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Medieval gunpowder packed a modern punch...

Discussion in 'General Gun Discussions' started by Mike Irwin, Sep 10, 2003.

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  1. Mike Irwin

    Mike Irwin Member

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    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.
     
  2. CWL

    CWL Member

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    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?
     
  3. TallPine

    TallPine Member

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    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
     
  4. jdege

    jdege Member

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    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).
     
  5. Frohickey

    Frohickey Member

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    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.
     
  6. C.R.Sam

    C.R.Sam Moderator Emeritus

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    Be kinda cool if the government sponsered hole self torched. :D

    Sam
     
  7. Chipperman

    Chipperman Member

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    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.
     
  8. BigG

    BigG Member

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    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:
     
  9. Quartus

    Quartus Member

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    :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.
     
  10. hksw

    hksw Member

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    I can see it now. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms Explosives and Farm Animals.

    $200 stamp for a Rhode Island Red.
     
  11. Mal H

    Mal H Administrator

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    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. ;)
     
  12. 4v50 Gary

    4v50 Gary Moderator Staff Member

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    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.
     
  13. Mike Irwin

    Mike Irwin Member

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    But you don't get calcium nitrate out of a cesspit, do you?

    That's potassium nitrate.
     
  14. Mal H

    Mal H Administrator

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    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.)
     
  15. Cal4D4

    Cal4D4 Member

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    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.
     
  16. Don Gwinn

    Don Gwinn Moderator Emeritus

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    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.
     
  17. bobs1066

    bobs1066 Member

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    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.
     
  18. Keith

    Keith Member

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    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
     
  19. gun-fucious

    gun-fucious Member

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    Heck, Saruman the White brewed up some powerful fire of orthanc in his day

    Blewed up Helms Deep real goood!
     
  20. 2nd Amendment

    2nd Amendment member

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    Regarding penguins...

    [​IMG]
     
  21. Mike Irwin

    Mike Irwin Member

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    "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.
     
  22. cracked butt

    cracked butt Member

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    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.
     
  23. Majic

    Majic Member

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    I find it amazing that everytime someone re-invents the wheel they are actually surprised that it still works.
     
  24. Khornet

    Khornet Member

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    Wasn't that early powder

    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.
     
  25. scotjute

    scotjute Member

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    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.
     
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