Medieval gunpowder packed a modern punch...


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Mike Irwin
September 10, 2003, 04:12 PM
From Reuters science news...

But crap, it's hard to figure out just what's going on. This article is almost gibberish! Calcium nitrate?

"Medieval Gunpowder Packed a Modern Punch

Wed Sep 10,10:47 AM ET Add Science - Reuters to My Yahoo!

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Medieval gunners knew a thing or two their modern day counterparts might find surprising, producing gunpowder of equal potency to that in use today, a scientist said on Wednesday.

A mixture of charcoal, saltpeter and sulfur -- the recipe for gunpowder used by Edward III's gunners as his armies rampaged across France in the 14th century -- equaled the explosive force of the 20th century version, Robert Smith of Britain's Royal Armories told reporters.

"At the moment we are a bit gobsmacked at how good the medieval gunpowder is," he said at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (news - web sites). "It is almost as good as modern gunpowder."

He said the discovery happened by chance as he and his colleagues experimented with replica medieval guns using modern powder and then compared it with its 700-year-old predecessor.

Inspired by the discovery, and aware they were using modern materials rather than the less pure ingredients that would have been available to Edward's gunners, Smith and his colleagues have set about trying to recreate the exact conditions.

To this end they have dug a three meter square pit in a recreated medieval village in southern Denmark and filled it with chicken manure, pigs' urine and straw.

From this concoction Smith hopes they will be able to extract the saltpeter -- calcium nitrate -- of the day, throw in the other ingredients and wait for the big bang.

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CWL
September 10, 2003, 04:26 PM
Are they trying to say that if we mix charcoal, saltpeter (potassium nitrate) and sulphur in the same quantities today as they did in the 14th Cent., we'd get something that explodes? :confused: Seems to me that the same formula used would yield the same results no matter what year it was (after calculating out modern methods of removing impurities).

These brainiacs surely couldn't be comparing blackpowder/gunpowder to modern explosives like TNT or plastiques?

TallPine
September 10, 2003, 04:30 PM
Sniff ... sniff ....

This research smells like it has a government grant behind it.

Now, what I really want to know about is the gastrointestinal fauna of the South American swamp rat .... :D

jdege
September 10, 2003, 04:38 PM
It's quite possible that some of the impurities may have made the old stuff more powerful than mixing modern pure chemicals.

Would a 70-15-10-5 mix of KCl, C, S, and CaCl be more powerful than the standard mix of 705-15-10 KCl, C, and S?

I don't know - but if someone claimed that result, I'd not immediately disclaim it.

(On the other hand, if a reporter quotes a researcher as saying that black powder is made from CaCl, I'd figure that the report misunderstood, and didn't know what the hell he was talking about).

Frohickey
September 10, 2003, 04:42 PM
Journalist not seeking an expert opinion, and making himself look stupid.

Saltpeter is potassium nitrate, not calcium nitrate.

Also, medieval gunpower that is better than modern propellants, hardly. You'd be cleaning so often that its pretty much the same as the old stuff, because IT IS the old stuff.

C.R.Sam
September 10, 2003, 05:25 PM
and filled it with chicken manure, pigs' urine and straw. Be kinda cool if the government sponsered hole self torched. :D

Sam

Chipperman
September 10, 2003, 05:26 PM
I made an amazing discovery today! I dropped my pen, and.... it FELL TO THE GROUND!

Hundreds of years after Newton, and Gravity still works!! :neener:


Another big drawback of the "old powder" is the huge amount of smoke generated. After a few rounds, you can't see the target anymore.

BigG
September 10, 2003, 05:39 PM
At least if they are throwing money down a hole [drumroll] they are doing it for a purpose I can support. Hardly can say that too often about the gummit. :D

PS. No wonder that smells funny. I allus said BP smoke smelled like an outhouse. Now I know why! :what:

Quartus
September 10, 2003, 05:51 PM
Now, what I really want to know about is the gastrointestinal fauna of the South American swamp rat ....



:confused: You want to know something about Peter Jennings? :confused:




:D



Calcium and potassium are pretty close chemically. Don't know why calcium nitrate wouldn't work pretty much the same as potassium or sodium nitrate. If I get a chance, I'll ask a couple of chemists I know.

hksw
September 10, 2003, 08:18 PM
I can see it now. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms Explosives and Farm Animals.

$200 stamp for a Rhode Island Red.

Mal H
September 10, 2003, 08:44 PM
Saltpetre is kind of a catch all name for a nitrate. Lime saltpetre (calcium nitrate), potash saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and Chile saltpetre (sodium nitrate) have all been used in explosives over the centuries.


jdege - I think your formulas would yield only a black smelly salt mixture. ;)

4v50 Gary
September 10, 2003, 09:07 PM
Digging up manure for saltpetre? Gee, sounds like what the Confederacy was doing during the family feud (as well as our patriots during the Big Eviction).

BTW, British made blackpowder of the American Revolution was about 10-15% weaker than that of the Napoleonic Era. Maj. Congreve, the jolly fellow who reintroduced rockets to Western armies, supervised and imposed higher quality standards on the ingredients. Because of the increased power of a charge, many guns needed to be reproofed to ensure the safety of it. It was found that many faulty barrels that were once accepted after proofing had their flaws concealed by hammering or patching over the bulge. Fissures would reopen upon reproof (or bulges bulge once again). Lesson - shoddy workmanship is timeless; that is, that it been happening since time immemorial and will continue to happen.

Mike Irwin
September 10, 2003, 09:22 PM
But you don't get calcium nitrate out of a cesspit, do you?

That's potassium nitrate.

Mal H
September 10, 2003, 09:29 PM
Sort of depends on what the pit is in, doesn't it? Frinstance, limestone. A good portion of Denmark is limestone. I know that only because the man in charge of digging the Storbaelt tunnel in Denmark told me so. (He is also a very close friend.)

Cal4D4
September 10, 2003, 10:02 PM
If I recall my misspent youth, the biggest drawback with Calcium Nitrate was it's increased hygroscopic properties. Very dry is very good when it's in your chamber or flashpan. I think the fouling might be worse with the Calcium Nitrate mix also.

Don Gwinn
September 10, 2003, 10:21 PM
Remember, these guys are not considering fouling, cleaning, corrosion or much of anything else. They measured the "power" of the powder. In those terms, it's utterly unsurprising that it would equal "modern" black powder.


Of course, producing equal power in no way makes it equal. The old steam engines used on the farm were pretty powerful, but they also tended to spike pressure and explode, sending iron fragments through the nearest farmers at high speeds. In no way could that be considered "nearly the equal" of a modern diesel engine making similar power but with almost no chance of a catastrophic explosion.

bobs1066
September 10, 2003, 10:22 PM
IIRC, I read that a couple of years ago a British group funded a study to see if penguins fell over backwards when they watched airplanes flying overhead. A pricey trip to the Ice for some researchers and a lot of video of penguins looking up.
That may just be an internet legend, but it's a grand tale none the less.

Keith
September 10, 2003, 11:08 PM
My understanding was that the biggest problem with medieval gunpwder was that it was essentially, dust. It compacted together and burned poorly. Once they learned to pelletize it so the flash could travel through the charge, the efficiency (and power) increased dramatically.

Keith

gun-fucious
September 10, 2003, 11:58 PM
Heck, Saruman the White brewed up some powerful fire of orthanc in his day

Blewed up Helms Deep real goood!

2nd Amendment
September 11, 2003, 12:19 AM
Regarding penguins...

http://www.pangracs.com/Crap/slap.gif

Mike Irwin
September 11, 2003, 01:13 AM
"Sort of depends on what the pit is in, doesn't it?"

I don't know. Does it?

Can you get calcium nitrate just by salting the dung pit with limestone?

I wouldn't think so, but I don't know.

To get potassium nitrate you don't salt the pit with potassium... That comes from the waste.

cracked butt
September 11, 2003, 03:14 AM
Potassium nitrate kNO3 comes from the dung and manure, it is very soluble in water- which is probably how its extracted from the manure, urine etc. Calcium Nitrate Ca(NO3)2 probably could be formed by adding limestone CaCO3 to a solution of KNO3 and water -but I'm not sure, I'm only a pharmaceutical chemist and haven't used much inorganic chemistry in years:D
Calcium nitrate would most likely be an ingredient in gunpowder in small traces not as a substitute for potassium nitrate, main reason being that its very hygroscopic- draws moisture from the air. Wet gunpowder doesn't work so well. On the other hand, it would contain a greater weight of nitrogen and oxygen per pound potentially making it a better explosive ingredient than potassium nitrate.
Other stuff that could come from a medieval waste pit would be sodium nitrate which would be the most similar to potassium nitrate.

My bet is that the only thing that has really changed in the last 500 or so years is not so much the ingredients, but how they are mixed and handled. Simply mixing the stuff in a slurry and allowing it to dry would give you a fair explosive, but more careful and thorough mixing the material into a homogeneous solid and granulating it would give a much better explosive.

Majic
September 11, 2003, 05:21 AM
I find it amazing that everytime someone re-invents the wheel they are actually surprised that it still works.

Khornet
September 11, 2003, 09:47 AM
called serpentine? It was a dry mixture of the three ingredients, so that with settling the relative proprtions could vary in each charge. It was only later that they learned to make a paste with water, dry it, and mill into the granules we know as blackpowder today.

scotjute
September 11, 2003, 10:06 AM
There are several variations to the gunpowder formula. My impression is that the current formulas used by the major black powder manufacturers are not necessarily the most powerful, but are considered the most useful to commercially produce for use in black powder firearms.

Joe Demko
September 11, 2003, 10:09 AM
Instead of all this yawping about what fools those pointy-headed intellectuals are, shouldn't someone express a little pleasure that somebody in Britain still has an interest in weapons?

cracked butt
September 11, 2003, 11:20 AM
Instead of all this yawping about what fools those pointy-headed intellectuals are, shouldn't someone express a little pleasure that somebody in Britain still has an interest in weapons?

I think their interest almost lies along the lines of gaping at a horrible traffic accident;)

Probably in a generation or two from now a military historian/archaiologist will take a look at a Lee Enfield and be amazed at how great of a rifle it is. There won't be anyone left there that has any experience with the weapon:what:



On a fun note, I watched a Brittish documentery about how two groups of Brittish engineers and craftsmen each built a trebuchet to compete in a contest to knock down a replica of a castle wall built by yet another group of craftsmen. They used only tools and materials that were available 700-800 years ago and built a pair of very bitchin siege engines that could accurately throw a huge stone ball several hundred yards
:D

BigG
September 11, 2003, 11:23 AM
Instead of all this yawping about what fools those pointy-headed intellectuals are, shouldn't someone express a little pleasure that somebody in Britain still has an interest in weapons? Not to blow my own horn, but.. OK I will: toot! I expressed satisfaction about it quite a while ago. :neener:

Quartus
September 12, 2003, 06:42 PM
TOOTT TOOT! for BigG!

7 extra brownie points for you today, sir!


:D

WilderBill
September 12, 2003, 07:19 PM
No doubt that the homebrewed blackpowder recreation is the very best powder available...


for a medival firearm.
Anything better would be dangerous to these intrepid explorerers!

GinSlinger
September 13, 2003, 12:34 PM
It was only later that they learned to make a paste with water, dry it, and mill into the granules

IIRC, Serpentine (sp?) was mixed with urine. Specifically human urine, and sources indicate that urine collected at "taverns" was the best. Wonder if those scientists will be following the recipe that close? "Okay, mates, join around the Watley's--it't time to make some urine."

GinSlinger

C.R.Sam
September 14, 2003, 12:49 AM
Guiness Extra Stout for magnum loadings.

I would imagine that in the very very early days....strength was bellcurvish. A lot of it adequate. Some of it weak or useless. And some of it broke things cause it was too good.

Sam

HankB
April 8, 2005, 09:21 AM
IIRC, Serpentine (sp?) was mixed with urine. Specifically human urine, and sources indicate that urine collected at "taverns" was the best. I once read that early powder had to be "consecrated" by the urine of a priest to keep the devils away. (It smelled of brimstone, the mark of Hell, so something "holy" was needed.)

Of course, this wasn't done for free . . .

In addition to the safety of mixing powder wet instead of dry, there's also the benefit of more thorough compounding. No matter how fine a Medieval alchemist would grind the charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter, he'd still get a mixture of three different powders. BUT if it's done WET, the saltpeter partially dissolves ("All nitrates are soluble") and thoroughly impregnates the other ingredients. They found ways of drying the powder slurry which resulted in granules, which further improved performance. (IIRC this was done by extruding the slurry through a sieve.)

Given the basic formula, there's not really much room for improvement in performance, though I expect uniformity is a bit better today.

20cows
April 8, 2005, 11:45 AM
Serpentine powder is what you get by just pulverizing the ingredients to a fine powder separately and mixing them together "dry". It was not as efficient and fouling was a major drawback as not all the saltpeter burned and crysalized in the bore. Mixing the ingredients "wet" made the mixture much more homogeneous and burn much more completely.

The calcium salt residue is a much greater fouling problem (not as soluable) than the sodium or potassium salts. Also, the reactivity of the calcium nitrate would be, I believe, a lot less than that of potassium or sodium. Perhaps this is a situation where the journalist does not know come here from sick'em nor potassium nitrate from calcium nitrate and reported that part in error.

I teach a little science on the side, but I was a geology major, not chemistry.

RyanM
April 8, 2005, 12:49 PM
IIRC, in the 15th century or so, the Vietnamese discovered that cylindrical grains burned better in cannons, and used molds of some kind to squish wet-mixed black powder into long, cylindrical grains.

mfree
April 8, 2005, 12:58 PM
calcium nitrate == deliberate obfuscation, to thwart the high school kiddies with too much time on their hands?

20cows
April 8, 2005, 01:20 PM
"calcium nitrate == deliberate obfuscation, to thwart the high school kiddies with too much time on their hands?"

EURICA! THAT'S IT!

As a physical science teacher who liked to make things go boom in demonstrations, I believe that is very likely.

Preacherman
April 8, 2005, 01:37 PM
I once read that early powder had to be "consecrated" by the urine of a priest
Hmmm... maybe I've been ignoring a potential source of income! :D

Bart Noir
April 8, 2005, 02:11 PM
Preacherman, only if you are a Roman Catholic priest! The Protestant Reformation forever changed the industry of powder making. There is an obscure German saying that roughly means, "Use priestly pizzle or get cannon powder fizzle." Very obscure, I might add :)

Bart Noir

20cows
April 8, 2005, 02:38 PM
Does it rhyme in both languages?

Standing Wolf
April 8, 2005, 06:06 PM
At the moment we are a bit gobsmacked at how good the medieval gunpowder is...

All right. I give up. When did "gobsmacked" become a scientific term?

Roadkill
April 8, 2005, 09:08 PM
I read somewhere that the ingredients caused a lot of casualties from sickness when the soldiers in the War of Northern Aggression bit off the end of the paper cartridges to pour the powder down the barrel. Now I know why. After an engagement you could recognize the fighters because of the black around their mouths.

rk

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