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A History of Black Powder

Black powder is the original form of gunpowder that dates back to 9th century China, when alchemists mixed various materials together in effort to develop an elixir of immortality. Early recipes produced a tremendous amount of smoke. The term “black powder” entered the lexicon in the late 19th century to distinguish the traditional gunpowder from newer formulations of smokeless gunpowder most commonly used in gun ammunition today.

Good old-fashioned black powder can be homemade and remains in use for muzzle-loading hunting weapons, blank-fire charges, fuses, ignition charges, and primers.

Black Powder vs. Gunpowder?

Black powder and gunpowder are synonymous—though the term “black powder” is a bit of a misnomer, as some “black” powders can actually be off-white or tan.

Black powder is different than modern smokeless powder in that it:

  • Produces large amounts of thick, white smoke, as well as residue in the gun barrel.
  • Burns much faster in open air than smokeless powder – almost instantly – with a puff and flash of light.
  • Yields less power (0.7 Kcal/gram of thermal energy vs. 1 Kcal/gram for smokeless powder).

Either way, these powders are centuries in the making—a truly fascinating history for ammo enthusiasts!

When Was Black Powder Discovered?

The first known record of gunpowder can be found in a book called Classified Essentials of the Mysterious Tao of the True Origin of Things, circa 850 C.E., where it described how “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.” In other words: don’t try this at home, kids!

Later, in 1044 C.E., the Wujing Zongyao (武经总要, “Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques”) contained three more explosive recipes—considered the first true gunpowder recipes, developed for warfare with encroaching tribes threatening the borders. This concoction could be used to fuel poison smoke bombs on the battlefield or catapult blazing spiked iron balls during a siege.

By the late 1200s, black gunpowder had made its way into Mongolian guns and cannons. News of this amazing invention spread like wildfire. Early European black powder recipes trace back to medieval philosopher and friar Roger Bacon in 1242. Written recipes can be found in Bacon’s Opus Majus and Opus Tertium, as well as Marcus Graecus’ Liber Ignium (Book of Fires). By 1453, the Turks had destroyed the walls of Constantinople using gunpowder-propelled cannonballs.

Europeans advanced the art of metallurgy, developing better cannons and handheld muskets through the 15th to 17th centuries. The Tower of London employed three gunpowder makers prior to the English Civil War (1642-1645). European manufacturers experimented with drying processes to improve combustion and consistency, as well as purifying the saltpeter with wood ashes, precipitate calcium from dung liquor, ox blood, alum, and turnip slices. These experiments eventually gave rise to the invention of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose (smokeless) powders in the late 19th century.

 

How Is Black Powder Created?

One of the earliest Chinese chemical compositions consisted of 75% potassium nitrate, 15% carbon, and 10% sulfur. The French used 75% saltpeter, 12.5% sulfur, and 12.5% charcoal. The English used 75% saltpeter, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. 

Having access to gunpowder gave countries an obvious advantage, though it wasn’t always easy finding the ingredients. While the carbon (charcoal) was milled in China, most saltpeter came from India and Italy, and the sulfur (brimstone) from volcanoes in Sicily.

Once the ingredients were procured, alchemists would sift and grind the sulfur and charcoal to purify it. Horse-driven refineries and rotating drums later replaced manual processes. Horsepower or waterwheels were used to incorporate the mixture. Mill cakes were then broken down into meal powder using sledgehammers and severing machines—they were pressed through smooth breakers, refined, polished, and tumbled into pellets. Finally, grains were exposed to ovens and dried.

Today, varying ratios are used, depending on how black powder is to be used. Firearms require a faster-burning powder, whereas cannons call for slower burn rates. DIYers interested in creating backup munitions might use 75% saltpeter (potassium nitrate), 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur—some of which can be purchased online or in a drug store.

It’s a labor of love making black powder from scratch:

  • First, beech, birch, fir, oak, pine, spruce, and willow boiled down over a fire make a good charcoal.
  • The ingredients can be ground individually using a basic hand mill or pestle and mortar.
  • The charcoal and sulfur are then combined into a ball mill for several hours to create a fine powder.
  • Isopropyl or denatured alcohol should be chilled (2.5 cups for every 100 grams of charcoal/sulfur).
  • Every 100 grams of potassium nitrate is dissolved into ¼ cup of boiling water.
  • The charcoal and sulfur mix is then added to the boiling potassium nitrate, stirred until combined.
  • The hot mixture is added to the chilled alcohol, stirred quickly, and then chilled to 32F.
  • The mixture is filtered through a cheesecloth to remove the liquid.
  • The pellets are spread across a paper to dry in the sun, pressed through a sieve when damp, and dried some more. Running the powder through mesh screens multiple times helps break down the powder.
  • Lastly, the black powder is stored in a cool, dry place in plastic containers.

If this sounds like a lot of work, rest assured it is! Some people enjoy mixing munitions as a pastime. If your primary hobby is shooting and you need reliable reloading powder fast, you can simply purchase it, too.

Where to Buy Black Powder or Smokeless Powder for Reloading

Powder Valley is America’s #1 supplier of reloading powders, including both traditional black powder and modern smokeless powder. We meet or beat all competitors to offer the finest and most affordable gun powders, guaranteed. If you have any questions about these products, please reach out to our team of dedicated professionals for friendly, honest, and respectful customer service.

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