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What is Gunpowder?

Niki Acker
Updated May 16, 2024
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Gunpowder is an explosive material traditionally made of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate or saltpeter. It is used in fireworks and was once used as a propellant in firearms, though nowadays, a different kind of gunpowder is more common. Since the original recipe for gunpowder, also called black powder, released a lot of smoke when it exploded, a smokeless powder consisting of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin is now preferred for use in most firearms.

Gunpowder is an ideal explosive for firearms because it is a low explosive, powerful enough to expel a bullet but not to damage the gun. It was developed in China in the 9th century by Taoist monks or alchemists seeking an elixir of life, and the Chinese soon adapted its use to the first firearms. Europe and the Middle East both acquired gunpowder by the 13th century and began manufacturing cannons. Another important use of gunpowder, fireworks, were developed in China in the 12th century as a means of frightening evil spirits, and by the 17th century, they were a common form of entertainment in Europe.

In the late 14th century, Europeans began "corning" gunpowder by mixing it with liquid and shaping it into small granules or corns. This process improved the consistency of gunpowder, which otherwise tended to separate into its component parts and become unusable, and reduced dust. It also allowed the gunpowder to burn and explode more uniformly, as before corning, gunpowder far from the flame would often be expelled from the gun before it ignited.

Despite the important innovation of corning, traditional gunpowder still presented a problem in that it smoked heavily when ignited, causing visibility problems on the battlefield. The first smokeless powder, called guncotton, was invented in 1846 by Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schönbein. This original smokeless powder was unstable and dangerous, however, and viable smokeless powders were not developed until the 1880s.

The first successful smokeless powder was Poudre B, developed in 1884 by Paul Vieille. Poudre B was quickly followed by Ballistite, created in 1887 by Alfred Nobel, and Cordite, modified from Nobel's formula by Frederick Abel and James Dewar. Smokeless powder is now used almost exclusively in firearms, to the point that most references to gunpowder can be taken to refer to the smokeless variety.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon998363 — On May 23, 2017

Gunpowder did come from the Chinese, and it was not used for attacking purposes, but to light fireworks and such for entertainment. Also, Chinese pills of immortality often ended the lives of many emperors very quickly, having those pills contain dangerous and poisonous things, such as Mercury.

By stl156 — On Apr 15, 2012

@Izzy78 - That is a great point and definitely something to think about.

What would be great to know is if there are instances in which the Chinese did try to harness the power of their invention in order to use it for war purposes.

I know that even when the British decided to use gunpowder as a weapon they put the gunpowder in buckets and made some ill conceived type of cannon that did little damage and it still took awhile for them to develop something that could be used practically in battle.

I would imagine the Chinese did attempt this but did not have the technology to have their weapons be practical.

It would be great to know if people have heard anything about the Chinese using gunpowder early on as a weapon or at least tried to.

By Izzy78 — On Apr 14, 2012

@JimmyT - I do not buy too much into that thought that the Chinese would have conquered a lot more than what they did had they used gunpowder as a weapon.

The key to anything that can be used in battle is harnessing its power and that probably took hundreds of years in order to accomplish.

It is easy to say they could have fired rockets at the enemy that they could have controlled, but would this have really done any more damage?

I would have to say it would not have, as the rockets they were creating with gunpowder back then were probably not powerful enough to kill someone and they would need a lot of it to create a powerful explosion.

Also, they saw gunpowder as a way to keep evil spirits away, so there was a spiritual aspect to this gunpowder that they probably did not want to take into battle with them.

By JimmyT — On Apr 13, 2012

@TreeMan - I have to agree that this does seem very odd. I would imagine that someone in China had tried to convert the gunpowder to be used as a weapon, but they could not find the right way to use it.

I imagine they had trouble converting it in a way that they could easily control it to be used in battle, but then again I am just surprised that it lasted as just a form of entertainment for so long and they did not realize the potential that their invention had.

I really have to wonder if they were able to harness this invention how much advance they would have had in their military conquests and if the world would be a much different place than today?

By TreeMan — On Apr 12, 2012

I once heard from my high school history teacher that the Chinese had invented gunpowder and that they had control over their invention for hundreds of years until the British were able to get a hold of it.

He also said that the Chinese did not see gunpowder as something that they could use on the battlefield, but rather as something that could be used for entertainment purposes or even in some instances where they needed to make a fire.

I find this really strange that they would not see the usefulness of something in battle and would not realize it for hundreds of years.

I just find this to be quite strange considering it was hundreds of years before it was converted to be used as a weapon.

By goldenmist — On May 07, 2011

How ironic that it was first developed by alchemists seeking an elixir of life and ended up being more famous and commonly used to end lives. Good article.

By roser — On May 05, 2011

I guess this explains why you never see smoke billowing out of the barrel of a gun anymore, like in old westerns movies.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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