Article by Steve N. Jackson

Gunpowder, known in the modern era as Black Powder to distinguish it from other chemical firearm propellants, is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and salt peter that is highly flammable, producing a subsonic expansion of gasses. These expanding gases, because they do not result in a true detonation, can be contained in a metal tube and used to propel a projectile. The rapid build up of gas pressure in a metal tube is what pushes a bullet out fast enough to cause damage. Gunpowder is not a true explosive except when its exploding gasses are contained in a small space long enough to cause the rising pressure to burst the containment. It is, however, highly flammable and

The explosive properties of gunpowder was discovered in China, where it was used for signaling, communication, to launch rockets, and in primitive projectile arms. From China it moved into Europe through the Muslim Caliphate. Chemists in the Caliphate such as Hasan al-Rammah succeeded in developing easy methods of production of the salt peter component of gunpowder, and gunpowder was mass produced throughout most of the Muslim regions. Though important for Muslim armies, it was rarely used for throwing projectiles. It was most notably used in 1260 at the Battle of Ain Jalut where it was more used for its morale effect than for its killing power.

Europeans returning from the crusades, scholars traveling to study in Iberia, and traders selling wars in southern ports were all likely had a hand in bring gunpowder to Europe. The formula for gunpowder was well known in the Middle East, and dozens of recipes for its manufacture existed in writing. Legends abound as to how gunpowder was finally adopted by European science or who first worked out the formula, but many of these stories are tinged by bigotry, unwilling to admit that western authors had been exposed to gunpowder for centuries by the time it was "invented" in Europe.

No matter how gunpowder reached Europe, by the end of the 13th century there was a small industry of gunpowder manufacturer, with hundreds of powder works producing gun powder for military and civilian use. Gunpowder thrown projectiles were first tested by Europeans in combat somewhere in the 14th century. A single cannon was present at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 but it caused no notable damage, and its use was insignificant compared to the English longbow.

The main use for cannon was soon discovered, they were effective at breaching castle walls whose height left them vulnerable to stress from penetrating shots. Cannon were used in nearly every siege after 1400. With the later invention of a useful hand fired projectile weapons, gunpowder became essential to warfare, and its manufacture became an important defense industry.

Gunpowder has some significant advantage over later explosives: it can be safely and made in small quantities in rural areas. Charcoal is widely available from burning wood, salt peter is a common chemical byproduct of animal waste decomposition and can be made in small quantities in any barn yard, and sulphur is an easily found element in nature. Originally it was ground into a rough powder, but later it was corned for easier storage, or even formed into uniform sized flakes to enable more even burning.

Despite the simplicity of the small scale manufacture of gunpowder, it has a number of disadvantages when used. Burned gunpowder produces a great deal of soot and smoke, both of which can impair the efficiency of a shooter. The soot created by its burning attracts moisture, and when it becomes wet it turns mildly acidic. Wet, soot filled bores are impossible to shoot with, and small parts such as are found in repeating weapons, or the narrow lands of a rifle, can be damaged by the acid.

Gunpowder was largely replaced as an explosive and driver for projectiles after the invention of nitro powders in the 1880. It is still used to this day though for enthusiasts and sports hunters, as well as by re-enactors.


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