A team of researchers has just completed a series of tests on some medieval gunpowder recipes. Apparently in the name of science, this study aimed to understand the intention of the master artillerymen in creating certain recipes from black powder. And it wasn’t done for real hell, honestly.
Gunpowder, also known as black powder, was first recorded as being used in anger around 900 in China. Shortly afterwards, knowledge of things spread throughout Eurasia, finally becoming a common occurrence in 13th-century Europe.
Much obsolete today (it was replaced by things like cordite in the 1800s), it is still used today in things like fireworks, pyrotechnics and some historical firearms.
Its introduction into Europe led to a literal explosion in gunpowder-based weapons, from artillery to very early firearms. During this period, the gunpowder formula was experimented with and refined by specially skilled traders called master artillerymen to make it more powerful and safer to use.
It is these recipes that the researchers decided to analyze in court by recording the relative amount of energy released during the burning of each recipe. Hoping that in this way researchers can trace the process of trial and error in the evolution of gunpowder over time.
Gunpowder, in case you are not aware, is a combination of specific ratios of potassium nitrate (or “nitrate”), sulfur and coal. In the Middle Ages, artillery masters would also mix other additives such as camphor, varnish or brandy for unclear purposes.
For this purpose, Dawn Rigner, Cliff Rodgersand their team of chemists and historians wanted to analyze the energy of medieval gunpowder recipes to understand the intention of the master artillerymen in creating these formulas. It is also hoped that the information gathered will be able to provide important technical information for the early production of gunpowder.
Blowing things up for science
Reigner, Rodgers, and their team identified more than 20 different gunpowder recipes from surviving medieval texts dated between them. 1336 to 1449 AD Using these historic mixtures of black powder, the researchers created them correctly according to the original instructions.
Each mixture is then measured to evaluate its energy content immediately before and during combustion using differential scanning calorimetry and bomb calorimetry. The team also tested several of the recipes at West Point, using a replica of an early 15th-century stone-throwing cannon.
In the end, it would be rude not to do so.
So what were the results? The team’s analysis of different types of gunpowder from the period showed that between 1338 and 1400 AD the relative percentage of nitrate increased while coal decreased.
This resulted in lower heat of dust combustion, which would make them safer to work for shooters from this period. After about 1400 AD. The relative content of nitrate (which is also the most expensive component) begins to gradually decrease.
The sulfur and charcoal content increased, which led to an increase in combustion powders, although not as much as earlier recipes.
Other seemingly strange additions, such as camphor and ammonium chloride appear to have been added to enhance the gunpowder. However, others, such as water or brandy, did not show energy benefits, but could serve other purposes.
For example. the team theorizes that it may have done gunpowder more stable for transportation or long-term storage.
However, these theories, as the research team acknowledges, will require some fieldwork on the shooting range, rather than laboratory analysis, to be tested properly.
How convenient? You can see the original research paper at American Chemical Society (ACS).