Monthly Archives: April 2013


Gunpowder developed as a weapon in China about 1000 CE (common era, formerly designated AD) although it has been used for pyrotechnics as far back as 100 BCE (before the common era, formerly BC).

Weapons use probably started with fire arrows, small tubes of bamboo attached to arrows that fizzed smoke and fire. A logical next step was bombs, essentially large firecrackers.

The next development in gunpowder weaponry may have been fire lances, larger tubes of burning gunpowder that spew fire and sparks at enemy combatants.

With better quality and purity, gunpowder grew more explosive, resulting in the easy step of adding shrapnel to the fire lance. Soon, the bamboo tubes would be replaced with metal ones.

By the end of the thirteenth century, an enclosed projectile could be thrown by the exploding gasses confined in a tube. The gun was born. No longer was the smoke and fire the resulting weapon. The projectile was the payload.

This technology had reached Europe by the thirteenth century. Its use only limited by the quality of ingredients and by metallurgical constraints of the gun barrel.


Gunpowder is comprised of only three ingredients: potassium nitrate (saltpeter), charcoal and sulfur in a ratio of 75%, 15% and 10%.

Sulfur ignites at a low temperature (261 degrees) starting the explosive process. This starts the charcoal burning and breaks down the saltpeter which, consisting of Potassium and Oxygen, releases pure oxygen. This then accelerates the burning/exploding of the charcoal. The heat of this reaction produces massively expanding black gases. If constrained, this becomes an explosion.

The charcoal is easily made from wood: just burn with insufficient air. The physical structure of the wood is important for the charcoal to easily pulverized as well as to have a low ash content. Willow is a common source (and is used as a traditional artists’ medium) as well as alder, hazel wood or grape vines.

Sulfur was more difficult to find. It’s an element, so it’s either geologically available or not. Prior to refining sulfur from petroleum products or natural gas, it had to be found as a solid in the ground near hot springs and volcanic regions.

Sicily was an important source in the medieval world. Its purity was variable, but it could be easily purified. One method was to heat impure sulfur in a clay pot, the vapors given off were directed by a clay pipe to another pot where the fumes condensed into pure sulfur.

Saltpeter was even more difficult. Its chemical name is potassium nitrate, having a potassium ion attached to a nitrate ion. The nitrate ion consists of three oxygen atoms bonded to one nitrogen. Saltpeter is very soluble and is released from organic matter. One common source was privies and compost heaps from which, if protected from the weather, small amounts of saltpeter leached to the surface. The resulting white crust was saltpeter.


Once the ingredients were obtained, the next step was mixing them into the actual gunpowder. First the ingredients were mixed by mechanical or hand blending.

Next the mixture is ground into a microscopically fine homogeneous powder. Considerable heat can be produced, so this material was always kept moist.

In the third step, the material is pressed into cakes, producing a denser compound.

Finally, the cakes are granulated between crusher rolls. Screens are used to separate the grains. The end product is uniform mixture of black powder in the appropriate grain size. This last is important in that the size of the particles determine the rate of burning. For example, in larger cannon, larger grained gunpowder was used while rifled guns used finer grained powder.

Final Thought

Making gunpowder was a highly technical development. The chemistry wasn’t understood until the 19th century when it was discovered that the nitrate provided oxygen for the reaction.

The critical development in the use of gunpowder was metallurgical, the development of iron of sufficient quality to contain the exploding powder long enough to allow a projectile to be accelerated out of a gun or cannon.


Not-so-primitive Primitive Skills

In this day of hectic life and massive technology overload, many people find relief looking back to their cultural heritage, ancient coins or even archaeology. Old is interesting.

One area of growing interest is Primitive Skills, learning how one can live off the land as did our far distant ancestors. My own interest in archaeology and ancient Native American life lead me to spend several weeks in various Skills classes, schools and gatherings. One thing I discovered was that there is not very much “primitive” in Primitive Skills.

Most early societies were hunter/gatherers, heavy on the gathering. These First Peoples would need to not only know which plants were eatable or poisonous, but also their seasonal availability. One example is Camus root (1). This plant was harvested in the autumn by early northwest Native Americans, but has a toxic look-alike, unsurprisingly called Death Camas (2). Differentiating these two plants would test the knowledge of any modern day Biologist. Although I know that, side by side, the Camas leaves have a more prominent leaf ridge and the Death Camas leaf is smoother, I’m not about to dig up its bulb without a guide book with lots of pictures. Being wrong is being dead wrong.

Various plant products could also be medicinal, from pain relief to antibacterial properties. One well-known example is the bark of the Willow tree, used for the reduction of pain and fever. Aspirin was one of the first modern days pharmaceuticals made from a common plant source. Nowadays, large drug companies routinely send PhD researchers into “wild” places to try to re-discover ancient sources of medicine. My skill in pharmaceuticals is limited to using crushed Curly Dock (3) for skin rashes resulting from accidentally walking through a patch of Stinging Nettles.

Weapons would be needed for hunting animals as well as to defend reliable foraging territories. One such early weapon was the atl-atl (4), or spear thrower. This tool is a forearm long shaft grasped at one end and hooked at the other, and is used to “throw” a long flexible dart, or lightweight spear.
drawing of man holding an atl-alt and dart
The extra leverage during the throw increases the velocity of the dart. The physics of the energy loading of this flexible spear has only recently been studied (5). As for my skills at hunting with the Atl-atl and dart, it’s good that my family is not depending on me to bring home a Wooly Mammoth for dinner.

Providing a projectile tip for the atl-atl dart, or even for a simple knife-edge, is a rightly refined technology in itself. Not any rock can be broken into sharp edges, and very few of those are suitable to be thinned and sharpened by knapping (6), or pressure flaking. Years of practice are required to proficiently produce projectile points, knifes or scrappers. I can usually produce a tip or knife with a few hours work, but the results are erratic and lots of good rock wasted.

Hands hold a hammer stone and chunk of obsidian
Rock before (left hand holding obsidian, right hand holding a hammer stone)

Hand position for pressure flaking obsidian
Rock after (left hand holding obsidian point, right hand holding antler pressure tool)

Once one had mastered the rather refined skill of acquiring animal protein and edible plants, the next step is starting a fire. Cooked food, likely an accidental byproduct of a lightning strike, made survival easier by increasing the digestibility of complex carbohydrates and proteins (7). But lightning strikes are not reliable and certainly not safe. A separate accidental observation provided the clue to a safer method. Perhaps wanting a hole in his/her favorite walking stick or ornament, an enterprising ancestor used a rapidly rotating wood “drill”. Someone noticed that the resultant hot wood dust produced a glowing ember. This was then refined into a reliable method of fire production (8).
Drawing of proper position of hands using a bow drill in order to form a burning ember
Work equals heat, as taught in college Physics classes. And our pre-historic ancestors put this in daily practice.

As with any subject of learning, the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know. The only thing “primitive” about ancient primitive skills is the level of a typical modern man’s understanding of those skills used by our ancestors in their daily life.

1. Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, (Lone Pine Publishing, Revised Edition, 2004), page 108
2. Pojar, Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, page 109
6. John C. Whittaker, Flintknapping, Making & Understanding Stone Tools (University of Texas Press, 1994)

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