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Gunpowder, black powder, or “powder” as it was most often called by eighteenth century mariners, consisted of a mixture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and charcoal.

At first saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and charcoal were mixed equal proportions by weight, but over time the greatest explosive power was found to result from powder in which they were mixed in a ratio of 75:15:10. Sulphur ensured ignition at low temperature, charcoal burned readily and the salpetre provided the explosive force by liberating oxygen.

Gunpowder was dangerous to handle, especially in hot and dry conditions. On board ship it frequently absorbed moisture and needed to be dried and remixed before use.

When fired, gunpowder produced thick clouds of acrid smoke. It also left a thick residue in the barrels of cannon that needed to be removed during repeated loading and firing.

A lengthy and informative article on naval cannon and gunnery drill is to be found in William Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine.


Prepared by: Turnbull, P
Created: 4 October 2001
Modified: 11 October 2001

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000023

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