Black powder

This page contains 43 formulas in 9 tables.

CAUTION: Black powders are highly flammable and explosive if confined. Some so-called "cocoa" powders are inherently friction sensitive. Most black powders are at the peak of their sensitivity when a few percent of moisture is present.

NOTE: Black powder is the one composition in pyrotechnics that varies greatly from type to type. The most important component of black powder (BP) is charcoal. It is important to use a very reactive charcoal such as willow or grapevine that contains many volatiles (oxygen and hydrogen) to increase the speed of burning.

Simply mixing the three components together does not give good results. It is usually wise to "impregnate" the charcoal with the potassium nitrate by ball milling the two chemicals together for several hours, or by the precipitation method where the potassium nitrate is dissolved in hot water and charcoal is added.

The following table gives a number of BP formulas. If a specific type charcoal is required for a composition, it will be noted in brackets beside the charcoal percentage. Bear in mind that if the charcoal is not very reactive the BP will merely fizzle and burn slowly. Examples of unreactive charcoals are activated charcoal which contains virtually no volatiles, and barbeque briquettes which usually contain clay.

General black powder

NOTE: The term "general" is applied loosely here, referring to any black powder composition that was not designed for a specific purpose, or if it was then the specific application was not given.
Watson Graecus  Graecus  Graecus  Bacon  Bacon  Urbanski
name  Standard  BP  (composition as of 8th century)  (composition as of 8th century)  Ignis Volatilis  (composition 
as of 1249) 
as of 1252) 
as of 1300)
Potassium nitrate  75 66.66 69.22 50 41 37.5 67
Charcoal 15 22.22 23.07 29.5 31.25 16.5
Sulfur 10 11.11 7.69 25 29.5 31.25 16.5
Resin 25
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General black powder II
Arderne  Whitehorne  Bruxelles Studies  British Government 
(laboratory recipe, composition as of 1350)  (composition 
as of 1560) 
as of 1560)
(powder made under contract, composition 
as of 1635) 
Potassium nitrate  66.6 50.0 75.0 75.0
Charcoal 22.2 33.3 15.62 12.5
Sulfur 11.1 16.6 9.38 12.5
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Lift-specific powder

NOTE: The following composition is optimized for firing aerial shells from fireworks mortars.
Pyrotechnics Guild  
name PGI optimum 
Potassium nitrate  74
Charcoal  14
Sulfur 12
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Firearms-specific powder

CAUTION: Cocoa powders are more sensitive to friction than ordinary black powder. Accidents have resulted from shaking of the composition in a canvas sack.

NOTE: These compositions are intended for firing projectiles from small-bore, hand-held weapons. They may also be used for lifting aerial shells from fireworks mortars, however some testing as to the suitability of a certain composition might be necessary.
Davis  Davis  Davis  Davis  Davis  Noble and Abel 
name  English Cocoa  
powder I 
English Cocoa  
Powder II 
German Cocoa  
Powder I 
German Cocoa  
Powder II
French Cocoa  
Cocoa powder
Potassium nitrate  79 77.4 78 80 78 80
Charcoal  18 (rye straw) 17.6 (rye straw)  19 (rye straw)  20 (rye straw)  19 (rye straw)  18 (rye straw)
Sulfur 3 5 3 3 2
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Military-specific powder

NOTE: The following compositions were used in France for military purposes. Specific applications are listed in the table. A date as to when these compositions were put into use was not given.
Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski 
name  Cannon Sporting  Normal (rifle powder)  Cannon modified  Delay fuse powder 
Potassium nitrate  75 78 75 78 75
Charcoal  12.5 12 15 19 13-15
Sulfur 12.5 10 10 3 10-12
grain size 7 - 21 mm  0.1 - 1 mm  various hexagonal "nut" 0.3 - 0.6 mm
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Blasting-specific powder I
Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski  Urbanski 
name  Strong blasting  Slow blasting  No.1 blasting powder  No.1 Bobbinite  No.2 Bobbinite  No.1 black blasting powder  American blasting powder  No.3 black blasting powder (Petroclastite or Haloclastite)  No.2 black blasting powder 
Potassium nitrate  75 40 73-77 62-65 63-66
Sodium nitrate 70-75 70-74 71-76 70-75
Charcoal 15 30 10-15 17-19.5 18.5-20.5 10-16 15-17 15-19 of coal-tar pitch 10-16 of lignite
Sulfur 10 30 8-15 1.5-2.5 1.5-2.5 9-15 11-13 9-11 9-15
Paraffin 2.5-3.5
Starch 7-9
Ammonium sulfate and copper sulfate  13-17
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Blasting-specific powder II
Davis  Davis  Davis 
French Forte  French Lente French Ordinaire 
Potassium nitrate  72 40 62
Charcoal  15 30 18
Sulfur 13 30 20
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Ammonium-based powders

CAUTION: Ammonium picrate is a sensitive high explosive compound. Its use is discouraged.

DANGER: Potassium picrate is a very sensitive high explosive compound. Its use is strongly discouraged.

NOTE: These compositions were generally used as propellants, but have been largely superceded by smokeless nitrocellulose-based mixtures.
Gaens  unknown Brugere Starke 
name  Amide powder  Ammonpulver  Brugere powder  Gold Dust Powder 
Ammonium nitrate  35-38 85
Potassium nitrate  40-45 57
Charcoal 14-22 15
Ammonium picrate  43 55
Potassium picrate 25
Ammonium dichromate  20
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Sulfurless powders
Lancaster  Noble  Noble  Thomas 
name  Sulfurless powder  Sulfurless powder  Sulfurless powder  
Sulfurless powder  
Potassium nitrate  70.5 80 87.1 70
Charcoal  29.5 20 12.9 30
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Last updated April 22, 1998.
Copyright (C) 1997,1998, Andrew Krywonizka. All rights reserved.

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