The discovery of gunpowder has changed the way wars are fought, the way the Earth is shaped, and the cultural and political views of nations throughout history. Gunpowder is recognized for its use in fireworks, pyrotechnics, and guns but where did it originate? From explosively unstable black powder to the slower burning smokeless guncotton, we spoke with our Firearms Manager, Justin Ginoza to find out more about the history of gunpowder.
9th Century – An Explosive Accident
Known as one of the four great inventions of ancient China, black powder is made from sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate. Chinese alchemists were experimenting with the powerful oxidizing agent potassium nitrate as an ingredient for health elixirs. One of the scientists had the idea to add the compound to a mixture of sulfur and charcoal. In its purest form, black powder is extremely unstable and produces a smoky reaction. Ginoza notes that the Chinese used black powder to fuel the earliest version of guns and cannons. He also states that the first guns were made from hollowed bamboo stalks and shot arrows.
13th Century – Western Expansion
The Chinese were able to keep black powder to themselves until the late 13th century when trade routes were established. By this time, the Chinese were using guns made of brass and iron. Gunpowder was introduced to the Middle East and then traveled to Europe via the Silk Road trade route. Both regions used gunpowder to defend their lands and conquer new ones. Traditional armor didn’t stand a chance against the power of guns and cannons. In Europe, armies were able to fight at further distances and could penetrate the walls of stone castles, forcing their enemies to advance in combat.
14th Century to 16th Century – Bigger Grains
Gunpowder was produced as a dry blend of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate. Known as serpentine powder, this mixture varied in power, was unpredictable, and hard to control. Soldiers would have to remix serpentine powder during battle because the sulfur and charcoal would separate like oil and water. In the late 14th century, serpentine powder was mixed with water to create a slurry. This solidified the gunpowder ingredients and made them more stable for transport. After the slurry was mixed, it was left to dry and was later crushed into grains.
Initially, black powder was ground finely which caused it to burn quickly. The rapid burn worked well in terms of ballistics, but it caused a lot of pressure in the barrel of the gun which led to the firearm exploding spontaneously. European gunsmiths improved the safety of firearms when they discovered that bigger, more uniform grains of black powder produced a slower burn and thus caused less pressure in the gun.
1860s – The New Propellent
A more powerful and smokeless propellant was introduced to the European market in the 1860s. Nitrocellulose, or guncotton, uses the high concentrate of nitrate in cotton, or wood pulp, to produce combustion. Guncotton proved to be a better alternative to black powder because it produced less smoke, reduced corrosion in the bores of guns, was more stable when stored, and gave the user more control over the bun rate. “Traditional black powder produced thick, black clouds when it was burned,” says Ginoza, “soldiers couldn’t see after they fired their gun.” During World War I, the British army used nitrocellulose as the primary propellent in their firearms and artillery.
Today – Synthetic Alternatives
As time has progressed, innovations to gunpowder have continued. Modern bullets use smokeless gunpowder as a propellent, however there are still some muzzleloaders that utilize black powder. Black powder is now classified as an explosive making it more difficult to find in stores. Synthetic substitute black powders include Pyrodex, Triple 7, and smokeless powder.
Pyrodex is the most used alternative and can be found in many retail stores. It is harder to ignite than black powder which makes it safer to use. Triple 7 burns hotter than black powder and projects objects at a higher speed and force. The biggest downside to this type of powder is that about half of the product loaded into the bore will not burn. Lastly, smokeless powder is the original substitute for black powder. It burns cleaner, is non-corrosive and produces less recoil when the weapon is fired.
“The type of gunpowder you use depends on what gun you’re using and the performance you want from it.” – Justin Ginoza
Reloading and Firearms Auctions at Compass Auctions
Compass Auctions has monthly firearm and accessories auctions. The Ammo, Reloading, Fishing, and Acc. | Estate of Warren Robbe auction has multiple types of Pyrodex and smokeless gunpowders that were a part of a hobbyist gunsmith’s personal collection. The auction starts on July 1 at 9am ET. Pre-bidding for that auction starts on June 24 at 9am ET. There will also be a huge selection of well-maintained guns from the same collection in our Guns, Gunsmithing, and Woodworking | Warren Robbe Estate auction on July 2 at 9am ET. Pre-bidding for the firearms auction starts on June 25 at 9am ET.
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