Kelly — Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards and Pyrotechnics

Kelly, Jack, Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive That Changed the World, 2004

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Cross-fertilizing with an earlier review of Macfarlane and Martin’s Glass: A World History, “Gunpowder” tracks technological change across a wide sweep of historical time and space from the perspective of one material. Most people can quote chapter and verse of conventional wisdom about gunpowder. The short form is “invented in the East, brought to fruition in the West.” While generally correct as far as it goes, the actual details of gunpowder’s history in both East and West justify Kelly’s detailed effort at a work for the public (without a forest of footnotes). And suitability for the public should be emphasized. At 250 well-written pages, this is a quick and enjoyable read that will whet your appetite without entirely slaking it. It does have the feel of a series of vignettes or magazine articles recast as a book. But fortunately, from the Anglosphere perspective, the content justifies attention.

A quick recap for those who may not recall their high school chemistry. Gunpowder contains sulphur, charcoal, and saltpetre (potassium nitrate). The sulphur provides a low ignition temperature, the charcoal provides carbon for heat, and the saltpetre (through its nitric acid [NO3] constituent) provides a rich internal source of oxygen for combustion. The higher the saltpetre ratio in gunpowder, the more explosive force it has. The history of gunpowder is intimately linked to that of alchemy, military science, metallurgy, international trade, and the beginnings of modern physics and chemistry. Its role in directing the history of the world is substantial (see Pivotal Dates at the end of this review). Gunpowder, circa 1500, was one of the few trade objects (apart from silver) which Europeans could offer to the empires of south and east Asia.

While Kelly makes little effort to identify why various cultures dealt with gunpowder differently, he does a great job of reviewing the role of gunpowder in military history, and in describing the challenges facing “powder men” through the ages as they attempted to create, refine, maintain, transport, and use gunpowder without getting killed or horribly maimed. It wasn’t easy! The history of the European military (on and off the oceans) sometimes seems little more than the shifting good fortunes of different nations and peoples in their elaboration and management of gunpowder.

Tellingly, Kelly asks us to set aside a bit of gunpowder mythology from the get-go. Some authors claim that the Chinese discovered gunpowder very early in history (c. 100 BC) however the reality is that Daoist alchemists in China probably discovered the nature of saltpetre in combination with other materials during the Tang dynasty (roughly 9th century AD). By 1044, Chinese records contain two recipes for “fire drug” which included the basic formula for gunpowder. At proportions under 75%, saltpetre in gunpowder will have an incendiary, rather than explosive, effect. Thus early Chinese application of the substance were for fire arrows (1083) and thunderclap devices (1126). By the early 13th century, iron case bombs and incendiary “lances” were in common use by the Jurchen, Sung, and then the Mongols.

Notably, by 1267, Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon was outlining the formula (though not the proportions) for gunpowder to the Pope of the day. The rapid transmission of information about gunpowder from China to Europe is assumed to have occurred as part of trade and warfare as the Mongols moved into the Middle East. The case for transmission (rather than independent discovery) is strengthened by the timetable of appearance in the West and the fact that early formulas included alchemical adulterants identical to those in China (with no practical benefit for explosive power).

By roughly 1300, the first practical formulas for gunpowder were appearing in Europe under pseudonymous authorship. Cannon were used in Florence and described in England by 1326. London, England had several dozens “gonnes” by 1339 — and guns were used as an impressive “shock and awe” display by Edward at the battle of Crecy in 1346 (as a prelude to the longbowmen slaughtering a large number of French nobility). The sound and smell of the guns was immediately attributed to infernal and demonic forces. Both gunners and sovereigns were initially running the risk of being proclaimed witches.

Edward’s attempt to use the same cannon soon after Crecy during the siege of Calais highlighted an early limitation of the technology. The sound and noise were impressive but the impact on castle walls was still limited. This failure was quickly remedied. By century’s end, cannon had rapidly evolved into siege guns, weighing 10 tons and firing 500 pound stone balls. The era of stone castles as the ultimate static defence (and equity investment) had come to an end. Guns were soon seen as the “must-have” item for every respectable European sovereign — from novelty to necessity in under a century. The problem, however, was that such guns were terribly expensive, incredibly difficult to move, and damned dangerous, as one Scottish sovereign (James II) found out to his permanent detriment in the 1450s.

From the very beginning, gunpowder was a logistical and manufacturing nightmare. It was sensitive to moisture. It exploded unexpectedly. The ratio of ingredients was the subject of constant debate. Its explosive power from batch to batch was unpredictable, leading to ruptured cannon or unexploded loads. Saltpetre (typically recovered from manure piles where two strains of bacteria exude nitric acid as a by-product) was always in very short supply. War had suddenly become a lot more expensive, and complicated and unpredictable for kings and nations.

In the late 15th century, the handling and preparation of gunpowder improved by experiment. By adding a small amount of liquid to gunpowder, and grinding it very finely, the resulting crumbly mixture provided substantially more explosive power and a lowered hygroscopic (water-attracting) property. This useful discovery immediately triggered another round of cannon explosions from over-powdering. The history of gunpowder turns out to be the history of dangerous and inadvertent experimentation. Survivors came away with a bit more information and a continued healthy respect for the substance. To handle the improved powder, cannon were now forged as single blocks with thickened breeches (bases), and muzzle-loaded with iron (rather than stone) ammunition. Trunnions (the small metal stubs at the sides of cannon) appeared, allowing the rapid mounting, moving and adjusting of cannon. A further innovation in gunpowder manufacture lead to “corned” powder — packed and rolled into small balls. Counter-intuitively, gunpowder explodes more effectively if there are small spaces between the grains of powder. Large spaces for large cannon and small spaces for smaller guns.

It was the development of corned powder that was to lead to the first wave of handheld gunpowder projectile weapons — the muskets and arquebuses of the early 1500s, matched by innovations like the wheel-lock ignition system. By 1530, 25 pound muskets appeared which could fire a ball that would penetrate all cavalry armour. The dominance of the horse-mounted armoured noble knight on the battlefield was rapidly coming to an end.

During the 16th century, the broader impact of gunpowder was making itself felt in the design of fortifications, the design and arming of ships, the development of fireworks for entertainment and the evolution of gunpowder for mining and industrial purposes. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was to usher in the 17th century with a vivid demonstration of gunpowder’s ability to influence political change. As the century progressed, gunpowder was to trigger another round of military innovation. Mobile field artillery was to be used in support of columns and rows of carefully trained infantry. The inherent inaccuracy of muskets meant that volleys of weapons were the only way to have significant impact. There was stagnation in the design of both cannon and handheld weapons from the mid-1600s until well in the 19th century. Casualties on the battlefields had reached such horrendous levels that “optimizing” weapons seemed unnecessary. While initial trajectory research can be found as far back as 1531 in Italy, it wasn’t until the mid-1700s that an Englishman began to test cannon and guns under controlled conditions. As it was, the results of his investigations weren’t put immediately into effect.

It was the French, and indirectly the Americans, that were to benefit from the first scientific and industrial focus on gunpowder. After the death of Louis XV, an inventory of French gunpowder holdings identified a critical shortage. Nobleman Lavoisier was placed in charge of the French Gunpowder Administration and proceeded to rationalize the acquisition of ingredients (including always short-stocked saltpetre) and the manufacture and storage of powder. This rapid expansion in quality and quantity of gunpowder was to appear just as the American colonies began their rebellion. The virtual absence of gunpowder mills in the colonies meant that control of British stores, and the acquisition of rebel supplies, were to drive the strategy and military tactics for both sides of the Revolutionary War. French gunpowder was as important to American success as any other contribution of men and material. Careful husbandry of powder by the Americans was constant right through to the war’s end.

Ironically, the French Revolution was to trigger yet more focus on gunpowder supplies and manufacture. In the course of the social turmoil released by that Revolution, the Du Pont family emigrated to the United States in 1800 — taking with them a paterfamilias trained by Lavoisier. Setting up their gunpowder mill in Wilmington, Delaware with the latest factory equipment (provided at good interest rates by the French), the Du Ponts generated their first gunpowder in 1804 (22 tons) and never looked back. The Du Ponts were to bring gunpowder innovation to the Americas and in turn were to benefit for decades from the expansion of the western frontier, the mining industry, and, of course, the American Civil War. At mid-century, much of the world’s supply of mined saltpetre was to be found in English-controlled India. The Du Ponts raced to sign long-term contracts for all they could buy in the opening days of the American Civil War. The Confederacy had similar engineering prodigies at work, creating state-of-the-art gunpowder mills and applying gunpowder in a new, and rather frightening, range of weapons.

American gunpowder rapidly came to match and then excel continental supplies. The Du Ponts were methodical in their efforts to both discover and develop innovations in the manufacture of gunpowder. And during the 1800s, the first stirrings of modern chemistry were to work hand in hand with the efforts of the powder men. Granulation and grinding of gunpowder was no less dangerous than earlier times but the explosive power and dependability of the product was vastly increased. Powder now came in grains ranging in size from granulated sugar to rice kernels, each meant for different-sized guns. The finest gunpowders were primers, replaced more and more in the 19th century by “fulminates” which were to appear in the new percussion cap handheld guns. The 19th century was the era of weapon innovation — the use of rifling, innovative projectile design, cartridges, revolvers, repeating rifles, and machine guns. An amazing array of industrial and scientific effort was focused on the use of gunpowder and the design of weapons. It was the application of “American methods” however … standardized parts and assembly in factory settings … that was to revolutionize weapons far faster than gunpowder itself.

The discovery of nitrocellulose (or guncotton) in 19th century Europe was the first hint at the end for “black powder.” In rapid succession, nitroglycerin, blasting caps, and dynamite were developed and applied to military and industrial processes. The incredible explosive power of these materials was to trigger years of great anxiety. How could these substances be safely transported and used? In the mid-1800s, Europeans discovered how to “plasticize” guncotton and a new wave of “smokeless powders” loaded in brass cartridges with fulminate primers quickly replaced muzzle-loaded black-powder weapons. This was now the era of “cordite” (the British variant of plasticized guncotton). Ironically, the final major use of gunpowder in Western war was by the US Army in the Spanish-American War. Within months, however, they’d converted to smokeless powder. Gunpowder held on in the mining industry until the 1950s because of its ability to offer a “soft explosion” needed with some minerals. Du Pont closed their last black powder factory in the 1970s. Today gunpowder’s remaining use is as a source of entertainment — the fireworks beloved by people around the world during celebrations — no more than a fused bag of gunpowder which launches a round aerial shell containing yet more powder and the metal shavings needed to create colour.

Gunpowder’s role in theories about the Anglosphere are rather peripheral. It is a European story, in which Britain had a modest role to play. There was rarely a time when the English-speaking world held any kind of monopoly in the use of gunpowder or development of weapons. The British and Americans showed no great gifts in innovation. Yet once the industrial revolution kicked in, the Anglosphere was able to apply gunpowder in military and industrial settings to great effect. The necessary disciplines of gunpowder in manufacture, storage, and application, were a fine fit with the kind of culture being developed in the Anglosphere. When these countries ranged East in the 19th century, they met an Asian society that was still using the cannons forged by the Portuguese 200 years before. The outcome was inevitable. Like glass, gunpowder was to be the obsession of the elite in Europe, and elite sponsorship was to relentlessly drive development of gunpowder and weapons for six centuries.

Pivotal Dates in Gunpowder’s Historical Role

Edward III in France 1346 uses “shock and awe” at Crecy
Charles VII recaptures France from English 1435-50 with superior gunnery
Mehmet II takes Constantinople 1451-3 with massive siege guns
Charles VIII in Italy 1494 takes Naples and northern Italy through gun superiority
Portuguese (Da Gama) dominates in Indian Ocean (Calicut in 1498), capturing spice trade from Arabs
Americans in Revolutionary War very constrained by the lack of indigenous powder supplies. French play crucial role.

4 thoughts on “Kelly — Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards and Pyrotechnics”

  1. One often overlooked consequence of of gunpowder weapons is that they required the development of financial institutions that could raise and manage the money needed to create, maintain and supply the weapons.

    Edged weapons, once created, last for centuries but gunpowder decays. It requires an active and dynamic infrastructure to make efficient use of gunpowder weapons. The military success of the Dutch republic had a great deal to do with their development of banks, joint-stock companies, insurance and proto-democratic taxation that made it possible to produce large amounts of gunpowder on demand. The British Navy owed its success as much to the development of the Naval Board as it did to actual technology.

    In other regions of the world, gunpowder weapons often became the domain of highly centralized powers who used them primarily in the static defense of large cities. They couldn’t make enough gunpowder to employ gunpowder weapons on a large scale beyond fixed bases.

    Arguably, the need to finance gunpowder weapons and long range trade drove the development of capitalism and democracy.

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