Medieval Gunpowder Recipes Blasted In New Experiment

Researchers have recreated and exploded a series of medieval gunpowder recipes. A new paper shows that through trial and error so-called ‘black powder’ was developed, with some economic setbacks along the way.

Road Runner is flying along a canyon (meep meep) and Wile E. Coyote is hiding behind a cactus with a box of gunpowder, and a match. He lights the fuse, Road Runner passes, the gunpowder explodes and blackens the coyote’s face. Such disasters happened a lot in the medieval period according to a new paper: unpredictable gunpowder explosions that is, and not coyotes chasing road runners.

A team of researchers reporting in the journal American Chemical Society Omega have recreated a score of “medieval gunpowder recipes.” Their analysis of the energies released during combustion concluded that the evolution of the perfect powder was “a slow, trial-and-error process,” hence the ‘blacked face’ reference, but you need to picture brown-robed alchemists with black faces more so than hungry coyotes.

Earliest picture of a European cannon using the first medieval gunpowder recipes. De nobilitatibus, sapientiis et prudentiis regum, Walter de Milemete, 1326. (Public Domain)

Earliest picture of a European cannon using the first medieval gunpowder recipes. De nobilitatibus, sapientiis et prudentiis regum, Walter de Milemete, 1326. ( Public Domain )

Questing The Fine Line Between Fizzle And Pop

Saltpeter is the main, and most expensive, ingredient of gunpowder. It was discovered accidentally by Chinese Taoist alchemists of the Tang Dynasty while they were trying to discover an elixir of life . Saltpeter was combined with charcoal and sulfur to make what is known as gunpowder (black powder) which is regarded as one of the “Four Great Inventions of China ” alongside papermaking, printing and the compass.

904 AD represents the first year gunpowder was used in Chinese warfare and its use spread rapidly throughout Eurasia in the 13th century, birthing a whole new type of warfare – artillery. Traditional weapons like bows, slings, and catapults never stood a chance against large bore mounted firearms including guns, howitzers, and rockets that can reach distant enemies.

However, before the development of such arms, ancient alchemists tried and tested many different gunpowder formulas trying to find the most effective and safest recipes for different environments.

Cannons began use experimenting with the medieval gunpowder recipes as early as the 12-13th centuries. (asmakar / Adobe Stock)

Cannons began use experimenting with the medieval gunpowder recipes as early as the 12-13th centuries. ( asmakar / Adobe Stock)

Field Testing Medieval Gunpowder Recipes

A news release from ACS Omega, published in Eureka Alert explains that professors Dawn Riegner and Cliff Rogers assembled a team of chemists and historians for their new study. The new analysis of the energetics of medieval gunpowder recipes revealed hitherto locked information about the original intentions of ancient “master gunners” in creating their formulas. Furthermore, the experiments have provided important new information about the early days of gunpowder processing and manufacturing.

The experimentation required that the team of researchers recreated 20 gunpowder recipes from medieval texts dated 1336 to 1449 AD. An article in Archaeology News Network explains that the scientists prepared the powders and measured the energies released just before and during combustion using “differential scanning calorimetry and bomb calorimetry.” Essentially, they measured heat flows released from controlled explosions within sealed metal containers. However, the fun really began when the team ventured to West Point firing range, in Troup County, where they tested a replica of a 15th-century stone-throwing cannon.

Researchers tested medieval gunpowder recipes in this replica of an early 15th-century stone-throwing cannon (Adapted from ACS Omega 2021)

Researchers tested medieval gunpowder recipes in this replica of an early 15th-century
stone-throwing cannon (Adapted from
ACS Omega 2021)

Weighing Up The Cost Of Making Calories

The new study demonstrated that medieval gunpowder recipes made between 1338-1400 AD used “increased volumes of saltpeter while the use of charcoal decreased.” This mix caused lower combustion temperatures which the researchers think could have produced “safer recipes for medieval gunners” (ref the Wile E. Coyote scene.)

After the turn of the 15th century, however, the percentage of saltpeter decreased while sulfur and charcoal increased. This mixture again raised the heat of combustion, and it is thought that these fluctuations in ingredients reflect economic considerations, in that saltpeter was the most expensive ingredient, therefore, its usage in gunpowder depended on the purchase price at any given time.

The study also identified combinations of “camphor and ammonium chloride” which the researchers found made the gunpowder recipes stronger. Furthermore, early 13th century recipes sometimes included water and brandy, which while offering no calorific (heat) advantages, may have stabilized the gunpowder making it much safer to store and transport (ref Wile E. Coyote one last time.)

Top image: Medieval gunpowder recipes were far from perfected and led to many explosive accidents. Source: photosampler / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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