Five Surprising Facts About Gunpowder

Posted by – February 7, 2011

Gunpowder has been with us since at least the tenth century AD, but here are some surpring facts you may not know about this essential ingredient of warfare, fireworks and cigarettes.

Disclaimer: please don’t blow anyone up using the information on this page. Contrary to what you may feel, blowing people up is never the solution to life’s problems. Instead, take a look at the other pages on this site; you’ll find many gunpowder-free solutions to changing your life.

So, without further ado, did you know ….

Five Surprising Facts About Gunpowder

  • Gunpowder is made from three ingredients that you can easily purchase at a garden centre
  • Gunpowder has been used as a flavouring and for curing meat
  • Gunpowder-propelled rockets were used in warfare as along ago as the 13th century
  • The most important ingredient in gunpowder was traditionally extracted from the urine-laden earth found beneath horses’ stables
  • A key ingredient of gunpowder is used to keep cigarettes alight

Charcoal, Sulfur and Saltpetre: The Holy Trinity of Traditional Explosives

Gunpowder is made from three ingredients, each serving a special purpose.

Charcoal provides the real motive force behind gunpowder’s kick; sulfur lowers the temperature at which the gunpowder ignites and ensures that the gunpowder burns smoothly and quickly, while potassium nitrate, also known as saltpetre provides extra oxygen in solid form that allows the other two ingredients to burn explosively.

Surprisingly, all of these ingredients are available from garden centres. Charcoal is sold as a fuel for barbecues, sulfur is used to control certain kinds of fungus, while potassium nitrate is used as a plant fertilizer, supplying plants with vital nitrogen.

Gunpowder is made by grinding all these ingredients finely and mixing them well together, typically while wet to prevent explosion. The resulting powder is usually made into pellets by pressing through sieves in order to control its burning characteristics, before being gently dried.

The same ingredients are used to make fireworks, often with the addition of metal powders to add color to the flames.

The Surprising Origins of the Ingredients of Gunpowder

Charcoal is made from wood; when wood is heated in low-oxygen conditions, it turns black and chars but retains enough carbon to burn smoothly and efficiently. In fact really high quality charcoal is almost pure carbon.

Sulfur is found as a yellow stone associated with volcanic activity. Sicily was for a long time the world’s main source of sulfur, but now modern chemistry provides us with a range of options for obtaining sulfur from sulfur-containing ores. Powdered sulfur is sold as a yellow powder by garden centres, and even by chemists for acne control, under the name “flowers of sulfur” (“flowers” in this context meaning powder). The powder does not burn easily by itself, but when it burns it creates acrid fumes that are best kept away from.

But the prize for the strangest and most intriguing ingredient of gunpowder goes to saltpetre, usually known these days by its modern chemical name of potassium nitrate

Potassium nitrate is a chemical combination of potassium, nitrogen and oxygen. It is the oxygen that makes potassium nitrate useful in explosives and fireworks manufacture. When gunpowder burns, the oxygen contained in the saltpetre easily becomes detached and reacts with the sulfur and charcoal.

Nitrates are an essential part of the cycle of life on planet Earth. Plants require nitrates as a source of nitrogen, and potassium nitrate (which of course also supplies potassium) is therefore a vital ingredient in fertilizer. Only plants in the pea family can procure their own nitrogen; nodules on the roots of these plants contain bacteria that ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air, turning it into solid nitrates that the plants can use.

Compost containing pea and bean plants is therefore a source of potassium nitrate, and you can extract nitrate from well-rotted compost with relative ease, albeit with a lot of mucking about with smelly liquid compost extracts.

But one of the strangest, albeit important, traditional sources of potassium nitrate was the earth underneath stables where horses had been kept. Horses’ urine breaks down into nitrates in the ground, from which the nitrates can be extracted for use in gunpowder.

Gunpowder as a Flavoring

Yes, gunpowder has been used as a flavouring, and has in the past even been kept in salt shakers on dining room tables. The flavor comes mostly from potassium nitrate, which itself enjoyed a brief vogue as a condiment in the nineteenth century. Nitrates and their closely-related sisters, the nitrites, are still used as a preservative in certain Dutch cheeses, and more importantly as the curing agent in bacon, ham and other cured meats.

Bacon in fact owes much of its flavor and color to nitrates. The Ancient Romans noticed that, while meat cured with salt generally turned an unappetizing gray color, sometimes meat turned red when cured – a color much preferred to gray. They figured out that the nitrates contained in certain rock salts caused meat to turn red rather than gray, and started using nitrates to cure meat. Nitrates combine with the red haemoglobin in blood to create a stable red-colored substance.

It has been shown that nitrates change into nitrites during the curing process, and for this reason nitrites are a permitted food additive (E250, for instance), even though they are strongly suspected to cause cancer and (perhaps unsurprisingly given the above-mentioned fact regarding their affinity for haemoglobin) heart disease.

But let’s not be too alarmist; plants naturally contain nitrates anyway, so you can’t completely avoid them.

Fireworks, Warfare and Drugs

While the Ancient Chinese made fireworks with gunpowder, gunpowder-propelled rockets were apparently used in warfare as long ago as the 13th century, for instance by the Mongols. As if Mongol hordes aren’t bad enough in themselves without them firing rocket at you too! The juxtaposition between rockets, closely associated with modern warfare, and the primitive horse-riding Mongols, is indeed an odd one.

More recently, potassium nitrate has become a vital ingredient of cigarettes. Believe it or not, tobacco tends to go out easily if burnt by itself; that’s why cigarette manufacturers add potassium nitrate to it, so that that oxygen supplied by the nitrate causes the tobacco to remain lit (alas, the potassium nitrate in cigarettes may well contribute to their cancer-causing effects). Fuses were traditionally made from string or rope and potassium nitrate for the same reason.

Fortunately potassium nitrate is no longer extracted from rotted horses’ urine; a fact that every smoker can be grateful for.

3 Comments on Five Surprising Facts About Gunpowder

  1. //Sub/Corpus says:

    If anything, this should help me quit smoking … :)

  2. Maxair says:

    What a really neat Reference, much better than any I have read so far. Thx. No wonder
    everyone has High Blood Pressure and Squealls when they eat pork. That is probably why Bacon tastes so good..

    • Squiffy says:

      Thanks! Yes, the taste of bacon really is a 50/50 combination of the pork and the nitrate. A lot of recent research actually suggests that red meat might not be too bad for your health … but cured meats are worse than we thought! But then they do taste awfully good ….

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