Ammo Weak Black Powder? Is this true?

CivilWarTalk

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Being that it's July (this month always seems to sneak up on me!) and Gettysburg Anniversary weekend and stuff, I've picked out a book on Gettysburg by Captain R. K. Beecham to read, "Gettysburg, The Pivotal Battle of the Civil War", just to see what his account of the battle went like.

In the second chapter of the book Beecham brought up a few interesting points that I'd like your opinion on:

Beecham said that the powder used in Union infantry ammunition was of poor quality, and that it was so bad that it was almost valueless. He went on to state that Confederate ammo had two-fold the explosive power of Union ammo, and that this problem gave the Confederate infantry a great advantage over Union infantry during the entire war.

I'll post another of my observations about this book tomorrow. What do you think about this issue?
 

blue_zouave

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Mike, I have heard that all powder at that time was poor quality, mostly smoke and not a lot of oomph. Rifles fouled quickly.

I never heard that Confederate powder was twice as good as Union powder though. I did hear that the South had trouble getting fulminate of mercury for caps.

Zou
 
O

oldreb

Guest
It was my opinion that as the powder used by the south was being made in Richmond and that the additive to this powder being potassium nitrate was collected from where ladies dumped their chamber pots, this made the Confederate powder much less effective.
It seems that Mr. Beecham may have gotten his facts slightly confused. The South was invading Northern territory. They had long lines of supply. In turn the Union army was in its homeland.

Is an interesting statement however, and will require a bit more research.
my best
oldreb
 

mobile_96

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There was a arsenal built at Richmond, but IIRC, the largest and best powder mill was built at Agusta, Georgia, and credit goes to Col.G.W. Raines. With a very high grade powder being produced there.
I also remember a reference to nitrate from chamber pot, amd will try to find it, but if really done could only be a very tiny part of the real needs for powder production.
Zou makes 2 very good points,All the powder, both sides fouled the quns fairly quickly.
The south had a terrible time of getting fulminate of mercury for caps, expecially after July 1863 with the loss of Vicksburg.
The river loss also stopped a great deal of horses and beeves from reaching the east, whereas the Union was able to supply all, or most of, their horseflesh needs from the west. Another reason why the Northern cav. grew to over power the Southern cav. Cann't do no ride'n if your horse can't be replaced.
 

hoosier

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I had never heard that one side's powder was better or worse than the other's.

I had heard that, in many instances, Confederate states considered that they had accumulated supplies for troops from their state alone, and were not willing to share those supplies with troops from any other state. Therefore, I could understand why troops from one Confederate state might have powder of a lesser quality than troops from another Confederate state.

Of course, your post is talking about inferior quality powder being a problem for the Union troops, rather than the Confederate, and furthermore implies that it was a problem for the entire Union army.

I have a harder time understanding why that should be so. I'm also somewhat skeptical that Beecham would have had a broad enough exposure to the rest of the Union army to be able to make a blanket statement that the whole army had to make do with inferior quality powder.

Your post does not identify the unit with which Capt. Beecham was affiliated. I'm speculating here, but it seems to me that it's possible that Beecham simply assumed that the problem with the powder was an army-wide problem when, in fact, it may have been a problem peculiar to his unit.
 

aggie80

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I used to make my own gunpowder, very crude, smokey and nasty, we just burned it for the bright flame, never could get it 'clean' enough to really work as powder.

Nitre, potassium nitrate, (KNO3) or saltpetre, is formed by bacterial action during the decomposition of excreta and vegetable refuse. Hence, chamber pots were a source of ingredients. Where ever people and animals live, the accumulated debris in contact with putrefying material, alkaline soil, plant ashes, air and moisture allows the conversion of nitrogen compounds from animal and plant decay into nitrates. These then penetrate the soil and when dissolved in rainwater, the puddles will evaporate on the surface to form crude saltpetre, a white flour-like powder. This is then washed to remove earth and impurities; then boiled and evaporated to refine it.

The crystalline deposits are also fairly common in limestone caves. Many caves in the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains were 'mined' for the salt laden earth, particularly during the Civil War, which was washed and further refined for use in the manufacture of gunpowder.

Among other items of note, the Federal Navy, due to a number of fatal accidents, had limited all charges of powder to half the rated amount. This lead to the relatively ineffective pounding of the Monitor on the Virginia. With full charges, the battle might have been more decisive.

I found this little note from the Journal of Pyrotechnics:

Performance Study of Civil War Vintage Black Powder

K. L. & B. J. Kosanke* and F. Ryan [*PyroLabs, Inc., Whitewater, CO, USA] ABSTRACT: A sample of Black Powder dating to the time of the US Civil War was harvested from cannon balls uncovered during an excavation on what had previously been the grounds of the Allegheny Arsenal. A portion of this powder was eventually made available for an investigation of its properties. It was found to be in excellent condition, both physically and in its performance. Physically, it is essentially indistinguishable from high quality Black Powder of current production. Its performance under conditions replicating its normal use was only slightly less than that produced by a high quality powder of current production.

Interestingly enough, we haven't made any major improvements to powder, just new propellants.

(Message edited by aggie80 on July 15, 2002)
 

blackirish

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Feb 20, 2005
Mark,
Very interesting, thanks a lot. I was in Fort Morgan, Alabama several years ago and was going through reading all the plaques when I came across something rather along the same lines. It seems that Fort Morgan only had smoothbore cannon at the time of the war and, as it was not exactly at the top of the Confederate governments priority list, they had little hope of getting the newer models with rifled barrels. The commandant, being resourceful, determined to rifle the barrels on the cannon they had. As you can imagine, this was a rather difficult procedure with the very limited tooling they had (you couldn't exactly send them down to the local machine shop). At any rate, this rather ardous and inexact task was finally completed on one of the guns. They loaded the gun for a test fire and pointed it out to sea when the gunners began to get cold feet. Nobody actually knew how much metal had been removed or how much the gun was designed to withstand in the first place. The commandant decided to do the honors himself and fired the cannon. As you might guess the gun exploded and killed him along with several other bystanders. There was no record of any more on-site conversions.

blackirish
 

CivilWarTalk

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Being that it's July (this month always seems to sneak up on me!) and Gettysburg Anniversary weekend and stuff, I've picked out a book on Gettysburg by Captain R. K. Beecham to read, "Gettysburg, The Pivotal Battle of the Civil War", just to see what his account of the battle went like.

In the second chapter of the book Beecham brought up a few interesting points that I'd like your opinion on:

Beecham said that the powder used in Union infantry ammunition was of poor quality, and that it was so bad that it was almost valueless. He went on to state that Confederate ammo had two-fold the explosive power of Union ammo, and that this problem gave the Confederate infantry a great advantage over Union infantry during the entire war.

I'll post another of my observations about this book tomorrow. What do you think about this issue?
It’s been a long time since I asked this question, any new viewpoints on the discussion?
 

Stone in the wall

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Seems if Union powder was that bad at Gettysburg we would all have known about it years ago from many different sources. That the Confederates had changed their fuses and they burned slower is commonly known. Maybe Beechams company just got a bad batch.
 

Story

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Tangential -

The gunpowder made by the Oriental Powder Company at Gambo was known for its excellent quality. Its geographic location far from the battle regions may also have been a factor in military supply strategy.

Also, this article is worth reading in it's entirety but I've seen notations in the CS Consolidated Military Service Records of soldiers detailed to this Niter & Mining Corps.
-
Early in 1861, George W. Rains, a chemistry professor and Confederate army officer in charge of gunpowder, was circulating an article on making grough saltpeter, although he used the British spelling, saltpetre. The article was titled “Notes on making saltpetre from the earth of the caves.”

Other articles encouraged people to create man-made “niter beds.” Both sides also began to seek overseas markets for gunpowder, though the Union blockade of Southern ports eventually created an additional obstacle for the Confederates.

The issue was serious enough that the Confederate Congress spent considerable time debating it. On April 1, 1862, the congress passed a bill creating a Niter Bureau. Isaac Munroe St. John, a dynamic Georgia newspaper writer and civil engineer turned soldier, was selected to head what officially was called the Confederate Niter and Mining Corps.

 

redbob

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While somewhat off subject, there has never been much doubt that the Confederate artillery fuses at Gettysburg were of inferior construction and materials, especially the Confederate version of the Bormann fuse. However, as to powder; once the Augusta Powder Mill came on line, it produced argueably some of the best black powder in the world for the Confederacy. :cannon::confused:
 
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mikekj

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While somewhat off subject, there has never been much doubt that the Confederate artillery fuses at Gettysburg were of inferior construction and materials, especially the Confederate version of the Bormann fuse. However, as to powder; once the Augusta Powder Mill came on line, it produced argueably some of the best black powder in the world for the Confederacy. :cannon::confused:

redbob, I was just about to say the same thing, but you beat me to it. Some of the finest powder ever made came from the Augusta Mill.

Never for want of powder...https://www.amazon.com/Never-Want-Powder-Confederate-Augusta/dp/1570036578
 

CivilWarTalk

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Interesting points. I've heard some of the stories about Augusta, but I didn't relate those stories back to this question, good catch!

So, I wonder if there is some truth to this idea, even if it's only true for a specific period of time, or a specific batch of supplies.

I also wonder, could that give units supplied with better black powder a range advantage? I would image it would, but the commanders would have to have been told to adjust their tactics to effectively take advantage of the better powder if that was the case. Otherwise, you would just have to get lucky.

It would be interesting to investigate this, but I have no idea if there is any way to correlate the success on the battlefield with quality of powder.... nor range of specific units with specific weapons.

I wonder if there are any memoirs that questioned why specific southern units (equipped with better powder) were more effective at a longer distance, or why some northern units couldn't perform as well at longer rangers when compared to southern units (again, equipped with better powder)?

Perhaps that's too esoteric to really ask of 150+ year old handwritten records and memoirs...
 

byron ed

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...I also wonder, could that give units supplied with better black powder a range advantage? I would image it would, but the commanders would have to have been told to adjust their tactics to effectively take advantage of the better powder if that was the case. Otherwise, you would just have to get lucky...

If it weren't for the fact that the cartridges were pre-loaded by the volume of, not the efficacy of, the powder, an infantryman could otherwise load instead from a powder flask and pour a bit more powder down the barrel to compensate for "wimpy" powder. In the Mexican war they still used flasks as issued with their long guns, but by CW the practice was outdated. Still, I understand that specialized sharpshooters (snipers) would still option to charge their weapons from a flask for the purpose of either retaining or modifying their ranging from their nested position (if anyone here can enlighten us about that).

And apparently, per procedure, Artillerists would regularly test their powder allotments ahead, to remain accurate in combat by factoring in the efficacy of the latest powder allotment.

...so I'm wondering now if more Southern soldiers with their smoothbores weren't still carrying powder flasks such that, yes, they could remain viable at range in a way their Northern antecedents couldn't. Pure speculation there.
 
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It’s been a long time since I asked this question, any new viewpoints on the discussion?
Not for Gettysburg

But have came across references in the Trans-Mississippi of confederates using Mexican powder and apparently it was worse quality then the what the confederates could manufacture.

But foreign powder may have been older surplus, even today one can buy surplus military ammo, as modern powder degrades over time, so they get rid of it. I used to buy surplus belts of 7.62 Nato for a FN-Fal I had, and after a couple more years of storage it would start having cycling problems from the reduced power.
 

CivilWarTalk

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If it weren't for the fact that the cartridges were pre-loaded by the volume of, not the efficacy of, the powder, an infantryman could otherwise load instead from a powder flask and pour a bit more powder down the barrel to compensate for "wimpy" powder. In the Mexican war they still used flasks as issued with their long guns, but by CW the practice was outdated. Still, I understand that specialized sharpshooters (snipers) would still option to charge their weapons from a flask for the purpose of either retaining or modifying their ranging from their nested position (if anyone here can enlighten us about that).

And apparently, per procedure, Artillerists would regularly test their powder allotments ahead, to remain accurate in combat by factoring in the efficacy of the latest powder allotment.

...so I'm wondering now if more Southern soldiers with their smoothbores weren't still carrying powder flasks such that, yes, they could remain viable at range in a way their Northern antecedents couldn't. Pure speculation there.
I hadn’t considered that there would have been testing too, yes, even if it was just target practice.... I know how much we make adjustments even today from one lot to another so, that is another point of consideration.... a lot to consider... on this topic....
 

Kirk Womack

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I don't think the powder than was any different than than it is now. They could have got some cartridges that were slightly damp from humidity. I've been shooting paper cartridges for some time, and I've noticed that power falls off in high humidity. Has anyone else noted this?
 
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Nathanb1

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Not for Gettysburg

But have came across references in the Trans-Mississippi of confederates using Mexican powder and apparently it was worse quality then the what the confederates could manufacture.

But foreign powder may have been older surplus, even today one can buy surplus military ammo, as modern powder degrades over time, so they get rid of it. I used to buy surplus belts of 7.62 Nato for a FN-Fal I had, and after a couple more years of storage it would start having cycling problems from the reduced power.

There were two Civil War-era mines I know of here in Texas--apparently there were others, but they're mostly here in the Hill Country. I can't imagine too many nearer civilization (there just aren't that many caves, honestly), and I suspect most of the nitrate mined in Texas was used here for defense on the borders and against Indians and Mexican bandits. The two mines I have personal knowledge of were near Burnet and Comanche.
 
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Modern true black powder will keep almost forever with todays storage capabilities with little degradation other then grain size eventually being reduced to handling.

However CW storage I suspect wasn't as climate or humidity controlled, saltpetre is very water soluable, high humidty with less then air tight containers would cause problems over time.
I don't think the powder than was any different than than it is now. They could have got some cartridges that were slightly damp from humidity. I've been shooting paper cartridges for some time, and I've noticed that power falls off in high humidity. Has anyone else noted this?
 
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