May 01

Hey Kids, Wanna Buy Some Black Powder?

Want to make a huge mess, temporarily obscure your vision, create a rumbling boom heard for miles, and relive some history? Me, too! For all of the criteria above, there’s no better substitute than a firearm designed to use holy black, or what most people just call black powder. What is this mysterious substance, and how does it work? Better yet, can we try some (you already know the answer to that one)?IMG00126

Hint: it’s yes.

Black powder has been with us for a long, long time. Though the early details are sketchy, here’s what we seem to generally believe about the creation and development of gunpowder.

It was invented in China around the 9th Century by Taoists attempting to create an elixir of immortality. Saltpeter, a critical element in black powder, was well known to China by the dawn of the 1st Century. Sulfur and charcoal are the two other key components of black powder, and apparently these three elements sounded like a lovely combination, as well as a likely winner for the key to immortality to our lovable Taoists. I bet they were surprised when they lit it on fire for the first time. Apparently the literal Chinese translation for gunpowder is “fire medicine”. I wonder why.

China originally used this new powder for fireworks, but eventually realized it’s military potential and began placing it inside hollowed-out pipes with a projectile on top. These were called hand cannons. I’ve also heard the term “handgonne”. They also applied the new technology to grenades and rockets, much to the terror of those who had never experienced such things. Of course, this new military technology wasn’t quite so much deadly as it was terrifying on a psychological level. The hand cannon was largely inaccurate, and so they were fired in great number to make up for this shortcoming. This would give rise to volley tactics common with muskets and other smoothbore firearms up until roughly the mid-to-late 19th Century.

Gunpowder eventually made its way throughout Asia, passing on to the Middle East, and then settling into Europe, where it was arguably perfected. Following the hand cannon was the matchlock musket. This early firearm used what was called a “serpentine” to hold a string of “slow match”, or essentially, a rope that burned very slowly. A lever was present on the underside of the gun (though later matchlocks did use a trigger mechanism). When this lever was squeezed, the serpentine would lower the burning cord onto a pan of gunpowder, igniting it, and sending flame through a small hole in the back of the barrel. This would ignite the powder charge inside of the barrel, and the musket would fire. Keeping the match lit, and away from the powder charge until you wanted to fire, was quite a challenge, especially in warfare. The soldiers that carried these weapons were usually guarded by a group of pikemen, since reloading took quite some time.


One of these things is not like the others.

The matchlock existed for centuries. The Spanish Conquistadors brought matchlocks with them to the New World. A few other styles of firearm existed throughout that time, such as the wheelock, but they were difficult to manufacture, and therefore expensive. Expensive things usually don’t translate into mass production, especially before the advent of mass production.

The matchlock would be superseded by the flintlock, which used a “cock” to grasp a piece of flint. This flint was then thrust forward, striking a metal plate, creating a spark which ignited a pan of powder, sending flame into the back of the barrel to ignite the firearm and shoot the charge. Flintlocks were very reliable firearms, and required little upkeep other than keeping the black powder residue off of and out of them. Many people today still see and use them as the ultimate survival tool.

The flintlock was superseded by the percussion cap, which omitted the entire “flash in the pan” part of the process. Instead, fulminate caps were placed onto a “nipple”, and detonated upon the impact of a “hammer”, sending a spark into the barrel, and igniting the charge.

Check out our very first Soviet Revolver video on this subject!

As the video above explains, the percussion cap was superseded by cartridge firearms. This technology is still in use today. Early cartridge guns were loaded with black powder, and a “primer” was loaded into the rear of the casing, creating a spark when detonated by a firing pin. This system was a massive improvement over all earlier concepts since it allowed much faster reloads, and the ability to carry a multitude of what were essentially pre-packaged charges. The jump in firepower between muzzleloading firearms and cartridge-based guns is tremendous. A British army firearm trial showed that it took their new Snider rifles, a cartridge-fed gun, two and half minutes to fire twenty shots. The predecessor, an Enfield muzzleloader, took seven and a half minutes to fire the same volume.

Black powder would be rendered obsolete in 1894, when the French invented modern smokeless powder, used in every modern firearm today. Smokeless powder provided a great benefit over the old black powder, since it did not create a cloud of smoke which obscured the shooter’s vision. An additional benefit was that smokeless powder was clean by comparison, and wouldn’t “foul” a gun. If I went out and fired 100 cartridges through a rifle, I’d likely be able to fire 100 more. Or 1,000 more. Or even 10,000. No problem, and no real need to clean the gun (though I recommend you clean every time you shoot). However, if I were to attempt the same thing with black powder, the residue that would build up from the burning of the powder would likely “foul” my gun well before I even reached 50 shots fired. Powder fouling reduces the diameter of the bore, so much so that eventually the gun cannot even be physically loaded. This is one reason why smoothbore firearms were utilized up until around the 19th Century – a smoothbore, which has no rifling and therefore less surface to cling to, will not foul as quickly as a rifled firearm. However, rifles are far more accurate than smoothbores past about 100 yards, which is why nearly every firearm made today is rifled.

We’ve come a long way since the Chinese developed “fire medicine”. Who knows what will come next? I don’t, but what I do know is that I’ll be one of the first in line for it. Unless it’s a smartgun. No one wants smartguns.

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