History of Gunpowder

A mixture known as black powder revolutionized the art of warfare whenever it was applied to the propulsion of missiles. Black powder is a mixture of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), charcoal, and sulfur in varying proportions, granulation, and purity. A typical composition of a modern black powder is saltpeter 75%, charcoal 15%, and sulfur 10%.7 A mixture of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur with other ingredients was used in China and India in the eleventh century for incendiary and pyrotechnic purposes long before "true" black powder was invented.8 History often deals in conjecture and opinion and it is not known for certain when and by whom black powder was invented, or when and by whom it was applied to the propulsion of a missile from a firearm.* The composition of black powder was first recorded by English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon in 1249, but he did not apply it to the propulsion of a missile from a firearm. This use of black powder is usually credited to a German Franciscan monk Berthold Schwartz in the early fourteenth century.9

Whenever black powder was used as a propellant in guns it was commonly referred to as gunpowder. At first the ingredients were simply mixed together, but the resulting gunpowder had a tendency to separate into its component parts when carried, and it also absorbed moisture. Also the purity of the ingredients varied markedly, and a combination of these factors led to the relative unreliability of early gunpowder.

Improved methods of combining the chemicals evolved and by the fifteenth century a form known as "corned" gunpowder had been developed in which the components were bonded together in small granules.

For many years experiments were conducted to determine the best composition of the mixture for use in firearms. Some examples of the formulas used at various times are:

* It is interesting to note that prior to the introduction of modern methods to determine the alcohol content (proof) of distilled spirits, black powder was used for this purpose. Equal amounts of the alcoholic drink and black powder were mixed and set on fire. If it did not burn, it was "underproof" and did not contain enough alcohol. If it burned with too bright or too yellowish a flame, it was "overproof" and contained too much alcohol. If it burned with a steady blue flame, it was correct.

% Saltpeter

% Charcoal

% Sulfur

c. 1253, Roger Bacon




1350, Arderne




1560, Whitehorne




1560, Bruxelles studies




1645, British Government Contract




1781, Bishop Watson




Note: Other formulas are used for blasting purposes and for pyrotechnic devices.

Note: Other formulas are used for blasting purposes and for pyrotechnic devices.

Any marked deviation from the last two formulas produces gunpowder which has a slower burning rate or which burns with less vigorous effect.10

Black powder was used as a firearms propellant until it was gradually replaced by smokeless propellants toward the end of the nineteenth century.

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