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Old 30th July 2019, 10:08 PM   #1
Jim McDougall
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Default 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?
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Old 31st July 2019, 06:25 AM   #2
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Default 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, la Genghis Khan, until these tests were abolished in 1905!

So you thought Mexico was in a pickle?
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Old 31st July 2019, 12:29 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Philip
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, 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!
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Old 31st July 2019, 01:36 PM   #4
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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~

http://johnwayne-thealamo.com/forum...0fcb0&start=160

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.
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Old 1st August 2019, 06:57 AM   #5
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Default who is a "true Mexican"?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ibrahiim al Balooshi


I note a lot of the soldiers weren't Mexican but Indian and interestingly the point of poor training just keeps popping up.


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?
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Old 1st August 2019, 07:17 AM   #6
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Default British military surplus firearms

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ibrahiim al Balooshi
. 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.


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 ndia 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.
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Old 1st August 2019, 11:42 AM   #7
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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.
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Old 1st August 2019, 11:59 AM   #8
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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.
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Last edited by Ibrahiim al Balooshi : 1st August 2019 at 12:09 PM.
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