Black Powder for Self-Reliance – Part 2, by M.B.

(Continued from Part 1.)

Introductory Disclaimer (Repeated):
Making black powder, while safe in the author’s experimental experience, can be dangerous. The author and SurvivalBlog.com do not endorse making black powder, and you do so at your own risk. Making black powder could also be in violation of the laws in your jurisdiction. You are responsible for compliance with all laws in your area. Neither the author, nor SurvivalBlog.com, are responsible for your use of the information in this article. The processes described herein are therefore for informational purposes only.

Safety Note (Repeated):
Black powder can be dangerous if there is a gap between the powder and the projectile, when the firearm is loaded. When loading a muzzle loading firearm, be sure to seat the projectile firmly, so there is no empty space above the powder. This includes cap-and-ball revolvers, which can have no space between the powder and the ball or bullet, although wads can be used to fill the space when a light powder charge is used. When loading black powder cartridges, there must be no empty space inside the cartridge. You may need to use a wadding or other “filler” over the powder to take up the space inside the case.

MORE ON AMMO SHORTAGES

What if a tyrannical government tried to ban all firearm and ammo sales under the excuse of a “national emergency?” Or if panic at the threat of such a ban caused widespread shortages in ammunition and reloading components?

Whatever ammunition and components (brass, powder, primers, bullets) you have could suddenly be it, for the foreseeable future. Every raccoon raiding the henhouse that you shoot, every shot fired in training or practice, and every game animal you harvest represents one less round of ammo in your inventory.

What if you could make your own ammo? Not just assembling components you purchase, but make your own components from things bought in a home improvement store, a toy store, a grocery store, or even from things you find in the trash or from things found in nature? If you could make ammo good enough for practice, for hunting or for pest elimination, that could stretch your other ammo supplies much, much further.

GUNPOWDER, ALSO KNOWN AS BLACK POWDER

“Technologically, gunpowder bridged the gap between the medieval and modern eras.” – “The Gunpowder Revolution, C. 1300-1650”

When I was growing up, it seemed like all of my friends knew that “gunpowder” was made of potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal. Some of us even knew the proportions! What we didn’t know was that simply mixing the three components does not produce good quality black powder. Early medieval powder was made by grinding the components separately and mixing the powder dry, shortly before use. The resulting powder was called serpentine. It was inconsistent in performance and was sometimes even dangerous.

A better way is to mill the powder, which better combines the three ingredients. As described below, I used a rock tumbler as a ball mill to accomplish this.

Black powder consists of three primary components, measured by weight:

Potassium nitrate (KNO3) – 75% by weight:
an oxidizer, the KNO3 supplies oxygen for the reaction

Charcoal – 15% by weight:
provides carbon and other fuel for the reaction. Charcoal is the most important component, and its quality affects the finished powder. Willow is considered the best wood for charcoal if you make your own. “Charcoal” briquets for barbecue do not work well and are a waste of time to mess with.

Sulfur (S) – 10% by weight:
while also serving as a fuel, sulfur lowers the temperature required to ignite the mixture, thereby increasing the rate of combustion. Sulfur is the least important component; if left out, the powder will reportedly still work, though it will be harder to ignite. I have not tried this, as sulfur is easy to obtain and inexpensive.

MAKING BLACK POWDER

Blackpowder Making ComponentsI was inspired to take up this experiment when I read about the book, Locusts on the Horizon, by the Plan B Writer’s Alliance, specifically the article: “Homemade Gunpowder for Long Term Survival”. The article provided links to two videos by a gentleman calling himself “Brushhippie.” Those two YouTube videos have since been taken down, but I downloaded copies after seeing them, primarily out of fear that YouTube would remove the videos.

Brushhippie’s second video is now available on Vimeo, at: https://vimeo.com/user54220453 Although the first video could not be found, the second video covers his method well. His process is fairly simple and requires very little special equipment. I based my method on that of Brushhippie, and it seems to work very well.

BLACK POWDER SAFETY

Black powder must be treated with respect at all times. It is very easy to ignite and burns rapidly. For this reason, you should always use caution when loading black powder firearms. When loading single-shot muzzleloaders, I always pour powder down the barrel from a powder measure or a paper cartridge, not from a flask. If a lingering spark sets off the powder, a flask full of powder should not be open and in the path of the fire.

When loading a black powder firearm, always be sure to seat the projectile firmly, so there is no empty space above the powder. This includes muzzleloaders, cap-and-ball revolvers and black powder in cartridges. There can be no space between the powder and the ball or bullet, although wads can be used to fill the space when a light powder charge is used. Empty space above black powder can result in dangerous pressures.

Above all, consult a good black powder manual. Learn to use black powder safely, and you will find that it is no more dangerous than other shooting sports.

MATERIALS

Potassium nitrate – 1 pound bottle of Spectracide Stump Remover. This is essentially pure potassium nitrate – I paid $7.48 at Lowe’s.

Sulfur – 1 pound bottle Lilly Miller Sulfur. Lilly Miller is about 90% sulfur – The cost was $6.98 at Lowe’s.

Charcoal – 2 pounds “air float” charcoal – The charcoal was just $4 per pound, plus $16.71 shipping(!) – from hobbychemicalsupply.com

Dextrin – Argo Corn Starch. (This comes in a 1-pound box, but you’ll only use part of it.) Ordinary grocery store corn starch (brand doesn’t matter) is spread out on a cookie sheet and baked at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 hours. It acts as a binder in the corning process. An amount equal to 5% of the batch weight is added the powder. I’ll explain the process later.  A box cost me only $1.67 at Walmart.

With the prices given above, and including the price of shipping into the price of the charcoal, the price for a pound of homemade black powder would be $8.11. The price includes sales tax on the potassium nitrate and the sulfur, although I receive a 10% discount at Lowes as a military veteran. The potassium nitrate accounts for $5.49 of the total cost of a pound of powder. If you find a better price, without outrageous shipping costs, homemade black powder can be very inexpensive.

TOOLS

Rock TumblerRock tumbler with black rubber tumbling chamber, 3 pound capacity – $44.99 at Harbor Freight. This is used as a ball mill, with a pound of lead balls. Multiple designs for homebuilt ball mills are available on the Internet. It’s essentially a small, cylindrical container made of sturdy, non-sparking material, which needs to hold something to be crushed, along with non-sparking metal (lead) balls. Some kind of simple motor is needed to rotate the drum.

100 foot heavy-duty extension cord

Digital scale

100 .36 lead balls (000 buckshot). The diameter was not important, but the overall weight (about 1 pound) and the material are. Non-sparking lead balls in a non-sparking rubber container provide no opportunity for a spark. Do not use glass, ceramic, or steel balls. Use lead balls, for safety!

Kitty litter scoop (for separating lead balls from powder)

Flexible plastic cutting board (for mixing powder with water before corning), or a plastic cafeteria tray

Spray bottle (for misting water onto powder for corning)

Old credit card, hotel card/key, or similar plastic card for mixing/stirring the powder and water. A small plastic spatula for use with putty could also be used.

Screening frame – made from scrap 1×3 wood and metal window screen. The size of the frame is unimportant. My frame is approximately 1 by 2 feet in size. The screen has about 16 squares per inch, which gives finished gunpowder that is comparable to commercial FFFg in appearance.

Newspapers for drying the powder after screening (corning)

Dust mask or respirator to avoid breathing powder dust

Latex, nitrile or rubber gloves

 

PROCESS FOR MAKING BLACK POWDER

A good batch size is 200 grams (.44 pounds) of black powder. The batch requires:

– 150 grams potassium nitrate (75% by weight)
– 30 grams charcoal (15% by weight)
– 20 grams sulfur (10% by weight)
———
200 grams total

– Plus 10 grams dextrin (baked corn starch – +%5 by weight)

Carefully weigh the three main ingredients and add them to the rubber drum of the rock tumbler, along with the lead balls. Note: The dextrin is not added until the very end of the milling process.

Using a 100-foot extension cord, set the tumbler up far away from any buildings, people, or animals, in a shaded spot on bare soil or a concrete slab. Tumble the powder and lead balls for at least six hours.

Be very careful with black powder, as it is very easily ignited by a single spark.

[JWR Adds:  I’m sure that this article will inspire howls of derision from readers claiming that black powder and lead balls inside a rock tumbler is a recipe for making an unintended fragmentation bomb. However, keep in mind that these tumblers user a flexible rubber tumbler body with a plastic lid. If the powder were to ignite, the lid would simply pop off and the powder would burn, and not explode. Truly explosive force from gunpowder is seen only when it is fully contained, allowing pressure to build up.  Granted, even a flaming rock tumbler that is still spinning would be a bad thing, but not catastrophic, if at a safe distance from anything flammable.]

After 6+ hours, unplug the tumbler extension cord and allow  the tumbler assembly to cool for one hour. Then don your mask or respirator and gloves before opening the tumbler drum. Approach it and open the tumbler drum. Open it slowly and carefully, to avoid a cloud of dust. Add the 10 grams of baked corn starch and tumble for just 20-30 minutes more. Again unplug the tumbler extension cord and allow the tumbler assembly to cool for one hour before approaching it. The powder is now ready for corning, which will change it from superfine “meal powder” to granular gunpowder that will burn well in a firearm.

I spread out a piece of “Visqueen” plastic sheeting in my work area. It helps to keep the mess under control.

Corning consists of three steps:

1. Moistening the powder.
2. Screening it to create granules of a given size. This is corning.
3. Drying on newspapers.

Spread out a few layers of newspaper on the plastic and set the screening box over them. Also on the sheet, place a flexible cutting board or cafeteria tray, plastic card or spatula for stirring, and a sprayer filled with water. I use distilled water, as my well water is very “hard” with minerals. It may not make a difference, but it can’t hurt.

Again, don your mask or respirator and gloves before opening the tumbler drum. Open slowly and carefully, to avoid a cloud of dust.

Place the kitty litter scoop on the mixing surface, and slowly pour about 1/4 to 1/3 of the tumbler contents onto the scoop. Slowly lift the scoop to remove the lead balls from the powder. Carefully pour off the balls into a container for later re-use.

The key in moistening the powder for corning is to gently use a fine spray of water, adding a small amount at a time, while stirring with the plastic card to distribute the water. You want the powder moist enough to form a firm ball, but not wet enough for water to come out of the ball when squeezed.

When the powder is moistened, form a ball of it in your fist and begin gently rubbing it through the screen, so it falls onto the newspaper. Make sure that no powder is clinging to the underside of the screen. Clumps of powder stuck to the underside of the screen are an indication that the powder is too wet.

If the screened powder looks as fine as it was coming out of the tumbler, then it is too dry. If this happens, you can put it back on the mixing surface, moisten it to the proper level, and corn the powder again.

Try to use all parts of the screen, so the powder is spread as thinly as possible over the newspaper. This will ensure faster drying.

Repeat the steps above until all the powder is moistened and corned through the window screen onto the newspaper. Remove the screening box and allow the powder to dry in a low-humidity (30% or lower) environment.

When thoroughly dry, the finished powder should be stored in airtight containers. Black powder, being a simple mixture, has a very long shelf life. Again, be very careful with black powder, as it is very easily ignited by a single spark.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 3.)




19 Comments

  1. A couple of hints on making Black powder. I use a sheet of glass for a mixing surface as it is easier to clean as well as an end off of a silicone cake mixing spatula which also work s well for the corning process.

  2. Worked for a Fortune 500 defense contractor for 30 years with about 500 employees, about 10% of which hunted big game. This offered some offhand perspective on gear and success. The choice of rifle calibers in this group ran the full gamut, from .243 Win to .338 Win Mag, including the common (boring) .308 and .30-06. Opinions on what what needed to kill deer and elk were varied and sometimes got heated. My observations, added to the collective experience of my co workers was this: The skill of the hunter made a lot more difference than the caliber of rifle he carried. The most successful elk hunter at work got his elk every year, and he used a plain vanilla, Savage Model 99 in .308 Win. with a 4X scope.
    My own use of the same caliber and autopsies performed on large mule deer shot with it convinced me that getting shot with a center fire rifle was something to be avoided.
    There is a point in all of this, and that is, standardizing on a very few calibers enables one to A) save a lot of money on ammunition, and B) acquire meaningful amounts of it so that shortages have little to no impact on your ability to hunt or handle whatever history comes your way.
    Price out 1000 rounds of say, 7mm Remington Magnum. Ouch! Price out 1000 rounds of 7.62 NATO from ammoman.com or any of the on-line distributors. Huge difference, right? Once-fired military 7.62 NATO hulls are a tiny fraction of the cost of bulk commercial rifle brass in almost any flavor. I once bought a 55 gallon drum of 7.62 brass for about $350 from a military surplus store. [My 3/4 ton van rode smooth all the way home] I couldn’t buy 1,000 commercial cases in any caliber for that price.
    This article, to me, reinforces the concept of archiving the modern propellents and other components you need to support your firearms in perpetuity. It’s OK to die of old age and leave ammunition/components to your progeny.
    Making black powder is a long and detailed process…..you can pretty much forget making smokeless propellents at home. There is NO WAY you can come close to the quality controls available to the folks at DuPont, Alliant, Hogdon, etc. Propellents store for many decades, and I’ve used 40 year old H4831 and H4895 with excellent results. Mil-Surplus 7.62 NATO ammunition might not win any bench rest contests, but it will still serve well enough for serious purposes long after you are in the rest home.
    The more I hunted with my .308 rifle, the faster I jettisoned all the silly “must-have” commercial calibers in my armory. i have almost a dozen rifles over .223/5.56 caliber, and they’re all in 7.62 or .308. Simplifies logistics. Your requirements may vary if you live around Grizzlies or Brown bears. And no, I’m not biting on the 6.5 Cred. That would entail a whole new round of expenditure for another caliber, components, etc.
    The bottom line….stock propellents in bulk so you won’t be making your own.
    Did I mention primers?

    1. My thought as well. .308/30-06 will serve you well for defense/hunting etc. I have 8mm Mauser as well. A well fed k98 or derivitive will probably be in the hands of the last man alive after the apocalypse (should that scenario unfold). I like to check out local pawn stores for components as well. Bought some Speer soft point .308 180g bullets for a song recently. Shoots well in both .308 and 30.06. Purchased unopened 1lb HP-38 recently for $4.00. Happy shopping! 🙂

      1. Jason…

        The K98 is a stout and proven system. I once owned a Yugo K98 clone and a quantity of 8×57 fodder for it. Getting modern stocks of ammunition for it proved impossible so I passed it to a friend. I do have a restored Garand in original flavor that i adore. But alas only have about 3K rounds for it. It’s sort of a trunk gun when I have to travel to occupied states. If you hand load for your Mauser it will serve you well forever.
        I neglected to mention that powder of any sort should always be purchased in bulk lots when possible so that the lot numbers will be the same. Humidity and density varies from one lot to another and will shift charge weights in the measure when a new lot is used. Always verify charge weights when changing lots. Twin 8 pounders are good, larger containers, better. Just over-reach when deciding how much you should have on the shelf as a hedge against unscheduled events. I’ve never felt bad about having too much inventory. When the Left boasts of ammo bans, etc, I floss my teeth and smile.
        Apply similar logic to beans, rice, soap, shoes, socks, etc.
        Any of the great battle cartridges will do double duty, just try to standardize and simplify so you can shoot enough to maintain skills.
        A while back, I found a shipment of Soviet M44 calvary carbines, new condition, some from the Tula arsenal. War production, so they were rough, but the price was right and I bought three of them for around $150 each. Now, they’re much more than that, but they are sturdy, short, and the sights were all regulated. I passed it around with my friends during a desert shoot and they all easily hit the 300 meter steel, nearly every time with recent Polish service loads. And hey, the folding cruciform bayonets might be good for picking up trash on the lawn. 7.62x54R is plentiful and cheap…or was. A good steel cored round costs less than a bullet. Reloading for it makes little sense. Not as smooth as a Mauser, though.

  3. This reminds me of a part of Cormac McCarthy’s historical apocalyptia novel “Blood Meridian” where the Judge whips up a batch of black powder atop an extinct volcano out of bat guano, brimstone, charcoal and urine.

    Come to think of it, there is a lot in that book that might be of interest to y’all.

  4. As Paul and Vagus point out, making black powder as firearms propellant is a waste of time unless you have a sustainable source for sulphur. When the stores are gone and you can’t buy cartridges or smokeless powder, you won’t be able to buy sulphur, either.

    For use as a blasting agent where alternatives are regulated into unavailability, but S is available, it may make some sense.

  5. Good evening.

    I`m a german.

    I heard the best charcoal is made of Rhamnus frangula, wich is called buckthorn in english i suppose.
    This tree is named ,,Pulverholz” or ,,Schießbeere”, wich means ,,Powderwood” or ,,shooting berrie”.

    Those names are very old and i think, this is a strong note for its early use.

    I dont know why its probably the best wood for blackpowdercharcoal, perhaps because of the very little ashes that remain during the process of making charcoal.

    Excuse my english.

    Best regards

  6. It would take awhile to use up all my components, yet it could happen. BP is serious alternative. The topic has rekindled my interest in developing alternative ways. For example, what I got left of FFFg , I read could be used in .30-06 with at 150 grain SP for respectable deer load at 2,400+. About 58 to 60 grains from what I read. It’s like IMR 4381, but a whole lot slower. Just fill up an .30-06 case, and maximum pressures will not be exceeded . Same goes with Trailboss, but 14 to 16 grain is the sweet spot for .30-06. 19 grains is a full case, but do not compress Trailboss. Like BP, one can load it up by volume and be safe. With BP just be sure to fill up the case and slightly compress it, or use filler to remove the air. However fillers can create other problems….

    These are easy to use powers when one has nothing else, and little else to reload with. We could use Trailboss for reduced varmint rounds, or BP for deer if the case is large enough as it is with .30-06. In .308 Win, I would imagine that the case is too small to running a standard cup and core SP fast enough to expand it using a full load of FFFg. But knowing that, there are other modern bullets that will expand reliably down to 1600 fps, making BP useful in that and other cartridges. Nosler BT, 125 to 165 grainers will expand at low velocities. And so will Hornady’s SST, AMAX or VMAX. Or use a flat or round nose bullet designed for the slow speeds of a .30-30. Heck, load BP in the .30-30. .30 caliber bullets can be used in a HUGE variety cartridges. Give me all most any .30 caliber bullet and BP, and wide variety of rifles could be kept in action.

    Even if we cannot make BP, we can lean how to use available resources and improvise. I will also save this and all information that could be used in the future. If I cannot use it, perhaps someone else can. This good SOP for anything like this. Having information that will help us understanding how one can use red dot, Unique, IMR 4198, IMR SR 4759, 4227, and all the ‘odd’ powders that few has a use for, if knowledgeable, these powder can be used effectively. Red Dot, can be used in .30-06, 9mm, and 12 GA, and many others. IMR 4895 can be use for accurate loads in most center fire rifle cartridges. Finding out the different ways one can use the components on their shelf, can greatly improve that ways one can make a firearm work. Learning how to conserve components is also helpful. Why use a maximum pressure load, when a mild load, or even a reduced load can work? And the brass will last much longer. Use only enough powder to get the job done. Of course primers are essential to all all of this, and are difficult to make. Having an excess of primers is a good idea.

    There are so many different ways to utilize available component to make some thing go ‘bang’. One of the reasons to use common caliber ammunition is because there is also more technical information available. I like .30-06 because there generations of reloaders who have experimented and shared their experience. They learned how to make the only rifle they owned during the Great Depression continue to put meat on the table using out of the box thinking and improvisation. The old ’06 is the most versatile cartridge on the planet as a result good for mouse to moose. We have easy access to this experience. There is tons of load data for .30-06., including loads for FFg, and FFFg.

    There is so much that could be said on this topic. Black Powder is good stuff. It can be useful in modern guns, and well as flintlocks, cannon or whatever! If I find BP some for sale anywhere, and the price is right, I will grab it. Even FFFFg is useful. Powder can be stored for decades. Only if starts to smell a little like ammonia would I consider it to be bad. Thanks for this fine article. My other passion is reloading, and you opened up the door for my continued and increased appreciation of BP.

  7. Sulfur is NOT mandatory!

    When the British were developing a spark-sensitive priming charge that was compatible with cordite, they found sulfur cause problems, so they developed sulfur-free gunpowder: just potassium nitrate and charcoal. Details are here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder#Sulfur-free_gunpowder

    The main thing about sulfur is that it makes the powder easier to ignite. This would be very important to flintlock users, but I don’t know if it matters with a percussion cap. Right now, you can buy garden sulfur cheap, and it has a pretty much unlimited shelf life (plus it is useful in the garden), so why not just stock up on the only really hard-to-get ingredient? Don’t forget the sulfur is also just 10% of the mix, by weight. A little goes a long way: that 1 pound bottle of Lilly Miller can be used to make about 10 pounds of black powder.

    I’d like to try the British formula sometime, just to see if performance suffers much.

    The main benefit of black powder is:
    – Components are available when ammo Is banned or the shelves are cleaned out by panic buying.

    A secondary benefit should not be overlooked:
    – Best propellant for older firearms, if you can’t find the mfg. date. Black powder can be used safely in some cases where the pressure curves of smokeless could damage a gun.

  8. You can substitute iron oxide for sulfur, but it won’t work quite as well – will need more powder for the same “oomph”. Knew a guy that had an old rusty cast iron skillet that he used to scrape the rust off and use it to make small amounts of powder as a parlor trick.

    This fireworks-related site says you can just use potassium nitrate and charcoal, without sulfur, if you modify your method (have never done it or seen it):

    https://pyrodata.com/definitions/Black-Powder-Sulphurless

  9. It’s much safer to mill the components separately than mill them together. And do not use lead balls! They will shed lead powder into the mix.

    Always be ready for spontaneous ignition! I had a batch do that while following instructions in the Improvised Munitions field manual. I had just granulated the powder and left it to dry. It went just after I took a step away.

    Compost piles are good sources of potassium nitrate, if you know how to make it.

    1. Please handle/ store safely, seperate containers(surplus ammo cans are excellent),limited ammount containers(1-2 lbs,8 lbs or larger really require a proper magazine(covered with blast provisions),chemical/fire cabinet(you should have one already if you store flammables(paint thinner/turp,coleman fuel,naptha,solvents etc),best stored outside living area(detached garage,shed not basement if possible Murphy Rules),stable temperature if possible,lower humidity if possible. If you were at a Ammo Supply Point think of how it was handled and why and don’t learn the hard way(you don’t get a second chance or a open casket(if there is enough left))
      What is recommended for the ball mill? Copper? Brass?

  10. This is a serious question (in case it appears humorous). Since this looks rather complicated (for me anyway), and since this is per the many comments as substitute in some respects due to an ammo shortage, what amount of actual ammo in your 2-3 most favorable calibers (along the lines of JWR defense recommendations of basically 22LR, 9mm, misc shot gun shells, and then one long bolt rifle of choice for game hunting) – given that we all can live to 100 (just a guess), it’s there some amount of ammo stock pile per person that would be plenty acceptable for a rainy day balancing future defense plus practice/training and hunting especially if one assumes plain vanilla reloading for FMJ target practice rounds ? Would you base this on how much you can afford or the shelf life of the ammo or the storage space required ?

  11. I agree with T.R. Although this article is good to know, it shows the many dangers and down falls of this. One of my older friends recently died and I inherited his powder collection, many, many cans of BP, but also many cans of older powders that T.R. mentioned that were commonly used in the 1980s and before. It is important to have early reloading manuals that show that powder. Fortunately, I have been reloading since the late 1970s, so have a lot of older manuals. The newer manuals often omit these older powders. If you are going to reload, and count on that in the future, be sure to have not only components, but manuals that show the powders of yesteryear, since you may come across them, even if you don’t stock them yourself.

  12. When I was a kid making BP was a rite of passage. YouTube is now taking down these videos. I imagine a school would turn a kid in to the police if caught researching the subject.

    There is sulfur all around you if you know where to look. Let me give you just one example – car batteries. Of course it would take some doing to extract the sulfur from the sulfuric acid electrolyte, but it is indeed there. A couple of weeks ago, an article here addressed the field of chemistry. You need to reason it out for yourself.

    I wouldn’t shy away from using lead balls – just use common sense and don’t snort or eat your BP when you are finished!

    BP has MANY more uses than for reloading purposes.

  13. Another source of sulphur is around oil production processing equipment. Various locations around Wyoming have had mounds of sulphur sitting as products of de-sulphuring petroleum.

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