(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
I 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.
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.
Rock 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
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.)