The Mexican gunpowder dilemma
In the current thread on the Jaivana cannon in India, it has been a fascinating discussion with Philip, Wayne and Fernando, and has been most informational. Along the way, my interest in the important battle at the Alamo in March, 1836 has been rekindled, and a key topic which is often given only cursory note in most references pertains to the miserable quality of Mexican gunpowder.
I did not wish to burden the flow of discussion on the huge cannons being discussed on the other thread, so wanted to learn more on the effects of gunpowder quality here, and how in many ways, the outcome of warfare can depend on it.
It seems that at the Alamo, the well known versions of this famous thirteen day siege were not entirely as typically portrayed, and new research has revealed that faulty powder was indeed the culprit in many aspects.
Originally James Bowie had orders from Sam Houston to go to the Alamo, remove the 24 guns remaining there after General Cos of the Mexican army had surrendered Bexar (San Antonio) and the mission in December.
Apparently when he and his surrendered forces were allowed to leave, they were allowed their muskets, and one cannon for defense as they marched to Mexico. He was forced to leave the remainder of cannon as well as the stores of powder.
He shrewdly took the best measures of powder, leaving the already poor grade in store.
Col. Neill and Bowie in late February however decided with the notable strength of cannon there, it would be a well defended place to make a stand.
However, what they did not consider was the lack of ammunition and the deplorable powder in store.
In the bombardment of the Alamo at the outset of the siege, the antiquated and relatively light field cannon with inadequately charged shots which apparently did virtually no damage nor caused a single injury to the defenders.
In the ultimate and final attack by the Mexican forces, it was in the early AM in cold and darkness, and the defenders, exhausted by the constant thuds of artillery, were mostly asleep except a few pickets.
With the Mexican troops, the same poor powder dilemma affecting the artillery plagued the infantry, and the largely conscripted soldiers had barely handled muskets. The poor powder required extra charge for force, and the men, unable to hold at shoulder level due to flash and heat from explosion held the guns low and fired from the hip.
The disastrous result was these inexperienced men in a chaotic attack in complete cold and darkness firing almost wildly, but horrifically bringing down their own men ahead with the low firing.
The defenders asleep inside were caught with unloaded guns, as the damp Texas weather in March would have been fouled if not freshly loaded. They had some measure of good Dupont powder, but largely the supply was the horrible Mexican powder.
One survivor, Mrs. Dickinson, claimed the Mexican powder was 'damaged'.
While this sounds like a circumstantial case with poor batches of powder with the Mexican forces, it seems that in 1846, with the Mexican American war, the Mexican powder situation had not improved.
At the Battle of Palo Alto, May 8, 1846, it was noted that Mexican artillery barrages often sent cannonballs bouncing 'lazily' across the battlefield.
Another reference regarding another battle in the 1830s Texas Revolution claims that in that entire day of battle, not one cannonball in a thousand reached the enemy, most fell about half way.
My question is,
Why, in this period of time, with all the attention given to 'Napoleonic uniforms' etc. and the acquisition of all manner of artillery and arms, was there apparently no attention to adequate gunpowder?
The British, who sold the Mexicans tens of thousands of muskets (despite being deemed obsolete) had access to much of the world saltpeter supply from India. Would that not be considered part and parcel to the acquisition of firearms?
The Mexicans had considerable pieces of French artillery, again, France had developed notable saltpeter production.
Mexico itself had notable natural saltpeter resources, near Mexico City as well as others. There were sources for sulfur and of course charcoal.
Yet Mexico continued to produce the absolute worst gunpowder on record, with seemingly no effort for resolution. Why?
It was said the powder was nothing more than charcoal (derisively)..so was it they were inept at the proper concentrations of components? or that they were 'cutting it' with more charcoal due to 'spreading the volume' more?
ingredients, quality manufacture, and corruption
Thanks, Jim, for initiating a thread on a very interesting subject.
It's true that black powder was made of just three ingredients. The procurement of sulfur would perhaps be more of a challenge than charcoal (the most plentiful, at least where there are trees) or saltpeter (typically scraped off the walls of livestock stalls and toilets). But aren't there volcanoes in Mexico?
Just having the ingredients is just the beginning. There's the issue of PROCESSING. Saltpeter and sulfur found in nature need to be purified. Having the best charcoal available is as important to a powder mill as to a barbecue chef, so the kiln operator has to really know his stuff. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.
And just because the expertise is there, there's the question of the will to provide quality. Corrupt governments tend to provide avenues for profiteers taking advantage of lax oversight. A notorious example of government contractors providing substandard ammo could be found in 19th cent. China, where gunpowder supplied to the imperial government was frequently adulterated with sand or sawdust. The cheating was widespread enough for the foundrymen and inspectors in cannon workshops to pass off slipshod castings because they figured that weak powder wouldn't unduly strain a gun barrel anyway. Some excellent cannons and ammunition were made, but in French-run factories in the south of the country (the French trained the Vietnamese to be first-rate gun founders as well, comparable to what native workmen did at Macau and Chaul under the Portuguese). But the pigtailed Manchus who ruled China weren't too preoccupied with the problem -- the military officers' exams still revolved around archery on foot and from galloping horses, à la Genghis Khan, until these tests were abolished in 1905!
So you thought Mexico was in a pickle?
The Alamo is an excellent example for study and difficult to get to the root of considering the precise Gunpowder question . The other example and comparison with Vietnamese and with the situation with the Manchu is altogether fascinating ..
On ploughing through the weapons resupply much came from the British who clearly sold a lot of badly engineered weapons and quite likely some awful gunpowder...as part of the Triangular Trade England Africa The Americas. It is recorded that gunpowder was exchanged for slaves in Africa and we know that in The Americas cotton and sugar were bartered . Thousands of rifles were sold to Mexico and amongst that Baker Rifles and Brownbess made in India and of dubious quality. These weapons were condemned and should have been scrapped.
Mexican army administration was hopelessly inadequate; often supplying the wrong ammo to the weapons.. Somehow ammo was too heavily doped up with too powerful a charge actually too much charcoal which gave a bigger bang in the breach that simply blew back into the firers face and eyes..Soldiers got round this by firing from the hip..totally dangerous to their own men in front and utterly badly aimed. It was at the same time almost impossible to load on the move and in the darkness being whipped by their so called officers this attack although overwhelming in numbers must have been chaotic in the extreme with more chance of being accidentally shot in the back than in the front!
Another question arises over uniforms and while it is clear The Mexican leader was obsessed with Napolionic dress it is odd he opted for British weapons although the Cannon were French I understand. …
The dress question comes up time and again on research on web sources and I point to~
and offers as a good guide to this entire phenomenon of dress.... Here below is another picture from the same source as to uniforms... It is clear these Mexican soldiers were tough by the fact they wore only sandals for most of their marches... although Sant Anna did try to show an interest in better foot ware for the soldiers later... I note a lot of the soldiers weren't Mexican but Indian and interestingly the point of poor training just keeps popping up.
who is a "true Mexican"?
Perhaps you are not aware that Mexico, like the United States and Canada, has a population which is a blend of ethnic bloodlines going back centuries. Europeans from the Iberian Peninsula arrived in the 16th cent. and besides conquering the indigenous peoples and Christianizing many of them, also started intermarrying. The Spanish then brought African slaves. Successive waves of immigrants followed on the heels of the conquistadores -- a trickle of Filipinos and Chinese coming with the trans-Pacific galleon trade, larger numbers of French, Germans, and Irish fleeing political, religious, and economic troubles in the 18th-19th centuries, and even Japanese and Russians at the close of the 1800s. By now the gene pools are quite mixed. Mexicans come in all sizes and colors and their culture is a pretty spicy stew. Beer is more popular than wine, and folk musicians like the tuba. Mariachi orchestras originated with French country wedding music imported in the 1800s. From France also comes a taste for refined cooking with delicate sauces in parts of the country, along with a liking for horse meat. [B] There are Mexican citizens, whole villages of the original inhabitants, who even today don't speak Spanish and need translators if they are to have a conversation with someone from Mexico City or Tijuana.
I'll close by saying that I don't see the connection between being an Indian and being a poorly-trained soldier. Remember the Aztec empire?
British military surplus firearms
I think that this statement needs some re-examination and possible emendation. As re the Baker rifle, may I refer you to the late Harold L Peterson's discussion of it on pp 141-42 of Pollard's History of Firearms. , 1983, with illustrations. By all accounts this was an excellent weapon in its day, one of the first regulation-pattern rifles issued in an era when the standard in just about every army in the world, including Britain and France, was the smoothbore musket designed for unaimed volley fire. As far as I am able to determine, the production of Bakers was limited to factories in England. At the period in question, workshops in India were not set up to produce a gun of this sophistication, with its rifled barrel.
The Brown Bess musket you mention is likely the so-called Ïndia Pattern aka Third Model adopted late in the 18th cent. It was indeed a simplified version of the earlier Besses, designed for lighter weight and reduced production costs, but it was by no means of "dubious quality" as you state. Made in England, it was "...a sturdy arm, giving good service until it was superseded by percussion-cap muskets in the 1840s" to quote Peterson, op.cit. If it was such a piece of junk, do you think that it would have remained in the service of the most powerful nation on Earth at the time, for a period of a half-century?
The deficiency of the weapons sold to Mexico by the British most likely lay with their decrepit condition, worn out after of hard service. Not because they were poorly made to begin with.
Yes you are correct and it is my poor choice of words which is wrong... If I can take the last point first what I meant was the condition in which these weapons were sold when probably they were BLR as army armourers would say today..Beyond Local Repair meaning they couldn't be fixed by a battalion armourer so were effectively condemned. I think they used to be designated with two arrows facing each other on the weapon...On the Baker I take your point that they were made in England and it was one of these that killed at long range Millam in an earlier battle shot in the head. This weapon had bayonet problems making it useless for this purpose but it wasn't a bad weapon otherwise... but again depending on what I called quality but meant serviceability. The Brown Bess was not a bad gun but difficult to load on the dash forward especially when NCOs and Officers were beating troops with whips and in the confusion of a pre dawn attack.
I read that the difficulty with Indian troops under training may have been due to a language difficulty..But I have to say I hadn't fully grasped the fact that the mixture of Indian and Mexican was simply normal procedure in which case that would also be missing the point... No inference was meant in the wording to suggest some racist point about either nationality or creed... absolutely not but I wrote it so its my fault!
Just staying with the different nationalities but on the defenders side I noted a big mixture of nationalities and the last few men to get through the Mexican cordon were in fact Ulstermen promised tracts of land after the battle.
Just to examine the Baker Rifle to some degree~
When it was introduced the weapon was used in special sharp shooting battalions of the British Army...
The accuracy of the rifle in capable hands is most famously demonstrated at the Battle of Cacabelos (during Moore's retreat to Corunna in 1809) by the action of Rifleman Thomas Plunkett (or Plunket) of the 1st Battalion, 95th Rifles, who shot French General Colbert at an unknown but long range (as much as 600 yards (550 m) according to some sources). He then shot Colbert's aide-de-camp, Latour-Maubourg, who went to the aid of his general, suggesting that the success of the first shot was not due to luck. In fact Plunket was using a now famous snipers shooting position lying on his back and the sling in tension around one foot.
Thank you guys for the outstanding perspective which surrounds this topic, and while not of course directly attending to the issues on the gunpowder, the context is certainly pertinent.
The Mexican forces under Santa Anna were indeed widely diverse ethnically, and while Mestizos were broadly considered of Spanish and Mayan mixed ancestry, there were over twenty Indian tribes in Mexico which also accounted for the mixed groups.
As noted, the ethnicity had nothing to do with the efficiency or lack thereof in the tactics and warfare employed by Santa Anna, however it does seem was less than concerned on the well being of his troops, whom he regarded as expendable.
Getting to the guns, it seems that the 'Brown Bess' purchased in huge volume by Mexico (over 400,000) was the Third Pattern M1793 (Windus pattern) designed to replace the earlier Long and Short Land patterns which comprised the two earlier types.
Production of these was temporarily halted with peace with France in 1802, but peace ended quickly, and production heartily resumed. Over three million were produced by the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. These were produced under the auspices of the 'Tower' in England, and the term 'India Pattern' was used for them, perhaps due to large EIC orders, of course quite separate from government orders.
Apparently, England decided to dispose of these, as many references deem a consistent reaction of England to peace, so some 700, 000 were sold off to Central and South America as well as Mexico, as these countries took independence from Spain .
So the disposal was not necessarily from poor quality, but from sudden surplus and opportunity to sell them off for profit and restoring the coffers after the long wars. The Baker rifle of course stood on its own merits for its accuracy , it was the ineffective long. heavy and awkward bayonet that was its issue.
I found that the British gunpowder was the 'best in Europe' and they apparently sold much of it to their allies, so I cannot imagine them not selling to Mexico and what countries bought the surplus guns. This was probably (I am assuming) that the tremendous supply of saltpeter coming out of India was the basis for such high quality powder.
This being the case, it seems likely that the powder may have been somehow adulterated or diminished in the also likely corrupt dealings of suppliers handling the Mexican powder.
What I have not been able to find is if it was produced in Mexico, or if they relied on outside suppliers.
With the firing of the Brown Bess muskets, in the original India pattern (Third pattern) that the Mexicans were using, it was given a rather poor review in criticism by Hans Buck about 1840s in "The Rifle and How to Use it" . The author claimed it was clumsy and worst contrived of any firelock in the world, and required the "largest charge of powder" and "its weight and windage were the greatest, its range the shortest, and its accuracy the least".
While this criticism years later was deemed harsh, it does seem that these muskets did require a notable charge of powder (it seems one revision to this pattern was a deeper pan and the charge was 6 drams). One soldiers account was that his shoulder was 'blackened' by the repeated recoil.
With this it would seem that the Mexican forces, not particularly familiar with the firing of these, would quickly resort to lowering the weapon away from their shoulders. If they were adding to the already excessive charge required then they must have been like hand held cannons, and the explosions into the darkness and disorganized masses (there were numerous redirections in the attack) simply devastating fire without aim.
This was the recipe for disaster, but with the defenders at the Alamo overrun, outnumbered, caught off guard, the outcome was still in Mexican favor.
Still, despite the obvious failings of Mexican force effectiveness overall with poorly trained troops, disrupted attack maneuvers etc. it was still the powder that played a large part in all of this, and this is the theme of this thread.
good or bad -- by what standards?
The Brown Bess had its fans and detractors on both sides during its day. Robert Held , in his classic The Age of Firearms (1957) quotes part of a report by a British officer complaining of the irregular bores and crooked barrels on many regulation-pattern guns (p 114); other writers mentioned soft steel on the frizzen faces resulting in erratic sparking and thus, misfires.
However, some things should be kept in mind. First, military muskets of any nation could never match the quality and performance of bespoke sporting guns for obvious pecuniary reasons. Moreover, the infantry tactics of the day did not call for great accuracy from the common soldier's weapon. The goal was for troops to load (as quickly as a muzzle-loading weapon could be) and fire in volleys at massed targets advancing at distances of well under 100 yd, more often as close as 50 or 30 before it was time to use the bayonet.
Given the relatively low bar to cross, it's not surprising that things like barrel quality might be uneven (this was a very demanding part of the manufacturing process in an age before advanced mechanization (still mostly by hand throughout the 18th cent). But the task of producing a large number of weapons at an affordable cost to the treasury was something faced by all states and there does not seem to be any evidence that the British with their Brown Besses were any worse at doing this than was any other Western power.
Historical documents and the experience of subsequent generations of shooters tell us that a well-made smoothbore musket loaded with a tight-fitting patched ball and good powder can bring down a deer at 120 yards without much problem. Not too shabby.
However, military drill of the first half of the 19th cent., and for the previous two centuries, didn't allow the leisure of careful loading with patched bullets. A somewhat loose ball (the differential in diameter was to compensate for the buildup of powder residue in the bore after repeated volley shots) was dropped "naked" down the bore atop the powder, with the crumpled up paper from the cartridge pushed down on top with the ramrod to seat the charge. Since the projectile could be expected to "rattle" its way down the bore upon firing, it didn't make much difference if the barrel was perfectly true or not. The soldier had to keep up with the drummer's cadence and fire when his buddies did, when ordered. Tardiness on the training ground was typically rewarded with a brutal flogging. The idea was for opposing forces to face a hail of lead before closing in with cold steel. Also, keep in mind that these guns usually had only a rudimentary front sight, on some models attached to the front barrel band, which could shift if there was any play in that component.
Regarding poor sparking, the face of the frizzen had to be surfaced with steel of sufficient carbon content, and the surface was usually laminated onto an iron base, or the unit was case-hardened. Excessive wear after a long period of service, even on an otherwise well made gun, would require refurbishing or replacement of the frizzen.
in short, the manufacture and performance of military weapons in a particular culture or age needs to be examined in context.
Beautifully detailed and explained Philip, thank you!
As I had noted, the critique by the author I noted in the material I was reading was described as pretty unwarranted and over three decades later. As you say, the volume of weapons being produced would experience many flawed components, and of course would not match the carefully made sporting or personal weapons.
Again, the goal was not to discredit the muskets nor training or the soldiers themselves, but to illustrate that these weapons apparently required an unusually heavy charge (at least that was the description) in the first place.
If these troops were being supplied with either adulterated powder, or poorly made powder from a Mexican source, then that would explain the heavier charge which caused them to fire from the hip. Not only the recoil, which was powerful as the muskets were initially produced, but the flash and sparks in the face......would have these inexperienced soldiers avoiding such dynamics very quickly.
It seems wherever I have looked, there is patently zero mention or data on any gunpowder supplier, maker or source for the Mexican army. Whether any powder they had was 'damaged' (as Mrs Dickinson described it at the Alamo, and her husband was a gunner) or somehow otherwise adulterated remains a question. Could its transport from Mexico have rendered it inert from weather or some sort of alteration to make it less volatile have been at hand?
ammo quality, recoil
Jim, here are some tidbits of data that might be germane to your post, put here in no particular order:
1. Yes, black powder can degrade during long storage, or transport in unfavorable weather. Remember the folk saying, "Keep your powder dry!" ? Moisture is the primary threat. In an earlier post on the cannon thread, I mentioned that this propellant has a tendency to absorb atmospheric moisture. In those days, bulk storage was typically in wooden barrels. The best powder in the world, kept for a time in damaged barrels, or those cheaply made from insufficiently seasoned wood, can be compromised by moisture of this sort. As you mentioned, springtime in Texas is pretty wet; I imagine that the whole Gulf region can get pretty damp during hurricane season as well.
2. Degraded or adulterated powder would have been weak (assuming that it did explode) so Newtonian physics would indicate that if projectile velocity were low, recoil felt by the shooter would be reduced likewise.
3. But the ignition of such powder could be more flammatory than explosive mainly due to a sub-optimal burning rate. This would explain the discomforting flash and smoke coming out of the pan and vent. All the more so if the troops were in the habit of overloading in order to ensure the bullet reached the target. Understandable that soldiers would prefer to shoot from the hip rather than shoulder their pieces to aim. Before the advent of metallic cartridge ammunition, shooters often tested powder for freshness by igniting a pinch of it in the palm of their hand. Good powder went off so quickly (it didn't explode unless confined) that the skin would not be burned.
4. Reaction to the force of recoil on the shoulder could be aggravated by negative perceptions generated by the noise and smoke of firing. Especially on the part of recruits who lacked prior exposure to firearms before conscription and who have had insufficient training by competent drillmasters. Have you looked into the standards for musketry training in the Mexican army at the time? (I wonder if it was on a level with that in the Czar's infantry at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, when recruits got to fire just six rounds during basic training because of a chronic supply shortage mainly due to inadequate state funding).
5. We can't go back in time to watch those soldiers shoot and experience the recoil for themselves. So we have to take their word for it, via surviving documentation. However, my experience and that of other modern shooters who have fired replica military muzzle loaders tends to lean towards the perception that the recoil felt on our shoulders (and cheeks) is of a different intensity than that produced by later service rifles using cartridges loaded with nitrocellulose "smokeless" powder. Probably because of the slower combustion rate of black powder, you definitely feel the energy but it comes across more like a robust push than a sharp jolt. Personally, I find the kick of a Civil War-model rifle in .58 caliber to be less uncomfortable than that of, say, a Mod. 1893 Spanish Mauser in 7 mm, or a Mod. 1903 Springfield in .30-06. All three guns are of similar mass, their design makes no allowance for mechanical recoil absorption, and all have straight-wrist stocks. However the bore diameter of the Mauser is half that of the muzzle-loader.
I think it reasonable to assume since the absolute facts seem to be few and far between on the gunpowder question that the Mexican supply of weapons also included gun powder. The most obvious factory appears to be Faversham; Please See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faver...try#World_War_I
The factory supplied all stations East via the EIC and also is noted as instrumental in the Industrial Revolution where explosives played an important role in blowing tunnels and roads ...another vital ingredient being gunpowder... Emphasis however, though my own , seems to place the Ports of Liverpool and Bristol in their trade with Africa and the Americas and Mexico (Triangular Trade) where it is noted that gunpowder could be used at African ports for exchanging for slaves. It would seem logical that in transporting gunpowder there must have been an exchange also in the Americas and particularly since a lot of weapons were being sold to Mexico from Tower armouries.
As an add on note having absorbed a load of detail on The Brown Bess, while I agree on the importance of decent gunpowder the weapon was not the ideal candidate for an assault on a fortification and was more used in the mass lines of infantry against an enemy advancing in packed ranks in a long line at least two files deep and occasionally at very short range around 30 paces. The great danger was in firing too high as often the undergrowth behind the targets at Waterloo (using the Indian version), for example, were cut short as rounds were too high. The Brown Bess was no sharpshooters weapon since the barrel gave it more the feel of a shotgun.The barrel in fact had a variable calibre and almost no two weapons were of exactly the same bore...It had no grooves, but even so, well aimed it could when fired on mass decimate an enemy advancing in the open.
What could have been done ... and was not !
I wonder whether the guy in uniform at the Alamo site went, in his synopsis, as deep as to enlighten the audience on the gunpowder saga. I was too far i couldn't hear him, or understand what he was saying ... a cheap excuse for my lack of patience.
But i have read anecdotes about the subject, namely in a narration of the Palo Alto encounter, in that:
"Mexican gunpowder, for example, was of such poor quality that artillery barrages often sent cannonballs bouncing lazily across the battlefield, and the American soldiers merely had to step out of the way to avoid them"
(Zachary Taylor ?).
Or in the Bejar siege (translating):
" In some cases, Mexican bullets slided by the Texian soldiers bodies, causing little damage beyond a bruise.
(Stephen L. Hardin)
Perhaps the following article by Stuart Reid, not objectively dedicated to the discussed topic, helps cracking the riddle and suggests what the solution to solve the problem should have been; one visibly not put into practice by the Mexican forces.
Guys thank you so much for these outstanding entries!!
Philip, I sincerely appreciate the patient and detailed explanations on all these factors. This thread has been quite and education for me as I have never focused on the dynamics and processes involved in the firearms or artillery of these periods. While being familiar with the types of guns, it was only a historical overview noting the various forms in use.
Obviously, I am not a 'shooter' either, but your explanations of how the powder detonates (or explodes as it seems more properly described) makes perfect sense in the propelling of the projectile. It is my understanding that the added powder was to increase the velocity of the ball (or buck and ball) being fired. I was expecting that might have increased the recoil, not to mention the flash.
It sounds as if the powder was degraded in any manner, the resultant 'explosion' would have been 'adequate' regardless, and it sounds like the flash was more troubling than the recoil.
The number of 'friendly fire' casualties seems to suggest that somehow adequate propulsion was reached in at least a good number of instances. It sounds like a profound number of misfires probably took place as well.
The inability to reload in the cold and darkness and in chaos was certainly what brought the preferred bayonet to use, and it seems virtually most of the victims probably were bayonetted.
Ibrahiim, excellent notes on the British aspects of arms and powder. It does indeed seem that there were probably stores of powder sold along with the huge numbers of guns, and their powder was as noted earlier, probably the most superior. If I have understood correctly, the 'third pattern' musket Brown Bess we are discussing were I think largely intended for EIC purchase, but they were declined or something to that effect. I think that or perhaps the officer involved in design (Windus) may have been associated with EIC,. Whatever the case, it was basically the Brown Bess.
Fascinating on the powder plant in Faversham which well illustrates the volatility issues with this. Thank you so much for the great research in finding all this perspective!
Fernando, excellent article by Mr. Reid!!! and specifically addresses many of the questions I had toward the Mexican powder issues. In my research I do recognize the anecdotes re: Mexican powder but the specifics Mr. Reid attends to are most helpful. Thank you.
What i have heard ...
Jim, i was once told that gunpowder, as the one dealt here, does not explode but, quickly burns... faster or slower depending on its granulation. It would only explode if confined, as cited by Philip. The concept that it explodes, although widespread, is erroneous. If in fact it did explode while shooting, pressure and exothermy generated inside the gun would be such that it would burst and hurt the shooter.
... Shooter i am not, either.
Thanks Fernando, indeed Philip very well explained the dynamics of gunpowder, and I had often heard that flintlocks often burst due to improper charge and just the kind of detonation you describe. I think the terminology is confusing, I had read that detonation or explosion were wrong terms.
I suppose that explosion might be regarded as a concentrated and VERY rapidly burning of a measure of gunpowder (which they says is called 'black' powder, yet according to sources they say is gray). Confusing.
combustion and explosion
Jim -- you have it pegged. The impression I get from the literature and being a layman taking advice from shooters who reload their own cartridges, is this: burning (combusion) and explosion (or detonation) are on the same spectrum, and one becomes the other when the speed of heat- or flame induced chemical change passes a certain point.
And confinement does play a huge part. Both black and smokeless powder will burn with a flame in open air but will go boom when in an enclosed space. The cartridge guys emphasize that modern smokeless powders are more powerful than black powder (plus the advantages of far less flame, smoke, and residue) to a large degree because the combustion "profile" is different, mainly faster (not being a chemist I can't delve further into the theoretical details) and the fact that the constituent chemicals generate more "oomph" in the first place. But the fact that my head is still intact is that I followed their advice to NEVER load smokeless powder into a barrel or a cartridge case designed for a black powder gun. Also to be careful to choose the correct type among the plethora of nitrocellulose powders on the market for a particular caliber and type of firearm, because burning rate varies to measurable degrees from one to another and an inappropriate burning rate can create dangerous chamber pressures that might damage either the weapon or the guy firing it.
From this, may I clarify the comment on overloading, that it isn't just flintlocks that are in danger of bursting under excessive charges, this is true of all firearms including modern ones. Nowadays, barrels of modern ordnance steels are generally of a high level of strength and safety, but it is the breech components that can still fail and turn into shrapnel (I've seen it happen on rifle ranges and it's scary, lucky that no serious injuries resulted). Back in the era which we are talking about, quality of gun barrels varied enormously -- this was true until industrial processes and government "proof" standards were more systematic. The difference between the best sporting gun barrels, those wonderful creations by the Cominazzo family or by Bis and the best Spanish makers, was far and away above the typical munition-quality barrel, which was typically made of a longitudinal flat strip of iron, curled lengthwise around a mandrel, with a single seam hammer-forged straight from breech to muzzle.
Filipe, there is no doubt that, my uneducated attempt to approach powder dynamics, burning versus exploding, has by far a better clarification in the comprehensive way you put it.
Also your mentioning issues involving gunpowder loading up to nowadays is more than pertinent. I have learnt that, black to smokeless powder transition, provided for a frequent exponential power increase. In two cases i have acquired 'not so antique' weapons, passive of being loaded with cartridges containing different types of gunpowder, i was firmly warned by the (different) sellers that, i should take care with the ammunitions i loaded them with ... ignoring whether i was only a collector or (also) a shooter. I soon got rid of them, anyhow.
Philip, thank you so much!
In recent study of firearms powder, I was curious on the 'old'method of measuring the charge in the ammunition in the Winchester rifles and carbines of 1870s+.
It notes that the .44-.40 cartridge was .44 cal. but the .40 indicated forty grains of black powder.
In the same 'type' lever action Winchester in more recent times, those for hunting apparently are of as much as 150 to 170 grain with varied bullet heads, but the .30-.30 is called that in accord with the old method of noting the grain weight. Very curious.
Coming late to the party I apologise if I repeat anything already said that I missed on reading my way through the thread.
There does seem to be a misconception that Britain was arming the Mexican government. Britain was simply selling off surplus arms from it's stock that were no longer needed. Mexico got what it ordered and paid for. Probably (as was normally the case) through a British company buying them at auction for the Mexicans. The weapons were well made and possibly worn but in serviceable condition. The quoted back to back 'V's do not note the gun as unserviceable but simply that they were sold out of British government service. No poor quality is implied. The Mexicans bought cheap and got cheap.
As far as powder was concerned the guns were not noticeably supported by powder sales. British manufacturers would have been only too happy to have sold good powder were the Mexicans to offer to buy it at a profitable price. Again I am not aware of any such approach nor sales. Essentially the Mexicans made their own and it was awful They had the ingredients but poorly refined, charred and worse processed.
IIRC the Mexicans did have trouble finding domestic flint and knapping the same which would raise the proportion of misfires.
FWIW it seems that the Mexican powder of the day was like a poor British ACW powder and was used in equivalent arms. Were the troops trained and supported like the British army in the ACW they could have overcome their material issues but the Mexican army was not so organised despite the doubtless bravery of the troops on the ground. The British powder of the time of the Alamo was an order of magnitude better than in the ACW when it was one of the poorest in Europe. Hence the government going into the business of powder making itself to get the necessary quality.
Again, pursuing a comparison to the ACW British army, an equivalent Mexican army would have had the troops well supplied with powder, well fed and clothed with several months of relevant training and practice before they came under fire confident in their arms and well directed.
In short. Yes they had *** powder but that was a hinderance to their performance, not a bar. The underlying issue was the way the Mexican army was run. The common soldiers, as ever, paid the price.
The subject of the flint-knapping industry worldwide is an under-researched field other than that dealing with England and France, which led the world in volume and the longevity of production of a very high-quality product. Undoubtedly you know of the article "The Manufacture of Gunflints" by Stephen White and Mario Scalini, in Art, Arms , and Armour ( Robert Held, ed., 1979). It has an extensive bibliography and detailed coverage of the technical aspects of the craft (with excellent illustrations). However Mr White did admit that documentary information on the industry itself in many countries was rather scanty, and that coverage of North America is unfortunately limited to perfunctory data on the US, with no mention of either Canada or Mexico.
If any forum members has access to more recent published info, expecially dealing with North America, please share with us.
Yulzari, welcome!! and thank you for the very much spot on summary of the situation with the Mexican army at the Alamo (and for that matter afterwards as well) with arms and powder. as you have well noted, there was nothing wrong with the India pattern Brown Bess muskets, nor the Baker rifles.
From one source I read after the end of the Napoleonic campaigns, in what was noted as pretty much standard British fashion, the 'war is over' so time to unload the surplus.
These arms were simply in excess for the now peaceful status, so perfectly functional.
As noted, the 'training' of the Mexican army ranks was inadequate and deplorable, just as the supply of required materials such as powder. The corruption notoriously known in the Mexican government especially under Santa Anna certainly led to the poor production leading to miserable powder.
One thing I was trying to discover here was where in the world did Mexico in these years get the powder they were using? As noted, the British had very good quality powder with their considerable sources for saltpeter, however I feel sure the Mexicans thought they did not need that expense and could make their own. In all the resources I have checked there were mentions of certain arms works, but no mention at all of powder production.
With the Texians, although in limited supply, the powder they had was apparently Dupont, which was excellent powder, but diminished in quantity.
With all the powder however, the elements of weather and dampness rendering it relatively inert came very much in play.
Thank you again for joining us here! and never worry about reiterating something already said :) These threads can get pretty long and intense and often its good to bring up certain aspects that are key in the discussion from time to time.
Philip, just crossed posts. Thank you so much for bringing up the flints, which is a most salient factor as well in the operation of these guns, and honestly I had forgotten about. I know that one of the reasons that the flintlock remained in use for so long in remote regions was that it was often so difficult to get the percussion caps for guns with that 'modernized' feature.
With that, I had the impression that powder and commensurately the flints were far easier to come by. Clearly that notion was not entirely well founded, and getting these important components would often present issues....and edged weapons, bayonets etc. would prevail.
I do recall reading that in Spanish colonial America the use of the lance prevailed as a more durable and ready weapon as firearms were not as available due to serviceability and it would appear, lack of powder. Perhaps the lack of flint may have equally come into play.
Mexico has traditionally been fond of fireworks and this was probably the major production purpose. Equally, whilst Mexico did make gun powder and the Confederate States in the ACW were woefully short of powder, I can find no suggestion that they attempted to import Mexican powder.
Both of these suggest to me that Mexico only made firework powder which would explain the poor shooting qualities when employed as a firearm powder.
Firearm gun powder is different in the quality of materials and it's processing to firework powder. It is both less powerful for the same weight or volume but also fouls the bore greatly.
I wrote a post on the subject and it has disappeared into the ether so i will summarise.
The gun powder made in Mexico was probably firework powder which would match the described qualities of Mexican arms in the period and be fit for the major market for gun powder domestically.
If in one hand is plausible that Mexicans assumed the weakness of their explosives, it is rather amazing that their forces went to war knowing that their (no gun) powder was for pyrotechnic use.
For this or that reason, Santa Ana (in 1850's) "has acquired new machinery for the gunpowder factories" (Martha Eugenia Gillaumin).
As already approached, the use of a smaller projectile obviated for residual accumulation in the barrels. It looks as the trick to compensate for consequent (short) range limitations was the dispersion provided by the buck & ball load. This ammo system, first thought to be a 'possible' resource, was later confirmed by archaeologists (Doctor Greg Dimmick) who have found numerous Brown Bess cartridges loaded with a single basic ball added by a few buckshot pellets. Some story goes in that Joe, Travis slave, describes the type of projectile that hit his head as a compound looking like more than one shot.
On another note, we can read in an article by the Naval History Division that, on the 3th. March 1836 (3 days before the Alamo fall) " Texas schooner Liberty captures Mexican schooner Pelican off Sisal, Yucatan, with contraband gunpowder " ... for whatever this suggests.
Thanks very much guys!
Interesting notes Yulzari, . As you note, it is presumed that Mexico made powder (somewhere) in the 1830s period we are discussing, but where that might have been is what I cannot determine.
True, the fireworks industry is big in Mexico, having grown up in Southern California the endless supply of fireworks (not necessarily legal) from across the border was profoundly known.
It had seemed to me that although obviously the powder mixtures for fireworks were quite different than that used in gun powder, that the basic components would also have what was necessary for producing it.
The note on the Confederacy being short of powder is curious as I had always heard that these forces never experienced shortages of effective powder as they ran one of the biggest centers for production in North America.
Naturally this was during the Civil War which was years later than the Texian revolution and the Mexican America war.
Well noted on the buck and Ball Fernando, and thank you for the info on Santa Anna getting new machinery for gunpowder in the 1850s. By this time he had used up most of his many attempts at securing power in Mexico.
As you have pointed out, the terrible powder used would quickly foul the barrels of the guns, so smaller caliber ball was used, and the buckshot would add to the short range wounding potential of the underpowered shot.
The fact that Joe was hit in the head and survived is telling. There are numbers of accounts of men in these campaigns hit by Mexican ball and not notably wounded.
The terrible attitude toward the forces of the Mexican army seems to say that they were poorly trained and poorly supplied, basically cannon fodder. However elite forces such as the cazadores were much better armed and supplied.
Fernando, truly interesting note on that Mexican vessel captured off Yucatan with contraband powder! So where was this powder from?
I will happily stand correction on the CSA powder availability. I had observed that they imported British made cartridges so used shipping space for quality powder.
Just as a note on powder qualities. Nepal made copy Francotte breechloading Martini action rifles and made their own powder. There were metal issues with the rifles but they were accepted into service. Then they were given British (Indian Arsenal) made ammunition with good quality powder. The result was many burst guns and the survivors withdrawn and put into store. In New Zealand some years ago the supply of firearm quality powder had ceased for some reason and the only powder available was a Chinese powder which was basically a firework powder and shooters experienced many of the reported Mexican results. In British Army service post Napoleonic Wars the musket charge reduced by a factor of @3 with the improvement in powder over the period. The Mexican problem was neither unique nor one which could not be dealt with by planning (larger cartridge charges) and discipline and training to keep the bores cleaned frequently in gaps in actions. Artillery officers needed the training and experience to compensate for the reduced ranges and adjust the sighting and commanders needed to appreciate that artillery needed to be sited to allow for the same. Infantry musket fire would have been limited by the extra thick own smoke. The training and discipline for officer controlled volley fire to allow firing all together when the smoke cleared would be another discipline which might be beyond the period Mexican Army. Even today people under estimate the skilled trade that is infantry warfare.
Actually Joe was describing how Travis was shot; i also didn't figure it out in the first place, when i read (and transcribed) the article.
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