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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 Web 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 smokeless powders.

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.

See Cartridges of the World for more information.  Hatcher's Notebook 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 subject, Gunpowder, was published

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