Gunpowder, Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics — A Book Review

Lady Merreth’s world is one where early gunpowder weapons are just coming into their own.  As a writer, I was gratified to stumble across Jack Kelly’s Gunpowder, Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World. The book provides gunpowder fantasy novelists with an overview of the “black powder”.

Overview of “Gunpowder”

This very readable, 264 page history of the “The Devil’s Distillate” is just what a gunpowder fantasy writer needs to provide some realistic details within their novels. 

Kelly’s work provides valuable, easily-understood information on the origin, history, military use, manufacture, and chemistry of gunpowder.  The work begins with an examination of the Chinese origins of the gunpowder and provides intriguing descriptions of the some of the weapons developed — before “guns” — which could easily be worked into fiction.  From China, gunpowder spreads to Europe in the early 14th century and Kelly details the impact it had on the English-French wars of that time, before getting to events such as the fall of Constantinople.

Impact on Science

More than history though, Kelly describes the early efforts at crafting bombards and the attendant advances in metallurgy and casting necessary to produce early siege weapons. Fascinating information on early gunpowder production is provided, including nitre “farms”, the use of bishop’s urine in early manufacturing techniques, and the discovering of “corning”.

Handguns Debut

Hand guns make an appearance about 60 pages into the book and Kelly provides not just the technical and developmental aspects of hand held firearms, but also touches upon the social implications of easily concealed weapons.  The enormous and elaborate fireworks displays are mentioned as is the use of cannon in theatrical productions. On a more sombre note, the challenges of early medical practice when dealing with firearms injuries are also related.

Maritime and Political Impacts

Maritime warfare and the impact of gunpowder on European imperial expansion is documented as well. A short but informative account of typical gunpowder naval battles leaves the reader in no doubt as to their intensity and savagery.

Lest the prospective reader think the book is Eurocentric in nature, that is not the case at all, developments in China, India, and the impact of gunpowder in Africa, Asia, and the New World are all described.

New Sciences Developed

Kelly documents how the attempts to understand the workings of gunpowder helped establish the science of chemistry and the ever growing military appetite for “powder” encouraged the establishment of mills on an industrial scale. Ballistics, rifling, and the evolution of military tactics and gunpowder’s impact on politics are ably covered by Kelly.  Civilian use for the explosive is also described with early application in mining being documented.

Later in the book Kelly relates the rise of Du Pont and Colt, American powder and firearms giants, and describes the conflagration that was the civil war.  After that he describes how gunpowder produced for mining purposes began to outstrip that used for military applications.

Kelly’s work takes the reader all the way up to the late 1800 hundreds when gunpowder began to be eclipsed by “smokeless” powder and other new explosives.  The book winds down by documenting the rise of dynamite for commercial use and the development gun cotton and other other “high explosives”.


Kelly writes in an engaging, easy-to-read style that makes the book a pleasure to read.  I strongly recommend this book to any fantasy novelist whose writing involves gunpowder.  It’s not just the technical information presented that is of interest, the anecdotal tales — all factual — provide a rich source of ideas for characters and plot details.

Well worth the read.

That’s it for this post, people.  Thanks for reading, and i will see you again soon.



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