Sunday, August 28, 2016

Black Powder XIX - More on Packing

In our last post, we talked about the packing process of black powder in the 19th century. However, that post went a little easy on details about the containers used, so we will discuss those in today's post.

Black powder was generally shipped in boxes (cases) or cylindrical containers. Barrels were used because they were designed to hold goods without risk of leakage and were used for centuries for this purpose. On the other hand, boxes are easier to stack on top of each other than barrels and waste less room.

The boxes were usually made of copper and had powder loaded in a linen bag, or they were made of wood (which was cheaper) and had a slightly smaller box inside, into which the powder was loaded. Boxes varied in size, depending on the country, the type of powder etc. For instance, in England, some cases were about 2 feet long, 2 feet wide and 6 inches high. In the Confederate States, their boxes were about one foot long, one foot wide and 2.5 feet long. In Austria, their boxes were big enough to contain about 64 lbs. of powder. For sea duty, the boxes were generally made of copper. While boxes cannot be rolled around easily like barrels, they can be packed together more tightly than barrels can, which is why some factories started to switch from barrels to boxes towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Containers generally came in multiple sizes: Barrels, Kegs and Canisters.

Barrels are generally the largest of these containers. Typical barrels of the nineteenth century were about 2 feet high and about 1 to 1.5 feet in diameter. Capacity of the barrels varied by country, but most could usually hold about 110-120 lbs. of powder. However, these barrels were usually only filled to about 90% of the capacity (e.g. they would only fill about 100 lbs. of powder to a barrel capable of holding 110 lbs.). This was done so that the powder would have room to move inside the barrel during transport and wouldn't get caked.

A stack of powder barrels made in England. Click on the image to enlarge.

Another stack of powder barrels. Click on the image to enlarge.

Most barrels would have a hole of about 1.5 to 2 inches diameter drilled to the top of the barrel, which would then be plugged with a wooden screw. This way, if someone wanted to access the powder inside the barrel, they only needed to remove the screw instead of the entire top of the barrel. A leather washer soaked in wax and turpentine would be placed under the screw head, which served to keep moisture out. The image below shows an example of this:

Notice the screw at the top of the barrel. Click on the image to enlarge.

Kegs were generally built on the same principle as barrels, but were much smaller in size, typically holding about 25 lbs. of powder. Also, instead of having an opening on top, most kegs had an opening in the middle to access the powder.

An example of a powder keg

Kegs are much easier to transport than barrels on account of their lesser weight and were favored in places where there wasn't much room to move around in (e.g. on board ships).


A couple of Civil War era powder kegs. Click on the image to enlarge.

Finally, we have canisters. Unlike barrels and kegs, these were generally made of metal and had the least capacity of the three container types.

A black powder canister. Click on the image to enlarge.

Powder canisters typically held about 0.5 to 1 lb. of powder. The above example is a canister made by the Eureka Powder Works of New Durham, New Hampshire. It is made of steel, is about 4.75 x 4 x 1.75 inches in size and has a paper covering on the outside with hunting scenes printed on it. Due to their small size and capacity, these are much lighter than the other containers we have studied above and are easy to transport. Unlike barrels and kegs, these were intended to be sold to private individuals rather than military units.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Black Powder XVIII - Packing

In the last few posts, we have studied the process of manufacturing corned black powder in the nineteenth century. Today, we will study the process of packing the black powder in the nineteenth century.

Black powder from the factories was usually packed in barrels or cases.

 Powder cases were usually made of copper and the powder was put in a linen bag and placed in the case. Alternatively, the case was made of wood, with a second inner box also made of wood.

Barrel making was an art that was well developed over several centuries, and by the 19th century, people already knew how to make barrels able to hold liquids without leaking. However, powder manufacturers usually put the powder in a linen bag and then placed it in the barrel, or in some places (such as France), they used a second inner barrel. For military purposes, some manufacturers coated the inside of the barrel with paper to make it leak-resistant.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the custom in the German-speaking states of Europe, to coat the barrels on the inside with linseed oil. This was done to protect the powder from moisture.

There was a good reason to use a cloth bag inside the barrel: In order to fill the barrel, the upper hoops have to be loosened, so that the top of the barrel can be removed. Because of this, the staves expand a bit and the openings may fill up with some powder grains as the powder is poured into the barrel. Then when closing the barrel, the grains in the openings will get crushed. If something harder than wood, such as a grain of sand or a piece of metal, get into the openings, then a small impact, such as a blow from a wooden hammer, could cause the powder to ignite. For this reason the powder was first put in a bag, which was then put inside the barrel.

A powder keg made by American Powder Mills in the 19th century. Click on the image to enlarge.

The barrels were closed using about six to eight hoops. Experiments made in the 19th century showed that hoops made from barked willow or hazel-wood, preferably cut in winter time, worked better than unbarked wood, because they didn't suffer from wood rot. The bags were usually made of loosely-woven linen cloth.

Each barrel was placed on a scale and weighed before filling and then the barrel was kept on the scale as powder was poured in using a copper funnel, until the desired weight of powder was filled in. The weight of powder put into the barrel depended upon the type, the size of the barrel, the country of manufacture etc. The barrels were usually filled to about 90% of their capacity, because it was believed that rolling the barrels occasionally prevented the powder inside from caking. After this, each barrel had a label attached to it, containing details such as the type of powder, the year that it was manufactured, the name of the manufacturer and factory location, the number of the supply, the weight of powder and the seal of the person that examined the barrel. In many places, the color of the label also indicated the type of powder contained in the barrel.

In 17th century France, they used the linen bag inside the barrel method of packing. Towards the beginning of the 18th century, they used the method of one barrel packed inside another barrel. The inner barrel (called the baril) was lined with cloth and filled with about 110 lbs. of powder and then placed inside a larger outer barrel (called the chape). The outer barrel contained details such as the year and place of manufacture, powder type, average range and average muzzle velocity etc. Instead of barrels, they sometimes also used wooden boxes lined with sheet zinc, which were filled and then put inside a second wooden case. For transport in ships, copper cases enclosed in wooden cases were used.


Powder keg made by American manufacturer Laflin & Rand. Click on the images to enlarge.

The above two images show a wooden powder keg made by the Laflin & Rand Powder Company of New York. This company was once a major competitor to Dupont in 19th century America. The top of the keg has a stopper (visible in the second image) and has the markings "FF" to indicate that the contents of the barrel are of a grain size suitable for use with rifles. The bottom of the keg has the marking, "Laflin & Rand Powder Co. New York", indicating the manufacturer name and factory location.


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Black Powder XVII - Blending

In our last post, we studied what goes on in the finishing process of manufacturing black powder, namely some more dusting, blending and sifting. Despite using the utmost care in the sifting process, the powder will always contain a certain percentage of grains which are above or below the desired grain size. This percentage varies quite a bit as the various operations described previously take place. Therefore, manufacturers would often use a blending process to mix the contents of various batches together, so that the end result is a powder of more uniform performance. We will study that blending process from the nineteenth century in today's post.

In England, some mills would combine powders from different batches in the dusting reels that we studied about in our previous post.

Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

Another technique that was common in England was to use a large wooden box with four equal sized compartments, each of which was big enough to hold one barrel of gunpowder. At the bottom of each compartment is a sliding door that leads down to a central chute. After the compartments are filled, the sliding doors are opened simultaneously and the powder from all four compartments pass through the central chute and are mixed together on the way out.

In Germany, the process was done similarly. Six copper funnels are arranged in an inclined position around a central main tube and the other end of the central tube ends in a short leather tube, which can be lifted by using a rope, which puts a kink in the hose and prevents the powder from running out of it. At Spandau, each funnel held about 220 lbs. (100 kg.) of powder and at Dresden, each funnel held about 440 lbs. (200 kg.) of powder. The German manufacturers would offer two blends, a special blending and a general blending. In a special blending, they would place two barrels of each powder to be blended in each funnel (in Dresden, they would use four barrels per funnel since the funnels in Dresden were twice the size of those in Spandau). When all the funnels were filled up, a barrel was placed below the leather pipe and then, the leather pipe was opened to blend the powder in. After twelve preliminary blendings were done, they would perform a final blending operation by taking a barrel or two from each preliminary blending and then repeating the process until the preliminary blendings were all mixed together again.

The process in Switzerland was similar. A large square box with a pyramidal bottom, which could hold about 1350 to 1600 lbs. was used. At the bottom of the pyramid was a perforated pipe fixed to the funnel opening and covered with a damper. They would take about 100 lbs. from each powder to be mixed and alternately pour them into the box. After the box was filled, the damper was withdrawn and the powder would pass through the perforated pipe and get mixed as it fell into the barrel below.

In France at the factory of Sevran-Livry (a suburb of Paris), the process was a bit more automated. They used a wooden frame with an arrangement of eight trays in two parallel rows of four each. Each frame had a hole in the center covered by a shutter valve, which could be used to regulate the flow of powder. Below each frame was an endless cloth belt upon which the powder would fall. At the end of the these cloth belts was another cloth belt running at right angles to the first set of belts. A system of gears ensured that the first endless belts ran at a speed of 10 times greater than the central belt. At the other end of the endless belt was a trolley carrying at least two barrels and the belt would drop the blended powder into one of them. As soon as the barrel filled up, the trolley would move so that the second barrel would start to fill and meanwhile, the first full barrel was removed and emptied or replaced with another one.

In our next post, we will study the packing process of the black powder.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Black Powder XVI - Finishing

In our last post, we studied how black powder was dried in the nineteenth century. After the drying process comes the finishing process, which we will study in today's post.

During the drying process, there is a small amount of dust generated again because removing the moisture causes some of the grains to fall apart. Therefore, the powder is again subject to another dusting and glazing process (which we studied earlier) followed by a sorting process. These three processes are classified together as the "finishing process".

Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The above image shows a cylindrical sieve manufactured by J & E Hall of Dartford, England. It consists of a horizontal reel about 8 feet long, and 2.5 feet diameter, covered by a fine gauze made of brass wire or silk cloth. Each cylinder was filled with about 350 lbs. (about 160 kg.) of powder and the cylinder was rotated at about 45 revolutions per minute for about three hours. Sometimes, a little graphite powder is added to increase the glossy finish of the powder and render it less hygroscopic. Any dust in the powder grains falls through the gauze into the box.

Due to this dusting and glazing process, the shape and size of the grains are somewhat altered and therefore, many factories would then use a sorting process for a second time. In Germany, the process was to use a sifting reel, much like the apparatus above. However, the first part of the reel would have a wire gauze of a small mesh size, then the next part would have a gauze of a larger mesh size and the next part would have a still larger mesh size and so on. The whole reel would be tilted along its length and rotated at about 12 revolutions per minute. The useless dust would fall through the first part of the reel, then the useful size grains would fall through the next mesh and only the large size grains would remain in the reel.

In other German and English factories, they would mount four sieves from the ceiling, attached to a mechanism to provide a shaking mechanism to the sieves at about 120 strokes per minute. The largest mesh size sieve would be closest to the roof and the finest sieve at the bottom. Powder would be added to the top sieve and the sieves would be vibrated. The largest grain powder suitable for cannon would remain in the top sieve, and grains suitable for rifle and pistol powder would be collected from the sieves below.

Despite putting a lot of care in the sorting process, the powder always contains a certain percentage of grains above and below the desired grain size. Therefore, in order to maintain more uniformity in the process, the powder was then subject to a process called blending, which we will study in the next post.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Black Powder XV - Drying the Powder

In our last post, we studied the processes of dusting and glazing the powder. In today's post, we will study the next process in line: the drying process.

As we studied previously, the ingredients of black powder are moistened before mixing together for safety reasons. In addition to that, potassium nitrate in the saltpeter is slightly hygroscopic (i.e. it absorbs moisture from the atmosphere) and if the saltpeter is somewhat impure and contains calcium nitrate, then it will be very hygroscopic. Black powder is more effective when there is less moisture content, which is why we have the old saying about "keeping your powder dry." We will study how the drying process worked in the 19th century in today's post.

Back in the early days of gunpowder manufacture, drying was done out in the open air. The black powder was simply spread on trays with a wool cloth at the bottom and the trays were placed outside where they could be exposed to the sun's rays. Every few hours, a person would go out and turn the powder grains, until the moisture content was substantially reduced. In fact, in some factories, people would do this once before the first dusting operation. The advantage of drying in the open air is that it saves on fuel costs and the chemical properties of the powder aren't changed either. However this method has disadvantages as well: the rate of drying depends on the humidity of the air. Also, if it is a windy day, the powder becomes much more dusty. Also, if the day happens to be cloudy, then the drying operation will take much longer. It also can't be done during rainy days.

Since natural drying using the sun has many disadvantages, people started to switch to artificial methods of drying and by the 19th century, artificial drying became the dominant way of drying powder. There are four main techniques of artificial drying:

  1. Drying by using warm air.
  2. Drying by using steam or hot water.
  3. Drying by using cold air with the water vapor removed (i.e. the air is dry and very low humidity)
  4. Drying in a vacuum.
In 1632, we have the account of one Furtenbach, who stated that people had tried drying black powder by placing the black powder grains on copper pans over a fire, but this was banned by law in many places because men had been killed by it. The next obvious idea was to use the heat radiated from a fire, but keep the powder a little distance away from the fire. This led to people building fires in the center of the room and powder placed all around it. Periodically, a worker would go in and stoke the fire to keep it burning, but a small spark rising from the flame could potentially set the room on fire and this type of accident did happen quite a lot. Therefore, the next technique was to put the fireplace in an adjacent room, with no direct connection to the drying room. The fireplace would be surrounded by a copper jacket so that heat could only be passed via convection or radiation. However, by the 19th century, this method of drying was not used any more and in fact, many countries had laws to explicitly ban this method of drying.

Using steam for drying was introduced into the UK in 1780 for the first time. Steam was generated in a separate building far away from the drying room, so that the fire used for generating the steam is kept far away from the black powder. The steam was then conveyed using copper pipes, to the drying room, where it would be piped over wooden boxes covered by copper pans on top, the steam being at temperatures between 130-170 degrees Fahrenheit. The powder was also turned periodically by using a rake, to prevent it from caking during the drying process.

Another technique that was very popular in England and Germany involved blowing a hot current of air over the powder in large drying rooms or special drying-boxes. This method allowed the drying rate to be controlled so that it was not too fast, which meant that the pores of the powder wouldn't open up too much and therefore the powder would be less hygroscopic after drying.

At the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey, a single drying room could hold about 2.5 tons of powder and the powder was placed in trays on wooden frames. Below the frames, a series of pipes carrying steam were arranged close to the floor. Holes were drilled into both the roof and the floor, so that the heated air from the floor would rise up and exit through the holes in the roof, and be replaced by fresh air entering through the holes in the bottom. The temperature of the pipes and the air was controlled depending on the type of black powder, the size of the grains and the amount of moisture contained in it. For granulated powder, the drying operation took about 6 to 12 hours.

In other setups, such as those in England, France and Germany, fans were used to blow cold air over steam heated coils and then the hot air was piped into drying boxes.

Apparatus to produce hot air for drying. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The above image shows one such apparatus to produce hot air. The heating coils are made of iron and steam is passed through them, Air is blown from the top using a fan and the hot air exit pipe at the bottom is connected to drying boxes. The apparatus is enclosed by brick walls to hold in the heat.

Another technique was to use a current of cold air from which all moisture has been removed previously, using chemicals such as calcium chloride, caustic lime or sulfuric acid. The dry air tends to absorb the moisture from the powder and carries it out.

Drying apparatus using cold dry air. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The image above shows one such apparatus. There is a wooden box A, which runs along the whole length of the drying room. About half way up the box, longitudinal strips (b) are fixed, on which a frame (c) covered with a wire gauze rests, covered with dry calcium chloride lumps. The bottom part of the floor is lines with zinc sheets. The bottom of A is inclined towards the right, where there is a pipe D to remove the solution of calcium chloride that will be formed by the drying process. The air is forced in by fan (E) and passes through the layer of calcium chloride and is then piped into the drying boxes, while the calcium chloride solution is collected and after evaporation, it can be reused in the box again.

After the drying process, the moisture content of the powder was generally below 1% or so. The time of drying could vary depending on the type of powder, the temperature of the air, the size of the powder grains etc. One point to note is that drying on frames meant that the trays closest to the steam pipes dried the fastest and those trays which were placed higher up were subject to somewhat cooler air, which was also carrying some moisture from the lower trays. However, the fact that the rate of drying and the temperature could be uniformly controlled made this method very popular in the nineteenth century.

The next process down the line is the final dusting, glazing and finishing process, which we will study in our next post.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Black Powder XIV - Dusting and Glazing

In our last two posts on the study of black powder manufacture in the 19th century, we studied the process of granulating the powder into grains. The powder coming out of the granulating machines is called "foul grain" and must be further processed. In today's post, we will study the next couple of processes in line: dusting and glazing.

So why dust and glaze in the first place? Dusting is the process of removing all the smaller sized particles (the "dust") from the black powder, so that they don't end up in the bottom of the barrel and cause the last few charges to burn faster (since smaller grains burn faster in general). Glazing is done for a few reasons: First, it polishes the outer surfaces of the powder grains, thereby diminishing the tendency of the powder to absorb moisture from the atmosphere. Second, it helps make the powder grains less likely to break up into dust while being transported. In general, glazing increases the durability of the powder grains. Glazing also increases the density of the powder.

Dusting is done by passing the grains of powder through sieves, so that the grains of a particular size are retained and the smaller dust grains fall through. In smaller factories, this was done by hand or through a shaking machine, using a series of sieves made of hair for filtering the grains. In larger factories, dusting reels were generally used in the 19th century, as these were more suitable for large-scale production. The technology for dusting reels actually came from flour mills. A dusting reel has a cylindrical frame about 1.5 feet in diameter and 8 feet long. The surface of the reel is covered by a fine gauze made of copper wire, silk or canvas. The cylinder is set up with a small tilt from the horizontal. The cylinder is also enclosed by a case to catch the dust, but is open on both ends. The cylinder is set up to be rotated by a belt at a speed of around 40 r.p.m. The powder is fed continuously in the upper end from a hopper. As the cylinder rotates, the powder grains slide down its length to the lower end. Any dust particles that are too small in size fall through the gauze, while the larger grains stay inside the cylinder and slide down to the lower end, where they can be collected into barrels.

A pair of dusting reels from the early 1800s.

The wooden box case enclosing the dusting reels prevents the fine dust from flying around the building. Periodically, a worker would open the doors and empty the dust accumulated inside the box. The powder was usually run through the dusting reels twice and deemed to be sufficiently dusted.

After dusting the powder, the next process was to glaze it. The process of glazing smooths out the grains somewhat by breaking off the sharp angles and points on the grains and also stops up the outer pores of the grains, which makes the exterior of the grains tougher and more impervious to moisture and less likely to turn to dust. It also increases the density of the grains slightly -- for instance, a powder with density 0.810 before glazing increases its density to 0.893 after 42 hours of glazing. Also if glazing is done for long enough, it can improve the combustion of the grains a bit as well, as the niter ends on along the surface of the grains.

The process of glazing was carried out in wooden drums similar to those used for mixing the ingredients, which we studied earlier. the chief differences are that these drums don't have ribs on the inner side of the drum, nor do they have an axle passing through the center of the drum. Instead, the axle attaches to the circular ends of the drum by means of bolts fastening it to a cross piece on either end. The drum has a long door across its length, which can be opened to drop the glazed powder into a funnel after the glazing operation is done. As the drum is rotated, the powder grains get thrown about and hit each other and the sides of the drum, thereby becoming polished. The glazing drums generally have speed counters to regulate the speed of a drum during the process. The speed of rotation and the time of rotation depends on the powder being glazed and where it was manufactured. For instance, in England, R.F.G. (Rifle Fine Grain) grade powder was generally glazed in drums about 2 feet wide and 6 feet in diameter and rotated at about 12 revolutions per minute. Each drum could take about 900 lbs. of powder. For R.F.G powder, the drums were run for 5.5 hours each, for R.F.G2 powder, the process took about 10 hours. No graphite was added to these powders, as the friction and heat caused by the motion was enough to produce a brilliant glaze. For R.L.G (Rifle Large Grain) powder, it was run for about 1.5 hours at 34 r.p.m with one ounce of graphite added per 100 lbs. of powder. R.F.G4 grade powder was glazed for about 3 hours, the graphite being added to the drums after they had run for 2 hours first. The purpose of adding graphite to larger grain powders is to increase the gloss of the powder and render it less likely to absorb moisture due to the increased density of the surface layer. Over in America in the Confederate states, we know that their manual specified that the grains were to be glazed for ten to twelve hours, with the drums rotating at least 9 times a minute.

During the glazing process, any inferior quality grains (i.e. those that were likely disintegrate during transport later) get turned into dust as well. Therefore, many manufacturers would run the powder through the dusting process for a second time after the powder had been glazed, to remove any dust that might have been generated by the glazing.

The machinery for both the dusting and glazing operations were usually powered by water-mills, which is why many powder works were located near fast-flowing sources of water. Alternatively, horses were also used to drive the machinery.

Photo from 1894 showing a former Confederate Powder Works building in Augusta, Georgia

The two houses that appear on the upper left corner of the picture above were once part of the Confederate Powder Works in Augusta, Georgia. The two buildings were where the dusting and glazing operations were once carried out and survived the end of the Civil war, as the picture above was taken in 1894.

Interestingly, though the Confederates used separate dusting and glazing operations through most of their period of operation of the facility, they also attempted to speed things up by combining both steps into a single process along with drying. The process placed the powder into a cylinder as above, but the axle passed through the drum and was hollow and had perforations. Air was heated by passing over steam pipes and this hot air was fed through the axle, the idea being that the hot air would dry the grains and carry the dust away, while the agitation of the grains by the revolving cylinder would glaze the grains as well. However, this process was not perfect and contemporary records show that powder was often sent back to the mill for reworking the glazing process using the traditional method.

In our next few posts, we will study the next operations in line: the drying and finishing processes, followed by packing.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Black Powder XIII - Granulating and Rounding

In our last post, we looked at the process of turning pressed black powder cakes into grains of uniform size, a process called granulating. In certain countries, such as Switzerland, Austria and Germany, they would perform an additional process to round the grains down, soon after granulating, for certain types of powder. This rounding process was done to ensure that the shapes of the grains were all rounded, instead of being a mixture of rounded and angular grains, which would ensure more uniform grain density and burn rates. We will study the rounding process in today's post.

Right after the grains were granulated, they were conveyed to a rounding table machine, such as the one illustrated below:

A rounding table machine. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.

The rounding table machine has a circular wooden table (A) on which there are a number of wooden ribs (B) radiating out from the center of the table. These wooden ribs are rounded on top and about 1.25 inches thick and 2.5 inches high. The table has a vertical shaft (C) passing through its center, which can be rotated by a system of gears (D) under the table. There is a horizontal arm (G) which is at right angles to C on the top of the table and is attached so that G turns along with C. A large linen bag (E) is attached to G and the bag has two disks, one on each end, to ensure that it stays in a cylindrical shape. The disks are about 1.5 feet in diameter and the length of the bag E is about 2 feet long and can contain about 100-125 lbs. of powder. A wooden tube (F) passes through the axis of E and holds the two disks in position.

As the vertical shaft (C) rotates, the bag (E) is rolled around the table (A) and the ribs (B). The bag was set to rotate at around 15 revolutions per minute and the whole operation was done for about 20 to 30 minutes. Due to the rotation of the bag, the grains rub against each other and the friction causes them to grind themselves into a round form.

This process was only used for making certain types of powder in the nineteenth century and only in certain countries, as it was not deemed necessary everywhere. The advantage of doing this was that it ensured a more uniform shape for the powder grains.

In our next post, we will study the next few steps of the process: dusting and glazing.