This report covers:
- Formula for black powder
- Blasting powder
- The high water mark
- Use by volume
- The deal
- Burn residue
- What’s next?
Several readers said they were interested in learning more about black powder, so today we begin.
The biggest thing to know is this stuff didn’t start out being called black powder. Back at the beginning it was just called gunpowder in the English-speaking world. Although the history is clouded, it seems that some form of this powder may have originated in the Orient, possibly China. And what they had was known there for hundreds of years before the Franciscan Friar, Roger Bacon, wrote down the formula in 1267. He wrote that a “toy” no bigger than a child’s thumb could produce fire and sound from a mixture of saltpeter, sulphur and willow bark charcoal. He was describing a firecracker.
Formula for black powder
While this formula evolved over many centuries, it is today regarded as 75 percent saltpeter (potassium nitrate), 15 percent charcoal (specific types of charcoal will change the power of the powder) and 10 percent sulphur. The saltpeter is the oxidizer and the charcoal and sulphur are the fuel.
Each ingredient is important to the outcome. Not just the purity of the ingredients, but where they come from matters to the greatest degree. Each ingredient must be broken down to as fine a powder as possible — separately, of course! Then they are combined in boiling liquids, squeezed into a ball, air-dried (but not completely dry) rolled out into a flat sheet, then cut, pressed or divided into grains and allowed to dry completely. Once dry those grains are carefully ground into a fine powder, and the size of the granules of powder determines the rate of burning. A gross simplification says that when confined so pressure is allowed to build, black powder burns at the rate of 11,000 feet per second. It is considered a low explosive.
By changing the ratio of the ingredients, a powder called blasting powder can be made. In simple terms it has less nitrate and more charcoal. Sodium nitrate is usually substituted for potassium nitrate. Blasting powder creates a more violent shock when it explodes. So, to remove a stump from the ground, where a heaving force is needed, black powder is best. When you want to shatter rock, such as in a coal mine, blasting powder works best.
The high water mark
Black powder became the focus of extreme interest around 1730, when the American flintlock that we know today as the Kentucky rifle began its evolution. Instead of pouring a hundred grains of powder into a large-caliber European Jaeger rifle, the Kentucky got by with 40 grains or so. When that occurred the quality of the powder started being closely noticed. English powder was the best by far, and one or two brands stood out from the rest. People paid more for those brands because of their known quality.
Black powder began an evolutionary improvement cycle that peaked near the end of the 19th century, just as smokeless powder was coming into being. The black powder we have today isn’t up to the same standards as that stuff that was sold back in 1880. But even so, some brands are still better than others. The Swiss brand is generally considered the best today, and GOEX is another fine brand.
Use by volume
I’m now skipping past centuries of development and refinement. The firearm (gun) that we know today was invented in the very late 1200s. Gunpowder was still in its infancy (remember Bacon and the year 1267), so a lot more was used to get results. Guns were not aimed back then, they were pointed. And they launched multiple projectiles — not the uniform shot we know of today, but rocks, pieces of iron and anything that would do damage when it hit at high velocity.
How much gunpowder was used was a best guess during those times. They just poured it in and hoped for the best. The metallurgy was also slipshod in those days and guns did blow up. That was considered a hazard of shooting.
So, using gunpowder (now meaning black powder) started out by volume and not by weight. And it remains so to this very day. Can you use too much? Definitely. Will black powder guns still blow up? Absolutely. Perhaps you veteran readers remember back in 2013 when BB blew up his Nelson Lewis combination gun (read Part 4 of the Nelson Lewis combination gun report). The entire gun didn’t explode, it just blew out the nipple, but that was close enough for me! As it turns out that same thing has happened to a number of people, so it’s not just me.
But here is the important thing — the deal. The power of modern black powder is so uniform and incremental you have to be reckless (as I was) to have problems. There isn’t much difference between using 21 and 24 grains of powder, as long as the gun is sound. So we fill a calibrated powder measure (calibrated to the gun in use) and then dump the powder into the gun. As long as our actions to fill the powder measure remain the same every time (for example not packing it in or filling it to heaping) the measurements are usually within a grain or two. And with black powder, differences that small don’t matter.
This is an animal bone powder measure for my .61-caliber flintlock fowler. Filled to the brim it holds about 60 grains of FFG powder.
With cap and ball revolvers it’s even simpler. You can’t fill each chamber too full because a ball has to be rammed down on top of the powder, and then the top of the ball has to clear the end of the barrel so the cylinder will revolve. Remember the problems I had with the RMAC rifle?
For those reasons, we don’t weigh black powder charges; we use powder measures. Even for the larger caliber rifle cartridges, the method remains the same. Our powder measures for the large cartridges are also volumetric rather than weight-oriented.
And there are some other things we can do to make the powder fill more consistent. Like dropping the powder charge down a long tube so it packs itself into the cartridge with consistent density at the end of the fall. That tube is called a drop tube and most cartridge reloaders who work with black powder use one.
A drop tube is a simple way of concentrating black powder in a cartridge the same way every time.
When today’s black powder ignites, about 45 percent turns into energy and 55 percent turns into residue. Smoke is the greatest residue, followed by ash and soot. Shooters have to find creative ways of removing that ash and soot, as it is hygroscopic and starts attracting moisture and rusting the gun immediately.
In ancient times about 60 percent of powder turned to residue. That reflects the lower power of the powder up to the 18th century.
I haven’t mentioned that black powder doesn’t have to be black. It can be gold, white and even pink. It also doesn’t have to smoke much or smell bad. It can even be formulated to clean the bore.
I haven’t addressed the fineness of the powder. That’s where the F designation comes in.
I have been talking about gun powder. There is also cannon powder to consider.
This is a huge subject. We are just going to touch on it, because we are airgunners. Still, things like bore obturation, and the rate of rifling twist to the stability of the projectile remain the same. And with black powder we remain at velocities that are very similar to airguns.
45 thoughts on “Black powder primer: Part 1”
That is what my brother and I did with our first chemistry sets.
Tried making nitro-glycerine in High School. that did not go as well…..
Yogi…cool experiment…you didn’t blow up the High School, though…
…did you? LOL! =>
You didn’t happen to simply drop Nitric acid into a container of glycerin did you?
You are a lot braver than me!
I’ve made various explosives, propellants and rocket fuels but drew the line at things like nitroglycerin – that stuff scares the heck out of me.
A guy I knew made a batch and almost lost control of the temperatures – he figures that SOMEONE was watching out for him and it was only a huge amount of luck that saved him!
My favorite rocket fuel was newspaper soaked in a saturated solution of potassium chlorate and sugar and rolled TIGHTLY into a rod. When dry it was very consistent.
Sugar! A lot of folks don’t know that sugar is a principal ingredient in explosives and smokeless gunpowder. Sugar and rust are the two main ingredients, when you want to make some at home.
Most people don’t realize/know (thankfully!!) that they have enough common products in the house, that mixed properly, could blow all the windows out and the roof right off!
A real concern is that people don’t respect gasoline enough. They might if they knew that the fumes have a explosive potential SIX times that of the gunpowder we are talking about.
I have always said that, for safety reasons, a basic (household) chemistry course should be mandatory in high-school.
Yes, rust is one of those common things. Rust and aluminum powder = thermite …now that is HOT stuff, can melt through an engine block! – don’t ask how I know that 😉
“This is an animal bone powder measure for my .61-caliber flintlock fowler.”
Now THAT is a classic powder measure! I like it. =>
And this series of reports is off to a great start; I already learned some things.
Looking forward to the rest,
You would like the handles on some of my files and knives 🙂
Hank, I’m sure I would; perhaps you could post a pic for all to enjoy; I’d be happy to see it, for sure.
Here’s a pic of the knife my wife got me out at the Grand Canyon (where we were married back in 1992). The knife and handle were made by a guy whose wife made the sheath. I often wear this at muzzleloader shoots as it seems to fit in with the atmosphere…and you can’t see the stainless steel blade when it’s in the sheath. LOL! =>
A crown stag handle. Impressive!
Thanks, B.B.! =>
I’ve got an off topic question. I know, I know, not again. My closest, younger brother (he’s a mere 70) and I have been discussing air guns. He knows of my interest and wants to come down and shoot with me. With Covid, we’ve hardly been able to spend time together. He says that he’ll purchase a rifle and come on down. I’ve told him no, I’ve got guns for him to shoot so don’t buy . . . let’s use mine and see what suits you. But oh no! He’s been to Best Buy and other big box stores and he wants the most powerful rifle he can get. By the way he’s a retired police officer and thinks in terms of firearms, and he wants power. I’ve pointed him to Pyramid ‘s web site and to your instructional films and blog here. Help me keep him from buying that Gamo off the shelf and wait and see. He wants to shoot a target at 500 yards while I’m trying to tell him that 50 yards and even less with accuracy is great fun. He scoffs at me. Maybe he’ll come over here to believe. . . Thanks. Orv.
It’s hard for him to comprehend the elephant until he sees it. Since he is coming from a firearms background it is difficult to wrap his head around the idea to shoot at itty-bitty targets at backyard distances. Get him along the PCP route first. If he is dead set on buying one the Gamo Urban is not bad a rifle to start with.
Thanks. I’m listening, but will he? I appreciate the recommendation of the Gamo Urban . . . I’ll look into it. Orv.
Siraniko gave you the same answer I would have.
The new Umarex Origin set may be the way to go. It has the air rifle and hand pump in one kit.
Let him buy the Machismo Uber Magnum Schnitzel Gruber. He knows what he is talking about. Those marketeers would not be fibbing, would they? What does it matter that there are very few off the shelf firearms using off the shelf ammo that will shoot 1 MOA at 100 yards?
There is hope for him though. There is a little nagging voice in the back of his mind that has kept him from buying that Machismo yet. He may still come around. If he doesn’t, you will still need to be supportive and gentle with him. Yes, the Machismo will likely end up in the back of the closet, but we want him to pick up something else.
Like me, he has a lot to learn. Getting him started in the right direction is the key.
Doubt if all of us together can dissuade your brother from buying the most powerful airgun he can find. Not many of us, back when we were in his shoes, listened to seasoned and knowledgeable airgunners about the downsides to overly powerful springers.
Since he’s retired LE I would ask him what sidearm he would carry if he had to choose one today as his everyday carry in LE. Would it be a Smith & Wesson 500 or something else? Entertaining vs. Practical. There are many reasons that I always see multiple S & W 500’s for sale at gun shows with a box of shells included that have only two missing from the box of shells.
Suspect he will show up at your place with his new, powerful springer to shoot with you. Once you show him that your lower powered guns are accurate at 30 yards and he can’t make a group with his, you can then have the conversation about him shooting his new magnum at 500 yards.
I wonder how they developed the knowledge of how much powder charge to start with (empirical method followed by trial and error?)? Had to reread the Nelson Lewis gun article. It looks like the bigger bores are more forgiving when it comes to blackpowder charging that a few grains more or less wouldn’t matter, but what a difference bore fit of the projectile makes.
Let’s say I got one of those RMAC .22 rifles. What would the safest powder be to use and and what brands would that be. And come to think about it how hard is it to get.
That’s some of the other things I would like to know about black powder.
Black powder would be the safest and also the easiest to obtain at present.
Good article and primer on gunpowder; sorry gentlemen, can’t help the wordplay on such an explosive subject. About black powder being the easiest to obtain at present, B.B., my experience at least down here in Flori-duh has been the opposite. Every time FM checks out the tables of the vintage powderburners at local gun shows, for example, there seems to be plenty of Pyrodex but nary a bit of black powder to be seen. Have not seen any for sale in gun shops and/or sporting good stores either. It is always the Pyro or similar substitutes. Seems one would need to go online to – hopefully – find and purchase the “black stuff.” Again, this difficulty may not be the case in other parts of the country.
Over time found that a 60 gr charge or load of FFFG in the .58 Zouave made for more accurate shooting than the 70 grains recommended by some of the sources FM consulted when he was self-teaching on the art of gunpowder and percussion rifle shooting. Kind of the same principle involved in the argument of more-vs-less power when it comes to airgun accuracy perhaps. All this reminds FM it is time to search for those books buried somewhere in the garage and take a refresher course.
If you will commit to buying 5 pounds, Swiss black powder can be bought online. At least it could two weeks ago.
I just bought 4 pounds of black from Graf & Sons for $146 with hazmat fee and delivery. Four pounds is their minimum.
Thanks for the tip – so four pounds it will be. That should last until FM’s warranty runs out. Regretfully, it means FM will have to postpone the dining date with missus at the trendy Fawlty Towers Restaurant until next month’s payday. She was looking forward to enjoying the Prawn Goebbels and the Hermann Herring salad. 😉
On a more serious note, read your post on the Nelson Lewis and all FM can say is, thank God you came out of that one as well as you did. It was a sobering reminder about the power of powder and about not taking anything for granted when it comes to shooting any kind of gun. Safety First! By the way, your friend Otho’s craft skills are absolutely incredible.
Don’t forget the funny walk! 🙂
Appreciate that suggestion! Going to check that out. The supply of Hogdon’s powder is almost gone. Also found a supplier of “minnys” online, lost the link but confident FM will find it again.
Thanks for this informative report. Much of it is new to me. I hope airgun readers will be interested in following and commenting during this series on black powder. It was a good idea to point out the velocity similarities many black powder guns have with airguns. Oh, and the variety of barrel twist rates and designs do have a bit to do with accuracy.
This one is a keeper. Just hoping it turns into a long series. Maybe you will tell us why the powder made in Augusta, Ga was highly regarded.
Augusta, GA? I’m not familiar with that powder. Perhaps you can tell us? 😉
Augusta Powder Works supplied almost all the black powder for south in 1863-1865. George Washington Rains, iron works manufacturer in Newburgh, NY, was guided by a pamphlet written by a British artillery officer describing the powder works at Waltham Abbey in Essex County near London. Quality was noted for being consistent. The finished powder was one and a half miles from the starting point.
I don’t know what raw materials or mixing practices accounted for consistency. Maybe some readers know.
Thank you so much!
BB, Cooking recipes by volume seems normal, and cooking by weight seems odd. Baking is like working with black powder that way. The chemistry of the reaction works best when it is lofted into the gun, cartridge. It is a good idea to sift the flour, and to not overmix, we want that fluuf in our gunpowder too? Also, I read that the Indians Lewis and Clarke met on their jouney west here in the USA were most impressed by the Giradoni flask deer rifles they brought with them. No issues with rain water, but he metalurgy of the day wasn’t quite there yet?
How about I answer your questions in Part 2?
Yes please, plus there’s liquid measure. mostly it’s trouble converting imperial, 37/64’s to decimal inches, but its fascinating to me we measure everything, and so crucial it seems. The story of the race to invent the chronometer I think is a good machine tool story, the first truly precision thing? And how ten gauge blocks stacked together are more accurate a single block.
Do tell more about the gauge blocks. I haven’t heard that one.
I think it has to do with expansion and contraction of materials with temperature. Stacking gauge blocs correctly, they need to be joined with a swirling motion, are used as a datum for measuring other work on a precision stone ground to crazy flatness by machines. The machine they have at Napa community colledge is big, and was imported from Eastern Europe.
We use gauge blocks at work. And with swirling each makes them stay together. If I remember right that is called qualifying them. I may be wrong about calling it qualifying them. But that’s what I remember.
I don’t know. I never, ever heard of black powder being measured in grains until I tuned in here. It has always been drams for me. Grains is a weight measurement and drams is a volume measurement.
When you touch on Obturation could you touch on the debate about bullets with groves vs. bullets with Drivebands?
No…not about trees but GROOVES in bullets not intended as lubrication grooves.
To be clearer than in my first post.
BB, You all may have a hard time finding propellents, Hodgdon bought Goex, and and it’s Hodgdon in
the new 6.5 creedmore cartridge. I expect they sold us all allot of the stuff over the last 20 years or so.
It’s all overseas now. So, in looking for new materials for a brow rest, looking at thin gauge plywood laminate, a hardwood, and possibly cutting up a nylon spatula. Plastic is hard to do without allot of other stuff.
Okay. I gotcha. That is a new one on me.
I dabbled a little with black powder firearms years back. Never fired a GP rifle, but did have a cool little single shot pistol. I still have an unfired replica Remington BP revolver with adjustable sights in .38 caliber. Very slick little gun. I have always heard that if you use actual black powder, that firearm must be cleaned super thoroughly asap after you are done shooting. Shooters used to often use Pyrodex, as I believe it was more stable and lots easier to clean. I still read about VP rifles online, and they often very good prices, as hunters have their own hunting seasons. I think there is still a large group of BP shooting enthusiasts.
There are, indeed, hunting seasons wherein muzzleloading weapons only, may be used. There are still some enthusiasts who use such during the regular seasons, as well.
Here in Pa., There is the muzzleloader season and a separate flintlock season. The first allows percussion weapons and includes some so modern that telescopic sights are the norm.
Personally, I frown on those and feel they shouldn’t have their own season, at all. If one isn’t interested in bearing the vagaries of chipped flints and damp flashguns, they should stick to smokeless powder
Anyone interested in the history of black powder is recommended to read “The big bang: A history of explosives” by G. I. Brown .