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History of gunpowder

  Gunpowder was the first and only known chemical explosive until the invention of others—nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, smokeless powder and TNT—in the 19th century.



        The prevailing academic consensus is that gunpowder was discovered in the 9th century by Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality: clearly, they found something completely different.[2] The discovery of gunpowder was probably the product of centuries of alchemical experimentation.[3] Saltpetre was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD, and there is strong evidence of the use of saltpetre and sulfur in various largely medicinal combinations.[4] A Chinese alchemical text from 492 noted that saltpeter gave off a purple flame when ignited, providing for the first time a practical and reliable means of distinguishing it from other inorganic salts, making it possible to evaluate and compare purification techniques.[3] The earliest Arabic and Latin descriptions of the purification of saltpeter do not appear until the 11th century[5] and 13th century respectively.[3][6]

The first reference to gunpowder is probably a passage in the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe (真元妙道要略), a Taoist text tentatively dated to the mid-800s:[3]

Some have heated together sulfur, realgar, and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down.[7]

The discovery of gunpowder in the 800s and the subsequent invention of firearms in the 1100s both coincided with long periods of disunity, during which there was some immediate use for infantry and siege weapons.[3] The years 904–906 saw the use of incendiary projectiles called 'flying fires' (fei-huo).[8][9][10] Needham (1986) argues that gunpowder was first used in warfare in China in 919 as a fuse for the ignition of another incendiary, Greek fire. The earliest depiction of a gunpowder weapon is a mid-10th century silk banner from Dunhuang that shows a fire lance, precursor of the gun.[11] The earliest depiction of a gun is a sculpture from a cave in Sichuan dating to the 1100s of a figure carrying a vase-shaped bombard with flames and a cannonball coming out of it.[12][13] The oldest gun ever discovered, dated to 1288, has a muzzle-bore diameter of 2.5 cm; the second oldest, dated to 1332, has a muzzle-bore diameter of 10.5 cm.[14][15][16]

The earliest surviving recipes for gunpowder can be found in the Wujing Zongyao[3] of 1044, which contains three: two for use in incendiary bombs to be thrown by siege engines (48.5% saltpetre, 25.5% sulfur, 21.5% others; 50% saltpetre, 25% sulfur, 6.5% charcoal and 18.75% others) and one intended as fuel for poisonous-smoke bombs (38.5% saltpetre, 19% sulfur, 6.4% charcoal and 35.85% others).[17][18] Many early mixtures of Chinese gunpowder contained toxic substances such as mercury and arsenic compounds. Printed editions of this book were made from about 1488, and in 1608 a hand-copied edition was made.[19]

The formulas in the Wujing zongyao range from 27 to 50 percent nitrate.[20] Experimenting with different levels of saltpetre content eventually produced bombs, grenades, and mines, in addition to giving fire arrows a new lease on life.[3] By the end of the 12th century, there were cast-iron grenades filled with gunpowder formulations capable of bursting through their metal containers.[21] An agglomeration of 60% saltpetre, 20% sulfur, and 20% charcoal that dated to about the late 13th century was unearthed in the city of Xi'an.[22] The 14th century Huolongjing contains gunpowder recipes with nitrate levels ranging from 12% to 91%, six of which approach the theoretical composition for maximal explosive force.[20] Zhang (1986) argues that the use of gunpowder in artillery as an explosive (as opposed to merely an incendiary) was made possible by improvements in the refinement of sulfur from pyrite during the Song Dynasty.

As early as the 11th century, the government of the Song Dynasty was concerned that foreign enemies might break its monopoly on gunpowder technology. The Song Shi of 1345 records that, in 1067, the Song government prohibited the people of Hedong (modern-day Shanxi and Hebei) from selling to foreigners any form of sulfur or saltpetre.[23] In 1076 the Song government went further, issuing a ban on all private commercial transactions involving saltpetre and sulfur, for fear that they would be sold across borders, and creating a government monopoly on their production and commercial distribution.[23]

The origin of rocket propulsion is the 'ground-rat,' a type of firework whose use was recorded in 1264 when they frightened the Empress-Mother Kung Sheng at a feast held in her honor by her son the Emperor Lizong.[24] The 14th-century text of the Huolongjing illustrates and describes a Chinese multistage rocket with booster rockets that, when burnt out, ignited a swarm of smaller rockets issuing forth from the front of the missile shaped like a dragon's head.[25] Along with rockets, the Huolongjing also described explosive land mines and naval mines.[26]

  In 1260, the personal arsenal of Song Dynasty Prime Minister Zhao Nanchong caught fire and exploded, destroying several outlying houses and killing four of his prized pet tigers.[27] The Gui Xin Za Zhi of 1295 records that a much bigger accident took place at Weiyang in 1280, at an arsenal used primarily for the storage of trebuchet-launched bombs:

Formerly the artisan positions were all held by Southerners (i.e., the Chinese). But they engaged in peculation, so they had to be dismissed, and all their jobs were given to Northerners (probably Mongols, or Chinese who had served them). Unfortunately, these men understood nothing of the handling of chemical substances. Suddenly, one day, while sulfur was being ground fine, it burst into flame, then the (stored) fire lances caught fire, and flashed hither and thither like frightened snakes. (At first) the workers thought it was funny, laughing and joking, but after a short time the fire got into the bomb store, and then there was a noise like a volcanic eruption and the howling of a storm at sea. The whole city was terrified, thinking that an army was approaching...Even at a distance of a hundred li, tiles shook and houses trembled...The disturbance lasted a whole day and night. After order had been restored, an inspection was made, and it was found that a hundred men of the guards had been blown to bits, beams and pillars had been cleft asunder or carried away by the force of the explosion to a distance of over ten li. The smooth ground was scooped into craters and trenches more than ten feet deep. Above two hundred families living in the neighborhood were victims of this unexpected disaster.[27]

In the year 1259, the official Li Zengbo wrote in his Ko Zhai Za Gao, Xu Gao Hou that the city of Qingzhou was manufacturing one to two thousand strong iron-cased bomb shells a month, dispatching to Xiangyang and Yingzhou about ten to twenty thousand such bombs at a time.[28] In the 13th century, the Mongols conquered China and with it the technology of gunpowder.[29] The use of cannon and rockets became a feature of East-Asian warfare thereafter, as Song China's enemies captured valuable craftsmen and engineers and set them to the task of crafting comparable weapons.[30] After 1279, most guns taken from the major cities were kept by the Mongols. In 1330s, a Mongol law prohibited all kinds of weapons' being in the hands of Chinese. However, it was restricted to civilians, who didn't usually carry weapons.[31] An account of a 1359 battle near Hangzhou records that both the Ming Chinese and Mongol sides were equipped with cannon.[32] The low, thick city walls of Beijing (started in 1406), were specifically designed to withstand a gunpowder-artillery attack[33], and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421, because the hills around Nanjing were good locations for invaders to place artillery.

In the 13th century, contemporary documentation shows that gunpowder was beginning to spread from China to the rest of the world, starting with Europe[34] and the Islamic world.[35]

Islamic world

Main article: Muslim military technology


Potassium nitrate (saltpetre) has been known in Arabic alchemy and chemistry since the 8th century under various names such as natrun, barud, or "Chinese snow". The first Arabic work with a purification process for saltpetre was the al-Muqaddimat, an Arabic medical work written by the Arab physician Ibn Bakhtawayh in 1029.[5] Saltpetre came to be known in later Arabic sources as "Chinese snow" (thalj al-Sīn) and, soon afterward, Muslim chemists and engineers learned of gunpowder, and also learned of fireworks ("Chinese flowers") and rockets ("Chinese arrows").[36][35]

The earliest known complete purification process for potassium nitrate is described in 1270 by the Arab chemist and engineer Hasan al-Rammah of Syria in his book al-Furusiyya wa al-Manasib al-Harbiyya (The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices), where he first described the use of potassium carbonate (in the form of wood ashes) to remove calcium and magnesium salts from the potassium nitrate.[37][38] Al-Rammah also described the earliest known recipes for an explosive gunpowder effect, some of which were almost identical to the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder used in modern times (75% saltpetre, 10% sulfur, 15% carbon), such as the tayyar "rocket" (75% saltpetre, 8% sulfur, 15% carbon) and the tayyar buruq "lightning rocket" (74% saltpetre, 10% sulfur, 15% carbon). He states in his book that many of these recipes were known to his father and grandfather, hence dating back to at least the late 12th century. The earliest known military applications of these explosive gunpowder compositions were the explosive hand cannons first used by the Egyptians to repel the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, and again in 1304. There were four different gunpowder compositions used for the cannons at the battles, with the most explosive cannon having a gunpowder composition (74% saltpetre, 11% sulfur, 15% carbon) again almost identical to the ideal composition for explosive gunpowder. The compositions for an explosive gunpowder effect were not known in China or Europe until the 14th century.[39][40]

The earliest torpedo was also first described in 1270 by Hasan al-Rammah in The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices, which illustrated a torpedo running with a rocket system filled with explosive materials and having three firing points.[41]

The first major use of gunpowder is claimed to have been in the year 1118 trying to break the Firanjah from occupying Zaragoza,[42] then in 1260 in the Battle of Ain Jalut. The Arabs are reported to have used rockets on the Iberian Peninsula in 1249; and in 1288 rockets attacked Valencia.[citation needed] Ibn Khaldun mention the use of a cannon in the year 1274 during the siege of Sijilmasa.

Although gunpowder weapons were employed in the Middle East, they were not always met with open acceptance, as there was some antagonism by the Mamluks of Egypt towards early riflemen in their infantry.[43] The refusal of their Qizilbash forces to use firearms contributed to the Safavid rout at Chaldiran in 1514.[43]


Gunpowder arrived in India by the mid-1300s, but could have been introduced by the Mongols perhaps as early as the mid-1200s.[44]

It was written in the Tarikh-i Firishta (1606-1607) that the envoy of the Mongol conqueror Hulegu Khan was presented with a dazzling pyrotechnics display upon his arrival in Delhi in 1258 AD.[45] Firearms known as top-o-tufak also existed in the Vijayanagara Empire of India by as early as 1366 AD.[45] From then on the employment of gunpowder warfare in India was prevalent, with events such as the siege of Belgaum in 1473 AD by the Sultan Muhammad Shah Bahmani.[46]

In 1848, Professor Wilson, speaking to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta (of which he was Director), said that:

The question as to the knowledge of gunpowder or any similar explosive substance, by the ancient people of India is one of great historical interest. It is clear from their medical works that they were acquainted with the constituents of gunpowder, and possessed then in great abundance : and our acquaintance with their literature, is as yet, too imperfect to warrant a reply in the negative because we have not met with a positive account of the invention.[47]
The claim that gunpowder was invented in ancient India has been assessed more recently by Asitesh Bhattacharya.[48] He discusses Gustav Oppert's work on the Sukraniti, a manuscript which contains references to firearms and gunpowder; Bhattacharya accepts Oppert's dating, which would place the composition of the Sukraniti before Chinese documentation of gunpowder:[49]
No Chinese work on this question can, with respect to antiquity, be compared to Sukraniti, so that even if the Chinese should have independently invented gunpowder, the claim as to its priority of invention will remain with India.[49]
Based on those same references to firearms and gunpowder, Rajendra Lal Mitra and P.C. Ray push forward the dating of the Sukraniti, in Mitra's case, to no earlier than the 16th century.[50] Gopal (1962) argues that the Sukraniti was composed in the 19th century, following V. Raghavan who suggested that the Sukraniti was, in Gopal's words, "forged by a Pandit in the nineteenth century to please some Sahab enthusiastic about old texts".

Bhattacharya mentions that P.C. Ray and P.K. Gode questioned the antiquity and origination of gunpowder in India, and that H.W.L. Hime concluded that 'early Indian gunpowder is definitely a fiction'.[51]

Bhattacharya himself concludes that:
Various passages in ancient Sanskrit texts coupled with the availability of the raw materials for gunpowder manufacture present significant circumstantial evidence that the ancient Indians may have discovered gunpowder and its applications in fireworks and firearms, independently and early.[51]


        One theory of how gunpowder came to Europe is that it made its way along the Silk Road through the Middle East; another is that it was brought to Europe during the Mongol invasion in the first half of the 13th century.[52][53] Numerous contacts occurred between Christians and Mongols through a Franco-Mongol alliance in the 13th century, culminating with the 1259-1260 military alliance of the Franks knights of the ruler of Antioch Bohemond VI and his father-in-law Hetoum I with the Mongols under Hulagu, in which they fought together for the conquests of Muslim Syria, taking together the city of Alep, and later Damas.[54] William of Rubruck, an ambassador to the Mongols in 1254-1255, a personal friend of Roger Bacon, is also often designated as a possible intermediary in the transmission of gunpowder know-how between the East and the West.[55]

The earliest European reference to gunpowder is found in Roger Bacon's Epistola de secretis operibus artiis et naturae from 1267.[53][56] The oldest written recipes for gunpowder in Europe were recorded under the name Marcus Graecus or Mark the Greek between 1280 and 1300.[57]

In 1326, the earliest known European picture of a gun appeared in a manuscript by Walter de Milemete.[58] On February 11 of that same year, the Signoria of Florence appointed two officers to obtain canones de mettallo and ammunition for the town's defense.[59] A reference from 1331 describes an attack mounted by two Germanic knights on Cividale del Friuli, using gunpowder weapons of some sort.[58] The French raiding party that sacked and burned Southampton in 1338 brought with them a ribaudequin and 48 bolts (but only 3 pounds of gunpowder).[58] The Battle of Crécy in 1346 was one of the first in Europe where cannons were used.[60] In 1350, only four years later, Petrarch wrote that the presence of cannons on the battlefield was 'as common and familiar as other kinds of arms'.[61]

References to gunnis cum telar (guns with handles) were recorded in 1350, and by 1411 it was recorded that John the Good, Duke of Burgundy, had 4000 handguns stored in his armory.[62] However, musketeers and musket-wielding infantrymen were despised in society by the traditional feudal knights, even until the time of Cervantes (1547-1616 AD).[43] At first even Christian authorities made vehement remarks against the use of gunpowder weapons, calling them blasphemous and part of the 'Black Arts'.[63] In an ironic twist, by the mid 14th century, even the army of the Pope would be armed with artillery and gunpowder weapons.[63]

Around the late 14th century, European powdermakers began adding liquid to the constituents of gunpowder to reduce dust and with it the risk of explosion. The powdermakers would then shape the resulting paste of moistened gunpowder—known as mill cake—into "corns," or granules, to dry. Not only did "corned" powder keep better because of its reduced surface area, gunners also found that it was more powerful and easier to load into guns. The main advantage of corning is that each corn contains the ideal proportion of the three gunpowder components. Prior to corning, gunpowder would gradually demix into its constitutive components and was too unreliable for effective use in guns [64]. The same granulation process is used nowadays in the pharmaceutical industry to ensure that each tablet contains the same proportion of active ingredient. Before long, powdermakers standardized the process by forcing mill cake through sieves instead of corning powder by hand.[65]

The 15th through 17th century saw widespread development in gunpowder technology mainly in Europe. Advances in metallurgy led to portable weapons and the development of hand-held firearms such as muskets. Cannon technology in Europe gradually outpaced that of China and these technological improvements transferred back to China through Jesuit missionaries who were put in charge of cannon manufacture by the late Ming and early Qing emperors.

Shot and gunpowder for military purposes were made by skilled military tradesmen, who later were called firemakers, and who also were required to make fireworks for celebrations of victory or peace. During the Renaissance, two European schools of pyrotechnic thought emerged, one in Italy and the other at Nürnberg, Germany. The Italian school of pyrotechnics emphasized elaborate fireworks, and the German school stressed scientific advancement. Both schools added significantly to further development of pyrotechnics, and by the mid-17th century fireworks were used for entertainment on an unprecedented scale in Europe, being popular even at resorts and public gardens.[66]

Civil engineering


Until the invention of explosives, large rocks could only be broken up by hard labour, or heating with large fires followed by rapid quenching. Black powder was used in civil engineering and mining as early as the 15th century.[35] The earliest surviving record for the use of gunpowder in mines comes from Hungary in 1627.[35] It was introduced to Britain in 1638 by German miners, after which records are numerous.[67] Until the invention of the safety fuse by William Bickford in 1831, the practice was extremely dangerous.[68][69] Another reason for danger was the dense fumes given off and the risk of igniting flammable gas when used in coal mines.


The first time gunpowder was used on a large scale in civil engineering was in the construction of the Canal du Midi in Southern France.[69] It was completed in 1681 and linked the Mediterranean sea with the Bay of Biscay with 240 km of canal and 100 locks. Another noteworthy consumer of blackpowder was the Erie canal in New York, which was 585 km long and took eight years to complete, starting in 1817.[69]

Tunnel construction

Black powder was also extensively used in railway construction. At first railways followed the contours of the land, or crossed low ground by means of bridges and viaducts; but later railways made extensive use of cuttings and tunnels. One 800-metre stretch of the 3.3 km Box Tunnel on the Great Western Railway line between London and Bristol consumed a tonne of gunpowder per week for over two years.[69] The 12.9 km long Mont Cenis Tunnel was completed in 13 years starting in 1857, but even with black powder progress was only 25 cm a day until the invention of pneumatic drills sped up the work.

The latter half of the 19th Century saw the invention of nitroglycerin, nitrocellulose and smokeless powders, which soon replaced black powder in many applications.

See also

  • Black powder substitute
  • Elizabethton, Tennessee
  • Gonne
  • Green mix
  • Gunpowder warfare
  • Jiao Yu
  • Meal powder
  • Technology of Song Dynasty
  • Huolongjing


  1. ^ "The Genius of China", Robert Temple
  2. ^ Bhattacharya (in Buchanan 2006, p. 42) acknowledges that "most sources credit the Chinese with the discovery of gunpowder" though he himself disagrees.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Chase 2003:31–32
  4. ^ Buchanan. "Editor's Introduction: Setting the Context", in Buchanan 2006.
  5. ^ a b al-Hassan ()
  6. ^ Kelly 2004:23–25
  7. ^ Kelly 2004:4
  8. ^ Gernet, Jacques (1996). A History of Chinese Civilization, Trans. J. R. Foster & Charles Hartman, 2nd, Cambridge University Press, p. 311. “The discovery originated from the alchemical researches made in the Taoist circles of the T'ang age, but was soon put to military use in the years 904–6. It was a matter at that time of incendiary projectiles called 'flying fires' (fei-huo).” 
  9. ^ Feng 1954:15-16
  10. ^ Zhong 1995:60
  11. ^ Needham 1986:220–262
  12. ^ Lu, Needham & Phan 1988
  13. ^ Chase 2003:31-32
  14. ^ Needham 1986:290
  15. ^ Zhong 1995:193-194
  16. ^ Wang 1991:50-58
  17. ^ Kelly 2004:10
  18. ^ Xu 1986:29
  19. ^ Feng 1991:461
  20. ^ a b Needham 1986:345
  21. ^ Needham 1986:347
  22. ^ Liu 2004:47-50
  23. ^ a b Needham 1986:126
  24. ^ Crosby 2002:100–103
  25. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 510.
  26. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 192–199.
  27. ^ a b Needham 1986:209–210
  28. ^ Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 173-174.
  29. ^ Liu 2004:46-47
  30. ^ Ebrey, 138.
  31. ^ Wang 1991:48
  32. ^ Kelly 2004:17
  33. ^ Wang 1991: 103-115
  34. ^ Kelly 2004:23–25
  35. ^ a b c d Urbanski 1967, Chapter III: Blackpowder
  36. ^ Needham 1986:108
  37. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Potassium Nitrate in Arabic and Latin Sources, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  38. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Military Treatises In Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  39. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Gunpowder Composition for Rockets and Cannon in Arabic Military Treatises In Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  40. ^ Ahmad Y Hassan, Technology Transfer in the Chemical Industries, History of Science and Technology in Islam.
  41. ^ Arslan Terzioglu (2007). "The First Attempts of Flight, Automatic Machines, Submarines and Rocket Technology in Turkish History", The Turks (ed. H. C. Guzel), p. 804-810.
  42. ^ Islamset (in Arabic)
  43. ^ a b c Khan 2004:6
  44. ^ Chase 2003:130
  45. ^ a b Khan 2004:9-10
  46. ^ Khan 2004:10
  47. ^ Bhattacharya (in Buchanan 2006, p. 43) is quoting a summary of Wilson from Elliot 1875, p. 481, in footnotes.
  48. ^ Bhattacharya. "Gunpowder and its Applications in Ancient India", in Buchanan (2006).
  49. ^ a b Bhattacharya in Buchanan 2006, p. 44.
  50. ^ Gopal, Lallanji (1962). "The Śukranīti—A Nineteenth-Century Text". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 25 (1/3): 524-556..
  51. ^ a b Bhattacharya in Buchanan 2006, p. 49.
  52. ^ Norris 2003:11
  53. ^ a b Chase 2003:58
  54. ^ "Histoire des Croisades", René Grousset, p581, ISBN 226202569X
  55. ^ "The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization", John M.Hobson, p186, ISBN 0521547245
  56. ^ Kelly 2004:25
  57. ^ Kelly 2004:23
  58. ^ a b c Kelly 2004:29
  59. ^ Crosby 2002:120
  60. ^ Kelly 2004:19–37
  61. ^ Norris 2003:19
  62. ^ Norris 2003:8
  63. ^ a b Norris 2003:12
  64. ^ Molerus, Otto. "History of Civilization in the Western Hemisphere from the Point of View of Particulate Technology, Part 2," Advanced Powder Technology 7 (1996): 161-66
  65. ^ Kelly 2004:60–63
  66. ^ "Fireworks," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
  67. ^ Earl 1978, Chapter 2: The Development of Gunpowder
  68. ^ Earl, (1978). Chapter 1: Introduction
  69. ^ a b c d Brown (1998), Chapter 6: Mining and Civil Engineering


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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "History_of_gunpowder". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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