This Science was Settled

ACS offers a researched article titled “Evolution of Medieval Gunpowder: Thermodynamic and Combustion Analysis” here.  If you read it, one of the first things you will notice is that it lacks practical use.  Nobody is going to go out and start formulating gunpowder as it was made in 1350.  The article pretty much states that the evidence shows that 75:10:15, by volume, mixes into the most effective formula for black powder.

Last September, Hogdon announced “Effective immediately, Hodgdon Powder Company, Inc. has made the decision to cease manufacturing operations at the company’s Camp Minden, Louisiana site while evaluating strategic options for the black powder business.”  So far as I know, their Goex brand has been the only American-made black powder available for years.  I guess the science may be settled, but the research is still timely.

I went through my black powder time in my early twenties.  After the Gun Control Act of 1968, I didn’t expect to see a nation where second amendment protections increased over my lifetime.  I didn’t see the reproductions of the 1858 Remington Revolver as all that inferior to a modern 38 – they’re a little more problematic in loading and cleaning, but generally that isn’t a problem. 

Abandoning black powder is more a problem to the flintlock guys than folks who use percussion caps – the refined black powder ignites at a lower temperature than the substitutes like Pyrodex – and that’s a benefit when the ignition relies on sparks from flint and steel.  Percussion caps are a bit inferior to modern primers – but still provide more than enough heat to ignite the substitutes.

I was intrigued to see that adding camphor and/or ammonium chloride was first done in the middle ages, then lost until 1917:

“Camphor in all recipes tested was used in conjunction with another additive. The first recipe evaluated used camphor and ammonium chloride (NH4Cl). Like varnish, camphor was a common ingredient for incendiary mixtures; unlike varnish, camphor appeared in multiple recipes and was continued to be used into the 15th century and even the 16th century. One 15th century text notes that it strengthens all powders when it is added.(17) Indeed, as late as 1917, John Buxbaum filed a U.S. patent for mixing black gunpowder with spirits of camphor, presumably unaware that he was reinventing a medieval technique.(18) In a gunner’s handbook from the turn of the 15th century, ammonium chloride is praised as a preservative: “it is good in powder that will be stored for a long time”.(15)”

To me, one of the great benefits of civilization has been the ability to purchase explosives of known quality and reliable sources – not having to do my own chemistry.  I like having all my thumbs and fingers.  Still, there are already black powder hobbyists who make their own powder (youtube has videos showing how to do it, and even stress safe handling). 

Obviously, the topic has been well researched – but science is always open to more research.

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