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It takes an explosive combination, a projectile, a detonator, and the casing to hold it altogether in the chamber of the gun barrel to make a modern firearm effective. The mechanical functioning of the gun, accurate aim, and the human application are all critical, too.

All of the turmoil about assault guns and gun control laws in present times, all of the black powder muskets of american settlers, the muzzle loaders of the pioneers, the first guns with cartridges, my mossberg .22 with rim-fire “shells” in missouri hunting days, right on through to atomic bombs — all was enabled by the discovery of chemicals present in the earth’s natural features that led to explosive compounds controlled for mankind’s use … Or destruction.

Just to think of the power and energy present in the very earth and air around us (uranium) is as wondrous as it is scary to learn of an unfathomable world of possibilities based in molecules!


As day-to-day discoveries and achievements show, we may just be scratching the surface of knowledge.Sulfur charcoal

Gunpowder, or black powder that caused a lot of smoke — the invention that led to guns — was discovered by the chinese in the 9th century. The chemists, or alchemists, were searching for a medicine — an elixir that would extend life — and found that mixing sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter) together would produce an explosive.

“fireworks” were popping all over china, and finally were introduced into warfare in 1000 C.E. The first proto-guns, known as fire lances, (propelled powder), until “barrels,” made of hardened paper, directed a wad of bullets in 1257 C.E., and finally metal true guns (hand cannons) by 1287.

Black powder use extended well into the settlement of america. Remember daniel boone and his powder horn? Every shot required powder, wadding, and a bullet to be forced down the barrel with a ramrod! That’s tedious with a bear charging, or fort boonesborough under shawnee indian attack. In that 1778 10-day siege, the 40 men and 90 women and children against 450 indians had to make their own powder and bullets.Black powder

The gun scene changed when albert nobel, in 1867, discovered nitroglycerin, a heavy, colorless, oily explosive liquid organic nitrate compound of sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and glycerin.

It’s the stuff of dynamite, but was very volatile and unstable until nobel added diatomaceous earth which stabilized the mixture, eventually resulting in portable, smokeless, cased, ammunition. Most tangible products have a connection to nature and chemistry. Take a look at the periodic table of the elements that involves just about everything.

It is some kind of miracle that explosive elements don’t just naturally get together and explode! Saltpeter is found in dry places, like caves and deserts, as it dissolves in water. But sulfur and charcoal are more common, and there are other elements that could combine for unknown consequences — or benefits.

As for me, all I know is that I could slip a copper-cased .22 long rifle shell into my boyhood single-shot rifle, and go off into the woodland to find a squirrel, release the safety, aim, and pull the trigger to ignite a bullet that would “bring home the bacon!” “god save us!”