For other meanings, see gunpowder (disambiguation).
Black powder for muzzleloading rifles and pistols in FFFG granulation size. Coin (diameter 24 mm) for comparison.

Gunpowder, also known since in the late 19th century as black powder, was the first chemical explosive and the only one known until the mid 1800s.[1] It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpetre) - with the sulfur and charcoal acting as fuels, while the saltpeter works as an oxidizer.[2] Because of its burning properties and the amount of heat and gas volume that it generates, gunpowder has been widely used as a propellant in firearms and as a pyrotechnic composition in fireworks.

Apparently discovered in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality[3] gunpowder led to the invention of fireworks and the earliest gunpowder weapons in China. In the centuries following, gunpowder weapons began to spread from China, through the Middle East, and then into Europe.[4]

Gunpowder is classified as a low explosive because of its relatively slow decomposition rate and consequently low brisance. Low explosives deflagrate at subsonic speeds, whereas high explosives detonate, producing a supersonic wave. Ignition of the powder packed behind a bullet must generate enough pressure to force it from the muzzle at high speed, but not enough to rupture the gun barrel. Gunpowder is thus less suitable for shattering rock or fortifications. Gunpowder was widely used to fill artillery shells and in mining and civil engineering to blast rock roughly until the 2nd half of the 19th century, when the first high explosives (nitro-explosives) were discovered. Gunpowder is no longer used in modern explosive military warheads, nor is it used as main explosive in mining operations due to its cost relative to that of newer alternatives like ANFO.[5]

In American English, the term gunpowder also refers broadly to any gun propellant.[6] Gunpowder (black powder) as described in this article is not normally used in modern firearms - which instead use smokeless powders.


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, in cases where these are not referred to as cordite. Semi-smokeless powders featured bulk volume properties that approximated black powder, but had significantly reduced amounts of smoke and combustion products. One difference between them is that the older black powder burns at nearly the same rate in the open as when contained, while in smokeless powders the burn rate accelerates more rapidly within a closed chamber, making for a sharper rise in pressure which could rupture older weapons designed for black powder. Smokeless powders ranged in colour from brownish tan to yellow to white. Most of the bulk semi-smokeless powders ceased to be manufactured in the 1920s.[7][8][9]

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.[10] 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.

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.[11] These ratios have varied over the centuries and by country, and can be altered somewhat depending on the purpose of the powder. For instance, power grades of black powder, unsuitable for use in firearms but adequate for blasting rock in quarrying operations, is called blasting powder rather than gunpowder with standard proportions of 70% nitrate, 14% charcoal, and 16% sulfur; blasting powder may be made with the cheaper sodium nitrate substituted for potassium nitrate and proportions may be as low as 40% nitrate, 30% charcoal, and 30% sulfur.[12] French war powder in 1879 used the ratio 75% saltpetre, 12.5% charcoal, 12.5% sulfur. English war powder in 1879 used the ratio 75% saltpetre, 15% charcoal, 10% sulfur.[13] 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 needs a slower "push" effect, whereas powders to be use in black powder weapons such as flintlocks, caplocks or matchlocks needs a faster ignition and burn rate.


Serpentine (apparently a reference to Satan[14]) was a dry-compounded black powder used in fifteenth century Europe and in other regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It was difficult to ignite properly in cannons. Wooden plugs had to be used to prevent the mixture from physically separating during firing. Twentieth century experiments showed that serpentine packed with tight wooden plugs was capable of producing muzzle velocities comparable to that of later (corned) gunpowder. Serpentine also had the tendency to separate in components during transport, thus it had to be remixed before using, raising clouds of explosive dust—a risky proposition in combat conditions. Later gunpowder was mixed in a water or urine medium, dried, then cut. This was called corned powder, and it was more powerful (it had more propulsive energy per unit of mass), but also burned more rapidly, making it unsafe in old guns. By 1500 corned powder became the standard propellant for new guns, but older, potentially unsafe guns were used with serpentine into the seventeenth century.[15]


Corning is a process in which black powder is compressed into cakes, crushed, and then screened into different size categories. This process improves gunpowder's reliability by making its burn rate more consistent and inhibiting the separation of its constitutive components. During the centuries when gunpowder was the universal propellant for all types of firearms, the coarse powder was used for cannons, and the fine grained one for priming and handheld guns.[15] Fine-grained powder tended to be unsafe in cannons, causing them to burst before the projectile could move down the barrel, due to the initial spike in pressure.[16] The underlying reason for this, not discovered until the mid-nineteenth century, is that the burning rate within a grain of black powder is about 0.20 fps, while the rate of ignition propagation from grain to grain is around 30 fps, over two orders of magnitude faster.[15]

The process, if done using modern components, is slightly endothermic, due to the concentration of the KNO3 reacting with the water. If "black powder" is made by such a process in quantities of 1kg or greater care must be taken to avoid brittle containers such as glass as these can crack from the rapid cooling.

Modern types

Modern corning first compresses the fine black powder meal into blocks with a fixed density (1.7 g/cm³).[citation needed] 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 for 7F (FFFFFFFg) to 15 mm for 7C (CCCCCCCg). Even larger grains were produced for artillery bore diameters greater than about 17 cm (7 inches).[17] By the late 20th century manufacturing focused on standard grades of black powder from Fg used in large bore rifles and shotguns, through FFg (medium and smallbore arms such as muskets and fusils), FFFg (smallbore rifles and pistols), and FFFFg (extreme small bore, short pistols and most commonly for priming flintlocks).[18] 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.[17] Gunpowder grains may alternatively be categorised by mesh size: the BSS sieve mesh size, being the smallest mesh size on which no grains were retained. Recognised grain sizes are Gunpowder G 7, G 20, G 40, and G 90.

Owing to the large market of antique and replica black powder firearms in the US, modern gunpowder substitutes like Pyrodex 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.[18]

Combustion characteristics

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[19]

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

Carbon differs from charcoal. Whereas charcoal's autoignition temperature is relatively low, carbon's is much greater. Thus, a black powder composition containing pure carbon would essentially burn in comparison to a match head, at best.[20]

Although charcoal's chemical formula varies, it can be best summed up by its empirical formula: C7H4O

An even more accurate equation of the decomposition of regular black powder with the use of sulfur can be described as:

4 KNO3 + C7H4O + 2 S —> 2 K2S + 4 CO2 + 3 CO + 2 H2O + 2 N2

Black powder without the use of sulfur:

6 KNO3 + C7H4O —> 3 K2CO3 + CO2 + 6 CO + 2 H2O + 2 N2

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

Black powder made with sodium nitrate tends to be hygroscopic, unlike black powders made from saltpeter. (In this article, "saltpeter"--also spelled "saltpetre"--means potassium nitrate and not any of the other nitrates that are also sometimes called "saltpeter.") Because black powder made with saltpeter is less affected by moisture in the air, it can be stored unsealed for centuries without degradation if it is kept dry. 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 sealed from the moisture in the air to remain stable for long periods.


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

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


Black powder has 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. In military applications black powder also produces thick smoke as a byproduct, which may give a soldier's location away to an enemy observer. The smoke may also impair aiming for additional shots.

Combustion converts less than half the mass of black powder to gas. The rest ends up as a thick layer of soot inside the barrel. In addition to being a nuisance, the residue from burnt black powder is hygroscopic and with the addition of moisture absorbed from the air, this residue forms a caustic substance. The soot contains potassium oxide or sodium oxide that turns into potassium hydroxide, or sodium hydroxide, which will corrode wrought iron or steel gun barrels. Black powder arms must be well cleaned both inside and out to remove the residue. The Matchlock musket 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. Because of this unreliability, soldiers carrying muskets, known as musketeers, were armed with additional weapons such as swords or pikes. The bayonet was developed to allow the musket to be used as a pike, thus eliminating the need for the soldier to carry a secondary weapon.


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

Energy content

Gunpowder contains 3 megajoules per kilogram, and contains its own oxidant. For comparison, the energy density of TNT is 4.7 megajoules per kilogram, and the energy density of gasoline is 47.2 megajoules per kilogram.[21]

Sulfur-free gunpowder

The development of smokeless powders, such as Cordite, in the late 19th century created the need for a spark-sensitive priming charge, such as gunpowder. However, the sulfur content of traditional gunpowders caused corrosion problems with Cordite Mk I and this led to the introduction of a range of sulfur-free gunpowders, of varying grain sizes.[22] They typically contain 70.5 parts of saltpetre and 29.5 parts of charcoal.[22] Like black powder, they were produced in different grain sizes. In United Kingdom, the finest grain was known as sulfur-free mealed powder (SMP). Coarser grains were numbered as sulfur-free gunpowder (SFG n): 'SFG 12', 'SFG 20', 'SFG 40' and 'SFG 90', for example; where the number represents the smallest BSS sieve mesh size on which no grains were retained.

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

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


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

Gunpowder was invented, documented, and used in China where the Chinese military forces used gunpowder-based weapons technology (i.e. rockets, guns, cannon), and explosives (i.e. grenades and different types of bombs) against the Mongols when the Mongols attempted to invade and breach the Chinese city fortifications on the northern borders of China. After the Mongols conquered China and founded the Yuan Dynasty, they used the Chinese gunpowder-based weapons technology in their invasion of Japan. Chinese also used gunpowder to fuel rockets.

The mainstream scholarly consensus is that gunpowder was invented in China, spread through the Middle East, and then into Europe,[4] although there is a dispute over how much the Chinese advancements in gunpowder warfare influenced later advancements in the Middle East and Europe.[3][23]

A major problem confronting the study of the early history of gunpowder is ready access to sources close to the events described. Often enough, 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.[24] It is also difficult to accurately translate original alchemy texts, especially medieval Chinese texts which employ metaphor to describe unexplained phenomena, into contemporary scientific language with its rigidly defined terminology. The difficulty in translation has given rise to errors or loose interpretations bordering on artistic licence.[25][26] Early writings potentially mentioning gunpowder are sometimes marked by a linguistic process where old words acquired new meanings.[27] For instance, the Arabic word naft transitioned from denoting naphta to denoting gunpowder, and the Chinese word pao evolved from meaning catapult to referring to cannon.[28] According to science and technology historian Bert S. Hall: "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."[29]


Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) matchlock firearms

Saltpeter was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD and there is strong evidence of the use of saltpeter and sulfur in various largely medicinal combinations.[30] A Chinese alchemical text dated 492 noted saltpetre burnt with a purple flame, providing a practical and reliable means of distinguishing it from other inorganic salts, thus enabling alchemists to evaluate and compare purification techniques; the earliest Arabic and Latin accounts of saltpeter purification are dated after 1200.[31]

The first mention of a mixture resembling gunpowder appeared in Taishang Guaizu Danjing Mijue by Qing Xuzi (c. 808); it describes mixing six parts sulfur to six parts saltpeter to one part birthwort herb (which would provide carbon).[32] 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 AD:[31] "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."[33] The Chinese word for "gunpowder" is Chinese: 火药/火藥; pinyin: huŏ yào /xuou yɑʊ/, which literally means "Fire Medicine";[34] however this name was only came into use some centuries after the mixture's discovery.[35] By the 9th century Taoist monks or alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality had serendipitously stumbled upon gunpowder.[36][37] The Chinese wasted little time in applying gunpowder to the development of weapons, and in the centuries that followed, they produced a variety of gunpowder weapons, including flamethrowers, rockets, bombs, and land mines, before inventing guns as a projectile weapon.[38]

The Chinese "Wu Ching Tsung Yao" (Complete Essentials from the Military Classics), written by Tseng Kung-Liang between 1040–1044, provides encyclopedia references to a variety of mixtures which included petrochemicals, as well as garlic and honey. A slow match for flame throwing mechanisms using the siphon principle and for fireworks and rockets are mentioned. The mixture formulas in this book do not contain enough salpeter to create an explosive however; being limited to at most 50% salpeter, they produce an incendiary.[39] The Essentials was however written by a Song Dynasty court bureaucrat, and there's 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 eleventh century, and China was otherwise mostly at peace during this century. The first chronicled use of "fire spears" (or "fire lances") is at the siege of De'an in 1132.[40]

Middle East

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

The Arabs acquired knowledge of gunpowder some time between 1240 and 1280, by which time Hasan al-Rammah had written, in Arabic, recipes for gunpowder, instructions for the purification of saltpeter, and descriptions of gunpowder incendiaries. Gunpowder arrived in the Middle East, possibly through India, from China. This 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", fireworks as "Chinese flowers" and rockets as "Chinese arrows".[41] 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".[42]

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

Al-Hassan claims that in the Battle of Ain Jalut of 1260, the Mamluks used against the Mongols in "the first cannon in history" gunpowder formula with near-identical ideal composition ratios for explosive gunpowder.[42] 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 naptha.[24][28] Khan claims that it was invading Mongols who introduced gunpowder to the Islamic world[43] 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.[44] Similarly, the refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.[44]

The earliest surviving documentary evidence for the use of the hand cannon, considered the oldest type of portable firearm and a forerunner of the handgun, are from several Arabic manuscripts dated to the 14th century.[45] Al-Hassan argues that these are based on earlier originals and that they report hand-held cannons being used by the Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260.[42]

Hasan al-Rammah included 107 gunpowder recipes in his text al-Furusiyyah wa al-Manasib al-Harbiyya (The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices), 22 of which are for rockets. If one takes the median of 17 of these 22 compositions for rockets (75% nitrates, 9.06% sulfur, and 15.94% carbon), it is near identical with the modern reported ideal gunpowder recipe of 75% potassium nitrate, 10% sulfur, and 15% carbon.[42]

Mainland Europe

Several sources mention Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons being deployed by the Mongols against European forces at the Battle of Mohi in 1241.[46][47][48] Professor Kenneth Warren Chase credits the Mongols for introducing into Europe gunpowder and its associated weaponry.[49]

C. F. Temler interprets Peter, Bishop of Leon, as reporting the use of cannon in Seville in 1248.[50]

In Europe, one of first mentions of gunpowder use appears in a passage found in Roger Bacon's Opus Maius 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 saltpetre [together with sulphur 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."[51] In 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.[51] 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 slowing and producing mostly smoke because.[52][53]

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

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.[54] One recipe for "flying fire" (ingis volatilis) involves saltpetre, sulfur, and colophonium, which, when inserted into a reed or hollow wood, "flies away suddenly and burns up everything." Another recipe, for artificial "thunder", specifies a mixture of one pound native sulfur, two pounds linden or willow charcoal, and six pounds of saltpeter.[55] Another specifies a 1:3:9 ratio.[55]

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."[56] 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."[56] Albertus Magnus died in 1280.

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

The major and uniquely European advancement of gunpowder was corning: the addition of moisture to the gunpowder to form regular greater grains which much increased the reliability and consistency of gunpowder. This occurred around the late 15th century CE, as European powdermakers began adding moisture to gunpowder to reduce dust and with it the risk of dust explosion. The powdermakers would then shape the resulting mush of dampened gunpowder, known as mill cake, into corns, or grains, to dry.

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

Europeans innovated by experimentation and discovering different kernel sizes combusted at differing rates, and thus were more suitable for one gun or for another. Molerus notes that without corning, gunpowder, like all dry mixtures, has a tendency to gradually separate back to its components and thus was too unreliable for effective use in guns as mixtures would not be of uniform composition, noting the use of corning technique is commonplace in the modern pharmaceutical industry to ensure uniform proportions of active ingredients for each tablet.[57]

Shot and gunpowder for military purposes were made by skilled military tradesmen, later called firemakers, and were also required to craft fireworks for celebrations of victory or peace. During the Renaissance, two European schools of pyrotechnic thought emerged, one in Italy and the other at Nuremberg, Germany. The Italian school of pyrotechnics emphasized elaborate fireworks, and the German school stressed scientific advancement. Both schools added significantly to further development of pyrotechnics, and by the mid-17th century fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular even at resorts and public gardens.[58]

By 1788, as a result of the reforms for which Lavoisier was mainly responsible, France had become self-sufficient in saltpeter, and its gunpowder had become not only widely considered the best in Europe but more importantly, inexpensive.[59]

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

British Isles

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

Gunpowder production in Britain appears to have started in the mid 14th century AD with the aim of supplying The English Crown.[60] Records show that gunpowder was being made, in England, in 1346, at the Tower of London; a powder house existed at the Tower in 1461; and in 1515 three King's gunpowder makers worked there.[60] 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.[61]

Henry VIII of England was short of gunpowder when he invaded France in 1544 AD and England needed to import gunpowder via the port of Antwerp.[60]

The English Civil War, 1642–1645, led to an expansion of the gunpowder industry, with the repeal of the Royal Patent in August 1641.[60]

Two British physicists, Andrew Noble and Frederick Abel, worked to improve the properties of blackpowder during the late 19th century. This formed the basis for the Noble-Abel gas equation for internal ballistics.[62]

The introduction of smokeless powder in the late 19th century led to a contraction of the gunpowder industry. After the end of World War I, the majority of the United Kingdom gunpowder manufacturers merged into a single company, "Explosives Trades limited"; and number of sites were closed down, including those in Ireland. This company became Nobel Industries Limited; and in 1926 became a founding member of Imperial Chemical Industries. The Home Office removed gunpowder from its list of Permitted Explosives; and shortly afterwards, on 31 December 1931, the former Curtis & Harvey's Glynneath gunpowder factory at Pontneddfechan, in Wales, closed down, and it was demolished by fire in 1932.[63]

Gunpowder storing barrels at Martello tower in Point Pleasant Park

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.[22] 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.[22][64]

This left the sole United Kingdom gunpowder factory at ICI Nobel's Ardeer site in Scotland; it too closed in October 1976.[22] Since then gunpowder has been imported into the United Kingdom. In the late 1970s / early 1980s gunpowder was bought from eastern Europe, particularly from what was then the East Germany and former Yugoslavia.


In the year 1780 the British began to annex the terrirtories of the Sultanate of Mysore, during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The British battalion was 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 sunsets in the horizon.

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 AD. Nasir ud din Mahmud tried to express his streingth as a ruler and tried to ward off any Mongol attempt similar to the Siege of Baghdad (1258).[65] Firearms known as top-o-tufak also existed in many Muslim kingdoms in India by as early as 1366 AD.[65] 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.[66]

The shipwrecked Ottoman Admiral Seydi Ali Reis is known to have introduced the earliest type of Matchlock which were utilized against the Portugese during the Siege of Diu (1531). And ever since a diverse variety of firearms; large guns in particular, became visible in Tanjore, Dacca, Bijapur and Murshidabad.[67] Guns made of bronze were recovered from Calicut (1504)- the former capital of the Zamorins[68]

But it was the Mughal Emperor Akbar who mass produced Matchlocks in the Mughal Army. Akbar is personally known to have shot a leading Rajput commaneder during the Siege of Chittorgarh.[69] The Mughals then began to utilize Bamboo rocket (mainly used for signalling) and Sappers were special units that laid gunpowder under heavy stone fortifications.

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.[70] Bengal and Mālwa participated in saltpeter production.[70] The Dutch, French, Portuguese, and English used Chāpra[disambiguation needed ] as a center of saltpeter refining.[71]

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.[72]


The Javanese Majapahit Empire was arguably able to encompass much of the modern day ASEAN 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 or Indian traders introduced gunpowder, gonnes, muskets, blunderbusses, and cannon to the Javanese, Acehnese, and Batak via long established commercial trade routes around the early to mid 14th century CE.[73] Portuguese and Spanish invaders were unpleasantly surprised and occasionaly even outgunned on occasion.[74] The resurgent Singhasari Empire overtook Sriwijaya and later emerged as the Majapahit whose warfare featured the use of fire-arms and cannonade.[75] Circa 1540 CE 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.

A Chinese pirate or commercial shipwreck site[where?] yeilded a paired swivel gun, for rapid firing: one barrel would fire whiles its opposite was being reloaded, though this remains a rare find. Other archeological finds have unearthed triple-barrel and double-barrel swivel-guns, though they were not widely duplicated.[citation needed]

Saltpetre 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 unpermitted gunpowder appears to have been amputation.[76][unreliable source?] Ownership and manufacture of gunpowder was later prohibited by the colonial Dutch occupiers.[73] According to a colonel McKenzie quoted in Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, The History of Java (1817), the purest sulphur was supplied from a crater from a mountain near the straits of Bali.[75]

Manufacturing technology

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

For the most powerful black powder meal, a wood charcoal is used. The best wood for the purpose is Pacific willow,[77] but others such as alder or buckthorn can be used. In Great Bitain between the 15th to 19th centuries charcoal from alder buckthorn was greatly prized for gunpowder manufacture. The ingredients are mixed as thoroughly as possible. This is achieved using a ball mill with non-sparking grinding apparatus (e.g., bronze or lead), or similar device. Historically, a marble or limestone edge runner mill, running on a limestone bed was used in Great Britain; however, by the mid 19th century CE this had changed to either an iron shod stone wheel or a cast iron wheel running on an iron bed.[11] The mix is sometimes dampened with alcohol or water during grinding to prevent accidental ignition.

Around the late 14th century CE, European powdermakers began adding damp to the constituents of gunpowder to reduce dust and with it the risk of explosion.[78] The powdermakers would then shape the resulting paste of dampened gunpowder, known as mill cake, into corns, or grains, to dry. Not only did corned powder keep better because of its reduced surface area, gunners also found that it was more powerful and easier to load into guns. Before long, powdermakers standardized the process by forcing mill cake through sieves instead of corning powder by hand.

During the 18th century gunpowder factories became increasingly dependent on mechanical energy.[79] 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 factor of three depending on the atmospheric humidity.[80]

Other uses

Besides its use as an explosive, gunpowder has been occasionally employed for other purposes; after the Battle of Aspern-Essling (1809), the surgeon of the Napoleonic Army Larrey combated the lack of food for the wounded under his care by preparing a bouillon of horse meat seasoned with gunpowder for lack of salt.[81][82] It was also used for sterilizing on ships when there was no alcohol.

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

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

For a while in the first half of the 20th century gunpowder was used in rivet guns, stun guns for animals, splicing cable and other high powered industrial construction tools, until portable air and hydraulic units replaced it as a safer alternative.[83]

Black powder is still used in delay-trains in modern arms. For instance, in a hand grenade,[which?] a mechanical striker ignites a percussion primer which ignites a slow black powder delay.[citation needed] The delay burns a few seconds until it gets to the high explosive primary, which detonates, initiating the grenade fill explosive, thus fragmenting the grenade.

See also


  1. ^ See Nitroglycerine#History
  2. ^ Jai Prakash Agrawal (2010). High Energy Materials: Propellants, Explosives and Pyrotechnics. Wiley-VCH. p. 69. ISBN 978-3-527-32610-5. 
  3. ^ a b Jack Kelly Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, Perseus Books Group: 2005, ISBN :0465037224, 9780465037223: pp. 2-5
  4. ^ a b Buchanan (2006), p. 2
  5. ^ Hazel Rossotti (2002). Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 132–137. ISBN 978-0-486-42261-9. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ The History of the 10.4×38 Swiss Cartridge
  8. ^ Blackpowder to Pyrodex and Beyond by Randy Wakeman at Chuck Hawks
  9. ^ The History and Art of Shotshells by Jon Farrar, Nebraskaland Magazine
  10. ^ Buchanan. "Editor's Introduction: Setting the Context", in Buchanan 2006, p. 4.
  11. ^ a b Earl 1978, Chapter 2: The Development of Gunpowder
  12. ^ Julian S. Hatcher, Hatcher's Notebook, Military Service Publishing Company, 1947. Chapter XIII Notes on Gunpowder, pages 300-305.
  13. ^ Book title Workshop Receipts Publisher William Clowes and Son limited Author Ernest Spon. Date August 1, 1873.
  14. ^ Cathal J. Nolan (2006), The age of wars of religion, 1000-1650: an encyclopedia of global warfare and civilization, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 365, ISBN 978-0-313-33733-8 
  15. ^ a b c John Francis Guilmartin (2003), Gunpowder & galleys: changing technology & Mediterranean warfare at sea in the 16th century, Conway Maritime Press, pp. 109–110 and 298–300, ISBN 1-85177-954-1 
  16. ^ T.J. Rodman (1861), Reports of experiments on the properties of metals for cannon and the qualities of cannon powder, p . 270
  17. ^ a b Brown, G.I. (1998) The Big Bang: A history of Explosives Sutton Publishing p.22 ISBN 0-7509-1878-0
  18. ^ a b Rodney James (2011), The ABCs of Reloading: The Definitive Guide for Novice to Expert (9 ed.), Krause Publications, pp. 53–59, ISBN 978-1-4402-1396-0 
  19. ^ Flash! Bang! Whiz!, University of Denver
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  28. ^ a b Peter Purton (2009). A History of the Late Medieval Siege, 1200-1500. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 108–109. ISBN 978-1-84383-449-6. 
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  30. ^ Buchanan. "Editor's Introduction: Setting the Context", in Buchanan 2006.
  31. ^ a b Chase 2003:31–32
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  33. ^ Kelly 2004:4
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  36. ^ Needham 1986, p. 7 "Without doubt it was in the previous century, around +850, that the early alchemical experiments on the constituents of gunpowder, with its self-contained oxygen, reached their climax in the appearance of the mixture itself."
  37. ^ Buchanan 2006, p. 2 "With its ninth century AD origins in China, the knowledge of gunpowder emerged from the search by alchemists for the secrets of life, to filter through the channels of Middle Eastern culture, and take root in Europe with consequences that form the context of the studies in this volume."
  38. ^ Chase 2003:1 "The earliest known formula for gunpowder can be found in a Chinese work dating probably from the 800s. The Chinese wasted little time in applying it to warfare, and they produced a variety of gunpowder weapons, including flamethrowers, rockets, bombs, and land mines, before inventing firearms."
  39. ^ Chase 2003:31
  40. ^ Peter Allan Lorge (2008), The Asian military revolution: from gunpowder to the bomb, Cambridge University Press, pp. 33–34, ISBN 978-0-521-60954-8 
  41. ^ Kelly 2004:22 'Around year 1240, Arabs acquired knowledge of saltpeter ("Chinese snow") from the East, perhaps through India. They knew of gunpowder soon afterward. They also learned about fireworks ("Chinese flowers") and rockets ("Chinese arrows"). Arab warriors had acquired fire lances before year 1280. Around that same year, a Syrian named Hasan al-Rammah wrote a book that, as he put it, "treats of machines of fire to be used for amusement or for useful purposes." He talked of rockets, fireworks, fire lances, and other incendiaries, using terms that suggested he derived his knowledge from Chinese sources. He gave instructions for the purification of saltpeter and recipes for making different types of gunpowder.'
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  45. ^ Ancient Discoveries, Episode 12: Machines of the East, History Channel, 2007  (Part 4 and Part 5)
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  53. ^ Bert S. Hall, "Introduction, 1999" p. xxiv to the reprinting of James Riddick Partington (1960). A history of Greek fire and gunpowder. JHU Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-5954-0. "It seems strange that Partington, a skeptic and a man of considerable intellectual rigor, would have bought Hime's load of rubbish, but he did. After reviewing the evidence he concludes, against the opinions of Bacon scholars and editors, that the whole of the Letter is genuine, and also that Hime's reconstruction is "reasonable and sensitive". Anagrams should always stir the suspicion of historians, since they can be made to say almost anything the investigator wants them to say, and there can be no doubt that Hime very much wanted his fellow countryman Bacon to have detailed knowledge of gunpowder. Also the MS containing the suspect passages are all far too late to stand as credible early witnesses. It is questionable whether Partington, whose central expertise lay elsewhere, should really have challenged the judgements of trained philologists and paleographers on such points, but he did. Moreover, even if one puts aside such objections, the Hime formula yields a gunpowder far too weak in nitrates (about 41 percent) to explode at all. Both Hime the artillery expert and Partington the chemist were fully capable of recognizing this elementary difficulty, and yet both seem to have passed over it in silence" 
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  82. ^ Larrey is quoted in French at Dr Béraud, Études Hygiéniques de la chair de cheval comme aliment, Musée des Familles (1841-42).
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