[Cody] has a nice little ranch in the middle of nowhere, a rifle, and a supply of ammunition. That’s just fine for the zombie apocalypse, but he doesn’t have an infinite supply of ammo. Twenty years after Z-day, he may find himself without any way to defend himself. How to fix that problem? He needs gunpowder. How do you make that? Here’s a plastic jug.
There are three ingredients required to make gunpowder – saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur. The last two ingredients are easy enough if you have trees and a mine like [Cody], but saltpeter, the a source of nitrates, aren’t really found in nature. You can make nitrates from atmospheric nitrogen if you have enough energy, but [Cody] is going low tech for this experiment. He’s saving up his own urine in a compost pile, also called a niter bed. It’s as simple as putting a few grass clippings and straw on a plastic tarp, peeing on it for a few months, and waiting for nitrogen-fixing to do their thing.
[Cody] doesn’t have to wait a year for his compost pile to become saturated with nitrates. He has another compost pile that has been going for about 18 months, and this is good enough for an experiment in extracting calcium nitrate. After soaking and straining this bit of compost, [Cody] is left with a solution of something that has calcium nitrate in it. This is converted to potassium nitrate – or saltpeter – by running it through wood ash. After drying out this mess of liquid, [Cody] is left with something that burns with the addition of a little carbon.
With a source of saltpeter, [Cody] only needs charcoal and sulfur to make gunpowder. Charcoal is easy enough to source, and [Cody] has a mine with lead sulfide. He can’t quite extract sulfur from his ore, so instead he goes with another catalyst – red iron oxide, or rust.
The three ingredients are combined, and [Cody] decides it’s time for a test. He has a homebuilt musket, or a piece of pipe welded at one end with a touch hole, and has a big lead ball. With his homebrew gunpowder, this musket actually works. The lead ball doesn’t fly very far, but it’s enough to put a dent in a zombie or deer; not bad for something made out of compost.
Historically, this is a pretty odd way of making gunpowder. For most of history, people with guns have also had a source of saltpeter. During the Napoleonic Wars, however, France could not import gunpowder or saltpeter and took to collecting urine from soldiers and livestock. This source of nitrates was collected, converted from calcium nitrate to potassium nitrate, and combined with charcoal and sulfur to field armies.
Still, [Cody] has a great example of what can be done using traditional methods, and the fact that he can fire a ball down a barrel is proof enough that the niter bed he’s peeing in will produce even better gunpowder.