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blackpowder-msg - 2/5/96


Making and using gunpowder and variants in the SCA and period.


NOTE: See also the files: siege-engines-msg, firearms-msg, slings-msg, p-handgonnes-lnks, crossbows-msg, axes-msg, archery-msg, weapons-msg, pottery-wepns-msg.





This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.


This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium. These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with separate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were removed to save space and remove clutter.


The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the individual authors.


Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these messages. The copyright status of these messages is unclear at this time. If information is published from these messages, please give credit to the originator(s).


Thank you,

    Mark S. Harris                  AKA:  THLord Stefan li Rous

                                          Stefan at florilegium.org



From: tip at lead.tmc.edu (Tom Perigrin)

Date: 5 Dec 91 00:56:26 GMT

Organization: A.I. Chem Lab, University of Arizona


Unto the dearest and most adventurous Winifred de Schyppewallebotham,

doth Thomas Ignatius Perigrinus send his amused greetings;


I humbly salute thy adventerousness in attempting to dye with indigo and

urine!  Thy peradventures should'st stand as a beacon to light our way,

although mayhaps the nose shall lead rather than our eyes?


I am minded of the time I made saltpeter at the Northern California

Rennaisance Faire.  If thou wouldst permit,  may I relate my

tale, which I promise thee, has good humour therein.


I followed the scrip of Birringucchio, 1540.


I took a large barrel, and did bore therein a hole near unto the bottom.

Into this small hole did I affix a bung, so as to draw off the liquors

when they were ripe.  Then I did find me some goodly horse manure which

had dried but not been rained upon.  I specifically searched for that

which was rimed with white.


Of this manure I took and cast a full four fingers depth into my pot,

and then two fingers of ash, and a final finger of lime. This I did

repeat until the earthly matter did come nye unto the top of my barrell.

Then I did invite twenty men all stout and true to add their waters

into my barrel,  which, they being full of goodly ale, they proceeded

to accomplish with alacrity.


I then stirred this goodly brew with a stout stick.  But, as I did stir it,

I did see that many of the larger turds did not dissolve, so casting

aside my shirt,  I did plunge my arms into the vile soup and did break up

the clumps with my hands.  It was at this time that one of the Blue Boys,

Her Majesties own guard, did come unto me , and knowing that I was a man

of martial disposition as to himself, he did ask at what was I adventuring?


So I took out a goodly turd, which being covered by wet ashes and lime, did

seem more like unto a rock than the outfall of a horse, and I did press

it into his hand and say thusly unto him;  "Ifaith, I am assaying to

make saltpeter...  but as you can see, my turds have not broken!"    Stout

fellow he was,  he did blanch for but a moment, and then proceeded to

answer me in like manner, discussing how the dissolution was proceeding.

But mind you,  under his breath he swore to me that I would die afore the day

was through!


Then,  once I had accomplisht my goal, and the whole been reduced to the

consistancy of some diabolical gruel,  I left it to stand in the hot sun

for four and twenty hours.


Upon the next day,  the mass had acheived an excellence of odor which was

surpassing ripe!   And so,  preparing to follow the dictates of learned

Birringucchio,  I prepared myself to draw forth the waters.  I once again

cast off my shirt,  and plunged my hands into the mass to affix a wad

of straw over the hole to act as a filter.  And as I stood near this

vile vat,  two comely but cupshotten women come up unto me,  and

insensate to the evidence of their noses, enquired of me as to the contents

of this evil cauldron.  


Now,  I must admit that these fair women must have been deep into their

cups many times and more that day,  for not only did they fail to smell the

effluvience of this morass,  they also gave evidence of finding me attractive

unto them (remember,  I am lame, bald, and exceedingly ugly!)   So before

I could answer them,  one began to run her fingers up and down my arm

in what could have been a most seductive fashion, had not the arm in question

been lubricated with the combined and fermented waste of horse, man, and fire.


It was but my duty to inform her what she was rubbing her comely fingers

through,  whereupon her collegue did let forth a most amazed laugh, and did

call sport upon the unfortunate one.   This was, mayhaps, unwise,  for the

offended party did turn and assay to clean her fingers upon the shirt of

she who did laugh.


This succeeded in quelling the laughter,  but transmutated mirth to umbrage,

and quickly into a missle of mire which caught the flirtatious one square

upon her shirt.   And thus by degrees did they proceed from shirt to hair, and

unto a rolling catfight interrupted only by the need to refresh their

armamentaria with new handfuls of deadly dung.


Needless to say,  this sight amused me greatly, and caused such mirth amoung

my fellows that we all lay helpless upon the ground, clutching our sides

and rolling with laughter.


Eventually the two by now slime encrusted combatants left, and I proceeded

to drain my broth, and rinsed it twice with water,  and boiled it down to

receive 1 handful of pale brown crystals of saltpeter.   But I must swear,

the making was more rewarding than the salt.


I hope that my tale may have given thee some amusement, and I

remain,   thy dutious and obedient (but, alas, not blue) servant


Thomas Ignatius Perigrinus



From: tip at lead.aichem.arizona.edu (Tom Perigrin)

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: CANNON

Date: 20 Apr 1994 18:07:32 GMT

Organization: Department of Chemistry


v081lu33 at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu (TRISTAN CLAIR DE LUNE/KEN MONDSCHEIN) wrote:


>     I forgot to mention my Brilliant Idea for a cannon.


>     Put an M-80 with a REALLY LONG fuse into a steel trash can. Thread the

> wick out through a hole in the can. Put a soft foam cannonball in. Light the

> fuse. Stand back. BOOM! Don't fire at anyone closer than 20 feet.

>     Or, better yet (since an M-80 can blow your frickin' hand off),

> use an elastic launching system. The "trigger" will be a burnable fuse linked

> to something that will go off with a bang, but the thing will be propelled

> out by the elastic.

>     Or, we have real cannon. The trick is to find a cannonball that won't

> kill the recipient... mayhap a half-charge, with a soft-foam ball?




An M-80 contains flash-cracker powder, made of either chlorate or

perchlorate and aluminum.   The products of such a device are Al2O3, KCl,

and a few other things...   note, at STP these products are solids.   This

means that a M-80 would produce a sudden cloud of high temperature

material, which would quickly cool below it's BP by expansive cooling. This

produces a shock wave, which is a sharp report.  An M-80 would not produce

a large amount of expanding gas.


Black powder consists of KNO3, C, S and a binder.   The products are N2,

CO2, SO2, K2O, and many other products...  note that most of these

compounds are gases at STP.


Blackpowder deflagrates (burns really fast), and has a slightly positive

burn/pressure rate factor.   Black powder, even tightly contained, produces

a rapid burn, and a cloud of gases which remain gaseous even as they

expansively cool.   This produces a push, but not nearly such a sharp



Flash cracker powder doesn't deflagrate, it explodes or detonates depending

on containment, amount, pressure of packing, etc..   Flash cracker powder

has a very high burn/press rate factor, and easily transitions from

explosion to detonation at moderate pressures. This means it produces shock

waves, not pushes...  The shock wave would produce a very high stress on

any container, which is likely to exceed the strain limit, causing

explosive failure.


The interior ballistics of any gun is complex, and is a play off of factors

such as the initial packing density, the dead space, the cross section, the

mass of the projectile, the initial rate of burning of the propellant, the

burn/pressure ratio, etc...   The burning of black powder proceeds slowly

enough that a projectile in a barrel has time to begin moving as the

pressure builds up.   This means that the expanding gases fill an expanding

space, and so the projectile gets a long PUSH rather than a sharp kick.  

This reduces the maximal pressure, and no shock wave is generated to hammer

at the walls of the gun.


This is why a very small amount of flash powder, with an overall lower

energetic  content than a much larger weight of black powder, can blow up a

black powder gun.   The metal can be strained beyonds it's elastic limits

by the shock wave.

Interestingly enough, detonations do not need to be tamped to develop a

shock wave, and a shock wave does not need to be confined on all sides to

propogate as a shock wave, and so a load of flash cracker powder can

destroy a metal barrel even without a bullet loaded on top of the charge.

This can be seen in the pyrotechnics industry - a misfiring mortar shell

with flash-cracker reports (Thunder Shells) can destroy a buried mortar

tube while a misfiring Chrysantymum or Flower shell will often leave the

tube intact.


I own a number of cannons, muskets, and pistoles; from a .780 DeGhyn reprod

musket, to a golf-ball shooting 1450's German Cannon reproduction to a

half-tonne falconette with a 6' barrel and an overall carriage and barrel

length of 11' that shoots 3 pound lead balls over 800 yards.   I also have

mortars capable of shooting tennis balls and concrete filled cans.  


You wonder if we could use a real cannon with a soft projectile and reduced

powder charges.  Well, yes, but I am worried.  These things are not toys!

I could easily take off somebodies hand WITHOUT a projectile just from the

forces of the expanding gases.   I demonstrate this to my cannon crews by

hanging a chicken carcass a foot away from the muzzle of the thing and

setting it off with an unwadded charge.  The chicken is ripped to shreds,

and parts of it fly more than 50 feet away.  This is what would happen to

the hand of a person loading powder into an improperly swabbed bore that

harbored a spark.  Safety is a MUST for these things.   I learned my black

powder drill from the Sealed Knot in England.


I know that a lot of people in the SCA are safety conscious.   But if we

were to ever allow cannon on the feild we would have to have very strict

regulations.  With all due respect, I am afraid that someday, somebody

would get the brilliant idea to use flash-cracker powder instead of

gunpowder, and the resulting shrapnel would kill or wound several people.  

What about the ever present danger of forgotten ramrods?   I have heard of

people who have been injured by flying ramrods that were not withdrawn

prior to firing.   And what about loading weights?   We all know the kind

of person who thinks "lets add a bit more powder".   I had to fire one of

my helpers at Arizona Renn Fest who was overcharging his piece without

understanding the safety factors involved.


Overall,  I think it is a Very Bad Idea to place M-80's in steel trash cans

and then place projectiles on top it them.   While black powder can be used

safely, (I have literally fired off thousands of shots without mishap) I am

concerned about large numbers of people using real cannons and black powder

in melee situations.


Besides...   do you really want guys running around with TRASH CANS and

large nerf balls on the field?    I really have a difficult time imagining

that this would look right. Somehow the idea evokes images of Circus Clowns

in my mind...


It is also inappropriate, since cannons were mostly used as seige weapons

until after our period, and very seldom were used in field engagements.


I am an ardent black powder enthusiast.  Most of my weaponry dates from

1450 to 1650.   But even though it is period in the SCA, I personally think

of it as something I do seperately from the SCA...


Thomas Ignatius Perigrinus



From: tip at lead.aichem.arizona.edu (Tom Perigrin)

Newsgroups: alt.engr.explosives,rec.pyrotechnics,rec.org.sca

Subject: Potassium Nitrate... no problem

Date: 2 Nov 1994 18:44:18 GMT

Organization: AI in Chem Lab


A lot of people seem to have problem getting KNO3 to make home-made black

powder.   Well, if you are really desperate, it's not that hard to make...

This recipie is from Birringucchio, Pyrotechnia, 1540.  It was used

"commercially" as recently as the US Civil War when the Union blockade of

the South prevented shipments of Chilean Saltpeter from getting into port.

  I've done this for a historical recreation event... it's "fun", but a bit

messy and some people find it to be a tad distasteful.


Find old horse manure, the kind that has sat under shelter, and has little

white threads on the surface.   If you can't find horse manure, just take

your own manure and let it ferment under cover for a few months.   Also,

take urine and let it set out until it is good and fermented.  Get some

hardwood ashes and lime.


Get a 50 gallon drum or barrel, and punch a hole in the bottom.  Put a cork

in the hole. Now line the bottom with cloth.  Then add 2" of manure, 1.5"

of ashes, and 1" of lime.  Repeat until you are near the top.  Now pour in

the fermented urine.  Let it all stand for a few days.  At this point it

has a particular amusing odor.  Then drain off and collect the liquid from

the bottom hole.   Pour in some more fermented urine, and repeat.  Now wash

it with clean water until the water coming out isn't brown or yellow

anymore and doesn't taste bitter to the tounge.


Boil the collected liquids down until they just start to throw crystals

while hot, and then add a enough hot water to double the volume and let

cool.  You might want to stand UPWIND while boiling this down.   You will

get almost 10 pounds of crystals of KNO3, with a bit of NaNO3 and NaCl

admixed, various brown and yellow contaminants, and some detritus too.

Recrystalize once or twice from clean water to get fairly pure pale yellow



From 100 pounds of horse or people manure and 75 gallons of fermented urine

you can get from 2 to 5 pounds of KNO3, depending on a number of factors.


You might want to do some of this outdoors.



I don't know where the return address  tip at lead.tmc.edu   comes from...

Something messes up the right address which is  tip at lead.aichem.arizona.edu




From: tip at lead.tmc.edu (Tom Perigrin)

Newsgroups: alt.engr.explosives,rec.pyrotechnics,rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Potassium Nitrate... no problem

Date: 6 Nov 1994 06:00:58 GMT

Organization: A.I. Chem Lab, University of Arizona


jmccarty at spd.dsccc.com (Mike McCarty) writes:


>Oh, I think he just mis-posted. It was actually destined for

>rec.humor.funny, but got here instead. Particularly interesting was the

>instruction to continue to wash the boiled rotten piss and shit until

>the liquid coming off was no longer bitter to the taste.


Actually, it's all true.  Birringuchio's book, Pyrotechnia, is available

in reprint from Dover books, and is a good book to buy for historical

pespectives...  Actually, I left out the most interesting part...  in

Birringuchio, the recipie says to leach until it no longer tastes bitter

to YOUR APPRENTICE.  [caps mine].



From: bame at sde.hp.com (Paul Bame)

Newsgroups: rec.pyrotechnics,rec.org.sca

Subject: Re: Potassium Nitrate... no problem

Date: 7 Nov 1994 06:55:16 GMT

Organization: HP SESD, Fort Collins, CO


Tom Perigrin (tip at lead.aichem.arizona.edu) wrote:


: A lot of people seem to have problem getting KNO3 to make home-made black

: powder.   Well, if you are really desperate, it's not that hard to make...

: [...]


: Find old horse manure, the kind that has sat under shelter, and has little

: white threads on the surface.   [etc...]


The "Foxfire" series of books are full of stories like making saltpeter,

rifles, and as they say on the cover, "other affairs of plain living".

Much of the information is gleaned from interviewing people who remember

how it "used to be".  Here are two quotes from "Foxfire 5", edited by

Eliot Wiggington, ISBN: 0-385-14308-7.  All typos are mine.  Check the

book for the original attributions and the gunpowder making story

which is nearby [storyteller makes his own for flintlock

hunting - flints too].


[p. 247]

    Saltpeter, the chemical that produces the oxygen for the other

    ingrediants when lit off, can be made by putting urine and manure of

    any kind in a big cement tank mixed with water until you have about

    three hundred gallons mixed up.  Then you put on a tight lid and let

    it sit for about ten months.  You have to have a drain pipe and

    valve at the bottom, and a stainless steel filter screen installed

    beforehand or you'll have one big mess on your hands. At the end of

    that time, you run the liquid that drains off through ashes into

    shallow wooden trays lined with plastic sheeting and let them stand

    for evaporation in the sun.  When the water evaporates, potassium

    nitrate crystals (saltpeter) will form in the bottom of the trays.


    In the old days in cities, most outhouses were fitted with trays or

    drawers under the seats that could be pulled out from behind the

    building..  They had night-soil collectors who were paid so much

    every month by the outhouse owners to keep those drawers emptied,

    and they'd come around with a special wagon into which they dumped

    the contents.  When the wagon was full, it was hauled out to where

    another fellow bought the contents and dumped it into concrete tanks

    where the bacteria works it just like yeast works wine or bread

    dough.  Then the liquid was run through ashes into shallow tiled or

    plain concrete evaporating trays or basins to recover the saltpeter.


[p. 253-256]

    [...]  And there's saltpeter - you know you hear about saltpeter

    caves.  [...]  where they leached that out from bat guano.  


    [This leads into a re-creation of saltpeter-making and includes photos]

    [...] caves were the primary source of nitrate used in the manufacture of

    gunpowder.  [...]  Buckets of water were then poured over the

    saltpeter dirt to leach it of its nitrate or 'mother liquor.'  [...]

    This same liquor was poured again and again over the saltpeter dirt

    because releaching caused more nitrates to be dissolved.  According

    to the old reports, releaching went on until the solution was of

    sufficient density to float an egg.


    The next step was to combine the mother liquor rich in calcium

    nitrate with woodashes that contain high amounts of potassium



    -Paul Bame



From: David Razler (1/1/95)


Date: Sun, 01 Jan 1995 16:45:00 -0500

Organization: Compu-Data BBS -=- Turnersville, NJ -=- 609-232-1245

Subject: fire drug


>and period manufacture, etc. If I can get a spot in the middle of nowhe

>work with pig excretia, I may even make some real period "fire-drug."


MH>What pray tell, is "fire-drug"?


MH>Stefan li Rous



  The Chinese term for gunpowder in literal translation, or so I've been

told and read: any active group of chemicals is [blank-drug]. A pigsty

provides the necessary ingrediants for the manufacture of sodium nitrate. It

is a long process that I am told smells worse than making woad dye, but, in

the end, you end up with beautiful clear crystals of the stuff. Simply add

carbon from the fire you used to dry them out carefully and native sulfur,

and you can start all sorts of fireworks.


  It was, btw, the European mind that first thought of using the stuff to

propel shot at their enemies. The Chinese used military rockets, both

developments coming I THINK (sure on Europe) during the 100 Years' War.

Initially the stuff was used for scaring the horses, then it was put into

short cast brass tubes or open-ended brass "barrels" (literally- made out of

metal staves and rings by coopers), loaded with powder and projectile and

set off via touchhole, the gunner usually hiding behind a wall in case the

weapon did not fire as planned.

  Bigger cannons were built to fire stone, then metal projectiles. Again,

the early failure rate was not very comfortable and their use was rare until

the 1400s.


  With more ME trivia to come, Aleksandr the Traveller, Barren sands, East

                                 [david.razler at compudata.com]


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org