/火藥; pinyin :huŏ yào/xuo yɑʊ/, which literally means "Fire Medicine"; [4] however this name only came into use some centuries after the mixture's discovery. [15] In the following centuries a variety of gunpowder weapons such as rockets, bombs, and land mines appeared before the first metal barrel firearms were invented. [16] Explosive weapons such as bombs have been discovered in a shipwreck off the shore of Japan dated from 1281, during the Mongol invasions of Japan. [17]

The Chinese Wujing Zongyao (Complete Essentials from the Military Classics), written by Zeng Gongliang between 1040 and 1044, provides encyclopedia references to a variety of mixtures that included petrochemicals—as well as garlic and honey. A slow match for flame throwing mechanisms using the siphon principle and for fireworks and rockets is mentioned. The mixture formulas in this book do not contain enough saltpeter to create an explosive however; being limited to at most 50% saltpeter, they produce an incendiary. [9] The Essentials was however written by a Song dynasty court bureaucrat, and there is little evidence that it had any immediate impact on warfare; there is no mention of gunpowder use in the chronicles of the wars against the Tanguts in the 11th century, and China was otherwise mostly at peace during this century.

However, by 1083 the Song court was producing hundreds of thousands of fire arrows for their garrisons. [18] Bombs and the first proto-guns, known as "fire lances", became prominent during the 12th century and were used by the Song during the Jin-Song Wars. Fire lances were first recorded to have been used at the Siege of De'an in 1132 by Song forces against the Jin. [19] In the early 13th century the Jin utilized iron-casing bombs. [8] Projectiles were added to fire lances, re-usable fire lance barrels were developed, first out of hardened paper, and then metal. By 1257 some fire lances were firing wads of bullets. [20] [21] In the late 13th century metal fire lances became 'eruptors', proto-cannons firing co-viative projectiles, and by 1287 at the latest, had become true guns, the hand cannon. [22]

Middle East

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

The Muslims acquired knowledge of gunpowder some time between 1240 and 1280, by which point the Syrian Hasan al-Rammah had written, in Arabic, recipes for gunpowder, instructions for the purification of saltpeter, and descriptions of gunpowder incendiaries. It is implied by al-Rammah's usage of "terms that suggested he derived his knowledge from Chinese sources" and his references to saltpeter as "Chinese snow" (Arabic : ثلج الصينthalj al-ṣīn), fireworks as "Chinese flowers" and rockets as "Chinese arrows" that knowledge of gunpowder arrived from China. [23] 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". [24] In Persia saltpeter was known as "Chinese salt" (Persian : نمک چینی) namak-i chīnī) [25] [26] or "salt from Chinese salt marshes" (نمک شوره چینیnamak-i shūra-yi chīnī). [27] [28]

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% charcoal), it is nearly identical to the modern reported ideal gunpowder recipe of 75% potassium nitrate, 10% sulfur, and 15% charcoal. [24]

Al-Hassan claims that in the Battle of Ain Jalut of 1260, the Mamluks used against the Mongols in "the first cannon in history" gunpowder formula with near-identical ideal composition ratios for explosive gunpowder. [24] Other historians urge caution regarding claims of Islamic firearms use in the 1204–1324 period as late medieval Arabic texts used the same word for gunpowder, naft, that they used for an earlier incendiary, naphtha. [29] [30]

Khan claims that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world [31] and cites Mamluk antagonism towards early musketeers in their infantry as an example of how gunpowder weapons were not always met with open acceptance in the Middle East. [32] Similarly, the refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514. [32]

The arquebus first appeared in the Ottoman Empire at some point between 1394 and the early 15th century. [33] [34] The arquebus was later used in substantial numbers by the Janissaries of the Ottoman army by the mid-15th century. [33] The matchlock arquebus was first used by the Janissary corps of the Ottoman army in the first half of the 15th century, [35] possibly as early as 1394 [34] but certainly by the 1440s. [36]

The musket first appeared in the Ottoman Empire by 1465. [37] In 1598, Chinese writer Zhao Shizhen described Turkish muskets as being superior to European muskets. [38] The Chinese military book Wu Pei Chih (1621) later described Turkish muskets that used a rack-and-pinion mechanism, which was not known to have been used in European or Chinese firearms at the time. [39]

The state-controlled manufacture of gunpowder by the Ottoman Empire through early supply chains to obtain nitre, sulfur and high-quality charcoal from oaks in Anatolia contributed significantly to its expansion between the 15th and 18th century. It was not until later in the 19th century when the syndicalist production of Turkish gunpowder was greatly reduced, which coincided with the decline of its military might. [40]

Mainland Europe

The invention of gunpowder, anonymous maker, Museum Plantin-Moretus (PK.OPB.0168.004) De uitvinding van het buskruit, anoniem, Museum Plantin-Moretus, PK OPB 0186 004.jpg
The invention of gunpowder, anonymous maker, Museum Plantin-Moretus (PK.OPB.0168.004)
Earliest depiction of a European cannon, "De Nobilitatibus Sapientii Et Prudentiis Regum", Walter de Milemete, 1326. EarlyCannonDeNobilitatibusSapientiiEtPrudentiisRegumManuscriptWalterdeMilemete1326.jpg
Earliest depiction of a European cannon, "De Nobilitatibus Sapientii Et Prudentiis Regum", Walter de Milemete, 1326.
Buchsenmeysterei : von Geschoss, Buchsen, Pulver, Salpeter und Feurwergken, 1531 Buchsenmeysterei 1531 CHF.jpg
Büchsenmeysterei : von Geschoß, Büchsen, Pulver, Salpeter und Feurwergken, 1531
De la pirotechnia, 1540 De la pirotechnia 1540 Title Page AQ1 (1).jpg
De la pirotechnia, 1540
Deutliche Anweisung zur Feuerwerkerey, 1748 J. C. Stovesandt 1748 Deutliche Anweisung zur Feuerwerkerey.jpg
Deutliche Anweisung zur Feuerwerkerey, 1748

The earliest Western accounts of gunpowder appear in texts written by English philosopher Roger Bacon in the 13th century. [41] Several sources mention Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons being deployed by the Mongols against European forces at the Battle of Mohi in 1241. [42] [43] [44] Professor Kenneth Warren Chase credits the Mongols for introducing into Europe gunpowder and its associated weaponry. [13] However, there is no clear route of transmission, [45] and while the Mongols are often pointed to as the likeliest vector, Timothy May points out that "there is no concrete evidence that the Mongols used gunpowder weapons on a regular basis outside of China." [46] However, Timothy May also points out "However... the Mongols used the gunpowder weapon in their wars against the Jin, the Song and in their invasions of Japan." [46]

In Europe, one of the first mentions of gunpowder use appears in a passage found in Roger Bacon's Opus Maius of 1267 and Opus Tertium in what has been interpreted as being firecrackers. The most telling passage reads: "We have an example of these things (that act on the senses) in [the sound and fire of] that children's toy which is made in many [diverse] parts of the world; i.e., a device no bigger than one's thumb. From the violence of that salt called saltpeter [together with sulfur and willow charcoal, combined into a powder] so horrible a sound is made by the bursting of a thing so small, no more than a bit of parchment [containing it], that we find [the ear assaulted by a noise] exceeding the roar of strong thunder, and a flash brighter than the most brilliant lightning." [47] In the early 20th century, British artillery officer Henry William Lovett Hime proposed that another work tentatively attributed to Bacon, Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae, et de Nullitate Magiae contained an encrypted formula for gunpowder. This claim has been disputed by historians of science including Lynn Thorndike, John Maxson Stillman and George Sarton and by Bacon's editor Robert Steele, both in terms of authenticity of the work, and with respect to the decryption method. [47] In any case, the formula claimed to have been decrypted (7:5:5 saltpeter:charcoal:sulfur) is not useful for firearms use or even firecrackers, burning slowly and producing mostly smoke. [48] [49] However, if Bacon's recipe is taken as measurements by volume rather than weight, a far more potent and serviceable explosive powder is created suitable for firing hand-cannons, albeit less consistent due to the inherent inaccuracies of measurements by volume. One example of this composition resulted in 100 parts saltpeter, 27 parts charcoal, and 45 parts sulfur, by weight. [50]

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. [51] One recipe for "flying fire" (ignis volatilis) involves saltpeter, 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. Another specifies a 1:3:9 ratio. [52]

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." [53] 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." [53] Albertus Magnus died in 1280.

A major advance in manufacturing began in Europe in the late 14th century when the safety and thoroughness of incorporation was improved by wet grinding; liquid, such as distilled spirits [54] was added during the grinding-together of the ingredients and the moist paste dried afterwards. The principle of wet mixing to prevent the separation of dry ingredients, invented for gunpowder, is used today in the pharmaceutical industry. [55]

It was also discovered that if the paste was rolled into balls before drying the resulting gunpowder absorbed less water from the air during storage and traveled better. The balls were then crushed in a mortar by the gunner immediately before use, with the old problem of uneven particle size and packing causing unpredictable results. If the right size particles were chosen, however, the result was a great improvement in power. Forming the damp paste into corn-sized clumps by hand or with the use of a sieve instead of larger balls produced a product after drying that loaded much better, as each tiny piece provided its own surrounding air space that allowed much more rapid combustion than a fine powder. This "corned" gunpowder was from 30% to 300% more powerful. An example is cited where 34 pounds of serpentine was needed to shoot a 47-pound ball, but only 18 pounds of corned powder. [54] The optimum size of the grain depended on its use; larger for large cannon, finer for small arms. Larger cast cannons were easily muzzle-loaded with corned powder using a long-handled ladle. Corned powder also retained the advantage of low moisture absorption, as even tiny grains still had much less surface area to attract water than a floury powder.

During this time, European manufacturers also began regularly purifying saltpeter, using wood ashes containing potassium carbonate to precipitate calcium from their dung liquor, and using ox blood, alum, and slices of turnip to clarify the solution. [54]

During the Renaissance, two European schools of pyrotechnic thought emerged, one in Italy and the other at Nuremberg, Germany. The German printer and publisher Christiaan Egenolff adapted an earlier work on pyrotechnics from manuscript to print form, publishing his Büchsenmeysterei in 1529 and reprinting it in 1531. Now extremely rare, the book discusses the manufacturing of gunpowder, the operation of artillery and the rules of conduct for the gunsmith. [56]

In Italy, Vannoccio Biringuccio, born in 1480, was a member of the guild Fraternita di Santa Barbara but broke with the tradition of secrecy by setting down everything he knew in a book titled De la pirotechnia , written in vernacular. It was published posthumously in 1540, with 9 editions over 138 years, and also reprinted by MIT Press in 1966. [54]

By the mid-17th century fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular even at resorts and public gardens. [57] With the publication of Deutliche Anweisung zur Feuerwerkerey (1748), methods for creating fireworks were sufficiently well-known and well-described that "Firework making has become an exact science." [58] In 1774 Louis XVI ascended to the throne of France at age 20. After he discovered that France was not self-sufficient in gunpowder, a Gunpowder Administration was established; to head it, the lawyer Antoine Lavoisier was appointed. Although from a bourgeois family, after his degree in law Lavoisier became wealthy from a company set up to collect taxes for the Crown; this allowed him to pursue experimental natural science as a hobby. [59]

Without access to cheap saltpeter (controlled by the British), for hundreds of years France had relied on saltpetermen with royal warrants, the droit de fouille or "right to dig", to seize nitrous-containing soil and demolish walls of barnyards, without compensation to the owners. [60] This caused farmers, the wealthy, or entire villages to bribe the petermen and the associated bureaucracy to leave their buildings alone and the saltpeter uncollected. Lavoisier instituted a crash program to increase saltpeter production, revised (and later eliminated) the droit de fouille, researched best refining and powder manufacturing methods, instituted management and record-keeping, and established pricing that encouraged private investment in works. Although saltpeter from new Prussian-style putrefaction works had not been produced yet (the process taking about 18 months), in only a year France had gunpowder to export. A chief beneficiary of this surplus was the American Revolution. By careful testing and adjusting the proportions and grinding time, powder from mills such as at Essonne outside Paris became the best in the world by 1788, and inexpensive. [60] [61]

Great Britain and Ireland

Gunpowder production in Britain appears to have started in the mid 14th century with the aim of supplying the English Crown. [62] Records show that, in England, gunpowder was being made 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. [62] Gunpowder was also being made or stored at other Royal castles, such as Portchester. By the early 14th 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 had made smaller castles useless. [63]

Henry VIII of England was short of gunpowder when he invaded France in 1544 and England needed to import gunpowder via the port of Antwerp in what is now Belgium. [62]

The English Civil War (1642–1645) led to an expansion of the gunpowder industry, with the repeal of the Royal Patent in August 1641. [62]

One of the most notable uses of gunpowder in Great Britain was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605: a failed assassination attempt on King James I and VI. The plot was foiled when Guy Fawkes was found under the House of Lords with hidden barrels of gunpowder. All assailants who had a role in the plot escaped but were eventually caught. King James later decreed that November 5 become a day of celebration, which is a tradition that carries on today known as Bonfire Night.

Two British physicists, Andrew Noble and Frederick Abel, worked to improve the properties of black powder during the late 19th century. This formed the basis for the Noble-Abel gas equation for internal ballistics. [64]

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 a 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. [65]

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. [62] 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. [62] [66]

This left the sole United Kingdom gunpowder factory at ICI Nobel's Ardeer site in Scotland; it too closed in October 1976. [62] 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 German Democratic Republic and former Yugoslavia.


In the year 1780 the British began to annex the territories of the Sultanate of Mysore, during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The British battalion was defeated during the Battle of Guntur, by the forces of Hyder Ali, who effectively utilized Mysorean rockets and rocket artillery against the closely massed British forces. Rocket warfare.jpg
In the year 1780 the British began to annex the territories of the Sultanate of Mysore, during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The British battalion was defeated during the Battle of Guntur, by the forces of Hyder Ali, who effectively utilized Mysorean rockets and rocket artillery against the closely massed British forces.
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, hunting deer using a matchlock Meister der Shah-Jahan-Nama-Memoiren 001.jpg
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, hunting deer using a matchlock

Gunpowder and gunpowder weapons were transmitted to India through the Mongol invasions of India. [67] [68] The Mongols were defeated by Alauddin Khalji of the Delhi Sultanate, and some of the Mongol soldiers remained in northern India after their conversion to Islam. [68] It was written in the Tarikh-i Firishta (1606–1607) that Nasir ud din Mahmud the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate presented the envoy of the Mongol ruler Hulegu Khan with a dazzling pyrotechnics display upon his arrival in Delhi in 1258. Nasir ud din Mahmud tried to express his strength as a ruler and tried to ward off any Mongol attempt similar to the Siege of Baghdad (1258). [69] Firearms known as top-o-tufak also existed in many Muslim kingdoms in India by as early as 1366. [69] From then on the employment of gunpowder warfare in India was prevalent, with events such as the "Siege of Belgaum" in 1473 by Sultan Muhammad Shah Bahmani. [70]

The shipwrecked Ottoman Admiral Seydi Ali Reis is known to have introduced the earliest type of matchlock weapons, which the Ottomans used against the Portuguese during the Siege of Diu (1531). After that, a diverse variety of firearms, large guns in particular, became visible in Tanjore, Dacca, Bijapur, and Murshidabad. [71] Guns made of bronze were recovered from Calicut (1504)- the former capital of the Zamorins [72]

The Mughal emperor Akbar mass-produced matchlocks for the Mughal Army. Akbar is personally known to have shot a leading Rajput commander during the Siege of Chittorgarh. [73] The Mughals began to use bamboo rockets (mainly for signalling) and employ sappers: special units that undermined heavy stone fortifications to plant gunpowder charges.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan is known to have introduced much more advanced matchlocks, their designs were a combination of Ottoman and Mughal designs. Shah Jahan also countered the British and other Europeans in his province of Gujarāt, which supplied Europe saltpeter for use in gunpowder warfare during the 17th century. [74] Bengal and Mālwa participated in saltpeter production. [74] The Dutch, French, Portuguese, and English used Chhapra as a center of saltpeter refining. [74]

Ever since the founding of the Sultanate of Mysore by Hyder Ali, French military officers were employed to train the Mysore Army. Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan were the first to introduce modern cannons and muskets, their army was also the first in India to have official uniforms. During the Second Anglo-Mysore War Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan unleashed the Mysorean rockets at their British opponents effectively defeating them on various occasions. The Mysorean rockets inspired the development of the Congreve rocket, which the British widely utilized during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. [75]


The Javanese Majapahit Empire was arguably able to encompass much of modern-day Indonesia due to its unique mastery of bronze-smithing and use of a central arsenal fed by a large number of cottage industries within the immediate region. Documentary and archeological evidence indicate that Arab traders introduced gunpowder, gonnes, muskets, blunderbusses, and cannons to the Javanese, Acehnese, and Batak via long established commercial trade routes around the early to mid 14th century. [76] Portuguese and Spanish invaders were unpleasantly surprised and even outgunned on occasion. [77] The resurgent Singhasari Empire overtook Sriwijaya and later emerged as the Majapahit whose warfare featured the use of fire-arms and cannonade. [78] c. 1540, the Javanese, always alert for new weapons found the newly arrived Portuguese weaponry superior to that of the locally made variants. Javanese bronze breech-loaded swivel-guns, known as meriam, or erroneously as lantaka, was used widely by the Majapahit navy as well as by pirates and rival lords. The demise of the Majapahit empire and the dispersal of disaffected skilled bronze cannon-smiths to Brunei, modern Sumatra, Malaysia and the Philippines lead to widespread use, especially in the Makassar Strait.

Saltpeter harvesting was recorded by Dutch and German travelers as being common in even the smallest villages and was collected from the decomposition process of large dung hills specifically piled for the purpose. The Dutch punishment for possession of non-permitted gunpowder appears to have been amputation. [79] Ownership and manufacture of gunpowder was later prohibited by the colonial Dutch occupiers. [76] According to a colonel McKenzie quoted in Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, The History of Java (1817), the purest sulfur was supplied from a crater from a mountain near the straits of Bali. [78]


gunner of Nguyen dynasty Phao thu.jpg
gunner of Nguyễn dynasty

On the origins of gunpowder technology, historian Tonio Andrade remarked, "Scholars today overwhelmingly concur that the gun was invented in China." [80] Gunpowder and the gun are widely believed by historians to have originated from China because there is a large body of evidence that documents the evolution of the gun from the Chinese fire lance to a metal gun and the evolution of gunpowder from a medicine to an incendiary and an explosive, whereas similar records do not exist in Europe. [81] As Andrade explains, the large amount of variation in gunpowder recipes in China relative to Europe is "evidence of experimentation in China, where gunpowder was at first used as an incendiary and only later became an explosive and a propellant... in contrast, formulas in Europe diverged only very slightly from the ideal proportions for use as an explosive and a propellant, suggesting that gunpowder was introduced as a mature technology." [45]

However, the history of gunpowder is not without controversy. A major problem confronting the study of early gunpowder history is ready access to sources close to the events described. Often the first records potentially describing use of gunpowder in warfare were written several centuries after the fact, and may well have been colored by the contemporary experiences of the chronicler. [82] Translation difficulties have led to errors or loose interpretations bordering on artistic licence. Ambiguous language can make it difficult to distinguish gunpowder weapons from similar technologies that do not rely on gunpowder. A commonly cited example is a report of the Battle of Mohi in Eastern Europe that mentions a "long lance" sending forth "evil-smelling vapors and smoke", which has been variously interpreted by different historians as the "first-gas attack upon European soil" using gunpowder, "the first use of cannon in Europe", or merely a "toxic gas" with no evidence of gunpowder. [83] It is difficult to accurately translate original Chinese alchemical texts, which tend to explain phenomena through metaphor, into modern scientific language with rigidly defined terminology in English. [23] Early texts potentially mentioning gunpowder are sometimes marked by a linguistic process where semantic change occurred. [84] For instance, the Arabic word naft transitioned from denoting naphtha to denoting gunpowder, and the Chinese word pào changed in meaning from catapult to referring to a cannon. [85] This has led to arguments on the exact origins of gunpowder based on etymological foundations. Science and technology historian Bert S. Hall makes the observation that, "It goes without saying, however, that historians bent on special pleading, or simply with axes of their own to grind, can find rich material in these terminological thickets." [84]

Another major area of contention in modern studies of the history of gunpowder is regarding the transmission of gunpowder. While the literary and archaeological evidence supports a Chinese origin for gunpowder and guns, the manner in which gunpowder technology was transferred from China to the West is still under debate. [80] It is unknown why the rapid spread of gunpowder technology across Eurasia took place over several decades whereas other technologies such as paper, the compass, and printing did not reach Europe until centuries after they were invented in China. [45]

Manufacturing technology

Edge-runner mill in a restored mill, at The Hagley Museum Hagley Mill Equipment.jpg
Edge-runner mill in a restored mill, at The Hagley Museum
The old Powder or Pouther magazine dating from 1642, built by order of Charles I. Irvine, North Ayrshire, Scotland Irvinepowderhouse2.JPG
The old Powder or Pouther magazine dating from 1642, built by order of Charles I. Irvine, North Ayrshire, Scotland
Gunpowder storing barrels at Martello tower in Point Pleasant Park Martello Tower barrels.jpg
Gunpowder storing barrels at Martello tower in Point Pleasant Park
1840 drawing of a gunpowder magazine near Tehran, Persia. Gunpowder was extensively used in the Naderian Wars. Barout khaneh near Tehran by Eugene Flandin.jpg
1840 drawing of a gunpowder magazine near Tehran, Persia. Gunpowder was extensively used in the Naderian Wars.

For the most powerful black powder, meal powder, a wood charcoal, is used. The best wood for the purpose is Pacific willow, [86] but others such as alder or buckthorn can be used. In Great Britain between the 15th and 19th centuries charcoal from alder buckthorn was greatly prized for gunpowder manufacture; cottonwood was used by the American Confederate States. [87] The ingredients are reduced in particle size and mixed as intimately as possible. Originally, this was with a mortar-and-pestle or a similarly operating stamping-mill, using copper, bronze or other non-sparking materials, until supplanted by the rotating ball mill principle with non-sparking bronze or lead. Historically, a marble or limestone edge runner mill, running on a limestone bed, was used in Great Britain; however, by the mid 19th century this had changed to either an iron-shod stone wheel or a cast iron wheel running on an iron bed. [88] The mix was dampened with alcohol or water during grinding to prevent accidental ignition. This also helps the extremely soluble saltpeter to mix into the microscopic nooks and crannies of the very high surface-area charcoal.

Around the late 14th century, European powdermakers first began adding liquid during grinding to improve mixing, reduce dust, and with it the risk of explosion. [89] The powder-makers 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, powder-makers standardized the process by forcing mill cake through sieves instead of corning powder by hand.

The improvement was based on reducing the surface area of a higher density composition. At the beginning of the 19th century, makers increased density further by static pressing. They shoveled damp mill cake into a two-foot square box, placed this beneath a screw press and reduced it to 12 its volume. "Press cake" had the hardness of slate. They broke the dried slabs with hammers or rollers, and sorted the granules with sieves into different grades. In the United States, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont, who had learned the trade from Lavoisier, tumbled the dried grains in rotating barrels to round the edges and increase durability during shipping and handling. (Sharp grains rounded off in transport, producing fine "meal dust" that changed the burning properties.)

Another advance was the manufacture of kiln charcoal by distilling wood in heated iron retorts instead of burning it in earthen pits. Controlling the temperature influenced the power and consistency of the finished gunpowder. In 1863, in response to high prices for Indian saltpeter, DuPont chemists developed a process using potash or mined potassium chloride to convert plentiful Chilean sodium nitrate to potassium nitrate. [90]

The following year (1864) the Gatebeck Low Gunpowder Works in Cumbria (Great Britain) started a plant to manufacture potassium nitrate by essentially the same chemical process. [91] This is nowadays called the ‘Wakefield Process’, after the owners of the company. It would have used potassium chloride from the Staßfurt mines, near Magdeburg, Germany, which had recently become available in industrial quantities. [92]

During the 18th century, gunpowder factories became increasingly dependent on mechanical energy. [93] Despite mechanization, production difficulties related to humidity control, especially during the pressing, were still present in the late 19th century. A paper from 1885 laments that "Gunpowder is such a nervous and sensitive spirit, that in almost every process of manufacture it changes under our hands as the weather changes." Pressing times to the desired density could vary by a factor of three depending on the atmospheric humidity. [94]

Composition and characteristics

The term black powder was coined in the late 19th century, primarily in the United States, 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, but had significantly reduced amounts of smoke and combustion products. Smokeless powder has different burning properties (pressure vs. time) and can generate higher pressures and work per gram. This can rupture older weapons designed for black powder. Smokeless powders ranged in color from brownish tan to yellow to white. Most of the bulk semi-smokeless powders ceased to be manufactured in the 1920s. [95] [96] [97]

Black powder is a granular mixture of

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. [98] 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.

Charcoal does not consist of pure carbon; rather, it consists of partially pyrolyzed cellulose, in which the wood is not completely decomposed. Carbon differs from ordinary charcoal. Whereas charcoal's autoignition temperature is relatively low, carbon's is much greater. Thus, a black powder composition containing pure carbon would burn similarly to a match head, at best. [99]

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 (known as saltpeter or saltpetre), 15% softwood charcoal, and 10% sulfur. [88] 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, are 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. [100] In 1857, Lammot du Pont solved the main problem of using cheaper sodium nitrate formulations when he patented DuPont "B" blasting powder. After manufacturing grains from press-cake in the usual way, his process tumbled the powder with graphite dust for 12 hours. This formed a graphite coating on each grain that reduced its ability to absorb moisture. [101]

Neither the use of graphite nor sodium nitrate was new. Glossing gunpowder corns with graphite was already an accepted technique in 1839, [102] and sodium nitrate-based blasting powder had been made in Peru for many years using the sodium nitrate mined at Tarapacá (now in Chile). [103] Also, in 1846, two plants were built in south-west England to make blasting powder using this sodium nitrate. [104] The idea may well have been brought from Peru by Cornish miners returning home after completing their contracts. Another suggestion is that it was William Lobb, the planthunter, who recognised the possibilities of sodium nitrate during his travels in South America. Lammot du Pont would have known about the use of graphite and probably also knew about the plants in south-west England. In his patent he was careful to state that his claim was for the combination of graphite with sodium nitrate-based powder, rather than for either of the two individual technologies.

French war powder in 1879 used the ratio 75% saltpeter, 12.5% charcoal, 12.5% sulfur. English war powder in 1879 used the ratio 75% saltpeter, 15% charcoal, 10% sulfur. [105] The British Congreve rockets used 62.4% saltpeter, 23.2% charcoal and 14.4% sulfur, but the British Mark VII gunpowder was changed to 65% saltpeter, 20% charcoal and 15% sulfur.[ citation needed ] The explanation for the wide variety in formulation relates to usage. Powder used for rocketry can use a slower burn rate since it accelerates the projectile for a much longer time—whereas powders for weapons such as flintlocks, cap-locks, or matchlocks need a higher burn rate to accelerate the projectile in a much shorter distance. Cannons usually used lower burn rate powders, because most would burst with higher burn rate powders.


The original dry-compounded powder used in 15th-century Europe was known as "Serpentine", either a reference to Satan [26] or to a common artillery piece that used it. [106] The ingredients were ground together with a mortar and pestle, perhaps for 24 hours, [106] resulting in a fine flour. Vibration during transportation could cause the components to separate again, requiring remixing in the field. Also if the quality of the saltpeter was low (for instance if it was contaminated with highly hygroscopic calcium nitrate), or if the powder was simply old (due to the mildly hygroscopic nature of potassium nitrate), in humid weather it would need to be re-dried. The dust from "repairing" powder in the field was a major hazard.

Loading cannons or bombards before the powder-making advances of the Renaissance was a skilled art. Fine powder loaded haphazardly or too tightly would burn incompletely or too slowly. Typically, the breech-loading powder chamber in the rear of the piece was filled only about half full, the serpentine powder neither too compressed nor too loose, a wooden bung pounded in to seal the chamber from the barrel when assembled, and the projectile placed on. A carefully determined empty space was necessary for the charge to burn effectively. When the cannon was fired through the touchhole, turbulence from the initial surface combustion caused the rest of the powder to be rapidly exposed to the flame. [106]

The advent of much more powerful and easy to use corned powder changed this procedure, but serpentine was used with older guns into the 17th century. [107]


For propellants to oxidize and burn rapidly and effectively, the combustible ingredients must be reduced to the smallest possible particle sizes, and be as thoroughly mixed as possible. Once mixed, however, for better results in a gun, makers discovered that the final product should be in the form of individual dense grains that spread the fire quickly from grain to grain, much as straw or twigs catch fire more quickly than a pile of sawdust.

Because the dry powdered ingredients must be mixed and bonded together for extrusion and cutting into grains to maintain the blend, size reduction and mixing is done while the ingredients are damp, usually with water. After 1800, instead of forming grains by hand or with sieves, the damp mill-cake was pressed in molds to increase its density and extract the liquid, forming press-cake. The pressing took varying amounts of time, depending on conditions such as atmospheric humidity. The hard, dense product was broken again into tiny pieces, which were separated with sieves to produce a uniform product for each purpose: coarse powders for cannons, finer grained powders for muskets, and the finest for small hand guns and priming. [107] Inappropriately fine-grained powder often caused cannons to burst before the projectile could move down the barrel, due to the high initial spike in pressure. [108] Mammoth powder with large grains, made for Rodman's 15-inch cannon, reduced the pressure to only 20 percent as high as ordinary cannon powder would have produced. [109]

In the mid-19th century, measurements were made determining that the burning rate within a grain of black powder (or a tightly packed mass) is about 6 cm/s (0.20 feet/s), while the rate of ignition propagation from grain to grain is around 9 m/s (30 feet/s), over two orders of magnitude faster. [107]

Modern types

Modern corning first compresses the fine black powder meal into blocks with a fixed density (1.7 g/cm³). [110] In the United States, gunpowder grains were designated F (for fine) or C (for coarse). Grain diameter decreased with a larger number of Fs and increased with a larger number of Cs, ranging from about 2 mm (0.08 in) for 7F to 15 mm (0.6 in) for 7C. Even larger grains were produced for artillery bore diameters greater than about 17 cm (6.7 in). The standard DuPont Mammoth powder developed by Thomas Rodman and Lammot du Pont for use during the American Civil War had grains averaging 0.6 inches (15 mm) in diameter with edges rounded in a glazing barrel. [109] Other versions had grains the size of golf and tennis balls for use in 20-inch (51 cm) Rodman guns. [111] In 1875 DuPont introduced Hexagonal powder for large artillery, which was pressed using shaped plates with a small center core—about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) diameter, like a wagon wheel nut, the center hole widened as the grain burned. [112] By 1882 German makers also produced hexagonal grained powders of a similar size for artillery. [112]

By the late 19th century manufacturing focused on standard grades of black powder from Fg used in large bore rifles and shotguns, through FFg (medium and small-bore arms such as muskets and fusils), FFFg (small-bore rifles and pistols), and FFFFg (extreme small bore, short pistols and most commonly for priming flintlocks). [113] A coarser grade for use in military artillery blanks was designated A-1. These grades were sorted on a system of screens with oversize retained on a mesh of 6 wires per inch, A-1 retained on 10 wires per inch, Fg retained on 14, FFg on 24, FFFg on 46, and FFFFg on 60. Fines designated FFFFFg were usually reprocessed to minimize explosive dust hazards. [114] In the United Kingdom, the main service gunpowders were classified RFG (rifle grained fine) with diameter of one or two millimeters and RLG (rifle grained large) for grain diameters between two and six millimeters. [111] Gunpowder grains can alternatively be categorized by mesh size: the BSS sieve mesh size, being the smallest mesh size, which retains no grains. Recognized grain sizes are Gunpowder G 7, G 20, G 40, and G 90.

Owing to the large market of antique and replica black-powder firearms in the US, modern gunpowder substitutes like Pyrodex, Triple Seven and Black Mag3 [115] pellets have been developed since the 1970s. These products, which should not be confused with smokeless powders, aim to produce less fouling (solid residue), while maintaining the traditional volumetric measurement system for charges. Claims of less corrosiveness of these products have been controversial however. New cleaning products for black-powder guns have also been developed for this market. [113]

Other types of gunpowder

Besides black powder, there are other historically important types of gunpowder. "Brown gunpowder" is cited as composed of 79% nitre, 3% sulfur, and 18% charcoal per 100 of dry powder, with about 2% moisture. Prismatic Brown Powder is a large-grained product the Rottweil Company introduced in 1884 in Germany, which was adopted by the British Royal Navy shortly thereafter. The French navy adopted a fine, 3.1 millimeter, not prismatic grained product called Slow Burning Cocoa (SBC) or "cocoa powder". These brown powders reduced burning rate even further by using as little as 2 percent sulfur and using charcoal made from rye straw that had not been completely charred, hence the brown color. [112]

Lesmok powder was a product developed by DuPont in 1911, [116] one of several semi-smokeless products in the industry containing a mixture of black and nitrocellulose powder. It was sold to Winchester and others primarily for .22 and .32 small calibers. Its advantage was that it was believed at the time to be less corrosive than smokeless powders then in use. It was not understood in the U.S. until the 1920s that the actual source of corrosion was the potassium chloride residue from potassium chlorate sensitized primers. The bulkier black powder fouling better disperses primer residue. Failure to mitigate primer corrosion by dispersion caused the false impression that nitrocellulose-based powder caused corrosion. [117] Lesmok had some of the bulk of black powder for dispersing primer residue, but somewhat less total bulk than straight black powder, thus requiring less frequent bore cleaning. [118] It was last sold by Winchester in 1947.

Sulfur-free gunpowder

Burst barrel of a muzzle loader pistol replica, which was loaded with nitrocellulose powder instead of black powder and could not withstand the higher pressures of the modern propellant Burst muzzle loader barrel.jpg
Burst barrel of a muzzle loader pistol replica, which was loaded with nitrocellulose powder instead of black powder and could not withstand the higher pressures of the modern propellant

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. [62] They typically contain 70.5 parts of saltpeter and 29.5 parts of charcoal. [62] Like black powder, they were produced in different grain sizes. In the 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 represents the smallest BSS sieve mesh size, which retained no grains.

Sulfur's main role in gunpowder is to decrease the ignition temperature. A sample reaction for sulfur-free gunpowder would be

6 KNO3 + C7H4O → 3 K2CO3 + 4 CO2 + 2 H2O + 3 N2

Combustion characteristics

Chemical reaction

Gunpowder does not burn as a single reaction, so the byproducts are not easily predicted. One study[ citation needed ] 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 and 42.98% gaseous products: carbon dioxide, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen, methane, 1.11% water.

However, simplified equations have been cited.

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

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

A balanced, but still simplified, equation is [119]

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

Black powder made with less-expensive and more plentiful sodium nitrate (in appropriate proportions) works just as well, and previous equations apply, with sodium instead of potassium. However, it is more hygroscopic than powders made from potassium nitrate—popularly known as saltpeter. Because corned black powder grains made with saltpeter are less affected by moisture in the air, they can be stored unsealed without degradation by humidity. Muzzleloaders have been known to fire after hanging on a wall for decades in a loaded state, provided they remained dry. By contrast, black powder made with sodium nitrate must be kept sealed to remain stable.

The matchlock musket or pistol (an early gun ignition system), as well as the flintlock would often be unusable in wet weather, due to powder in the pan being exposed and dampened.


Gunpowder releases 3 megajoules per kilogram and contains its own oxidant. This is lower than TNT (4.7 megajoules per kilogram), or gasoline (47.2 megajoules per kilogram, but gasoline requires an oxidant, so an optimized gasoline and O2 mixture contains 10.4 megajoules per kilogram). Black powder also has a low energy density compared to modern "smokeless" powders, and thus to achieve high energy loadings, large amounts of black powder are needed with heavy projectiles.[ citation needed ]


Gunpowder is a low explosive, that is, it does not detonate but rather deflagrates (burns quickly). This is an advantage in a propeller device, where one does not desire a shock that would shatter the gun and potentially harm the operator, however it is a drawback when some explosion is wanted. In that case, gunpowder (and most importantly, gases produced by its burning) must be confined. Since it contains its own oxidizer and additionally burns faster under pressure, its combustion is capable of bursting containers such as shell, grenade, or improvised "pipe bomb" or "pressure cooker" casings to form shrapnel.

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.

As seen above, combustion converts less than half the mass of black powder to gas, most of it turns into particulate matter. Some of it is ejected, wasting propelling power, fouling the air, and generally being a nuisance (giving away a soldier's position, generating fog that hinders vision, etc.). Some of it ends up as a thick layer of soot inside the barrel, where it also is a nuisance for subsequent shots, and a cause of jamming an automatic weapon. Moreover, this residue is hygroscopic, and with the addition of moisture absorbed from the air forms a corrosive substance. The soot contains potassium oxide or sodium oxide that turns into potassium hydroxide, or sodium hydroxide, which corrodes wrought iron or steel gun barrels.[ citation needed ] Black powder arms must therefore be well cleaned after use, both inside and out, to remove the residue.

Transportation regulations

The United Nations 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.

Mining and industrial uses

Besides its use as a propellant in firearms and artillery, black powder's other main use has been as a blasting powder in quarrying, mining, and road construction (including railroad construction). During the 19th century, outside of war emergencies such as the Crimean War or the American Civil War, more black powder was used in these industrial uses than in firearms and artillery. But dynamite gradually replaced it for those uses. Today industrial explosives for such uses are still a huge market, but most of the market is in newer explosives rather than black powder.

Beginning in the 1930s, gunpowder or smokeless powder was used in rivet guns, stun guns for animals, cable splicers and other industrial construction tools. [120] The "stud gun" drove nails or screws into solid concrete, a function not possible with hydraulic tools. Today powder-actuated tools are still an important part of various industries, but the cartridges usually use smokeless powders. Industrial shotguns have been used to eliminate persistent material rings in operating rotary kilns (such as those for cement, lime, phosphate, etc.) and clinker in operating furnaces, and commercial tools make the method more reliable. [121]

Other uses

Gunpowder has occasionally been employed for other purposes besides weapons, mining, and construction:

See also

Related Research Articles

Cordite family of smokeless propellants

Cordite is a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom since 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant. Like gunpowder, cordite is classified as a low explosive because of its slow burning rates and consequently low brisance. These produce a subsonic deflagration wave rather than the supersonic detonation wave produced by brisants, or high explosives. The hot gases produced by burning gunpowder or cordite generate sufficient pressure to propel a bullet or shell to its target, but not so quickly as to routinely destroy the barrel of the gun.

Potassium nitrate chemical compound

Potassium nitrate is a chemical compound with the chemical formula KNO3. It is an ionic salt of potassium ions K+ and nitrate ions NO3, and is therefore an alkali metal nitrate.

Arquebus Type of long gun that appeared in Europe during the 15th century

The arquebus, derived from the German Hakenbüchse, was a form of long gun that appeared in Europe during the 15th century. Although the term arquebus was applied to many different forms of firearms from the 15th to 17th centuries, it originally referred to "a hand-gun with a hook-like projection or lug on its under surface, useful for steadying it against battlements or other objects when firing." These "hook guns" were in their earliest forms defensive weapons mounted on German city walls in the early 1400s, but by the late 1400s had become handheld firearms. The development of the arquebus is somewhat tied to technology developed for the crossbow as without the stock from the crossbow, the arquebus would not have a stable platform to rest one's shoulder on. Priming pans also were placed on the arquebus. A matchlock mechanism was added around 1475 and it became the first firearm with a trigger. The heavy arquebus, known as the musket, was developed to better penetrate plate armor and appeared in Europe around 1521. A standardized arquebus, the caliver, was introduced in the latter half of the 16th century. The name "caliver" is derived from the English corruption of calibre, which is a reference to the gun's standardized bore. The caliver allowed troops to load bullets faster since they fit their guns more easily, whereas before soldiers often had to modify their bullets into suitable fits, or were even forced to make their own prior to battle. The smoothbore matchlock arquebus is considered the forerunner to the rifle and other long gun firearms. Heavy arquebuses mounted on wagons were called arquebus à croc. These carried a lead ball of about 3.5 ounces (100 g).

A propellant or propellent is a chemical substance used in the production of energy or pressurized gas that is subsequently used to create movement of a fluid or to generate propulsion of a vehicle, projectile, or other object. Common propellants are energetic materials and consist of a fuel like gasoline, jet fuel, rocket fuel, and an oxidizer. Propellants are burned or otherwise decomposed to produce the propellant gas. Other propellants are simply liquids that can readily be vaporized.

Meal powder is the fine dust left over when black powder (gunpowder) is corned and screened to separate it into different grain sizes. It is used extensively in various pyrotechnic procedures, usually to prime other compositions. It can also be used in many fireworks to add power and substantially increasing the height of the firework. It is also used in most firearm ammunition.

Hand cannon Earliest true firearm, used in 13th-century China and 14th-century Europe

The hand cannon, also known as the gonne or handgonne, is the first true firearm and the successor of the fire lance. It is the oldest type of small arms as well as the most mechanically simplistic form of metal barrel firearms. Unlike matchlock firearms it requires direct manual external ignition through a touch hole without any form of firing mechanism. It may also be considered a forerunner of the handgun. The hand cannon was widely used in China from the 13th century onward and later throughout Europe in the 14th century until at least the 1560s, when it was supplanted by the matchlock arquebus, which is the first firearm to have a trigger.


Singijeon or shinkichon was a type of Korean (Joseon) fire arrow rocket, used during the era of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1897). Multiple singijeon could be launched by hwacha.

Brown powder or prismatic powder, sometimes referred as "cocoa powder" due to its color, was a propellant used in large artillery and ship's guns from about the 1870s. While similar to black powder, it was chemically formulated and formed hydraulically into a specific grain shape to provide a slower burn rates with neutral or progressive burning, as opposed to the faster and regressive burn typical of randomly shaped grains of black powder produced by crushing and screening powder formed into sheets in a press box, as was typical for cannon powder previously.

Fire lance 10th-century gunpowder weapon of Chinese origin

The fire lance was a very early gunpowder weapon that appeared in 10th-century China during the Jin-Song Wars. It began as a small pyrotechnic device attached to a spear-like weapon, used to gain a critical shock advantage right at the start of a melee. As gunpowder improved, the explosive discharge was increased, and debris or pellets added, giving it some of the effects of a combination modern flamethrower and shotgun, but with a very short range, and only one shot. In later larger and more powerful fire lances, the lance-point was discarded, as these versions were too unwieldy to be used in melee. These are considered to be a proto-gun, the predecessor of the hand cannon, and the ancestor of all firearms. Some fire lances were too large for a single man to wield. These were placed upon the ground in a supporting framework, and can be considered proto-cannons.

Black powder substitute

A black powder substitute is a replacement for black powder used in muzzleloading and cartridge firearms. Black powder substitutes offer a number of advantages over black powder, primarily including reduced sensitivity as an explosive and increased efficiency as a propellant powder.

Gunpowder artillery in the Middle Ages

Artillery in the Middle Ages primarily consisted of the introduction of the cannon, large tubular firearms designed to fire a heavy projectile over a long distance. Guns, bombs, rockets and cannons were first invented in China during the Han Chinese Song Dynasty and then later spread to Europe and the Middle East during the period.

History of the firearm aspect of history

After the Chinese invented black powder during the 9th century, these inventions were later transmitted to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The direct ancestor of the firearm is the fire lance. The prototype of the fire lance was invented in China during the 10th century and is the predecessor of all firearms.

<i>Huolongjing</i> 14th-century military treatise from the early Ming dynasty (1368–1683)

The Huolongjing, also known as Huoqitu, is a 14th-century military treatise compiled and edited by Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen of the early Ming dynasty (1368–1683). The Huolongjing is primarily based on the text known as Huolong Shenqi Tufa, which is no longer extant.

History of gunpowder aspect of history

Gunpowder is the first physical explosive. Before its discovery, many incendiary and burning devices had been used, including Greek fire. The discovery of gunpowder is attributed to experimentation in Chinese alchemy by Taoists in the pursuit of immortality, and is popularly listed as one of the "Four Great Inventions" of China. It was discovered during the late Tang dynasty but the earliest record of a written formula appeared in the Song dynasty. Knowledge of gunpowder spread rapidly throughout the Old World possibly as a result of the Mongol conquests during the 13th century, with written formula for it appearing in the 1267 Opus Majus treatise by Roger Bacon and a 1280 treatise by Hasan al-Rammah. It was employed in warfare to some effect from at least the 10th century in weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance before the appearance of the gun. While the fire lance was eventually supplanted by the gun, other gunpowder weapons such as rockets and fire arrows continued to see use in China, Korea, India, and eventually Europe. Bombs too never ceased to develop and continued to progress into the modern day as grenades, mines, and other explosive implements. Gunpowder has also been used for non-military purposes such as fireworks for entertainment, or in explosives for mining and tunneling.

Powder mill

A powder mill was a mill where gunpowder is made from sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal. Crude grinding and mixing operations like the Frankford Powder-Mill of Philadelphia were a cottage industry until the industrial revolution brought improved product quality through the following procedures:

The Liber Ignium ad Comburendos Hostes is a medieval collection of recipes for incendiary weapons, including Greek fire and gunpowder, written in Latin and allegedly written by a certain Marcus Graecus —a person whose existence is debated by scholars. The work has been subjected to numerous academic analyses, resulting in contradictory conclusions vis-a-vis origin and influence on its contemporaries.

Heilongjiang hand cannon

The Heilongjiang hand cannon or hand-gun is a bronze hand cannon manufactured no later than 1288 and is the world's oldest confirmed surviving firearm. It weighs 3.55 kg and is 34 centimeters long. The Heilongjiang hand cannon was excavated during the 1970s in Banlachengzi, a village in Acheng District, Heilongjiang province, China. It was found alongside other bronze artifacts made in the style of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty. The hand cannon was probably used in battles fought nearby Banlachengzi in 1287 and 1288. The History of Yuan states that a Jurchen commander by the name of Li Ting led a group of soldiers equipped with hand cannons into a military camp in 1288, as part of an anti-rebellion campaign for the Yuan dynasty. The cannon currently resides at the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum in Harbin, China.

This is a timeline of the history of gunpowder and related topics such as weapons, warfare, and industrial applications in South Asia.



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