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Old 2nd January 2018, 07:12 AM   #5
Join Date: Dec 2004
Location: California
Posts: 450
Default Corning -- earlier than we think

Originally Posted by rickystl
Hi Ian.

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.


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.
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