Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A Gun Nut Book Review

Last night, I finished Gunpowder by Jack Kelly. Probably for marketing, the book is subtitled twice, "Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World." Well, you can't complain that the entire title is misleading.

The book starts with the invention of gunpowder in China, and ends when "smokeless" powder largely supplanted it. Between the beginning and the end, Kelly includes many fascinating stories about gunpowder, its use, and the guns we developed to focus its power. The Chinese, despite myths to the contrary, did use gunpowder in war (p. 8).

Still, the Europeans refined its use. They developed huge cannons called bombards, built in the same way a cooper builds barrels. They took strips of iron, similar to barrel staves, bound them around a wooden pole, pounded until the strips meshed together, shrunk hoops around the staves for strength, and removed the pole (p. 41). Of course, every gun today has a barrel even though its made very differently from the way a keg is built.

Bombards gave way to bored barrels that led to smaller, more maneuverable guns even as powdermen improved their product. They figured out that adding a little moisture to the dry powder helped it resist humidity and made it safer to make (less explosive fine powder collecting in the air). A once preferred liquid for the mix was the urine of wine drinkers, particularly that of bishops (p. 61) although later powdermen used distilled water. Interestingly enough, urine contains the precursor chemicals that help saltpeter (a key ingredient of gunpowder) form and the urine of drinkers contains even more of those chemicals (p. 35).

Leonardo da Vinci designed a number of military items, including the wheellock, the ancestor of the flintlock (p. 76).

Besides these interesting facts, the book has a couple of statements that made me stop and ponder. Kelly states that gunpowder proved to be an equalizer. Armed commoners could shoot down a noble knight (p. 77). We gunnies sometimes say that armed people are citizens and unarmed people are subjects. Gunpowder may have helped develop the concepts that led to democracy.

A downside to the use of gunpowder was its cost and that of the weapons that used it. In order to equip and control the new armies, governments began centralizing and establishing more sophisticated means of taxation (p. 78). Always have to take the bad with the good.

Gunpowder helped lead to modern chemistry. Early chemists like Robert Hooke found out that gunpowder can burn in a vacuum. He realized that there was something in gunpowder that supplied its own substance that allowed burning (p. 112). Old ways of thinking fell to new ways. Over the course of a century another chemist named the element oxygen (p. 167).

Thus, without gunpowder arguably we would not have had democracy, the modern state, and modern chemistry. Tell that to your anti-gun acquaintances.

The book discusses how new powders supplanted the old. Nitroglycerine, nitrocellulose, and "smokeless" powder almost overnight ended gunpowder's military and peaceful uses. Today, black powder shooters still use it, but its most significant use is in fireworks.

The author is not preachy although he sometimes decries the carnage that gunpowder has wrought. It is a great addition to my firearms library and the author, also a novelist, writes well and I found the book entertaining. Of course, anything about guns is entertaining to me so your mileage may vary. I recommend it.

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