General History of Civil War Guns
History of Gunpowder
Blackpowder was called gunpowder until the 1880s. It is very easily
ignited. Store in the original metal container and keep it away from heat,
sparks, flame, and static electricity. Home owners insurance companies
have special requirements for its storage most people don't know about.
There are Ownership Restrictions on how
much blackpowder can be stored at home. It is a low grade explosive and
even small amounts can cause burns or other damage.
Who first invented, or found, gunpowder is not known. Looking at
the history of innovation, it is most likely gunpowder was invented in China
about the year 1,000
AD, before finding its way
into Europe. However, a similar concoction of sulphur, charcoal, and
saltpeter (or another oxygen generator) may have been known to the Greeks
and Romans. An Internet search of
saltpeter will find more detailed information.
The first or very early written reference to gunpowder dates from
the year 1267. At that time in England, Roger Bacon wrote in a way
suggesting that others also knew of it before him.
As there was no scientific understanding of chemistry, the early
making of gunpowder was a continuing experiment in the dark, with
numerous accidental explosions and fires. Progress was slow.
In 1540, the first book Pyrotechnia was published (posthumously
mind you) by Vannoccio Biringuccio. It went through nine editions
in 138 years.
The best combinations of ingredients were discovered fairly early, but
the best ways to produce the most powerful results didn't settle into
consistent results until the 17th century. Gunpowder is a mechanical
mixture of the ingredients and dangerous to produce and carry in quantity. The DuPont chemical company (and fortune) all started out by being an
early manufacturer of gunpowder in America. For more information on their
history, visit the corporate
site. The link will open in a new window.
The Europeans invented the first modern smokeless gun powder in the
early 1880s, followed by the Americans in the early 1890s. The new
propellant powders are true chemical compounds. The first were based on
nitroglycerin which was too hot for the barrel steels used in rifles. Troubles with rifle barrel life
from the new smokeless powders were mostly overcome through the
development of nitrocellulose based powder.
The new chemical powders do not produce the immense clouds of smoke as
the old gun powder. The new stuff is called "smokeless powder," and the
old original kind is now called "blackpowder" instead of "gun powder." The black color is from the charcoal ingredient.
Blackpowder is measured by volume (smokeless powders are measured by
weight). Loading is by pouring the measured charge of powder down
the barrel from the front (muzzle) end, or in revolvers from the front
of the cylinder. There have been dangerous accidents measuring blackpowder through
automatic powder measures made of steel. Consult your local gun shop
before using the same powder measure for blackpowder as is used for reloading ammunition with
Blackpowder is very easily ignited. Any flame or the slightest
spark will do. Flintlocks are fired by the sparks of the flint
striking against metal. Starting in the first half of the 19th
century, percussion caps were invented and came into common use.
Modern smokeless powders aren't nearly so readily ignited. Do not
smoke when using blackpowder.
There are modern substitutes for blackpowder that are safer to
store and use. Pyrodex was the first. Clearshot and Cleanshot followed.
The latest is “777" from Hogdgon. All are suitable for use in
place of blackpowder.
The cloud of smoke from the new substitutes is almost as dense as the
original, but the smell isn't as nostalgic. A little blackpowder is still
required for priming the flintlocks.
Cartridges of the World for more information. Hatcher's
is in reprint from forty years ago with excellent information on the
history of gun powders, and more recently, the best ever book on the
Gunpowder, was published
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