Throughout history, gunpowder has developed from quite simple and impractical to a refined substance that gives quick and easy results. Depending on the usage, there were several types of gunpowder used, some of which are still used today.
In this post, we will go through the general overview of gunpowder development and how each is still being used today.
A Brief History of Gunpowder and its Development
It is believed that the first gunpowder appeared in China in the 9th century AD, but the first time it was used in weapons was in the 10th century AD. Its mixture contained sulfur and saltpeter, like the types of gun powder we use today. It was very similar to the black powder we sometimes use even today.
Further development of gunpowder continued in the West. Black powder was soon replaced with brown gunpowder, which helped soldiers aim more easily during battles. Finally, white gunpowder eliminated the smoke previous powders produced, which is why it is used even today.
Black powder is the oldest gunpowder used. It is almost non-explosive gunpowder, meaning it burns quickly and doesn’t go off so easily. It can only be ignited on rare occasions, so shock and friction can’t trigger it which makes it easy for transportation.
Black gunpowder consists of three components, which are charcoal, sulfur and nitrate. Charcoal makes the reaction and has carbon in it. Sulfur brings additional reactiveness and nitrate provides oxygen which causes the chemical reaction.
Black powder is often used in situations where it does not necessarily serve as a weapon and an explosion is possible but under very controlled circumstances. For this reason, it is mostly used when using shooting guns, fireworks and fuses, as well as for reenactments of historic events.
One of the main flaws of black powder is that it’s very corrosive, because of its ingredients. So, if the weapon is not cleaned well, it could make the weapon non-usable.
Sometimes called cocoa gunpowder because of its color, brown gunpowder is known for its slow burning rate. Another name for this type of gunpowder is prismatic gunpowder, because its burn rate is often achieved by shaping individual grains into hexagonal and octagonal prisms.
Compared to black powder, it had fewer reactive ingredients, which made it more convenient to use. It also has a slower burning rate than black powder, which is ideal for lighter and longer barrels, which again helps the shooter shoot accurately.
Brown powder was used in the 19th century before it was replaced by smokeless powder. It was mostly used by navies and armies.
Its composition is very similar to that used for black gunpowder. However, brown gunpowder uses a smaller percentage of sulfur, which lowers the burn rate of the ammunition. It also uses differently processed charcoal or incompletely carbonized charcoal, which is less reactive than the complete one.
The bad side of using brown gunpowder is the smoke it produces, which was hindering the soldier’ and marine’s vision during combat. If triggered, it can cause over-pressurization inside the barrel, which makes it dangerous for the shooter.
Since black powder would create a lot of smoke on the battlefield, smokeless or white gunpowder represented a solution to this problem. It was invented in 1871 by Frederick Volkmann and further developed in 1884 by Paul Vielle. It served as a substitute for brown powder.
There are two types of smokeless powder: single-based and double-based. Single-based powder is made from nitrocellulose and it is more commonly used than the double-based one, which, apart from nitrocellulose, also uses nitroglycerin.
More than half of its composition consists of nitrocellulose gelatinized with ether and one-third of paraffin. The reason why nitrocellulose is used so much is that it decomposes rapidly and creates more pressure during combustion.
This causes a higher velocity of the bullet and less strain on the barrel. For this reason, white powder is used for most modern ammunition. Its users can have more options when picking their weapons in combination with white powder.
The common alternative to nitroglycerin is diethylene glycol dinitrate, since it reduces flame temperatures. It also contains saltpeter that prevents the explosion of the mixture in case of accidental shock or friction.
Flash gunpowder is the newest type of powder. Its name comes from the bright flash it produces, as well as the loud sound it makes when it’s fired. It burns quickly and it doesn’t project bullets. Therefore, it is not used for weapons at all but mostly for entertainment.
Because of the light it emits, it can be used for photography, where artificial light is often necessary. It can be used for fireworks as well since its light can come in different colors, as well as magic tricks, concerts and other means of performance.
Its composition varies depending on the actual purpose of the flash powder, whether the focus is on the light or the sound it makes.
It is considered safer, but still, it needs to be handled with caution. Unlike previously mentioned powders, flash gunpowder can be easily ignited in several ways: friction, heat, ignition or static electricity.