We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.
Materials

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

What is Black Powder?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated: May 17, 2024

Black powder is an explosive that is made by mixing ground charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter. Until the middle of the 19th century, it was the primary explosive used for firing guns, making fireworks, and blasting in mines and quarries. It has since been supplanted by more efficient and stable explosives, although it is still used by enthusiasts of antique guns and some special effects specialists. Black powder is available through several manufacturers, although this easily combusted substance is dangerous enough that ownership and transport of it is restricted in some regions.

The earliest black powder was developed by the Chinese in around the ninth century CE. The Chinese used it for firearms and fireworks, along with other applications, and it slowly spread into the West. As firearms grew more sophisticated, the use of this explosive grew more widespread, until the development of other explosives like smokeless gunpowder and nitroglycerin.

A basic black powder recipe has 75% potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. These ingredients are ground to create a uniformly textured powder, which will have a varying burn rate, depending on the size of the grains of powder. One of its major flaws is that, when combusted, these ingredients create particulate pollution and the sulfur tends to break down into a corrosive compound that can be hard on the weapons it is used in.

One of the most classic uses of black powder is in firearms, where it is used to propel the bullet. It burns very rapidly, and in the confined environment of a gun barrel, it produces an explosion of hot, rapidly expanding gases that force the bullet out. Modern bullets incorporate their explosive charges into their casings, but traditional weapons must be packed with powder, wadding, and shot in a painstaking process that could be dangerous in the chaotic conditions of a battle.

In fireworks, black powder can be mixed with various colored substances. It has also historically been used as an explosive charge in mining and to roughly shape stones for masonry, although this use has since been abandoned in favor of safer, more reliable explosives. Modern enthusiasts of antique weapons sometimes gather together for black powder shoots and other events which celebrate the heritage of this weaponry. Many modern formulations are designed to produce less residue and pollution, making them more pleasant to use.

About Mechanics 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.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By stolaf23 — On May 08, 2011

When these sorts of weapons are referred to in books, they usually just call it "powder", rather than black powder, when it is used in weapons. I suppose the distinguishing name is used now because there are so many more types of ammunition now.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
Share
About Mechanics, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

About Mechanics, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.