gunpowder history

Gunpowder's History: From Explosive Apron to Military Force

The history of gunpowder began during the pursuit of immortality in early Chinese history, an ironic twist on its eventual application.

An alchemist combined a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, and when heat or flame was introduced, its ignition sent shockwaves that reverberated throughout centuries of military and civilian forces.

Chinese Implementation Of Saltpeter - The Original Gunpowder


Saltpeter was a component of black powder. It can be found in decaying animal excrement as potassium nitrate and within specific mineral deposits formed by climate interactions.

As a chemical compound, it is potassium, oxygen and nitrogen. Once the sulfur and carbon are ignited, the resulting energy pulls apart the potassium nitrate compound and a resulting explosive energy can be concentrated in the right space as a propellant for projectiles.

Despite its rapid ignition and expulsion of gas from a fine granular substance, its discovery didn't immediately lead to weaponization, as it was used in fireworks. It was first referenced around 142 AD during the Han Dynasty.

Its use in warfare was prominent around the Tang Dynasty.

Arrows were equipped with the powder substance as an incendiary tool meant to light the impacted target on fire.

Bombs, catapults and eventually huo qiang or "fire lances" came into being. These fire lances occurred between the 10th and 12th centuries and were a prototypical firearm.

The idea was that gunpowder would be loaded into a bamboo tube and ignited, ejecting a projectile like an arrow or metal ball at a target. The bamboo was updated to brass and iron by the end of the 13th century.

Around this time, its proliferation as a warfare tool found its way to the Silk Road, through India and the Middle East and to Europe, with each region developing and implementing its own application of the technology.

Gunpowder In The Middle Ages

middle ages gunpowder

As war between the Mongol and Chinese armies implemented siege units to hurl bombs, Arabic records show recipes of purification practices for gunpowder around the mid-1200s, referring to one application of it as "Chinese snow."

An Islamic hand cannon was recorded during the 14th century around when gunpowder found its way to Europe, with sources indicating the Silk Road as the infrastructure that brought it there.

The application of "guns" was still primitive around the 1300s, with records in Europe showing arrows blasting from tubes and hand cannons launching metallic balls. India, Korea and Japan implemented similar tactics around this time. To be expected, ammunition's shelf life has increased dramatically since those times.

Large artillery implemented black powder, and Germany began development of the arquebus — massive rifles requiring a forked rest. The matchlock system had a rope soaked in saltpeter that burned outside the barrel and eventually ignited propellant in the rifle.

It found use as a tool in canals, mines, and tunnels for its explosive qualities — previously a job siloed only to hard physical labor.

How Gunpowder Composition And Granularity Changed

composition of gunpowder

The granularity of gunpowder and how fine it was affected the rate at which it burned, and the shape of the grains found different application and function in explosives.

Several weaknesses negatively impacted its efficacy as a propellant — moisture affected ignition, smoke gave away a shooter's position, the metallic compounds were corrosive on equipment.

Advancements in gunpowder application sought to improve the projectile's velocity and efficacy, as well as the expansion of gas and pressure inside the barrel, which was a byproduct of black powder. There was a transition in size of granule to control the burn rate of powder as the projectile advanced down the barrel.

We have a more comprehensive guide on the anatomy of ammunition to check out as well!

Black powder was reassessed in the late 19th century as guncotton gained prominence in the 1860s. Guncotton and types of nitrocellulose decompose rapidly and expel gas and pressure progressively for more effective combustion.

There is less internal pressure on the firearm, there's improved muzzle velocities, it's more easily stored than black powder and there's less gas emitted.

Nitrocellulose was developed by nitrating cellulose fibers like cotton with nitric or sulfuric acids, and was later stabilized through more testing and experimentation.

It was initially discovered by Christian Friedrich Schönbein, a German chemist who discovered it in a kitchen when he used his wife's apron to wipe up spilled nitric and sulfuric acid. After the apron disintegrated, he began to develop what came to be nitrocellulose.

Modern gunpowder is either single-base (nitrocellulose alone) or a double-base (nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin). The quality of the ammunition is subject to debate as well, with most of the controversy covering factory ammunition. It's cut into square granules or grains and its burn rate is controlled by altering its composition, size and shape.

Jake Smith  

About The Author

Jake Smith (@notjakesmith) is a copywriter and photographer based in the Pacific Northwest who enjoys shooting pictures and ammunition outdoors.

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