Black powder on the left, flanked by shotgun, pistol and rifle smokeless powders

The word gunpowder is a generic term used to describe both black powder and smokeless powder. Before the advent of smokeless powder all gunpowder was black powder. In general, gunpowder is a propellant that will propel a metallic projectile from a metallic barrel.

The word for gunpowder in Chinese is huo yao (lit. "fire medicine") and is found in the Chinese works, Wu Chin Tsung Yao which is a collection of books on military techniques. These books date to 1044. According to Professor James Riddick Partington’s book, A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder, published 1960 the huo p’ao (translated to fire-thrower or more commonly "fire lance") was a military weapon. This was a military weapon made from an 3inch (7.62cm) diameter bamboo trunk, approximately 6 foot (183cm) in length rapped in hemp rope. There is no evidence this weapon discharged projectiles, instead being an early flamethrower.

Although modern history gives Friar Roger Bacon of Oxford University, England the credit for composition and content of gunpowder as early as 1249 (his composition and content are; 41.2% saltpeter, 29.4% charcoal and 29.4% sulfur) and a Catholic Monk named Berthold Schwartz of Freiburg, Germany the discovery of gunpowder, there is no actual recorded accounts or documentation as to person or persons who discovered gunpowder.

Again, as written and documented by J.R. Partington, the first uses of gunpowder as a propulsive force within a gun (large arm) are from canons. These peoples were: the Arab Moors in 1331; the Italians in 1341, the English in 1344, the French in 1345, the Germans in 1349, the Spaniards in 1359 and the balance of Europe by 1370. The first written document that contained a specific reference to a canon was in Florence, Italy 1326.

First formulae[edit | edit source]

The earliest formulation of what would become gunpowder was created by Chinese alchemists searching for the elixir, a chemical which would cure all disease. One of the earliest mixtures described was of saltpeter (potassium nitrate), sulfur and honey, which produced a powerful jet of flame. Chemical compounds based on this work were soon being used to power solid-fuel flamethrowers and early rockets. The first evidence of the modern recipe for black powder, using charcoal instead of honey, dates back to the 13th century.

Left; FFFg Black powder and right; Black powder substitute in 50gr Pellet form

Black powder[edit | edit source]

The term Black powder is relatively new name and was coined ca. 1900. Black powder gets its name from the dark, smoky, noxious cloud that bellows out and lofts up in front of a muzzle after the discharge of the firearm. Black powder is considered an explosive because the powder will detonate at almost the same rate under most conditions; whether that is normal atmospheric pressure to 100,000 psi (689 MPa) or a powder charge of 15 gr (1 g) to 15lbs (6.8kg).

Burning Rate and Shape[edit | edit source]

From the beginning black powder was just that, powder. As cannons became increasingly larger (the bore), there became a need to increase the powder charge to get the heavier balls and later artillery shells to their intended target. One of the adverse results of using heaver balls, thus the increased powder charge was blown up cannons.

By ca. 1413 black powder was produced by moistening it and pound it into cakes. Then these cakes were broken up by hand. The result was a very grainy quality powder and no longer a fine powder. This helped greatly with uniform ignition of black powder. It was also observed by an artillery battery General (unknown) that this newer grainy type black powder slowing down the combustion or burning rate of the powder and could safely propel a cannon ball further, without doing damage to either cannon or soldier.

Also, Professor John F. Guilmartin Jr. of Ohio State University writes that Italian scientist Biringuccio’s reported recipes that were: 3/2/1 (kno3/sulfur/charcoal) for large ordinance; 5/1.5/1 for medium arms and 10/1/10 to 13.5/1/1 for small arms. It is also written that both Biringuccio and Tartaglia knew that different sources of charcoal (species of tree) would have dramatic effects on combustibility. It is concluded by Professor J. F. Guilmartin's papers that composition of black powder is either explosive or very explosive given the quantity of ingredient or quality thereof; the ratio of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal as well as the species of tree the charcoal comes from.

In 1859, Capt. Thomas Jackson Rodman of the U.S. Army developed prismatic gunpowder. The powder was no longer a fine powder or grainy powder. This new powder was not powder at all but shape. These shape were hexagon or octagonal. By changing the surface are to volume ratio the burning rate was further slowed down. This in turn allowed for larger canons and projectiles to be used safely.

Until recently black powder was still used by the US Navy in their 16” battle ship guns. The guns were original designed to fire 2240lbs (1020kg) shells propelled by 4, 100lbs (45.4kg) bags black powder separated by 3 foil primer bags.

Currently black powder is available to the public in canister of:

  • FFFFg for small pistols (flintlock) and flash pans
  • FFFg for pistols (both flintlock and percussion)
  • FFg for muskets, percussion rifles and metallic cartridge
  • Fg for metallic cartridge and canons
  • see smokeless powder for black powder substitutes

Smokeless powder shapes from left to right and down:Extruded Cylinder; long cut, short cut and barrel: Flake; round cut: Ball; round and flattened.

Smokeless powder[edit | edit source]

Smokeless powder is made from nitrocellulose (gun cotton). Nitrocellulose is cotton fiber or wood pulp containing 13 % or greater concentration of nitric acid. Smokeless powder gets its name because the there is no noxious cloud left behind after the discharge of a firearm.

In chemistry there is a distinction as to whether a compound is a propellant or explosive. In the case of smokeless powder it is a propellant because the powder needs to be within a controlled environment to detonate. Under normal atmospheric pressure smokeless powder will not detonate. Smokeless powder will only oxidize in a hot and smoky fizzle. Smokeless powder is engineered to detonation under specific chamber pressures and at differing detonation rates. Because of this engineering, smokeless powder it is categorized as a propellant. The main ingredient in smokeless powder is nitrocellulose.

The first stable smokeless powder was developed by Paul Vieille in 1884. P. Vieille discovered the right chemical to stabilizer gun cotton so it could be stored safely in a magazine. However, it was not until P. Vieille used Capt. T. J. Rodman's (USArmy) process for prismatic powder was gun cotton usable in small arms.

Nitrocellulose, when used as the exclusive propulsive ingredient is called, single base powder.

Alfred Nobel first developed double base powder in 1885 called Ballistite. This second smokeless powder was developed by reformulating his explosive called blasting gelatin. Essentially ballistite is blasting gelatin with a lesser quantity of nitroglycerine and the balance of the formula in nitrocellulose. The formula is approximately 35% nitrocellulose and 65% nitroglycerine. Glycerin is an alcohol and will colloid cellulose very well, even when the glycerin is bonded with nitrogen.

There is a new class of smokeless powder that uses nitroglycerine as a glazing through a pressure impregnation process. This new class of smokeless powder can found in “high energy canister powders” or in the new line of “light magnum rifle cartridges”. This powder is presumed to be denser than standard double base powder and therefore has a greater energy capacity to release.

There is a triple base, smokeless powder. It has been developed for commercial and military purposes only and is not available for small arms use or sales. The third ingredient is nitroguanidine. Again the first ingredient being nitrocellulose and second being nitroglycerine.

Smokeless powder for small arms comes in these types and shape:

  • Extruded Cylinder: Long cut; Short cut and Barrel
  • Flake: Cut round and Cut square
  • Ball; Round and Flatten

Black Powder Substitute[edit | edit source]

There are three classes of black powder substitute. The first and oldest is Pyrodex. Pyrodex was created to replace black powder as a propellent in place where black powder was either not available due to the lack of manufacturing or legal issues resulting from its designation as an explosive. Pyrodex is designed with the same burning rate and thermodynamic energy as black powder. It also mimics the granular size of black powder. Pyrodex and those black powder substitute with other names are sold with the same replacement designation as black powder and well as two new designations:

  • FFg
  • FFFg
  • P
  • RS

The next development in black powder substitute and second class is the Pellet. The pellet was developed in response to the modern, inline type, black powder, muzzle loader rifle, community. These pellet's are rated with both burning rate of FFg and FFFg black powder. The pellets are available in powder charge weights of:

  • 30 gr
  • 50 gr
  • 60 gr

The newest black powder substitute and third class is Trail Boss. However, it is a misnomer to say that Trail Boss is a black powder substitute. It is really a smokeless powder substitute developed in response to the Cowboy Action, shooting, community. This powder is manufactured to crate a full case using lead cast or swaged bullet with visible ejecta after firearm discharge. Trail Boss has its own unique size, density, shape and color: rather resembling; fluffy, iridescent white, oblong shaped donuts about three times the size of standard, extruded cylinder type nitrocellulose powder.

Trivia[edit | edit source]

  • Gunpowder can be made with just potassium nitrate and charcoal, but is not as powerful without sulphur.

See also[edit | edit source]

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