Gunpowder From Urine, Fighting A Gorn

[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.

Calcium_nitrate
Calcium Nitrate

[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.

65 thoughts on “Gunpowder From Urine, Fighting A Gorn

  1. The Confederate Army (US Civil War) scraped the nitrates off the roof of a limestone cave to source their saltpeter. Bat guano on the floor of the cave reacted with the limestone on the ceiling.
    The location of the cave was secret, because it was the only major source after their seaports were blockaded.
    The Union Army at times was only 3 miles from the cave, and had no idea what was going on, almost beneath their feet!

    1. For those not in the know and unfamiliar with the cookbook, these little things are one third of a gram each, usually come in a box of twelve for about fifty pence or so and are 99.7% pure potassium chlorate.
      Scary considering you can just go to a pet shop and buy fourty boxes and a bag of dog food without so much as a second look.

      1. You can find everything needed in a pet shop, as well as the above tablets – rock Sulphur (for dogs water bowls) and ‘activated carbon’ (fistank filters). Grind, mix, BOOOOM!

        Eventually lost an eye doing this as a kid, not fun I can tell you. It’s all fun and games until someone….

        1. Last week , in France , 4 young guys playing Airsoft , managed to make diy smoke using acetone and hypocloric acid (for me it was for explosive not smoke…) . 3 are dead now, and probably the last one will in the the next days (I hope no :-/ )

          1. The only common thing about common sense is that it’s not very common.
            Hence “health and safety” ruined the world.
            If only there could be one rule for people with an IQ less than 80 and one for the rest of us.

      2. Bah! Nothing “scary” about that. Given how easy it is to build DIY horrible things (re: Anarchist’s Cookbook and such) and how comparatively seldom these horrible things get done, you could question whether your fears are rational.

        Every farmer in the country could make a particular explosive in quantity with stuff on hand, and many (most?) probably have for fun or to clear out a pond, but there’s only been one Timothy McVeigh. I guess that you’re much more likely to win the lottery than get blown up by an evil nutter who bought his stuff at Petco. Anyway, it’s a very low probability event. (Has it ever happened? How long has the cookbook been in print?)

        Meanwhile people kill each other all the time with legally purchased, registered guns. It doesn’t make much sense to live in fear of aquarium hobbyists when there’s a gun store in the same mall where they sell black powder in quantity, and cheap. Heck, they’ll even sell you the powder pre-packaged in bullets, which saves a lot of time if you’re not into the DIY side of things and just want to get straight to the killing.

        The cookbook was a fun read as a teenager, but it’s completely irrelevant in a society where people have ready access to guns, and moreso, bullets. Follow the numbers. (“Muzzleloaders don’t kill people…”)

        Returning to the topic, it’s fun to blow up your urine just to say you did.

        1. In a more temperate country, it’s generally impossible to buy guns and explosives, at least without a government license, and in the UK we don’t license hand guns any more (go on, correct me, something about gun clubs). Farmers can get a shotgun license.

          OTOH the IRA were big fans of filling vans with nitrate fertiliser and diesel. Probably easier to get hold of in a more rural country. I suppose you’d just threaten a farmer, or get one who supported your cause. It used to be easier to get hold of for anyone, obviously since then it’s regulated.

  2. You could also make KClO3 via electrolysis, mixed with powdered charcoal in water, clumped into a ball and rubbed through a wire mesh it yields decent unstable gunpowder. Not sure how long a platinized electrode would last though.

  3. “Historically, this is a pretty odd way of making gunpowder.”

    No, historically it was very common – at least in the UK. Around the turn of the seventeenth century, Saltpetre was required in such volume, it was considered to be crucial to the military defence. So desperate was the need for potassium nitrate for making gunpowder that when it was discovered that it could be made from urine, King Charles I issued a proclamation that families had to collect the urine of their livestock and hand it over to be collected it daily. Men, known as “saltpetre-men,” or sometimes just “petermen,” roamed England and were empowered by the Crown to take saltpetre anywhere they found it, even private property, regardless of the damage they might cause. They were almost certainly the most reviled and hated men in all England for most of the seventeenth century. The powers of the ‘Saltpeter men’ were later extended to allow them to to dig up the urine soaked floors of all dove-houses, stables, cellars, etc

    It was common at this time, for poor families to live in very basic housing with earth floors, and just as common to share this accomodation with their animals (cattle etc) during cold periods (the animals body heat helping to warm the house). It was also common practice to have an indoor area set aside for ‘toilet’ use in the winter months (usually in the area with the animals), simply urinating on the bare ground where it would be easily absorbed (fecal matter was still kept to an outside activity). As as a result, the “petermen” would arrive in the spring or summer and proceed to dig up the floor. To facilitate this, it was illegal to cover the floors with anything other than ‘mellow earth’.

    1. I knew about the 17th Century thing, they collected from middens and outside toilets too. But are you sure people just pissed in the corner of the room? The stench would surely be unbearable. It reminds me of Stephen Fry and his amazing but false factoids, claiming people in French chateaus would just piss on the floor all the time. Besides ruining the parquet flooring, why would they have chamber pots if they could just piss on the floor?

      1. And yet you didn’t question the part about living in the same dwelling as a few cows, goats etc….are you assuming they were house trained? ;)

        To be clear, this would be something more common in rural or village areas, not towns etc. And it wasn’t in the corner of the room they actually lived in, but a separate part at the back or below the living space. For an example of such a building, fortified farmhouses were used in the Scottish border areas at this time (a dangerous place to live) which were used to protect livestock from the constant threat of theft:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_Reivers#Dwellings_and_fortifications

        But yes, the smell would have been as bad as you think. But let’s be honest here, people at this time were not noted for having a regular bath either. The place was going smell pretty bad no matter if they pissed on the floor or not.

        So if your house is allready stinking from the smell of the cattle and your own familiy’s B.O problem, are you really going to bother going outside in the middle of winter to take a piss, or are you just going to do as the cattle do, and stay warm?

    2. From around this time we get the phrases “Piss poor” for those families that collected their urine in jugs to sell and for the worse off “Haven’t a pot to piss in”

    1. Sulfur does, however, make the composition *much* easier to ignite. This is absolutely critical for the flash pan of a flintlock or even the primary charge of historical percussion caps. I believe sulfur can also make the difference between fire and mis-fire when the powder has been subject to moisture.

      1. If you have a reliable ignition system for no-sulfur black powder, then you don’t have the smell, the huge clouds of smoke and the corrosion. He made his own black powder that outperformed the best manufactured Swiss powder. http://www.musketeer.ch/blackpowder/handgonne.html It worked especially well in dimensionally accurate replicas of ancient “handgonnes” that had long and narrow powder chambers.

        Like with swords, http://www.thearma.org/essays/weights.htm , the experts way back when knew what they were doing with black powder.

        1. “The Tannenberg gonne, fired with homemade powder, sounds quite different -, a very sharp crack, comparable to a modern gun firing nitro-powder. I think the cause of this effect is comparable to the knocking of car motors, running on low octane gasoline.”

          That’s exactly what is happening.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deflagration_to_detonation_transition

          This is also the same reason why potato cannons or spudguns, made of PVC piping, can shatter in your face despite the fact that the stoichiometric mixture of butane/propane with air should only produce up to 10 bars of pressure, which is well within what the pipe could handle. If you get unlucky and a detonation event takes place – because of a stuck projectile or some other abnormal condition – the whole thing goes up like a bomb.

      2. Sulfur also makes the powder safer to use.

        Black powder burn rate is controlled by its grain size, where individual solid grains of carbon burn from the outside in, which limits the reaction rate. Carbon however has a bad habit of forming CO gas instead of burning completely, and the CO gas contains about 70% of the chemical energy of the carbon still locked up.

        When the accumulation of CO happens simultaneously with rapidly increasing pressure and temperature, you run the risk of detonating the gas which will shatter the gun in your face. This is the reason why black powder firearms were limited to relatively large bores and heavy bullets – they couldn’t develop high muzzle pressures without blowing up, so they had to compensate the lack of muzzle velocity with heavy rounds.

        Sulfur catalyzes CO into CO2, helping reduce the chance of detonation, or increase the pressure at which the powder still works reliably. Black powder without sulfur is dangerous stuff to use because it behavers erratically.

  4. In medieval times, this is the method most frequently used to manufacture saltpeter. In fact only later did they find other means of collecting saltpeter. Saltpeter was frequently used to preserve foods. Now what I want to know is who was the sick bastard that thought of adding granulated stale urine to someone’s food. It’s almost as sick as thinking about the first person who decided, “Ya know what, I’m going to go over to that cow and tug on those hanging bits and drink what comes out!”

        1. On our dairy we use the word cow either ambiguously as either a male/female cow when the gender does not matter, or we commonly use the word cow to mean a mature female cow. A “heifer” on our farm is an immature cow. And as far as I know, our vet uses the same terminology. :)

    1. Actually, it sounds pretty reasonable that the first person who drank cow’s milk saw a cow feeding its baby, compared it to how humans feed their babies and decided he might as well try it himself.

    2. Hey they used to use pee-pee to clean clothes, get’em nice and white. The Romans collected thousands of gallons of the stuff to use in their textile industry, they had barrels on every street corner so you could make a donation! Makes you wonder what would have happened if the greatest military and piss collecting civilization of the ancient world, the Romans, had had this recipe!?

    3. In London during the 16th and 17th century the some streets were lined with public urinals for collection in basement vats for use as a mordant in wool dying. Particularly felt hats.

  5. KNO3 is still used as a preservative. As has been stated, in early times it was mined from caves. The method described in this article is described in greater detail in [Foxfire 5](http://www.foxfire.org/foxfire5.aspx), which covers a number of topics related to blackpowder rifles.

    The method of making Saltpeter described above has been common in areas where nitre caves were not available for at least the last two hundred years. For example, in the American southwest it was common for public outhouses to have removable trays which were collected for the purpose of making KNO3.

    On a different note, I find the fear of people understanding chemistry irrational. It does not matter whether or not somebody can buy potassium nitrate at a pet store, or a pharmacy, or a grocery store. The simple reality is that with sufficient understanding a motivated person will be able to make explosives out of very nearly anything.

    Despite the fact that this is, and for sometime has been, the status quo, humanity remains.

      1. actually not as crazy as it may sound. search over the last month for obama gun regulation speech. they are looking to put in regulationson well this exact type of video basically banning it. Yup neat video but under proposed regulations would be illegal. so that really is not to far off now is it

          1. I’m with you on this one… the right is going to regulate firearms… uh, no… There’s only one group of individuals in this country that are interested in removing firearms from the population, and it sure as hell isn’t the right.

          1. Actually the poster was referring to an item posted in the Federal Register for comment whereby the State Department is seeking to regulate online speech in regards to firearms in an effort to prevent weapons technology from departing the country. It’s actually there if you care to look (page 31525 of Vol. 80 No. 106).

  6. The problem with such a homemade muzzle loader, for zombie killing, is that you need to destroy the head. This is going to suck at a distance, due to inaccuracy and the spread of whatever you’re shooting. You’re just going to poke a few holes in several zombies, you’re not going to stop them. Up close, sure, it’ll likely take the head clean off… the first zombie. But what about the next 10 or 15? I’ll stick with my WWII katana.

    1. Two dozen magnetrons, some targeting coils made from the outer windings of hoover motors a few large generators and from fifty feet, there heads will be popping like eggs in a microwave oven.

      1. You, sir, will survive the zombie apocalypse. Enough with the conventional weapons. We have always won wars by learning the weaknesses of our enemies and adapting our weapons (or strategy) to attack those weaknesses. Guns for Zombies is a huge waste of energy.

    2. The first necessity I always think of when I hear zombie apocalypse – machete. (The blade, not Danny Trejo, though he might be useful too.) Needs no ammo. Readily available at any store that carries sporting goods. Adaptable to a polearm for extra distance. A WWII katana is certainly great too, if you happen to have one.

  7. Weird thing is that I first head of this(urine to slatpeater) in a book in my Junior High school library (Jr high is 12-14 years old for those not in the US) in a book about making explosives and bombs back in 1988. That was a different time.

    1. My interested in explosives started with the book in my school library when I was in the fourth grade, entitled “A Boy’s Book of Explosives”, targetted to 12-year old boys. Back in the day, it was considered a right of passage for 12-year old boys to make nitroglycerine and such, for the purpose of blasting tree stumps out of farm fields, and such. Of course, that was nearly 50 years ago, and times have certainly changed. The new laws assure that only outlaws will have outlawed knowledge.

  8. I’m thinking that 20 years into a zombie apocalypse, that dude won’t have working eyeglasses anymore. Either because his eyesight went worse (common for people with nearsightedness), or because the glasses broke down.

    How do you shoot what you can’t see?

  9. Also, you do not need charcoal. Cornstarch works great too, though it seems to increase sensitivity to friction. The only reason I kept my leg when I was 18 was because of my positive attitude and the fact that a retired Korean War trauma surgeon retired to our community and the doctor recruited him to experiment (repeatedly) on saving my leg. The Patriot Act ended all experiments in chemistry, and diverted my attention to politically safer persuits.

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