AskDefine | Define gunpowder

Dictionary Definition

gunpowder n : a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur in


7515:10 ratio which is used in gunnery, time fuses, and fireworks [syn: powder]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. An explosive mixture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), charcoal and sulphur; formerly used in gunnery but now mostly used in fireworks.

Usage notes

  • Gunpowders refers to multiple formulations for the uncountable not gunpowder.


explosive mixture

Extensive Definition

Gunpowder (also called black powder) is a pyrotechnic composition, an explosive mixture of sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate (also known as saltpetre or saltpeter) that burns rapidly, producing volumes of hot solids and gases which can be used as a propellant in firearms and fireworks.
Gunpowder is classified as a low explosive because of its slow decomposition rate and consequently low brisance. Low explosives produce a subsonic deflagration wave rather than the supersonic detonation wave produced by brisants, or high explosives. The gases produced by burning gunpowder generate enough pressure to propel a bullet, but not enough to destroy the barrel of a firearm. This makes gunpowder less suitable for shattering rock or fortifications, where high explosives such as TNT are preferred.

Gunpowder (black powder)

The term "black powder" was coined in the late 19th century to distinguish prior gunpowder formulations from the new smokeless powders and semi-smokeless powders. (Semi-smokeless powders featured bulk volume properties that approximated black powder in terms of chamber pressure when used in firearms, but had significantly reduced amounts of smoke and combustion products; they ranged in color from brownish tan to yellow to white. Most of the bulk semi-smokeless powders ceased to be manufactured in the 1920's.) Black powder is a granular mixture of
  • a nitrate—typically potassium nitrate (KNO3)—which supplies oxygen for the reaction;
  • charcoal, which provides fuel for the reaction in the form of carbon (C);
  • sulfur (S), which, while also a fuel, lowers the temperature of ignition and increases the speed 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. 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.
The current standard composition for black powder manufactured by pyrotechnicians was adopted as long ago as 1780. It is 75% potassium nitrate, 15% softwood charcoal, and 10% sulfur. These ratios have varied over the centuries, and by country, but can be altered somewhat depending on the purpose of the powder.
The burn rate of black powder can be changed by corning. Corning first compresses the fine black powder meal into blocks with a fixed density (1.7 g/cm³). The blocks are then broken up into granules. These granules are then sorted by size to give the various grades of black powder. In the USA, standard grades of black powder run from the coarse Fg grade used in large bore rifles and small cannon though FFg (medium and smallbore rifles), FFFg (pistols), and FFFFg (smallbore, short pistols and priming flintlocks). In the United Kingdom, the gunpowder grains are 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'.
A simple, commonly cited, chemical equation for the combustion of black powder is
2 KNO3 + S + 3 CK2S + N2 + 3 CO2.
A more accurate, but still simplified, equation is
10 KNO3 + 3 S + 8 C → 2 K2CO3 + 3 K2SO4 + 6 CO2 + 5 N2.
The products of burning do not follow any simple equation. 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 formulations where the nitrate used is sodium nitrate tend to be hygroscopic, unlike black powders where the nitrate used is saltpetre. Because of this, black powder which uses saltpetre can be stored unsealed and remain viable for centuries provided no liquid water is ever introduced; muzzleloaders have been known to fire after hanging on a wall for decades in a loaded state, provided they remained dry. By contrast, powder that uses sodium nitrate, which is typically intended for blasting, must be sealed from moisture in the air to remain stable for long times.


Smokeless powder requires precise loading of the charge to prevent damage due to overloading. With black powder, though such damage is still possible, loading can generally be carried out using volumetric measures rather than precise weight.
Generally, high explosives are 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.
Gunpowder can be used to make fireworks by mixing with chemical compounds that produce the desired color.


Black powder has relatively low energy density compared to modern smokeless powders and produces a thick smoke that can impair aiming or reveal a shooter's position.
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 an anhydrous caustic substance. When moisture from the air is absorbed, the potassium oxide or sodium oxide turns into 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 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.

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. They typically contain 70.5 parts of saltpetre and 29.5 parts of charcoal. The discovery of gunpowder was probably the product of centuries of alchemical experimentation. A Chinese alchemical text from 492 noted that saltpeter gave off a purple flame when ignited, providing for the first time a practical and reliable means of distinguishing it from other inorganic salts, making it possible to evaluate and compare purification techniques.
The first reference to gunpowder is probably a passage in the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe, a Taoism text tentatively dated to the mid-800s: 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.
Though potassium nitrate (thalj al-Sīn, or "Chinese snow") was earlier known to Arabic chemists, the Islamic world did not acquire knowledge of gunpowder until the 13th century. The first Arabic reference to gunpowder is found in Hasan al-Rammah's Al-furusiyyah wa al-manasib al-harbiyya (The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices), written in the 1270s, which included the first gunpowder recipes to approach the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder used in modern times (75% saltpetre (KNO3), 10% sulfur, 15% carbon), such as the tayyar "rocket" (75 parts saltpetre, 8 sulfur, and 15 carbon, by weight) and the tayyar buruq "lightning rocket" (74 parts saltpetre, 10 sulfur, 15 carbon). He states in his book that many of these recipes were known to his father and grandfather, hence dating back to at least the late 12th century. The earliest known military applications of these explosive gunpowder compositions were the explosive hand cannons first used by the Egyptians to repel the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260. There were four different gunpowder compositions used for the cannons at the battle, with the most explosive cannon having a gunpowder composition (74% saltpetre, 11% sulfur, 15% carbon) again almost identical to the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder.


Gunpowder arrived in India by the mid-1300s, but could have been introduced by the Mongols perhaps as early as the mid-1200s.
It was written in the Tarikh-i Firishta (1606-1607) that the envoy of the Mongol ruler Hulegu Khan was presented with a dazzling pyrotechnics display upon his arrival in Delhi in 1258 AD. Firearms known as top-o-tufak also existed in the Vijayanagara Empire of India by as early as 1366 AD.
By the 16th century, Indians were manufacturing a diverse variety of firearms; large guns in particular, became visible in Tanjore, Dacca, Bijapur and Murshidabad. Guns made of bronze were recovered from Calicut (1504) and Diu (1533). Gujarāt supplied Europe saltpeter for use in gunpowder warfare during the 17th century. Bengal and Mālwa participated in saltpeter production.
War rockets, mines and counter mines using gunpowder were used in India by the time of Akbar and Jahangir. Both Hyder Ali and his son Tippu Sultan used black powder technology in iron-cased war rockets with considerable effect against the British, which inspired the development of the Congreve rocket.


The earliest extant written references to gunpowder in Europe are from the works of Roger Bacon. In Bacon's Epistola, "De Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae et de Nullitate Magiae," dated variously between 1248, he states: We can, with saltpeter and other substances, compose artificially a fire that can be launched over long distances... By only using a very small quantity of this material much light can be created accompanied by a horrible fracas. It is possible with it to destroy a town or an army ... In order to produce this artificial lightning and thunder it is necessary to take saltpeter, sulfur, and Luru Vopo Vir Can Utriet.
The last part has been interpreted as an elaborate coded anagram for the quantities needed, but it may also be simply a garbled transcription of an illegible passage.
In the Opus Maior of 1267, Bacon describes firecrackers: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. One recipe for "flying fire" (ingis volatilis) involves saltpeter, 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. Another specifies a 1:3:9 ratio. 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."
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 both the best in Europe and inexpensive.
The introduction of smokeless powder in the late 19th century led to a contraction of the gunpowder industry.


Gunpowder production in the British Isles appears to have started in the mid 13th century with the aim of supplying The Crown. 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.
Henry VIII was short of gunpowder when he invaded France in 1544 and England needed to import gunpowder via the port of Antwerp.
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. 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.
This left the sole United Kingdom gunpowder factory at ICI Nobel's Ardeer site in Scotland; it too closed in October 1976. The company was founded in 1802 by Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, two years after he and his family left France to escape the French Revolution. They set up a gunpowder mill, the Eleutherian Mills, on the Brandywine at Wilmington, Delaware based on gunpowder machinery bought from France and site plans for a gunpowder mill supplied by the French Government. Tourists at Mammoth Cave, KY to this day are shown the vast deposits of bat guano, as well as the historic machinery use in its extraction and conversion to usable saltpetre for gunpowder from Revolutionary times right up to World War I.

Manufacturing technology

For the most powerful black powder "meal", a wood charcoal is used. The best wood for the purpose is pacific willow, but others such as alder or buckthorn can be used.
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 this had changed to either an iron shod stone wheel or a cast iron wheel running on an iron bed. The powdermakers would then shape the resulting paste of moistened gunpowder, known as mill cake, into "corns", or granules, 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.

Other uses

Besides its habitual 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.



  • The Big Bang: A History of Explosives .
  • Gunpowder, Explosives and the State: A Technological History .
  • Firearms: A Global History to 1700 .
  • Dangerous Energy: The archaeology of gunpowder and military explosives manufacture .
  • Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History .
  • Cornish Explosives .
  • History of Science and Technology in Islam .
  • Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World .
  • Coming of Gunpowder to the Islamic World and North India: Spotlight on the Role of the Mongols .
  • Gunpowder and Firearms: Warfare in Medieval India .
  • Science & Civilisation in China .
  • Early Gunpowder Artillery: 1300-1600 .
  • A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder .
  • Chemistry and Technology of Explosives .
  • A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder
  • Johnson, Norman Gardner (2008), "History of black powder" in "explosive", Encyclopædia Britannica.

External links

gunpowder in Arabic: بارود
gunpowder in Bosnian: Barut
gunpowder in Bulgarian: Барут
gunpowder in Catalan: Pólvora
gunpowder in Czech: Střelný prach
gunpowder in Danish: Krudt
gunpowder in German: Schwarzpulver
gunpowder in Spanish: Pólvora
gunpowder in Esperanto: Pulvo
gunpowder in French: Poudre à canon
gunpowder in Hindi: बारूद
gunpowder in Croatian: Barut
gunpowder in Icelandic: Byssupúður
gunpowder in Italian: polvere nera
gunpowder in Hebrew: אבק שריפה
gunpowder in Swahili (macrolanguage): baruti
gunpowder in Latvian: Šaujampulveris
gunpowder in Hungarian: Lőpor
gunpowder in Macedonian: барут
gunpowder in Dutch: buskruit
gunpowder in Japanese: 黒色火薬
gunpowder in Norwegian: Krutt
gunpowder in Uighur: مىلتىق دورىسى
gunpowder in Polish: Proch
gunpowder in Portuguese: Pólvora
gunpowder in Russian: Порох (значения)
gunpowder in Simple English: Gunpowder
gunpowder in Slovenian: smodnik
gunpowder in Serbian: Барут
gunpowder in Finnish: Ruuti
gunpowder in Swedish: Krut
gunpowder in Thai: ดินปืน
gunpowder in Ukrainian: Порох
gunpowder in Yiddish: שיספולווער
gunpowder in Chinese: 火药
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