Gun History: Who Invented Gunpowder?
A prime and necessary component of all things firearm, gunpowder is at the core of shooting. That being said, it's rarely something we as gun owners think about. Who invented it? And Why? What did they mean it to be used for?
While the answers to those questions may seem slightly self-evident to some, the reality might surprise you.
When Was Gunpowder Invented?
While many people immediately associate firearms with the United States, the U.S. is not old enough to have been the birthplace of gunpowder. In fact, the new world in general isn't old enough. The history of gunpowder actually goes back considerably farther than that.
Bursting into existence somewhere between the 9th and 11th century (though some evidence points to it being used even earlier), gunpowder changed everything from warfare to celebrations. The resulting boom in industry and drastic changes in military tactics and strategy was groundbreaking. In fact, it's fairly safe to say that few things have blasted into daily life with such a bang.
Okay, now that we have the puns out of the way, where exactly did gunpowder come from?
Where Was Gunpowder Invented?
It may surprise some to learn that gunpowder was invented in China. It's considered one of what the Chinese call the "Four Great Inventions." The other three are the compass, papermaking, and printing. Lofty praise considering the company it's in, but rightfully so given the impact it's had on the entire world.
These Four Great Inventions are highly celebrated within China. They are seen as examples of Chinese cultural advancement and symbols of Chinese mastery in the areas of science and technology.
Who Invented Gunpowder?
As was previously mentioned, gunpowder was originally believed to have been developed in the 9th century, and there is some evidence of it having been used at that point. However, there is also evidence that it may have been in existence as early as the 2nd century.
Historical records from China indicate that in the 2nd century, a Han dynasty alchemist named Wei Boyang wrote about a substance with the same properties as gunpowder.
Then, a couple hundred years later during the Jin dynasty, a Taoist alchemist named Ge Hong also wrote about a substance with the same explosive properties. These references do not include specific formulas but make mention of some substances that are used in gunpowder as well as explosions resulting from contact with flame or as a result of heating. While we can't know for sure, it's safe to assume that these were at least very similar precursors to gunpowder.
The first historical records documenting a specific formula, though, are those which trace back to the 11th century. The basic formula for gunpowder appears in what is called the Complete Essentials of the Military Classics, or Wujing Zongyao. This is a Chinese text from the Song dynasty that was a compilation of writings on all manner of warfare. So, in looking at the evidence, we can see that there was enough history of the usage of gunpowder that it already warranted inclusion in a military manual by the time of the Song dynasty.
Why Was Gunpowder Invented?
Believe it or not, gunpowder was likely created by accident. Some legends suggest the initial formula was developed as an attempt at an immortality elixir. Others maintain that it was simply the result of experimentation by Taoist alchemists. Regardless of whether either of these stories is true, the fact remains that the resulting explosive mixture was not the desired goal.
Despite not being the intent of its creation, it became obvious rather quickly that this new substance had military applications. The Chinese themselves quickly developed the first versions of firearms (link to Gun History: When Was the First Gun Made?), which were rudimentary cannons attached to poles called fire lances. They were used in battle almost immediately after the discovery.
From there, came the development of proper cannons, artillery, rockets, and all manner of exploding weaponry. As word of this substance spread, so too did the powder itself. Although it was invented in China, the invention obviously didn't stay there. Gunpowder entered Europe through Italy and was integrated throughout the rest of the continent by the early 13th century.
What Exactly Is Gunpowder?
As advancements have been made over time, the formula has undergone some changes from that of the Song Dynasty. Today, we have what is called smokeless powder, and it's far more efficient at producing the desired explosive effect needed for modern firearms. However, that original formula is still in use today. In fact, that original type of gunpowder is what we would call “black powder” today.
The powder itself is actually a mixture of three powders: sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, which is also known as saltpeter. When combined in the correct proportions, the resulting mixture becomes that explosive substance we all know and love. Once properly mixed, these three elements react violently to a flame, creating a rapid ignition that becomes two separate substances: gas and smoke. The former is what we need for shooting and the latter is what we (mostly) eliminated in modern powder.
The history of gunpowder is an interesting journey from inception to spread to utilization. For modern firearms enthusiasts, it's probably not something that is given much thought except in gratitude for its existence. Because without gunpowder, we wouldn't be able to shoot.