Science, Tech, Math › Science Black Powder Composition Chemical Composition of Black Powder or Gunpowder Share Flipboard Email Print This woman is making firecrackers using gunpowder. It's risky to handle gunpowder, so don't mess with it unless you know what you're doing!. De Agostini / C. Sappa, Getty Images Science Chemistry Physical Chemistry Basics Chemical Laws Molecules Periodic Table Projects & Experiments Scientific Method Biochemistry Medical Chemistry Chemistry In Everyday Life Famous Chemists Activities for Kids Abbreviations & Acronyms Biology Physics Geology Astronomy Weather & Climate by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Dr. Helmenstine holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and is a science writer, educator, and consultant. She has taught science courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels. Updated February 03, 2019 Black powder is the name given to the earliest known chemical explosive. It is used as a blasting powder and a propellant for firearms, rockets, and fireworks. The composition of black powder or gunpowder is not set. In fact, several different compositions have been used throughout history. Here's a look at some of the most notable or common compositions, plus the composition of modern black powder. Black Powder Basics There's nothing complicated about the formulation of black powder. It consists of charcoal (carbon), saltpeter (potassium nitrate or sometimes sodium nitrate), and sulfur. Charcoal and sulfur act as the fuel for the explosion, while saltpeter acts as an oxidizer. Sulfur also lowers the ignition temperature, which increases the combustion rate. Charcoal is used instead of pure carbon because it contains incompletely decomposed cellulose. It has a much lower autoignition temperature. Black powder made using pure carbon will ignite, but it won't explode. In commercial black powder preparation, potassium nitrate or another nitrate (e.g., sodium nitrate) usually is coated with graphite (a form of carbon). This helps prevent electrostatic charge build-up, reducing the chance a stray spark will prematurely ignite the mixture. Sometimes black powder is tumbled with graphite dust after it is mixed to coat the grains. In addition to reducing static, the graphite reduces moisture absorption, which could prevent gunpowder from igniting. Notable Black Powder Compositions Typical modern gunpowder consists of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur in a 6:1:1 or 6:1.2:0.8 ratio. Historically significant formulations have been calculated on a percentage basis: Formula Saltpeter Charcoal Sulfur Bishop Watson, 1781 75.0 15.0 10.0 British Government, 1635 75.0 12.5 12.5 Bruxelles studies, 1560 75.0 15.62 9.38 Whitehorne, 1560 50.0 33.3 16.6 Arderne lab, 1350 66.6 22.2 11.1 Roger Bacon, c. 1252 37.50 31.25 31.25 Marcus Graecus, 8th century 69.22 23.07 7.69 Marcus Graecus, 8th century 66.66 22.22 11.11 Source: The Chemistry of Gun Powder and Explosives Continue Reading How to Make Black Powder Safely Understand the Chemistry Behind How Sparklers Work Learn How Gunpowder Works How a Solid Propellant Rocket Works The Science Behind Firecrackers and Sparklers How to Make a Smoke Bomb 3 Types of Explosive and How They Were Invented The History of Gunpowder Is Steeped in Alchemy Learn How Firework Colors Work Know the Chemical Elements in Fireworks How China Invented Gunpowder How to Make a Homemade Roman Candle What You Need to Know About Smoke Bomb Safety How Do Fireworks Cause Pollution? What Is Saltpeter or Potassium Nitrate? What Is a Fart Made Of?