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, charcoal, and potassium nitrate
(saltpeter). The sulfur and charcoal act as fuels while the saltpeter
is an oxidizer. 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
Gunpowder was invented in 9th-century China and spread throughout most
parts of Eurasia by the end of the 13th century. Originally
Taoist for medicinal purposes, gunpowder was first used
for warfare about 1000 CE with limited effectiveness.
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.
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.
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. Today gunpowder firearms are limited primarily to hunting,
target shooting, and bulletless historical reenactments.
1 History of gunpowder
1.2 Mainland Europe
1.3 Great Britain and Ireland
1.4 Middle East
2 Manufacturing technology
3 Composition and characteristics
6 Modern types
7 Other types of gunpowder
8 Sulfur-free gunpowder
9.1 Chemical reaction
10 Transportation regulations
Mining and industrial uses
12 Other uses
13 See also
15 External links
History of gunpowder
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 ca. 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 (1271–1284 AD).
History of gunpowder
History of gunpowder and Timeline of the
Further information: History of the firearm
Further information: Wujing Zongyao, Four Great Inventions, List of
Chinese inventions, and Heilongjiang hand cannon
Based on a 9th-century
Taoist text, the invention of gunpowder by
Chinese alchemists was likely an accidental byproduct from experiments
seeking to create elixir of life. This experimental medicine origin
of gunpowder is reflected in its Chinese name huoyao, which means
“fire potion”. The first military applications of gunpowder
were developed around 1000 CE. The earliest chemical formula for
gunpowder appeared in the 11th century
Song dynasty text, Wujing
Zongyao, however gunpowder had already been used for fire arrows
since at least the 10th century. In the following centuries various
primitive gunpowder weapons such as bombs and fire lances appeared in
Saltpeter was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD and was
primarily produced in the provinces of Sichuan, Shanxi, and
Shandong. There is strong evidence of the use of saltpeter and
sulfur in various medicinal combinations. 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.
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: "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." The Chinese word for "gunpowder"
is Chinese: 火药/火藥; pinyin: huŏ yào /xuo yɑʊ/, which
literally means "Fire Medicine"; however this name only came into
use some centuries after the mixture's discovery. In the following
centuries a variety of gunpowder weapons such as rockets, bombs, and
land mines appeared before the first metal barrel firearms were
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.
Wujing Zongyao (Complete Essentials from the Military
Classics), written by
Zeng Gongliang between 1040–1044, 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. 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.
Bombs and fire lances became
prominent during the 12th century and were used by the Song during the
Jin-Song Wars. The first proto-guns, known as "fire lances", were
first recorded to have been used at the siege of De'an in 1132 by Song
forces against the Jin. In the early 13th century the Jin utilized
iron casing bombs. 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
An arrow strapped with gunpowder ready to be shot from a bow. From the
Huolongjing ca. 1350.
The oldest known depiction of rocket arrows, from the Huolongjing. The
right arrow reads 'fire arrow,' the middle is an 'arrow frame in the
shape of a dragon,' and the left is a 'complete fire arrow.'
An illustration of a thunderclap bomb as depicted in the 1044 text
Wujing Zongyao. Considered to be a pseudo-explosive. The top item is a
through awl and the bottom one is a hook awl.
A fire lance as depicted in the
Huolongjing ca. 1350.
The 'flying-cloud thunderclap-eruptor' cannon from the
An organ gun known as the 'mother of a hundred bullets gun' from the
Huolongjing ca. 1350.
An illustration of a bronze "thousand ball thunder cannon" from the
Huolongjing ca. 1350.
The 'self-tripped trespass land mine' from the
Huolongjing ca. 1350.
Earliest depiction of a European cannon, "De Nobilitatibus Sapientii
Et Prudentiis Regum", Walter de Milemete, 1326.
Büchsenmeysterei : von Geschoß, Büchsen, Pulver, Salpeter und
De la pirotechnia, 1540
Deutliche Anweisung zur Feuerwerkerey, 1748
The earliest Western accounts of gunpowder appear in texts written by
Roger Bacon in the 13th century. Several
sources mention Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons being deployed
by the Mongols against European forces at the
Battle of Mohi
Battle of Mohi in
1241. Professor Kenneth Warren Chase credits the Mongols
for introducing into Europe gunpowder and its associated weaponry.
However, there is no clear route of transmission, 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."
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." 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
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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." 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."
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 or perhaps the
urine of wine-drinking bishops 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
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. 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.
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.
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
By the mid-17th century fireworks were used for entertainment on an
unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular even at resorts and
public gardens. 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." In 1774
Louis XVI ascended to the throne of France
at age 20. After he discovered that
France was not self-sufficient in
Gunpowder Administration was established; to head it, the
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Henry VIII of
England was short of gunpowder when he invaded
England needed to import gunpowder via the port of
what is now Belgium.
English Civil War
English Civil War (1642–1645) led to an expansion of the
gunpowder industry, with the repeal of the Royal Patent in August
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
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
factory at Pontneddfechan, in Wales, closed down, and it was
demolished by fire in 1932.
The last remaining gunpowder mill at the Royal
Waltham Abbey was damaged by a German parachute mine in 1941 and it
never reopened. 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.
This left the sole
United Kingdom gunpowder factory at ICI Nobel's
Ardeer site in Scotland; it too closed in October 1976. 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
List of inventions in the medieval Islamic world
List of inventions in the medieval Islamic world and
Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam
A picture of a 15th-century Granadian cannon from the book Al-izz wal
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 الصين thalj al-ṣīn), fireworks as
"Chinese flowers" and rockets as "Chinese arrows" that knowledge of
gunpowder arrived from China. 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". In
Persia saltpeter was known as "Chinese salt" (Persian: نمک
چینی) namak-i chīnī) or "salt from Chinese salt
marshes" (نمک شوره چینی namak-i shūra-yi chīnī).
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.
Al-Hassan claims that in the
Battle of Ain Jalut
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. 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.
Khan claims that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to
the Islamic world 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.
Similarly, the refusal of their
Qizilbash forces to use firearms
contributed to the
Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.
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
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 as the sun
sets in the horizon.
Gunpowder and gunpowder weapons were transmitted to India through the
Mongol invasions of India. 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. It was written in the Tarikh-i Firishta (1606–1607) that
Nasir ud din Mahmud
Nasir ud din Mahmud the ruler of the
Delhi Sultanate presented the
envoy of the
Hulegu Khan with a dazzling pyrotechnics
display upon his arrival in
Delhi in 1258.
Nasir ud din Mahmud
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). Firearms known as
top-o-tufak also existed in many
Muslim kingdoms in India by as early
as 1366. 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.
The shipwrecked Ottoman
Seydi Ali Reis
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. Guns made of
bronze were recovered from Calicut (1504)- the former capital of the
The Mughal emperor
Akbar mass-produced matchlocks for the Mughal Army.
Akbar is personally known to have shot a leading
during the Siege of Chittorgarh. The Mughals began to use bamboo
rockets (mainly for signalling) and employ sappers: special units that
undermined heavy stone fortifications to plant gunpowder charges.
Shah Jahan is known to have introduced much more
advanced matchlocks, their designs were a combination of Ottoman and
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.
Mālwa participated in saltpeter production. The Dutch, French,
Portuguese, and English used
Chhapra as a center of saltpeter
Ever since the founding of the
Sultanate of Mysore
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
Second Anglo-Mysore War
Hyder Ali and his son
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.
Majapahit Empire was arguably able to encompass much of
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
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. Portuguese and Spanish invaders were unpleasantly
surprised and even outgunned on occasion. The resurgent Singhasari
Sriwijaya and later emerged as the
warfare featured the use of fire-arms and cannonade. Circa 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,
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. Ownership and
manufacture of gunpowder was later prohibited by the colonial Dutch
occupiers. 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.
On the origins of gunpowder technology, historian Tonio Andrade
remarked, "Scholars today overwhelmingly concur that the gun was
invented in China."
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. 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
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.
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
Battle of Mohi
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. 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. 
Early texts potentially mentioning gunpowder are sometimes marked by a
linguistic process where semantic change occurred. 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. 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."
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. 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.
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
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.
For the most powerful black powder, meal powder, a wood charcoal, is
used. The best wood for the purpose is Pacific willow, 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. 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. 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. 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 1⁄2 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
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
DuPont chemists developed a process using potash or mined
potassium chloride to convert plentiful Chilean sodium nitrate to
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. 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
During the 18th century, gunpowder factories became increasingly
dependent on mechanical energy. 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.
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
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
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 serving as a fuel, lowers the
temperature required to ignite the mixture, thereby increasing the
rate 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. 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
Charcoal does not consist of pure carbon; rather, it consists of
partially pyrolyzed cellulose, in which the wood is not completely
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.
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. 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. In 1857,
Lammot du Pont
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
Neither the use of graphite nor sodium nitrate was new. Glossing
gunpowder corns with graphite was already an accepted technique in
1839, and sodium nitrate-based blasting powder had been made in
Peru for many years using the sodium nitrate mined at Tarapacá (now
in Chile). Also, in 1846, two plants were built in south-west
England to make blasting powder using this sodium nitrate. 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
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. 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. 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 or to a common
artillery piece that used it. The ingredients were ground together
with a mortar and pestle, perhaps for 24 hours, 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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
Modern corning first compresses the fine black powder meal into blocks
with a fixed density (1.7 g/cm³). 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
Lammot du Pont
Lammot du Pont for use during the
American Civil War
American Civil War had
grains averaging 0.6 inches (15 mm) in diameter with edges
rounded in a glazing barrel. Other versions had grains the size
of golf and tennis balls for use in 20-inch (51 cm) Rodman
guns. 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. By 1882 German
makers also produced hexagonal grained powders of a similar size for
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). 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. 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.
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 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
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.
Lesmok powder was a product developed by
DuPont in 1911, 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. 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. It was last sold by Winchester in 1947.
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. They typically contain 70.5 parts of saltpeter and
29.5 parts of charcoal. 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
Gunpowder does not burn as a single reaction, so the byproducts are
not easily predicted. One study 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 C → K2S + N2 + 3 CO2.
A balanced, but still simplified, equation is
10 KNO3 + 3 S + 8 C → 2 K2CO3 + 3 K2SO4 + 6 CO2 + 5 N2.
Both previous equation are based on the assumption that charcoal is
pure carbon, while in real life charcoal's chemical formula varies,
but it can be summed up by its empirical formula: C7H4O .[citation
needed] Therefore, a more accurate equation of the decomposition of
regular black powder with sulfur is:
6 KNO3 + C7H4O + 2 S → K2CO3 + K2SO4 + K2S + 4 CO2 +
2 CO + 2 H2O + 3 N2
Likewise, black powder without sulfur gives:
10 KNO3 + 2 C7H4O → 5 K2CO3 + 4 CO2 + 5 CO
+ 4 H2O + 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
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 you don't want 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
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 off a soldier 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.
Black powder arms must therefore be well cleaned after use, both
inside and out, to remove the residue.
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. 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.
Gunpowder has occasionally been employed for other purposes besides
weapons, mining, and construction:
Battle of Aspern-Essling
Battle of Aspern-Essling (1809), the surgeon of the
Napoleonic Army Larrey, lacking salt, seasoned a horse meat bouillon
for the wounded under his care with gunpowder. It was also
used for sterilization in ships when there was no alcohol.
Jack Tars (British sailors) used gunpowder to create tattoos when ink
wasn't available, by pricking the skin and rubbing the powder into the
wound in a method known as traumatic tattooing.
Christiaan Huygens experimented with gunpowder in 1673 in an early
attempt to build an internal combustion engine, but he did not
succeed. Modern attempts to recreate his invention were similarly
Near London in 1853, Captain Shrapnel demonstrated a mineral
processing use of black powder in a method for crushing gold-bearing
ores by firing them from a cannon into an iron chamber, and "much
satisfaction was expressed by all present". He hoped it would be
useful on the goldfields of
California and Australia. Nothing came of
the invention, as continuously-operating crushing machines that
achieved more reliable comminution were already coming into use.
Fireworks use gunpowder as lifting and burst charges, although
sometimes other more powerful compositions are added to the burst
charge to improve performance in small shells or provide a louder
report. Most modern firecrackers no longer contain black powder.
Black powder rocket motor
Black powder substitute
Bulk loaded liquid propellants
Faversham explosives industry
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gunpowder.
Look up gunpowder in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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Gunpowder Chemistry page". Archived from the
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Video Demonstration of the Medieval Siege Society's Guns, Including
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"Dr. Sasse's investigations (and others) found via search at US
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