Black Powder Composition

Chemical Composition of Black Powder or Gunpowder

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!
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

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.

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:

 

FormulaSaltpeterCharcoalSulfur
Bishop Watson, 178175.015.010.0
British Government, 163575.012.512.5
Bruxelles studies, 156075.015.629.38
Whitehorne, 156050.033.316.6
Arderne lab, 135066.622.211.1
Roger Bacon, c. 125237.5031.2531.25
Marcus Graecus, 8th century69.2223.077.69
Marcus Graecus, 8th century66.6622.2211.11

 

Source: The Chemistry of Gun Powder and Explosives

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Black Powder Composition." ThoughtCo, Jul. 14, 2016, thoughtco.com/black-powder-composition-607336. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2016, July 14). Black Powder Composition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/black-powder-composition-607336 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Black Powder Composition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/black-powder-composition-607336 (accessed December 11, 2017).