Join Date: Dec 2004
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?