Where Did Gunpowder Come From? Humanity’s Most Ironic Mistake

Have you ever wondered where gunpowder comes from? How it’s made? How it was invented? Would you believe me if I said it was an accident? Well, it was. A rather ironic accident, actually. You see, it all started in ninth century China. But first…

The strange origins of gunpowder

Let’s start with the ingredients

Gunpowder consists of three primary ingredients: Saltpeter, sulfur, and carbon. Saltpeter, also known as potassium nitrate, was first found as a white crystalline on rocks or cave walls where there was an abundance of decaying organic matter. Caves and sheltered structures were ideal for the formation of saltpeter. Large deposits have been found in ancient lake beds and deserts. And in the southern region of China, where climes are warm and tropical, Saltpeter was abound.

For hundreds of years prior to the discovery of gunpowder, the Chinese used saltpeter for a number of reasons, including the oxidization and transformation of ores and minerals and the curing of meats.

As for sulfur, it is unclear as to how the Chinese obtained it. Records on the subject are scarce, and those that do exist are ambiguous. We do know the Chinese began to make use of sulfur as early as the Zhou dynasty (sixth century B.C.). They were interested mainly in its medicinal potentials, its flammability, and its reactivity to other minerals. Sulfur and its compound vitriol — when combined with other elements like mercury — could be used for a number of pharmacological purposes, such as the treatment of skin diseases, malnutrition, and other ailments. Vitriol was also used as a dye for clothing. So it was for more than 700 years that sulfur found its place in Chinese society. As well as carbon, which is found in common coal.

But it wasn’t until Chinese Taoists began combining the three compounds that things got… shall we say, hot.

Where gunpowder came from…

It is normal for humans to make mistakes. LSD was discovered accidentally by Albert Hoffman, while trying to create a new respiratory stimulant for a pharmaceutical company. For a long time, everyone believed the Earth was flat. And just the other day, I drove on the highway without realizing I’d left my shoes on top of my car. Fortunately, they were still there when I returned home to look for them. But the point is, humans have been making mistakes since the dawn of time. So when Chinese Taoists set on the quest to create the elixir of immortality, we’ll just have to forgive them for accidentally discovering gunpowder.

The story goes that in the ninth century, Chinese Taoist alchemists in hot pursuit of eternal life combined saltpeter, sulfur, and coal in a near-fatal concoction. The result was explosive — literally. The entire house in which they’d been working burned down.

That’s right. People searching for immortality instead found gunpowder.

The rest is history. By the eleventh century, an official formula for gunpowder was written. And the Chinese used it for everything from fending off the Mongols to making fireworks. 12,000 years later, we’re still combining saltpeter, sulfur, and coal to fill our bullets, to make bombs, fireworks, etc.

Gunpowder has been one of the most pivotal inventions in human history, and if it wasn’t for one happy accident on the part of some eternity-hungry alchemists, it might’ve never come to be.



The Historic Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts

The history of gun use in Massachusetts is as storied as America itself. Long before the Declaration of Independence was written, guns played an important role in American life. While gun control pervaded many echelons of English society, things were different in the New England colonies. In those times, no one needed a gun license. Rather it was quite the opposite.

History of Early Massachusetts Gun Laws

As far back as the late 17th century, colonial governments required its citizens to bear arms. In Massachusetts Bay, guns were readily available, and widely distributed among the population. In 1632, a Plymouth Colony statute ordered “that every freeman or other inhabitant of [the] colony provide for himselfe and each under him able to bear arms a sufficient musket and other serviceable peece for war.” With the looming threat of attack from indigenous tribes, citizens were required by law to undergo gun training, and in some cases, to carry it with them if they planned to travel farther than one mile from their own home. For many Americans nowadays, self defense is the primary reason for owning a gun. It’s powerful to know this principle has its roots more than three centuries ago.

Over a hundred years later, in the 1770s descent began to reach its fever pitch in the British colonies. In response, British Parliament passed the Coercive Acts. This came a year after the Boston Tea Party. These acts ordered a ban on the import of firearms into the colonies, as well as systematic confiscation of arms and gunpowder, and if necessary using violence to forcibly remove guns from the hands of colonists. In Pennsylvania, the Patriots of Lancaster issued a decree saying, “in the event of Great Britain attempting to force unjust laws upon us by the strength of arms, our cause we leave to heaven and our rifles.”

History of Massachusetts Gun Use
Americans have been bearing arms since the 17th century.

Around this time British officials came to realize that pretty much ever colonist over the age of 16 owned a musket and stock of gunpowder. Not only that, but by then gun ownership had been essentially mandatory, even among householders, for nearly a century. In order to quell rebellion in the colonies, the British did everything they could to disarm New England’s population. On September 1, 1774, 260 of General Thomas Gage’s soldiers sailed up the Mystic River and seized hundreds of barrels of powder from the Charlestown powder house. This came to be known as the “Powder Alarm.” In response, American revolutionaries declared that any attempt by the British to violently confiscate firearms from the colonists would be interpreted as an act of war. And that’s exactly what happened on April 19, 1775.

The Battles of Lexington and Concorde

At dawn on April 19, 1775, over 700 Redcoats marched from Boston to Lexington and Concord to seize arms. They were met by a militia of more than 200 patriots, ages 16 to 60–all of them carrying their own guns with few exception. Outnumbered, the militia at Lexington suffered major casualties and fell easily to the British army. They were less fortunate, however, at Concord. After unsuccessfully searching the town for munitions, the British began their march back toward Boston–where on Concord’s North Bridge, a massive town militia had gathered to drive them off. After only three minutes of gunfire, the Redcoats retreated.

While Concord wasn’t exactly a pivotal turn in the Revolutionary War, it provided a major morale boost to the colonists. More importantly, patriots began to realize that guerilla warfare would serve them well against British forces. Using their knowledge of the American terrain, militiamen overwhelmed the Redcoats, both in numbers and in combat style. Although the war raged on for a little less than a decade, the storied history of gun use in the American colonies proved pivotal for the revolutionaries. In the end, America gained her independence because of its well-armed militias spanning the eastern seaboard, and because of their sheer resolve to expertly bear their arms.

While gun use in Massachusetts looks a lot different today, and the government now discourages as opposed to encourages gun ownership among its populace, it is nonetheless important to know the role that firearms played in the birth of the United States.