Unreliable gunpowder and variation in powder flask sizes
Philip is suggesting that gunpowder manufactured in the Maghreb and probably elsewhere in northern Africa, was very variable in quality, leading to long barrels that could allow for the inferior combustion properties of such powder. There are several components to his argument (variable and inferior qualities of gunpowder from the region; the intent to accommodate those qualities by producing longer barrels; a resulting increase in flask size to accommodate larger powder loads, etc.). I hope that Philip will elaborate further.
Hi Ian. Happy New Year. And thanks for starting this Thread.
Collectors/Shooters in more modern times, from an historical standpoint, often refer to black powder generally in two catagories. The earlier powder is often called "meal" powder. The later variation (and more powerful) developed maybe sometime before the mid 19th Century (I think) is often refered to as "corn" powder. The corn powder being similar to what we see today. I have actually seen some of the original meal powder. It looks more like cake flour. It would be more susceptible to moisture and thus more prone to failure and unreliable ignition.
I have read that the old meal powder would often have to be re-mixed after transport. I have also read that much of the locally made powder in North Africa and the Indian Continent, even in the 19th Century continued to be made at a level and of a quality equal to that of Europe in the early to mid 16th Century. If this is true, then that would be a logical reason for their continued use of long barrels and heavier powder charges, thus requiring flasks/horns to carry larger quantities of powder.
You would think with all the British and French (seems French powder was admired during much of the 18th Century) influence and dominance in these regions that the better European made powder would have taken over. But since the locals were not allowed to own the latest (then) firearms, it would stand to reason they would not want them to have access to the better quality Europen made powder. Thus keeping the locals at a disadvantage.
Of course, I just speculating a bit here.
I've also read that if the early meal powder was compressed too tightly that it would not reliably ignite. Apparently requiring more oxygen to burn.
I think Philip's assertions are quite accurate and make complete sense to me.
The old meal powder would take longer to build up the gas pressure needed for reasonable velocity. Thus the need for longer barrels and heavier charges of powder. And larger quantities of powder in larger flasks.
Thanks Rick. What you and Philip have said makes perfect sense to me. Perhaps others may have a slightly different perspective.
Further to what Rick says;
If this mealed powder was still in use as late as the 19th century, it would certainly account for the narrower powder chamber or choked powder chamber in many Indian and N. African barrels. The reason for the chamber to protect the powder from over -compression.
However, ( I don't like "Howevers"!!)
How do we account for the often stated first hand accounts of how the local peoples in India and N Africa routinely out-shot the British forces they were up against?
Not outfought, but outranged them in the long distance and accuracy department?
This question may be simple to answer;
It may be for no other reason than the individual was familiar with his arm, and not bound by volley fire, so was something of a specialist, Despite his poorer powder.
As we know, many Indian and Persian barrels have a powder chamber that holds a huge amount of powder. Some I have in .50 to .55" calibre have a chamber capacity of 200 to 250 grains. Some toradors much more.
It may also be that some arsenals produced better powder than others, as the Sikhs for instance, out-shot the British with their very expertly served artillery. Surely this could only happen with good powder?
Afraid I can only offer this as food for thought, and not give any real answers, but it Is a very interesting subject!
Corning -- earlier than we think
The late Claude Blair, writing in Chap. 2 of Pollard's History of Firearms (1983), states that the manufacture of granular or "corned" gunpowder dates from the second quarter of the FIFTEENTH century. But he qualifies that by saying that it by no means replaced meal or serpentine powder in a short time -- the transition was slow because the metallurgical progress in gun-barrel making had to catch up, in order to create tubes that wouldn't burst from the increased force of the explosion. Let's keep in mind that it was only later in the 1400s that Europeans were just beginning to get the hang of casting cannon barrels in molds rather than constructing them of wrought iron bars welded lengthwise and reinforced with iron hoops outside. Blair writes that it was only in the 16th cent. that firearms of all sizes had begun to supersede other projectile weapons in importance, and that was when barrel metallurgy was getting sophisticated enough to reliably handle the chamber pressures of corned powder. He reinforces that point by noting that the earliest systematic attempt by armorers to make "bullet-proof" cuirasses and helmets is seen in the 1550s, which meshes quite nicely with what we see (from surviving specimens) in the increasing quality and functionality of both hand guns and artillery as the 16th cent. rolled in.
I recall reading a long time ago that the 17th cent. French traveler J. B. Tavernier, who had wide experience exploring the Middle East and south Asia, observed that gunpowder of tubular grains was made in Siam. Assuming that the translation is accurate, this is truly remarkable since we associate tubular (like macaroni) grains in Western explosives manufacturing to be an innovation of the smokeless powder era (end of the 19th cent. until the present). I am trying to locate the reference.
Be that as it may, the presence of corned black powder as early as 1400s Europe, and Western accounts from the following century praising the excellence of Ottoman gunpowder (quoted in Robert Elgood's Firearms of the Islamic World (1995), p 38, seem to indicate that quality powder was certainly known and available in the Middle East for a very long time. We may have to look at other factors, such as economic and cultural, that might explain why the technology for making it had not diffused more extensively or uniformly in all areas over the ensuing centuries, so that extreme variability in quality existed in many markets until modern times.
BTW, Rick, you are spot on about the tendency of meal powder to settle (separate according to its constituent ingredients) during long storage. The need to remix it created hazards of its own, imagine a fine dust permeating the air as it was handled, waiting to catch the smallest spark or even burst of static electricity in the area.
If some powder was Very good as Elgood states, plus these barrels often being made with a large powder chamber, this could very well account for them out-ranging the muskets of the period. Smaller bore and higher velocity. Makes sense. :-)
bore diameter and muzzle velocity
I'm sure that this was one goal of those master Brescian barrel makers of the 17th cent. (the Cominazzi, Franzini, et al) when they designed and made those wonderful barrels for sporting guns and pistols. The marriage of superior metallurgy to a controlled relationship between bore and outer profile to create highly functional tubes of smaller bore than many north European products, but which could handle the powder charges to get those bullets moving faster. Marvellous things -- strong at the breech and thin-walled at the muzzle, giving the guns an excellent balance, with subtle aesthetic treatment that doesn't try to steal the show. No wonder that the signatures of these craftsmen were so widely faked on the numerous (and for the most part markedly inferior) knockoffs cranked out in other parts of Europe and especially parts of the western Ottoman Empire over the next 200-odd years.
The FIFTEENTH Century ?? Well, then I stand corrected. LOL :o
That is much earlier than I thought. Apparently, the meal powder continued to be made for certain gun barrels even with the knowledge of the advanced, more powerful corn powder. Essentially, waiting for barrel development to catch up. Makes sense.
Which, makes it very curious, as Richard mentions, that many of the Indian Torador barrels had the larger than bore size powder chamber at the breech with the constriction to keep the projectile a small distance away from the powder, allowing more oxygen in the chamber, - and were still building barrels this way in the 19th Century. Although the breech wall thickness on these barrels are very thick and heavy on these barrels. Possibly able to handle the more powerful corn powder (?) The locals also thought this barrel design was more accurate.
A few years ago I read of a test that was performed. The shooter used an original 1880's U.S. Springfield Trapdoor Rifle, and a mint condition, unopened box of original U.S.Government 45/70 black powder loaded ammo.
Also, another box of hand loaded 45/70 ammo using the same volume, bullet weight, etc. (70 grs. FFG I believe) using today's sporting black powder. The result was about a 15 percent increase in velocity and accuracy. Of course, this did not surprise most observers. Even taking into consideration the age of the powder in the original ammo, it's interesting to note that today's sporting black powder is more powerful than the same powder made as late as the 1880's.
As long as we are on the subject of powder, I thought I would post this photo below. A short while back I bought an Albanian Tanchika long gun that still had a load in the barrel. Fortunately, in this case I was able to extract the load from the barrel without disturbing the contents. The powder is of the corn variety, but the grains seem a bit inconsistant. Even though I traded the gun, I still have the contents. Interesting to see how they loaded the gun. The ball was considerably undersized which allowed me to keep the contents in such good condition after the extraction.
strength of old powder / consistency in grain size
Very useful info!
1. As regards the relative strengths of the powder in the cartridges used in the comparison test, I would still make an allowance for some deterioration in performance as a result of over a century's storage, even in a "sealed" cartridge case. Black powder has always consisted of only 3 ingredients, and the "optimum" formulation has been hit upon in both Eastern and Western cultures centuries ago. The standard formula used in Western Europe, Britain, and the US has remained constant for over 150 years, and variation in performance can most likely be attributed to quality of ingredients, and storage conditions over time. Even in a "corned" configuration, black powder has inherent instabilty. It doesn't settle or separate into its constituents like "meal" powder, but the ingredients, especially the charcoal, are a magnet for atmospheric moisture to a degree that nitrocellulose (smokeless) powders are not. Remember the old saying "Keep your powder dry!"? Brass cartridge cases (as in the case of .45/70 ammo you mentioned) protect the contents a lot more effectively than powder flasks, or the wooden barrels formerly used for bulk storage. Yet I've pulled enough heads from cartridges that have exhibited greenish gunk and other shmutz on the outside, and have found it on the inside surfaces as well. As I recall, in older American cartridges like the .45/70, the case lip was crimped against the sides of the lead slug, and the slightest microscopic gap in between is enough to let in enough ambient atmospheric moisture to degrade the powder to a certain degree over more than a century. Not enough to render it entirely impotent -- a 15% decrease is not enough to make the thing totally "safe" and as you know, excavated ordnance from the Civil War and Franco-Prussian War have gone off with a healthy bang when detonated. I think that certain European cartridges, like the 11 mm Gras, Mauser, and Mannlicher rounds which have a wax-impregnated paper "jacket" which surrounds the slug as the brass is crimped over it, might provide a better anti-moisture barrier.
2. Not surprising that the powder recovered from the chamber of that Balkan gun had uneven grain size. It's likely that a lot of the powder made locally was handmade in mom-and-pop village operations, which didn't have the machinery that commercial or military powder mills were equipped with at the time. However, the stuff no doubt worked well enough for the purpose. It seems that these cultures had their own methods for grading the quality of local powder (there is mention of a grading scheme in Delhomme's report on Moroccan gun manufacture that I cited in a prior post), so they must have had a way to optimize the use of the product available to them.
Just a couple interesting tidbits, about 30 years ago I purchased from an antique shop one of those early European triangle flasks, likely German like those pictured in the Night Watch by Rembrandt. Wood, iron mounted of munition grade. What was interesting was a crank on the side, removing the top their was a wire contraption I assume used to mix the serpentine powder, never seen another like it. Then about 5 years ago I bought an estate collection of arms that was always in the family, was a matching pair of large & small American powder horns, carved & dated 1812 from Rochester MA. The large one was full of serpentine powder, the small empty. Being a back woods community I assume corned gunpowder was not available & they likely made their own gunpowder.
Rather than serpentine, I think the fine stuff May be priming powder.
Can't say for sure though! Also many used the same powder for priming as was carried in the main horn.
If this fine powder was in a large horn, I'd assume it was for storage.
In tests, I believe Bill Curtis RA, found that modern powder is not as good as the old stuff. His family were the Curtis part of Curtis & Harvey's.
FWIW, the original charge for the Snider Enfield was 2 1/2 drams, Roughly 68 grains of Rifle Powder. (Bear with me! ) We normally just use 70 grs of 2F. It appears though, that we get roughly 100 to 150 feet/second less velocity with the same charge.
Yes, there are sorts of possible reasons, and " Better then then now" is a blanket statement for brevity, but I'm sure you see what I'm driving at.
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