Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, advanced by modern science and without it, the world would be a totally different, if not better place. At any rate, the fact of the matter is it is a gunpowder that drives the whole world of firearms and without it, we would still be shooting the bow and arrow or throwing rocks for everything that required being shot at.
I first got interested in gunpowder as a little kid on the family farm. My uncle who worked at a special development lab in the big city close to the farm had an interest in building cannons, I don’t mean little toy cannons here, but real two inch through four inch guns.
Building a working field piece was one thing, but getting the propellant to make it the fire was part two of the equation, and therefore I watched with great interest the amount of care that went into making black powder for use in his big bore field cannons.
The first thing to understand about the gunpowder is that there are two basic types, and each is very different from the other. Black powder is onto itself and is very dangerous as a pure base explosive. Any amount of static electricity.
Or general spark from even the heel of a work boot nail on cement can set the stuff off. Gun powder does not need to be compressed into a container to be explosive in mature. The stuff just retains massive energy in even the loose form, like being dumped on a rag and set off with a match.
General purpose fireworks both large and small are made using black powder. Every year in the USA hundreds of people are hurt very seriously or even killed during the holidays that allow the shooting off of rockets, bombs, and other related pyrotechnics.
Currently in American black powder requires special handling by retail sellers. This is because the stuff is so volatile, that it is not safe when displayed on the general store shelf. It's also used in blasting powder for mining and excavation, which gives you an idea of how powerful this stuff can be.
Modern black powder is offered in pellet form and loose in the can. Pellets are made as a slightly different mixture then is offered in standard black powder. The pellets manufactured by Hodgdon are called Triple 7 are very safe to use under normal shooting conditions.
This gunpowder is smokeless in that it gives off no excess smoke, but it remains the energy burn and pressure range of normal black powder.
Other loose powders in pure black powder come in burn rates which are designed for handguns, rifles, and shotguns. The numbered designation is F, FF, FFF, and each type has its own purpose.
When my uncle made gunpowder it was only one type and that was the standard AKA black powder. This powder is not hard to manufacture from some a simple mixture of some common almost household items. I could always tell when he was making powder because he would have several long plastic trays set in the afternoon warm sun baking away moisture from the manufacturing process.
So you want to make gunpowder? Making homemade black powder will require three ingredients. The first is saltpeter ( also known as potassium nitrate,) the is second is charcoal (raw, not processed), and the third is sulfur.
Homemade charcoal can be made for use in gunpowder by grinding traditional hard wood or soft wood charcoal to refine grain material. If you'd rather skip the hassle, look for activated charcoal - it's more expensive because it has medicinal applications, but it's already ground into a fine powder when you buy it, which is one less step you need to worry about. Just don't use treated charcoal - lump wood is fine but you don't want any other chemicals involved.
The other two can be obtained in a bulk from a quality supplier, such as dudadiesl.com. Potassium nitrate can also be found in a few other places if you prefer not to buy pure saltpeter in bulk - it is sold as stump remover in most home and garden sections, and it can also be sourced by cutting open cold packs used to relieve muscle aches and pains - the reaction in a cold pack is caused by a mixture of water and potassium nitrate.
You can use a dry mix or wet, and I recommend using a wet process by adding water to the mixture and allowing it to form a paste that can be dried out and crumbled - when it's mixed this way it really incorporates all the components more evenly and creates a more consistent burn.
Fun fact: some old timers prefer to make gunpowder entirely from scratch, which is a much more elaborate, time consuming affair - including a mixture of wood ash, manure, straw, bat guano, and stale urine, which takes up to 10 months to create.
This method is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but there is something to be said for the ability to know how to make gunpowder from square one in a potential survival situation where the supply chain needed for the easier method may break down.
You never know if it might be your only option!
In addition to all the ingredients listed above, you are also going to want the following tools:
While there are a few ways to approach the recipe, a good gunpowder mix should end up looking like the following ratio: 75% potassium nitrate / salt peter, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. Whether you are dealing with a batch size of one pound or one hundred, the ratio stays the same.
A mix example is 5 ounces potassium nitrate, 0.9 ounces charcoal, and 0,8 ounces sulfur. Now it's time to start actually making some gunpowder.
Working in a well ventilated area, start by grinding each of the components separately your ball mill. If you don't have access to a ball mill, use a mortar and pestle or a bowl and any other blunt object to hand grind the components and then filter them through a sieve a couple times to mix everything evenly and get rid of any big chunks.
You could also stir it by hand, but having some way to filter out bigger pieces makes for a much more consistent finished product.
Once you've got powdered charcoal and sulfur and saltpeter, combine them all together.
As a side note, how long you choose to grind the mixture depends on how fine you want the finished gunpowder - some people let the mixture grind in the ball mill for up to twelve hours, which creates a very fine powder that burns very evenly.
You don't technically need to grind it that fine, but it's always a good idea to remove as many variables as possible when dealing with anything that has explosive properties.
If you're doing a wet blend, once the grind is done and it's mixed, just add water, set out and allow to dry completely. After drying break down and grind to dust. Remember, this is now a completed explosive mix and static electricity, extreme heat, or one spark source will set the materiel off. All that is left is to store it in a cool, dry, non-metallic container.
What About Smokeless Gunpowder?
If you're wondering what about smokeless powders found in modern ammunition my advice is to forget it. This is a base of nitrocellulose, as well as other stuff. Making it requires a full laboratory setting, and commercial ability to gain access to specific and advanced chemicals. It is a much more powerful propellant and it thus extremely dangerous. Use common sense and stick to the store bought stuff.
A Note On Safety
Also, be advises that this article is no way any legal go ahead to make black powder. Some places in the USA don’t allow making the powder at all and treat it like homemade explosives, and others only allow small amounts to be in your possession.
Also again this is a dangerous material to work with or even store safely. Smokeless powder is a propellant and builds gas over a slow burn time. The stuff goes bang all at once total release of all of its energy even in its loose non compressed form.
These are explosive materials capable of causing third degree burns and even death when exposed to heat, flame, or sparks. This can not be emphasized enough for your safety.
For my money, I would stay with the modern smokeless BP substitutes. Pyrodex and Triple 7 are solid performers with modern muzzle loading rifles and are safer to use. I can generate muzzle velocities as good as many large bore rifles in centerfire fix ammunition types.
When it comes to my Hawken 50 caliber ball and cap rifle the loose black powder substitutes also produce solid ballistics when used on big game.
Uses For Homemade Gunpowder
So why make gunpowder? All that stated the purest muzzle loading hunter, or target shooter, will always want the real stuff in their powder horns.
We shooters even use this good stuff in the western reenactments during staged train robbery's in the Black Hills for old time days in the State of South Dakota.
The real thing develops heavy white smoke, is very loud with a massive muzzle flash, and fills the air with the raw smell of burning sulfur. Just like gunfights of old.
Commercially I have seen black powder used to blow out rattle snake dens in mass, and also used for stump blasting versus using dynamite.
If you've ever wondered what it would take to make your own gunpowder, we hope this article has been informative.
Whether it's preparing for a survival situation, shooting black powder weapons like muzzleloaders, or an interest in reenactment, learning how to make gunpowder can be a rewarding and educational activity that also saves you money - and as long as you follow some common sense safety guidelines, it's not nearly as risky as it sounds.