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Black Powder Properties

Black powder attracts moisture easily and keeping powder dry in storage was a big problem. Moisture-proof packaging was nearly non-existent in the early part of the black powder era. Today, powder makers simply package it in waterproof metal or plastic containers for distribution in retail stores, thus keeping it in ready-to-use condition for the consumer.

Black powder is a low-order explosive. It is not likely that physical shock will initiate combustion, but heat or sparks will. When ignited it obviously burns very rapidly and that is why it is classed an explosive. It produces about 40% gaseous materials and 60% solids that mostly appear as clouds of dense white smoke. Therefore, black powder is a very dirty explosive compared to newer powders and it fouls the insides of the guns it is used in. The smoke from black powder could be so dense as to visually obscure battlefields.

Members of the New Ulm Battery Firing a Salute in New Ulm, Minnesota.

Members of the New Ulm Battery Firing a Salute in New Ulm, Minnesota.
Photo: Flip Schulke.
United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Library of Congress.

There are several black powder substitutes manufactured today that are made with more modern chemical techniques, thus rendering materials with more consistent and stabile properties that generally burn much cleaner. These modern replacements for black powder do not foul guns as badly, but they must be used carefully within the manufacturer's recommendations to avoid unfortunate results. Not all black powder weapons are suitable for use with these substitutes.