Can You Really Make Gunpowder from Urine?
Urine can in fact be used in the manufacture of gunpowder, and it has historically been a very important source of one of the crucial ingredients in gunpowder — saltpeter, also known as niter. This nitrate compound is what allows gunpowder to rapidly oxidize and catch fire, generating an explosion that can be used to fire munitions. In the modern era, there are less smelly ways to get saltpeter, typically through an industrial process that uses ammonia as a base.
While you cannot literally make gunpowder from urine, as you need several other ingredients to produce it, urine can certainly be used to produce one necessary element. In addition to saltpeter, however, you would also need charcoal and sulfur. These ingredients are both readily available, unlike saltpeter, so the popular stories about using urine to make gunpowder do have a rational basis. Until World War I, before people learned to reliably synthetically produce niter, urine, guano, and manure were all collected to produce gunpowder.
Initially, saltpeter was scraped from the walls of stables, but this source quickly proved to be insufficient, so people started collecting urine and dung to access the valuable nitrates. To extract saltpeter from urine historically, gunpowder manufacturers set up “niter beds” of straw, filtering the urine through the straw, which would concentrate the salts for easy collection. Urine has also had a number of other uses, and competition for available resources could sometimes be fierce, which may explain why many nations continued to use bladed weapons after the development of firearms, as making gunpowder was expensive and time consuming.
During various times of war historically, citizens have been asked to collect urine and dung so that gunpowder manufacturers could use these products. Making gunpowder is a hazardous practice, and not recommended for people who are not experienced, although some people do make their own black powder at home for hunting and historical re-enactment. Some historical societies sometimes offer demonstrations that involve making gunpowder from urine, among other things.
If the topic ever comes up, you may also want to be armed with information about other historical uses of urine. Urine has been, and continues to be, used as a nitrogen-rich fertilizer in some regions of the world. It is also used to repel animal pests, who shy away from urine deposits in the garden or on the trail. Urine has also been used in bleaching historically, and to help prepare textiles for dyeing.
Mix that with phosphorous and grease to make Greek Fire.
Salt peter from urine was also used to make the sulfur tips on the ends of matches.
@no 1: I live in the uk in an Anglo Saxon area. You are right about the four letter word, and they did get down to it. I have never found the word saltpeter used by them, though. I know the Romans who were here did use the word salt and used the word salary, and they also mined salt, but I don't know if they used saltpeter. They did not have gun powder, but still had some very good weapons despite this. I will try and find out I have a lot of history books.
saltpeter is of latin origin, sal petrae or 'salt of rock' as it was often found in nature encrusting rocks.
@ GiraffeEars- I have actually done the saltpeter and sucrose experiment in a chemistry lab class. The experiment was to illustrate the light emitted by different elements and where the light falls on the electromagnetic spectrum. I do not remember all of the details of the experiment, but I remember that the potassium nitrate emitted a Violet/blue color flame (along with a lot of smoke).
When I was in High school, one of my best friends was into making movies. His dad worked for the electric company, and he was also a pyrotechnician who used to coordinate the towns fireworks shows. My buddy actually ended up graduating with a degree in film making at NYU, but in high school we used to make elaborate action shorts for fun.
Anyway, to the point of all this; we used to make our own smoke bombs for the action movies out of saltpeter and sugar. We would mix the potassium nitrate with granulated sugar in an old coffee can over low heat. His dad used to also make small explosives and cover them with boards covered in snow. When we would shoot our action scenes we would ignite our salt peter smoke bombs, and set of our explosives as we ran around in the woods in snow gear with fake guns. It was tons of fun, and we actually made some pretty good short films.
Is saltpeter a word of Anglo-Saxon origin? That group of people were great at getting down to it. Their four letter words express about as much as a paragraph might in some other languages. Donald W.B.
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