This page no longer updated from 31 October 2001. Latest version can be found at Black Powder Solid Propellants

by Andre Bedard

Solid propellants of the composite type contain separate fuel (or reducer, chemically) and oxidiser (in a separate compound) intimately mixed. While generally not considered as composite, black powder was in fact the oldest composite propellant. Before 1940 black powder, in common use, was nearly synonymous with the words 'rocket motor'.

Black powder technically should not be called gunpowder because its use in rockets preceded that in guns. The ingredients are charcoal, sulphur, and saltpetre (potassium nitrate). These three ingredients were known in China for many centuries, however, before they were combined into black powder. Charcoal was known from the earliest times, and sulphur and saltpetre at least since the sixth century AD, and probably as far back as the first century BC That the saltpetre is definitely of Chinese origin is indicated by the names given to this material by the Arabs, who called it "Chinese snow", and the Persians, who called it "salt from China".

By 1045, just twenty-one years before William the Conqueror invaded Saxon England, the Chinese were well acquainted with black powder. The Wu-ching Tsung-yao (Complete Compendium of Military Classics) published that year, contained many references to the subject.

In black powder, saltpetre (potassium nitrate- KNO3) is the oxidiser, while sulphur (S), and charcoal (mainly carbon- C) are the fuel. But, depending on the percentage of each ingredient, sulphur may also act as an oxidiser for potassium in the reaction: 2KNO3 + S + 3C = K2S + N2 + 3CO2.

Some early black powder formulae:

Back to Index
Last update 12 March 2001.
Contact Mark Wade with any corrections or comments.
Conditions for use of drawings, pictures, or other materials from this site..
© Mark Wade, 2001 .