Gunpowder is a major invention that has been essential for warfare for five or more centuries. It is a chemical mixture which burns extremely rapidly, and was used as a propellant in early small arms and cannons. Experiments to improve the effectiveness and safety were some of the first true chemistry. Black powder was the earliest form of gunpowder, which is a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate), ground together. The optimal mixture for these is generally considered to be 75% saltpeter, 13.5% charcoal, and 11.5% sulfur. Gunpowder is still used today in weapons, fireworks, and special effects. Smokeless powder is a cleaner, more powerful, modern substitute which is made from proprietary recipes.
Gunpowder is a low explosive because it burns rapidly without outside air, and gives off large volumes of gas. In a confined space (as the barrel of a gun) the gases build up enough pressure to push a bullet or shell out the muzzle at high velocity. In firecrackers it is completely enclosed and the gases will cause a small explosion, but gunpowder does not detonate like high explosives; the first high explosives were TNT and dynamite, invented in the 1860s.
Gunpowder (now called black powder) was invented in China by about 1100 A.D., or possibly earlier. It was brought to Europe sometime after 1200. The oldest European account of a formula is in a letter from Francis Bacon to Pope Clement IV in 1267 A.D. By 1275, Albertus Magnus described a formula of four parts saltpeter to one part charcoal and one part sulfur.
When Europeans ground together charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur they called it "serpentine powder." It easily absorbed moisture, and decomposed into its three parts when bounced around in long trips. It would not not burn if packed too tightly. By 1500 serpentine powder was replaced by corned gunpowder, which was pressed into pellets and screened to a uniform size.
In terms of civilian uses, the technique of gunpowder blasting for mining was first demonstrated by Caspar Weindel at Schemnitz, Lower Hungary in 1627. A hole was drilled behind a rock and a fuse ignited the gunpowder, which broke up the rock. The technique spread across western Europe by the 1660s, greatly facilitating mining operations. Dynamite later replaced gunpowder for this purpose, shortly after it was invented in the late 1860s by Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, who endowed the Nobel prizes.
Gunpowder was used as a propellant for rockets, and to propel shot in cannons and naval guns. During the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Chinese gunpowder technology spread to the whole of Southeast Asia via both the overland and maritime routes, long before the arrival of European firearms. The impact of Chinese firearms revolutionized warfare in India and neighboring areas.
Sieges were the primary form of warfare in the Middle Ages in Europe. During the period 1346-1500 cannon complemented catapults in siege warfare; only after 1480 did technical improvements in gunpowder and metallurgy render catapults obsolete. Cannons shooting lead, iron or stone projectiles could knock down a castle's high walls, hence the castle had to be abandoned. New fortifications were invented, such as the star shape, such that each wall sloped away from the attacker, reducing the impact of the cannon. One of the main innovators was Italian architect Francesco Di Giorgio, who woked in southern Italy.
Few technological developments in the history of warfare have been as portentous as the appearance around the turn of the 16th century of effective heavy gunpowder ordnance on shipboard, which began a new era in sea warfare. Employed on Mediterranean war galleys and Portuguese caravels, the weapons marked the solution of a series of daunting technological problems, beginning with the appearance of gunpowder in Europe about 1300. Unlike developments on land, change was at first gradual, but shortly after 1400 the pace of development sharply accelerated to culminate in what may legitimately be termed a revolution in firepower at sea.
Black powder has gradually been superseded in common use by other propellants which provide higher energy density, lack of smoke, or other desirable properties. In the mid-19th century chemists realized that black-powder smoke wasted fuel, reducing muzzle velocity, while a smokeless powder converted all its fuel, allowing for increased velocity of projectiles. Increased velocity was necessary for rapid-fire shells and in battle against ironclad vessels. In 1884, Frenchman Paul Vieille invented smokeless gunpowder.
To obtain maximum effectiveness from the longer barrel on naval guns, the burning rate of the powder needed to be closely controlled. Much experimentation was performed on the effect of size and shape of powder particles on rate of burning, and larger grains were provided for larger guns. Changes in composition were also experimented with, and in the 1880s brown powder made from under-burnt charcoal was adopted as one means of decreasing the burning rate. A serious drawback of these gunpowders was that only about half of the mixture was converted into gas, the remainder becoming a dense smoke. The French in 1886 adopted smokeless powder made of nitrocellulose (gun-cotton). Four years later, the Royal Navy began using smokeless powder made from a nitroglycerine base. Both these compounds liberated four to five times as much energy as did the black powder used earlier. In addition, these chemically homogeneous powders could be formed readily into grains so shaped as to control the rate of burning. This gave a uniform pressure, permitting a higher projectile velocity without straining the gun.
Black powder continued in use as an igniter for the propellant charge, particularly in the larger guns. With later developments, propellants consisting of either nitrocellulose or nitroglycerine were described as "single-base" powder; others containing both were described as "double-base"; and a third category containing nitrocellulose, nitroglycerine, and other chemicals was called "triple-base" or "multiple-base." At the close of the 19th century, the U.S. Navy followed the lead of the French and adopted a nitrocellulose powder as a propellant charge.
This proved reasonably satisfactory until World War II night engagements, when smokeless powder was objectionable because its flash temporarily blinded the ships' crews. Various flash suppressors were devised and mixed with the powder, which was formed into grains for small guns and into pellets for the larger guns. The British used a multiple-based powder, Cordite N, which was relatively flash-free, but which the U.S. Navy considered to be brittle, unduly sensitive to shock, and hazardous in hot climates. As a result, the United States developed other flashless powders and was placing one of them, Albanite, in large scale production at the end of World War II.
Despite the adoption of smokeless powder, black powder still continued in use as a burster charge for projectiles until just before World War I, when more powerful and less sensitive explosives were adopted. In the U.S. Navy, trinitrotoluene (TNT) was adopted for smaller projectiles and Explosive D (ammonium picrate) for the larger ones. These continued in use throughout World War II, although by the end of the war more powerful explosives had come into use, particularly in the smaller antiaircraft projectiles. If the entire spectra of powder uses is considered—torpedoes, mines, aerial bombs, and rockets, as well as large and small projectiles—the trend in explosive development, beginning with the adoption of smokeless powder, was to recognize the special demands of various uses and to formulate specialized compounds tailor-made to particular requirements.
- The phrase: "Put your trust in God and keep your powder dry" - or similar - is attributed to Oliver Cromwell.
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- McNeil, William. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces and Society since 1000 AD (1982), has a great deal on gunpowder's role
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- Norris, John. Early Gunpowder Artillery: C.1300-1600 (2003) 144 pages
- Partington, J. R. A History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (1960, reprinted 1999) 420pp; standard history, but weak on Arabic and Chinese uses
- Anderson, William. Sketch of the mode of manufacturing gunpowder at the Ishapore mills (1862) full text online
- Michael S. A. Dechert, "The Military Architecture of Francesco Di Giorgio in Southern Italy." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 1990 49(2): 161-180. Issn: 0037-9808 Fulltext: in Jstor
- Guilmartin, "The Earliest Shipboard Gunpowder Ordinance" (2007)