Weapon technology from the Thirty-Years War - a series

Gun powder in Forchtenstein

Franz Felberbauer

For several centuries, gun powder was the only existing propellant for projectiles of firearms. It is a mechanical mixture of salpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Similar mixtures for impelling fireworks and rockets had been known in China since the 12th century, but there is no objective evidence for its use in firearms. In Europe, Sir Roger Bacon (1214-1294) wrote instructions for producing pure salpetre and an explosive mixture of salpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) already had mentioned the characteristics of such mixtures which can produce thunder and lightning and propel rockets. Both authors, however do not mention firearms which were developped in the 13th century and became generally used in the 14th century. Around 1285, the Syrian author Hasan al-Rammah describes the production of gunpowder in his book about cavalry and the deployment of machinery of war (Al-Furusiyya wa al-Manasib al-Harbiyya). Especialy his statements on cleaning salpetre have remarkable quality. The Thirty-Years-War in the 17th century in Europe became the first military showdown in the course of which firearms began to play an increasing part, thus the first „gunpowder war“, when the European troops developped the capabilities for using firearms, which let them gain the upper hand against the Ottomans, although the Janitschars were the first professional army of the world. In the mid-19th century, gunpowder as a means of ignition was replaced by chemical fusions similar to mercuric fulminate, and by the end of this century was replaced by smokeless powders on the basis of nitro-cellulose. For explosives, much more efficient fusions of nitroglycerin were used, such as dynamite, TNT, and ekrasit. The handover document of the medieval Forchtenstein Castle from imperial domain to Count Esterházy from 4th February 1622 already shows a „Rüsst Cammer oder Zeugheußl“ containing two medium size and three small size cannons, and 15 muskets, together with 10 powder flasks. Nobody knows how these had looked like, and how much powder had been in them. There is, however, half a barrel of salpetre („Salliter ein halbs Fassl“) as well as an „Item ein Höfen von Schwefel“, which is obvious evidence that gunpowder was produced in the castle itself. There was plenty of equipment for production in the armoury, and together with the contents of the Esterházy archives this demonstrates the development of the production process as well as the development of some „chemical industry“ in the realm of the count and his extraordinarily distinct sense of business of the family. Pounding and grinding in mortars and handmills appears to have been sufficient for the early needs. One big quadrangular mortar strikingly resembles an illustration in the Book of Fireworks of 1420. In Forchtenstein, the produced powder presumably was stored in leather bags and barrels, and the latter were used until the end of the 19th century. Later, a powder factory was built in Stein in Austria, according to the model of the national English powder factory Waltham Abbey.