A Brief History of Gunpowder: The Elixir of Life?

Contrary to popular belief, the history of gunpowder did not originate in 2267 on a small planetoid somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. In the famous Star Trek (the original series) episode “Arena,” never-say-die Captain James T. Kirk uses materials scrounged on the planet—charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter (potassium nitrate)—to make his own impromptu gunpowder to defeat a Gorn Captain intent on dismembering the good Star Fleet hero.

As a side note, Kirk used diamond chunks as the most expensive cannon projectile ever and fired the whole shebang from an improvised bamboo cannon. His cannon didn’t explode because, apparently, space bamboo has far greater tensile strength than earth bamboo. Be sure to remember that next time you’re cruising around the galaxy and leave your Phaser behind in the shuttle.

Anyway, to get back to the story, Kirk knew his history because he recalled the ancient explosive/propellant recipe devised way back in… well, no one knows quite for sure. You see, gunpowder is so old the history is a bit fuzzy, and that always makes for an interesting story.

Elixir of Life… And Death

Sometimes, practical inventions come from ambitious yet unrelated undertakings. The space program brought us artificial limbs, the Dustbuster, LASIK surgery, memory foam, baby formula ingredients, solar power cells, water filtration, invisible braces, and, regrettably, freeze-dried foods.

Details are sketchy, but some accounts refer to a Chinese alchemist mixing three powders, leading to violent combustion as early as 147 AD. Over the next few hundred years, saltpeter experimentation and production continued with efforts to purify other substances and create gold. You know, that old make infinite wealth from junk lying around chestnut.

Arguably, potassium nitrate is the part of gunpowder that yields the bang, and surprisingly, that ingredient has been in the experimental pot forever. The Nuniya & Labana caste in ancient India (early hundreds AD) used it to create noxious smoke and, according to legend, weaponized the fumes in battle to poison, or at least discourage, the enemy. One thing many saltpeter producers had in common was their attention to poop. Whether by bat guano, animal, or even human doo-doo, saltpeter production often relied on, well, you get the idea.

By the 9th century (give or take, remember, the history is a bit fuzzy), alchemists of the Tang Dynasty were engaged in an ambitious project to concoct an elixir of life. The experiments involved continued tinkering with potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter. As the substance proved volatile, it may have had the effect of shortening one’s expected lifespan rather than leading to the immortality sought.

Additional experimentation brought in other substances like sulfur and charcoal. Voila! The formal production of gunpowder! One early account relates, “Some have heated together the saltpeter, sulfur and carbon of charcoal with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house burnt down.”

Recreational Use… At First

After putting out the house fire, the Chinese put the discovery of this early “gun” powder (remember, none of this was used for guns at the time) to good use in fireworks and magic tricks. The sorcerer who disappears in a flash and cloud of smoke has always been a crowd-pleaser, even in ancient China.

It didn’t take long for enterprising warriors to find martial uses for the invention.

The first use of gunpowder involved adding some punch to traditional arrows by attaching a charge to add drama to the arrow’s impact. These fire arrows used early formulations of gunpowder with combustion qualities insufficient to launch or fire anything, so think of the early gunpowder as an extra payload of a bow-launched arrow.

During the Song Dynasty, armorers created hollow tube arrows, which functioned more like rockets. This led to the invention of “fire lances,” which used the black powder to blast flame and debris from a tube. The concept was technically a bit different than a gun barrel, where the projectile occludes the bore and relies on the pressure created by the burning powder to force the projectile from the muzzle. In any case, potentially lethal debris was launched toward the enemy along with its own conflagration.

Also, during this era, enterprising warriors developed all manner of bombs to be thrown or flung via trebuchet at the enemy. Gunpowder, bombpowder… same difference.

Gun and Cannon Powder

While many credit the Europeans with the invention of cannons and hand-held firearms, it was more likely the Chinese and Turks. As early as the 10th century, folks in these regions were making crude, eruptive cannon-like devices. There’s a blurry line between tubes that blow fiery stuff out the end and a true “gun,” so the specific date at which “fiery” powder became “gun” powder is vague. It’s pretty clear legitimate cannons came on the scene in Europe in the 13th century.

As guns and cannons rely on the generation of expanding gas pressure to drive projectiles, two things had to happen with the underlying gunpowder technology.

First, the quality of the mixture itself had to improve and become standardized to generate enough combustion power to do more than create a bunch of rapidly burning flames. Consistency and quality of the black powder charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter blend were critical. Once that was achieved, the focus shifted to creating uniform physical properties.

As gunpowder combustion is driven by the surface area of the material, uniformity of the powder granules was a big deal. Too powdery and rapid fulmination blew up both gun and operator. Martial chemists soon learned to create larger and more consistent powder granules to control the rate of burn, at least until the advent of smokeless powder, but that’s a story for another day.

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