Brewing up gunpowder with household products

When the zombiepocalypse comes you’re not going to want to run out to the store for more ammo. But you can always reload great grandpa’s musket with some homemade gunpowder. All kidding aside, the invention and proliferation of gunpowder had a profound effect on the world. Here you can see just how easy it is to make with chemicals that are common in our modern world.

The two compounds that go into this experiment are ammonium nitrate and potassium chloride. Where can you get your hands on these materials? Instant cold packs use ammonium nitrate and water to start an endothermic reaction. The potassium chloride can be found in the grocery store as a table salt alternative.

The chemicals need to be measured by weight. [William Finucane] didn’t have a digital scale on hand so he made a balance using a wooden ruler, two plastic component drawers, and a Bic lighter as a fulcrum. With approximately equal parts of the two materials he sets about dissolving in water, filtering, and heating of the concoction to produce saltpeter. Combine this with powdered sugar and you’ve got gun powder. Don’t believe that it works? You can see the fiery goodness in the clip after the break.

Flammable and explosive materials are dangerous to work with, so you probably shouldn’t do this yourself. But then again, it can’t be as dangerous as working with thermite.

92 thoughts on “Brewing up gunpowder with household products

  1. This is not gunpowder, this mixture is more usable for making smoke bombs or even homemade rockets. You can improve the reaction by caramelizing the sugar in the mixture.

  2. Too hard! Just get stump remover from your local home store, rather than brewing your own Potassium Nitrate. This is the exact same mixture used in candy rockets, though traditional gun powder used finely milled saltpeter (often from fermented urine), charcoal, and sulfur.

    1. You forgot the part about the zombie apocalypse. And if your going to the store, why not a gun store, and buy real gun powder, smokeless propellant, or Tannerite exploding target indicators (which also has ammonium nitrate)?

      1. I cut down the store count and parts count by one, success!

        Plus, a home improvement store has gotta be on the top 3 destinations worth risking your life to reach during a zombie apocalypse.

      2. Hell, if its a zombie apocalypse why even bother looking for a gun store, just go to the cop shop and raid their armoury!

        1. The right to defend ones self has everything to do with rights and freedom. If you have no right to defend yourself you have no freedom period.

    2. @sawo:
      Normal countries… ahhh… the memories…
      That’s why I left one of those “normal” countries 30 years ago and came to this “not normal” country where I can buy a gun and defend my house, unlike the “normal” countries.
      Sorry you can’t enjoy a gun store where you live :P

      1. “Defend”… “Enjoy”… Did you purposefully leave out the obvious “torture small animals”?

        How did this weeks school shooting go for you and yours? How about next weeks… or the next…

        1. This is to Cyril, honestly don’t dis on people owning guns. These shootings were done by people in need of mental help or that were terrorists. My analogy is if we rule out guns the only people who will have them are the people that would use them.
          I’m glad that I can own a gun. If no-one was an idiot with a gun then things would be better its just the idiots and mental patients that give guns a bad name

      2. @Cyril:

        I’m sorry you live in a sheltered society where you can probably scream out of a window and get a team of cops show up at your door to defend you. I’ve lived through a military dictatorship so don’t patronize me. A gun (or guns) in situations like that would make a difference. And in countries like that only the government and criminals carry guns. The common citizen has to take it from both of them (End of education bit.)

        Yes, I enjoy the freedom of being able to own a gun in the US and use it on someone who would cause harm to my family, instead of trying to hide like a coward because I have no choice.

        Are you european?

      3. Hey, don’t go putting all of us Europeans in one bag. I’m Polish and I would very much enjoy having something full-auto in my disposal (and maybe a nice .5″ cal sniper like the one in last Sons of Guns… suppressed sniper riffle…). I agree with all your arguments. Many European countries do too, Austria or Switzerland for example.

      4. School shootings in America usually go about as well as chav screwdriver stabbings go in the United Kingdom.

        1. In the united states there are more school shootings and gun related deaths in areas that have more gun regulations and laws prohibiting gun rights then in areas that don’t because people there have guns to defend themselves guns dont kill people do regardless of laws if someone wants to kill they will try regardless thats why citizens need to have a means to protect themselves. look at the united kingdom shootings might be lower then the u.s but overall violent crimes is up my theory why is because people dont have a means to protect themselves I dont know if this is just rumor or not but i heard that the united kingdom is talking of banning long knives due to the high stabbing rate so are guns really the problem or is it people

          1. Knifes over a certain size are not aloud to be carried in public as it is an offencive weapons and the certain size is very small as a matter of a fact that if you are a person with no purpose to carry some household product you can’t unjustifiably carry that in public, also Glasgow alone has been unofficially crowned knife crime capital

  3. Sorry… that is not gunpowder.
    Nor does this stuff yield anny decent explosive capabilities.

    Using this in a gun is a horrible idea due to the reaction products.

    On the other hand, if you would use the KNO3 (salpeter) and mix it with charcoal and sulfur you would get real blackpowder.

    1. It might not be a good idea, but it would (probably) work. The US Army Improvised Ordnance field manual has a section on reloading primers and cartridges with crushed up strike anywhere match heads.

      1. Didn’t know such a thing existed. Downloading it as a civie has got to be the quickest way to end up on a list.

      2. Simple as could be. If you have an army surplus store nearby, they have such guides available for about $12. That’s where I got mine.

      1. Look for Sublimed Sulfur in an independent* drug store/pharmacy.

        *independent = old-tyme drug store, definitely not a chain or big box store.

    2. Potassium nitrate and sugar can form quite nice rocket fuel, even better if you heat it up to melt the sugar into caramel. It’s quite popular.

      On the other hand, you can get better results making ammonium perchlorate from sodium chloride and using electrolysis and ammonia. If it’s good enough for space shuttle it’s good enough for me.

  4. If true, it looks like it would make a good propellant for hobby rockets. The claimed fact (PeterF) that is not as good as gunpowder is actually in its favor in that case.

  5. Be advised: there is a difference between the gunpowder (explosive) used in old muskets and the smokeless powder (propellent) used in modern guns. Get these confused and you can turn a gun into a piece of junk, or your “stump remover” into a harmless smoke device.

    With the right Propellent, and the white head of a strike-anywhere match, some wheel weights and a mold, you can make your own ammo. I have tested the use of these matches for renewing primers in centerfire cartridges and it works.

    Furthermore, if you play with this stuff, watch what you do with it. The prison-industrial complex needs bodies and anything you do that CAN BE construed as making “a destructive device” will be construed as such and off to prison you go. The day will come when this is considered “forbidden knowledge”.

    1. But, do not get gunpowder, black powder and stabilized white phosphorus mixed up. they are all very different materials.

  6. Not to be a Debbie downer, but as the previous comments state, this is not gunpowder, and putting aside the harmful effects of the chemical reaction to the gun itself, this composition is much slower burning and would not produce anywhere near the muzzle velocity of black powder, if this is what you’ve got, you’re better off with a homemade bow and arrow or some other type of elastic projectile launching system.

  7. Come on, this is obvious bullshit.
    Saltpeter and sugar is a funny very smokey and reactive mix. But it is not gunpowder.

    1. adblock plus coupled with element hiding helper… makes short work of most such annoyances (like share bars, “like this” links etc)

  8. Melting 2 parts potassium nitrate with 3 parts sugar made great smoke bombs when we were kids. We never tried to make it more reactive, slow burning was better.

    1. No. It would take far more than that to detonate it by itself and if you managed to mix it with something to make it easier to detonate along with a second stage low explosive it’d be too powerful. Although, as pointed out, the above wouldn’t be especially practical either for several reasons and salpeter is generally easier to get than ammonium nitrate.

      You could, potentially, use the ammonium nitrate to make nitric acid instead and (CAREFULLY!) nitrate a cellulose source, making something similar to modern (or not so modern impure) smokeless powder. Though don’t do that unless like.. the zombie apocalypse is on. Or.. you’re bored and won’t blame me for pointing out the possibility..

      1. If you have ammonium nitrate and some fuel you have ANFO. It’s not an easiest explosive to use, but it’s a popular one. To detonate ANFO you need second smaller charge of something easier to ignite, for example mix of potassium chlorate (or perchlorate) and kerosene. And you still need a blasting cap.

      2. For ANFO in the US, check out tannerite.com. Supposedly legal on the federal level, and is sold is some big box stores.

      3. Tannerite appears to be ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder mix, and can only be detonated by high-power rifles. In other words, a pistol shot isn’t going to cut it. My dad (a gun nut lol) has said that one wouldn’t want to be very close when it DOES go off, as it makes a rather impressive ball of flame and smoke.

        I’m wondering what the addition of diesel, or another hydrocarbon fuel/oil, to the Tannerite mixture would do. Essentially, ANFO plus aluminum powder. Anyone know?

      4. ANFO boosted with Al powder is what was used last year in Norway. It increases explosive power a lot.

        Wikipedia states that tannerite is a mix of ammonium nitrate, ammonium perchlorate, dark flake 600-mesh aluminium, Titanium powder and zirconium hydroxide (I don’t really get why the last one). All of the above should ease detonation of charge, but you would still need quite strong blasting cap, probably two stage one (regular blasting cap in toilet paper roll filled with more sensitive explosive)

      5. SteveO, they also sell White Lightning rimfire exploding targets. It is a completely different explosive mix, and since rim fire rounds have so little energy, you could probably find another way to initiate that explosion.

      6. Ammonium nitrate is NOT harder to obtain. Unfortunately the stump remover, even Spectracide brand, at my local Lowe’s/HD is not KNO3. In the state of Kommiefornia it has indeed proven to be unobtainium. However, annonium nitrate is available at any store where instant cold packs can be found. They are comprised of ammonium nitrate and water. To convert this to to KNO3, dissolve Lite Salt or anyother salt substitue in water, add ammonium nitrate from the cold packs, chill and harvest the crystals after they form. This will yield impure KNO3. For a purer mixture use pure potassium salt substitute. The chemical required is actually potassium chloride, which is an ingredient in Lite Salt. And as to the KNO3/sugar compound being used as an improvised firearm arm propellant, it can and has, however is widely less effective and harder to clean than black powder. The Conderates used it when lacking true black powder. I would not recommend this. And unless anyone is using a match/wheel/flint type arm forego the sulphur period. There is plenty of heat and pressure generated from percussion caps/primers to ignite the charge. The purpose of the sulphur is to reduce the ignition temp for older styles of ignition.

  9. 1. It’s not even close to gun powder
    2. It burns way too slow to even be thought of as a propellant.
    3. This should never have made it to HaD.

    1. 1. From Wiki: “Gunpowder, also known since in the late 19th century as black powder, was the first chemical explosive and the only one known until the mid 1800s. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter) – with the sulfur and charcoal acting as fuels, while the saltpeter works as an oxidizer.” — Sure, potassium nitrate is not gunpowder — it’s just the oxidizer. That’s why they added powdered sugar as a fuel.
      2. Unless you’re making black powder, which is clearly what this is.
      3. Except that the OP is combining two common things to make an uncommon thing of a different use from the first two things. This is commonly referred to as a “hack”.

      No, this isn’t the same stuff used in modern ammunition. It is, however, an interesting experiment that was successful. Stop being such a spoil-sport.

  10. >Take a small spoonful of your gunpowder and place it on a nonflammable surface outdoors away from sentient creatures and trees.

    I don’t have any sentient trees.

  11. There’s a lot more going on with gunpowder than that. That’s just the basic smoke bomb receipe from the ancient Jolly Roger book that’s been circling around the net forever.

    As stated above, actual gunpowder needs powdered charcoal and sulfur to ignite easier and burn faster. However, using it isn’t quite that simple. Once you have the mixture right, you have to wet it to homogenize it and let it dry, which improves the burn, but then you have to figure out how to turn the dry cake into grains, because if you try to use the fine powder you get by crushing the dry cake you’ll just end up with an explosion on your face.

    Using the black powder in a gun is also a trick in itself, because the grain size determines how fast it burns, but it tends to have a runaway deflagration effect which can blow the gun in your face if the pressure gets too high.

    1. I always wondered how the powder is, erm, powdered. In my youth I would mash a rocket motor with a sledge hammer to make powder; which, with the clarity of hindsight, I realize ranks pretty high up on the stupid ideas scale. But I’m still alive so in your face Darwin.

      1. I think the simplest way is to powder your ingredients BEFORE you mix them together! You can grind charcoal and the rest as much as you like.

    2. The best way to do what you are suggesting is to run the wetted powder through a sheet of window screen. It quite easy to get to the grain stage.

  12. You can get both sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal at garden supply stores. Just don’t buy all three at the same time :P

    (Sulfur for earth enrichment, saltpeter as a stump remover and charcoal as… charcoal)

  13. Maybe good for fuses, since it’s slow, but not big explosions. I also would never put this in my gun. {cleaning it} eww… :( It would be like burnt candy in the barrel.

  14. Why don’t you just skip the hard part and buy saltpetre from the drug store?
    They all seem to have it, it’s a laxative(!).
    50-50 Saltpetre and sugar. Doesn’t explode as others have stated, but DOES make a lot of smoke, some fire, and a huge amount of ash.
    I used it to make a volcano back in grade school. Got an A+ on that one, even though I did nearly burn down the gym. :)

    1. I have seen homemade smoke-bombs explode, not very energetically mind you, but enough to disperse burning smoke-bomb bits over a few feet.

      So their may be some potential here, but what they show is burning so slow; explosively it’s glacier when it needs to be a roadrunner!

  15. This is actually smoke bomb/KNSU rocket propellant, except with low grade chemicals and the wrong composition. Black powder is KNO3 and charcoal, but how well the two are powdered and mixed is incredibly important to performance. KNSU is KNO3 and sugar, and when mixed and cast correctly in the right compositions has already shown to be a very viable solid rocket propellant. When not mixed well (just as a powder) it’s what you’ll find on YouTube as a “smoke bomb”

  16. if there is just water and nh4no3 in a cold pack you could be a little greener by using a “spent” cold pack. (or have another bonus chemistry experiment about latent heat.)

  17. Going by the video the burn rate of this formulation is probably too slow to be useful as gun powder. Pull the trigger today the ball might fall out the end of the barrel by the end of the week, if it doesn’t get stuck in the rifling at the very beginning. Volume 5 of the Foxfire series contains old tech about gunsmithing, manufacturing black powder, and processing urine for nitrates. Good grief mad scientists build a proper balance. 40 bucks will get you a digital scale from wallchart, a set of calibration weights via the web. Get several sets. That way when the batteries die in the scale, you can use the balance to measure out your gold into smaller denominations when the TEOTWAWKI occurs in This December ;)

  18. When I was in High School, I decided to make gunpowder for my chem class (for April fools day my prof was fond of dropping dabs of silver fulminate on the floor of the classroom and when it dried and the next class came in they were in for a surprise!). I used the traditional saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. But I used the lab “bone charcoal” and I did mix the mixture with water and let it dry in a cylindrical mold. It kinda fizzled when I tried to show it in my chem class. I think it was the bone charcoal – better to use wood charcoal – got more remaining combustibles. You really shouldn’t call the mix you made “gunpowder” because it is not. It’s another combustible mix, just not gunpowder.

  19. To use it as a rocket propellant you need to get the caramelized sugar and saltpetre into a rocket casing…old CO2 pistol carts work great…and they have a nozzle already on…as it burns and maintains pressure and heat inside the cart you get really good thrust. It is not just chemistry at work but also physics.

  20. I second the proper balance, for my current projects (homemade superconductors) even a 0.1% change is enough to muck up the formula.

    BTW the cheap ones drift with temperature so watch out for this.

    As it happens, sulphur is handy for other things.
    I came up with an idea which uses a small amount of sulphur in the HTS formula to “mop up” iron into a non magnetic sulphide so impure pyro grade reagents can be used..
    Might also affect the critical temperature directly due to sulpur taking up some of the oxygen sites.

  21. You can use stump remover which is 98% pure KNO3.
    BTW this is not gun powder it’s sugar based rocket propellant.

    You can make true gun powder with potassium nitrate,charcoal, and sulfur in the ratio of 75%,15%,and 10%.

  22. Actually in most countries AN stopped being used in things in grocery and hardware stores around the same time as AP(also once used in cold packs, also a secondary in almost all modern missiles of the world), because of legal reasons.

    US law actually requires ID logging on such products where they still exist. They’ve mostly been swapped with other agents in consumer products though.

    I’m sure all you experts knew that though. Is this HaD or anarchist flunkbook?

  23. You can buy KNO3 as a meat preservative. It’s what keeps the ham you buy pink (rather then an unappitising grey colour).

    Most places will sell you Sodium Nirate instead (NaNO3) as in the UK, KNO3 is a restricted substance (well duh).

    But you at least know how to make that now. Just don’t mix it with sugar to make blackpowder ;)

    Potassium Nitrate, Sulphur, charcoal and a tiny bit of water is all you need (KNO3 is soluble, sulphur is not). When you grind them together the KNO3 will coat the inside of the charcoal (willow charcoal is best as its more porous).

    This was a process called milling (discovered around 1480 IIRC) and yields a more explosive powder then normal ground blackpowder.

  24. Should probably be noted that this is significantly more dangerous than working with thermite, seeing as thermite is bloody difficult to ignite without magnesium fuses.

    Also, as said before, rocket candy ≠ gunpowder.

  25. FWIW and others have mentioned alternatives, an Ohaus triple beam balance is very easy to get. Millions (if not billions) of the things were made and sold to universities, labs, and high schools over the years. They are practically indestructible and very cheap on the used market as all of the above organizations embrace digital scales instead of the old mechanical balances.

    It’s just not worth the effort to ‘make’ a balance.

  26. Homemade gunpowder doesen’t worry me as much as homemade tactical nukes.

    Seems that the days of someone being able to homebrew a “physics package” aren’t as far off as I thought, even a simple “drop piece of subcritical U238 onto larger piece of U238″ would make a half kiloton KABOOM.
    If someone was smart enough to make a neutron pulse generator using a modified fusor then that would massively increase the yield..
    Precooling the grid(s) down to cryogenic temperatures would work, after all we are just talking about a 20 millisecond pulse at the correct time.

    1. I have always been of the opinion that a homemade nuke doesn’t have to work particularly well (or at all, in many cases) to make a big mess of things.

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