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Gunpowder, also known as black powder, is the earliest known chemical explosive. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). The sulfur and charcoal act as fuels, and the saltpeter is an oxidizer. Because of its burning properties and the amount of heat and gas volume that it generates, gunpowder has been widely used as a propellant in firearms and as a pyrotechnic composition in fireworks. Formulations used in blasting rock (such as in quarrying) are called blasting powder. Gunpowder is mainly used in older guns now because the propellants used today are too powerful and could break the already fragile barrels.
Gunpowder is assigned the UN number UN0027 and has a hazard class of 1.1D. It has a flash point of approximately 427–464 °C (801–867 °F). The specific flash point may vary based on the specific composition of the gunpowder. Gunpowder's specific gravity is 1.70–1.82 (mercury method) or 1.92–2.08 (pycnometer), and it has a pH of 6.0–8.0. It is also considered to be an insoluble material.
Gunpowder was, according to prevailing academic consensus, invented in the 9th century in China, and the earliest record of a written formula for gunpowder appears in the 11th century Song dynasty text, Wujing Zongyao. This discovery led to the invention of fireworks and the earliest gunpowder weapons in China. In the centuries following the Chinese discovery, gunpowder weapons began appearing in the Muslim world, Europe, and India. The technology spread from China through the Middle East or Central Asia, and then into Europe. The earliest Western accounts of gunpowder appear in texts written by English philosopher Roger Bacon in the 13th century.
Gunpowder is classified as a low explosive because of its relatively slow decomposition rate and consequently low brisance. Low explosives deflagrate (i.e., burn) at subsonic speeds, whereas high explosives detonate, producing a supersonic wave. Gunpowder's burning rate increases with pressure, so it will burst containers but just burns in the open. Ignition of the powder packed behind a bullet must generate enough pressure to force it from the muzzle at high speed, but not enough to rupture the gun barrel. Gunpowder thus makes a good propellant, but is less suitable for shattering rock or fortifications. Gunpowder was widely used to fill artillery shells and in mining and civil engineering to blast rock roughly until the second half of the 19th century, when the first high explosives (nitro-explosives) were devised and formulated. Gunpowder is no longer used in modern explosive military warheads, nor is it used as main explosive in mining operations due to its cost relative to that of newer alternatives such as ammonium nitrate/fuel oil (ANFO). Black powder is still used as a delay element in various munitions where its slow-burning properties are valuable.
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