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Black Powder
Origins
Uses
Importance
Composition
Serpentine Powder
Corned Powder
Prismatic Powder
Perforated Powder
Properties
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Antoine Lavoisier
E. I. du Pont
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Site Index > Ordnance > Military Explosives > Black Powder

Black Powder

Origins

It is unclear where the first use of black powder, also known as gunpowder, occurred. Black powder was known as gunpowder until its replacement by smokeless powder. After that, smokeless powder began to be called gunpowder and black powder began to be known as black powder.

For many years, experts believed that the Chinese were the first to develop black powder. It was also thought that they used black powder as a propellant by the 10th century. Recent research revealed inconclusively that black powder might actually have been developed earlier in Arabia.

Other experts believe that Roger Bacon, the English Alchemist and Friar, invented black powder. It is known that he wrote instructions for its preparation in the mid-1200s. It is also known that Bacon could read Arabic, so it is possible that he obtained the formula from Arabs. Nevertheless, verifiable records indicate that black powder was used in Europe by 1247, during the siege of Seville of the Moorish Wars in Spain. Apparently, little consideration has been given to the possibility that black powder may have been invented independently in different places at different times.

A less plausible theory credits another monk and alchemist, the German Berthold Schwarz, with discovering gunpowder around 1313 AD. Records of this are somewhat sketchy as well as those that sometimes credit him with being the first European to cast bronze cannon.

Uses

There is no evidence that black powder had any peaceful applications for a long time after its military possibilities were discovered. During the 17th century, black powder found new uses in mining. Using black powder in mining operations was tricky and required the perfection of other mining techniques. Hence, the use of explosives in mining was not common practice until about 1700.

Importance

Black powder is probably the most important material discovery ever made, both technologically and intellectually. Even ignoring the obvious impact that black powder had on political and social aspects of life, it is difficult to think of any other single discovery that shaped human events to the extent that gunpowder has. There are several major areas of advancement that were affected by black powder to a considerable degree.

For one thing, powder was a significant first step in harnessing energy to serve human needs rather than relying on muscle power. Before powder was discovered, most weapons were limited by the muscular strength of the user. After black powder came into use, weapons could be designed more for tactical purposes.

Black powder was really the definitive discovery that separates the modern era from the medieval era, technologically as well as intellectually. The use explosives gave birth to modern science and a huge push to mechanization. It was because of black powder that combustion and other basic scientific principles came to be understood. The technology of machine building was advanced greatly through cannon making.

Black powder became a very important material for military applications after the first known cannon came into use in the 1300s. The use of cannon spread rapidly and black powder was needed to power them. However, black powder has to be made carefully or its properties are unpredictable. In fact, it took some time before techniques to successfully manufacture reliable powder were developed. It is interesting to consider that the use of black powder for military purposes is a form of chemical warfare.

Black powder became increasingly important for the survival of societies and it was very expensive. Since armories soon began to produce more and larger cannon, more and more powder was needed to power them. In fact, some of the early large guns required more than seventy pounds, or thirty-two kilograms, of black powder per round.

It has been noted that by the time that black powder was replaced by nitrocellulose powder in the nineteenth century, steam power was a mature technology. The industrial revolution was powered by steam and steam power relied on cylinders that could be made to certain precise sizes. The manufacturing of such pieces, especially machining the bore, involved techniques that had been developed by cannon makers. In fact, most metalworking and machine building knowledge was the result of cannon making technology. It should be noted that many of the names associated with basic machine building and tool and die making technologies, such as Whitworth, are the names of ordnance manufacturers.

Composition

Black powder is made of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulfur. These ingredients are mechanically combined in an approximate ratio around 75:14:11 to 75:15:10 respectively. The recipe is a bit forgiving as to the exact quantities of each ingredient. In fact, the optimum ratio was not determined until the late 18th century. It is interesting to note that black powder is a mixture of ingredients and not actually a true chemical compound.

Serpentine Powder

The first type of black powder, called serpentine powder, was made while it was dry and it tended to explode during preparation. Perhaps the earliest process for making serpentine powder was to dump the constituent materials into a grinding apparatus, such as a mortar and pestle, and then grind it by hand. After a great amount of grinding, the materials form black powder.

BOOMThe ingredients frequently exploded during creation with these processes and many powder makers met their demise while plying their trade. Even after preparation, serpentine powder was unstable, unreliable and gained moisture, or hydrated, easily. It was particularly affected by decomposition during transit and frequently had to be recombined before it could be used in battle. It was very tricky to load a gun with serpentine powder because if it was packed too tightly it caused the gun to explode.

The size of the particles obtained depended on many variables and the particle size affected the burning characteristics significantly. Because the combustion of black powder occurs on its surfaces, fine-grained powder burns much faster than powder made from large particles. Fine powder is more powerful, but it built too much pressure too fast for the guns of the day. The solution to slowing the rate of burn so that the cannon would not explode as frequently was to make powder with larger particles of consistent size. This breakthrough created more-or-less standard powder of predictable characteristics and this greatly simplified gun design and improved safety.

Corned Powder

Powder makers found that it was best to make powder in a water mix and then dehydrate it because the results were more consistent and the process was much safer. This process of “corning” powder was developed early in the 15th century. The addition of water while processing the materials avoided the problem of building up excessive heat from the friction of grinding the materials. This also facilitated the application of powered mixing equipment to the process so that larger batches of powder could be made.

Ball MillFor large batches of powder, a mechanical device needed to be used because mixing the materials is extremely laborious. Mechanized processing became common in the 15th century. Waterpower was used to drive early mechanized powder processing equipment. Today, electrically driven ball mills are used. Powder makers found it to be somewhat safer to pulverize the charcoal and sulfur together and then crush the potassium nitrate in a separate operation. These two materials were then mixed in an additional grinding operation. Eventually, the materials form black powder.

After the grinding operations, the material was pressed and dried into sheets or cakes. After it had dried, it was sent through a stamp mill similar to the one in the link, except that these consisted of a series of mechanically tripped wooden hammers that beat the material into grains. Wooden apparatus was used to avoid sparks that caused explosions. The grains were then tumbled to remove sharp edges and then screened to obtain a consistent particle size. In later years, graphite was added to the final tumbling process to seal the grains from absorbing moisture so easily. Grains that were not of a suitable size could be recycled back into the wet slurry to make more powder.

This process formed various sized particles and the larger ones were called corns because they were about the same size as a grain of corn. Powder made from the large grains was called corned powder. Powder makers and artillerymen found the larger particles made a better powder and corned powder was highly sought after. Its physical and chemical properties were far more consistent because it was mixed more thoroughly and this avoided some of the problems of decomposition that afflicted serpentine powder.

Prismatic and Perforated-Cake Gunpowder

Because the properties of black powder varied according to the particle size, artillerymen began to develop powders that yielded desired burning characteristics in the 1850s. As elongated projectiles with rifled guns began to replace spherical ammunition and smooth bore guns, the properties of the propellants needed to change. It was desirable to have powders that burned more slowly. By changing the shape of the grains, Thomas J. Rodman of the U.S. Army found that he could produce powder that provided a progressively greater burning surface as the combustion progressed. This resulted in a maximum energy release after the projectile had already begun to travel down the bore of the gun. The result was less shock at initial firing and increased muzzle velocity of the projectile. Rodman later commanded the US Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts during the US Civil War attaining the rank of brigadier general in 1865.

Properties

Black powder attracts moisture easily and keeping powder dry in storage was a big problem. Moisture-proof packaging was nearly non-existent in the early part of the black powder era. Today, powder makers simply package it in waterproof metal or plastic containers for distribution in retail stores like Wal-Mart or gun shops, thus keeping it in ready-to-use condition for the consumer. Other types of propellants such as Pyrodex, ClearShot, Clean Shot and smokeless powder are packaged the same way and can also be obtained in similar places.

Firing a black powder gunBlack powder is a low-order explosive. It is not likely that physical shock will initiate combustion, but heat or sparks will. When ignited it obviously burns very rapidly and that is why it is classed an explosive. It produces about 40% gaseous materials and 60% solids that mostly appear as clouds of dense white smoke. Therefore, black powder is a very dirty explosive compared to newer powders and it fouls the insides of the guns it is used in. The smoke from black powder could be so dense as to visually obscure battlefields.

There are several black powder substitutes manufactured today that are made with more modern chemical techniques thus rendering materials with more consistent and stable properties that generally burn much cleaner. Pyrodex is the trade name of a product by Hodgdon Powder Company for the first of these and others such as ClearShot by Goex and Clean Shot by CleanShot Technologies have followed. These modern replacements for black powder do not foul guns as badly, but they must be used carefully within the manufacturer’s recommendations to avoid unfortunate results. Not all black powder weapons are suitable for use with these substitutes.

Rise of Modern Chemistry

Gunpowder became an important commodity during the period when alchemy was the prevailing theory of material composition. Alchemy, while more advanced than many ancient chemical theories, was not equipped with the knowledge to reliably produce a particular substance with consistent results. It was not until the 1880s that some of the most significant erroneous theories of alchemy and early physics were displaced. In addition, nobody at this time really understood how combustion worked or how chemical compounds formed. The problem of creating black powder began to bring some scientific understanding into the workings of chemistry.

Around the last quarter of the 18th century, several major breakthroughs in chemistry occurred. First, an Englishman, Henry Cavendish discovered hydrogen, an important constituent of most combustible materials. Shortly, Joseph Priestley discovered that a certain constituent of the air, now known to be oxygen, was essential for the combustion process. At about the same time, a Swede named Karl Scheele independently discovered the same thing.

Antoine Lavoisier

The famous French chemist Antoine Lavoisier researched combustion at this time while he was fulfilling his duties to the French government as the director of the French Arsenal. Lavoisier studied combustion in hopes of improving the black powder of the day. He succeeded in improving black powder and was eventually able to supply improved black powder to the American Colonists during the revolutionary war.

Lavoisier's research into combustion soon began to incorporate the theories of Priestly, Scheele and Cavendish. He combined these theories with those of Robert Boyle who had postulated properties of gases a few centuries earlier - and suddenly - modern chemistry was born. As a side note, by 1788 Lavoisier had an assistant powder making apprentice named Eleuthere Irenee du Pont.

This was not a good time to work for the King of France, however, and the French Revolution caught up with Lavoisier a short time later. Soon, the revolutionaries gave him an intimate introduction to their favorite new technological marvel, the Guillotine.

Eleuthere Irenee du Pont

Eleuthere Irenee du Pont, Lavoisier‘s now master-less apprentice, escaped with his family to America. He founded E. I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Company to manufacture black powder in 1802. The formation of the DuPont powder mill is historically significant because it represents the beginning of modern chemistry as well as the beginning of modern chemical manufacturing. It also resulted in the creation of whole new disciplines such as Chemical Engineering. There were companies that produced chemicals before this, but the scale of the operation and its methodology is what is significant.

E. I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Company

The Original DuPont Powder MillProviding gunpowder to the United States government proved to be the basis of a very successful business plan and DuPont grew steadily and rapidly. By 1904, the company began to branch out into products that were not gunpowder. By this time, most powder was actually smokeless powder, or nitrocellulose. DuPont began to utilize excesses of nitrocellulose and munitions manufacturing capacity by producing plastics. This helps to explain why the world’s first commercially available plastics were actually explosive. The first of these was cellulose nitrate, given the trade name Celluloid.

During World War I, DuPont supplied 1.5 billion pounds of military explosives to the Allies and US Forces. DuPont was the preeminent supplier of powder to the U S Government and as such, had become the world's largest chemical company by the end of the First World War.

During World War II, DuPont produced 4.5 billion pounds of military explosives. DuPont also designed and operated the Hanford plutonium plant, a part of the Manhattan Project, and made a multitude of synthetic materials such as Nylon, Neoprene and chemical weapons. Transparent acrylic parts for aircraft windshields, nose cones, and gunner turrets for bombers and fighter planes were also made by DuPont during World War II and this material was manufactured under the trade name Lucite. DuPont Lucite was discovered in 1931 and was one of the earliest plastics not based on nitrocellulose.

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