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Gunthorp

Black Powder

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Black Powder

 

Black powder is explosive.  Whereas modern smokeless powders are considered to be only flammable, the slightest spark of static electricity or physical trauma may set black powder off in a violent explosion.  Never store large quantities or try to produce it yourself.  When loading a black powder firearm, pour the powder from the can or flask into a measuring device.  Then pour the small charge from the measure into the firearm.  A small ember in the bore could ignite the charge being dispensed.  Keep the muzzle pointed safely away from the face when loading or ramming a ball down the bore, and please use only that part of the hand or those fingers you won't need in the future.  Please read all the cautions and warnings on the factory powder containers, and, when empty, dispose of then carefully.  Faldala's Black Powder Handbook and Lyman's black powder reloading manual are two of the best sources of information.

It is generally believed that the Chinese discovered black powder.  At the end of the thirteenth century, Marco Polo reported back to Europe that the Orient used it in fireworks, and Europeans wasted no time harnessing its energy for more sinister purposes.  By 1450 a "hand gonne" was described as having a short metal tube closed on one end attached to a short piece of  wood for holding it.  The shooter, often a prisoner released for this risky business, had to use the other hand to place the burning end of a stick to the touch hole drilled in the top of the barrel.  Not only was the device tied to a campfire, but also aiming it must have been part guesswork and mostly blind luck.  The invention of the pan, a small depression around the touch hole to hold some gunpowder, made it easier to ignite.  A smoldering, sputtering match, or rope soaked in a nitrate solution, allowed for mobility.  When the pan was moved to the side, and the match held by the vise in the hammer like cock, a single finger on a trigger could release the cock, put the match to the pan, and allow the devise to be aimed.  The match lock required constant adjustment of the match, sunny weather, but  it couldn't be used for surprise or from concealment.  By 1600 the wheel lock and flintlock allowed for surprise, and by 1820 the caplock allowed for the pocket concealment of a black powder derringer.

Black powder is made with three ingredients.  Charcoal, or partially burned wood, provides the carbon.  Sulfur powder helps everything react violently.  And lots of oxygen, concentrated in  potassium nitrate, fuels the explosion. Their sudden reaction produces large, white volumes of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and other gasses, along with a searing flame and a gummy black residue that necessitates frequent cleaning during shooting.  For illustrative purposes only, here is a more complete description of the combination process.  Again, please don't try this at home.  Manufactured black powder is widely available and relatively inexpensive when compared to reconstructive surgery.  But on the plus side of a worst case scenario, your next of kin won't be needing to spread many ashes around.

The three ingredients in black powder occur naturally.  Bird or bat droppings, mixed with urine and bacterial action, are a natural source of potassium nitrate.  In the far east, scrapings from bat caves yielded this source of concentrated oxygen.  The thick beds of bird guano in Chile were protected by the British during WWI, so the Germans invented the Haber process for large-scale manufacture of nitrates, and thus they prolonged the war.  Sulfur is carried to the earth's surface during volcanic activity and deposited in veins. Charcoal, or fairly pure carbon, results from the slow cooking of wood or cellulose.  The Romans perfected the manufacture of charcoal in order to produce the hottest forges and the strongest steel for their short swords.  Shortly after gaining independence, the United States became known for producing the best black powder in the world, partly owing to making the best charcoal from willow.  Looking far back, it could be speculated that the origin of  the discovery of this explosive mixture might be attributed to some distant volcanic cave dwellers of the far east.  If Thug started another cooking fire, over the charcoal remains of a previous fire, and it happened to be on a vein of sulfur, and it was inside a bat cave where wall scrapings had fallen into the fire pit, then kaboom!  He and his whole cave group may have discovered an early meaning to the concept of  fast food.  Thug, his wife Una, and all the little Thuggies,  would have become the worlds first extended family.

Moisture will degrade black powder, so keep your powder dry.  Moisture will try to combine immediately with the fired black powder residue and quickly forms a corrosive sulfurous/sulfuric acid.  After shooting and cleaning a black powder arm, a second cleaning within a few days would be a good precaution against rust.  The few black powder arms that survive today must have been kept immaculately clean by their successive owners.

Powder Horn Inscription

 

See the Black Powder Firearms page for selected replicas that are offered.

Please contact us for any black powder  manuals, tools, or accessories.

Just call or click on the email address at the bottom of the page.

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