Ancient China Gunpowder

The idea of gunpowder is believed to have been developed over time. The first mention of gunpowder was during the Han Dynasty in 142 AD by someone named Wei Boyang when he talked about the combination of mixing three powders that would “fly and dance” violently.

It’s unsure if he was one of the Taoists that had been asked by the Chinese emperor to find an element that would let him live forever, but this was during that same period.
Chinese Gunpowder Formula

Gunpowder ingredients

The official first confirmation of gunpowder ingredients was in 300 AD by a scientist that wrote down the mixture of sulfur, charcoal and saltpeter (potassium nitrate).

They got sulfur from mining the yellowish rock out of the earth. Charcoal was achieved by slowly burning wood so that it blackened into carbon without completely burning it.

Potassium nitrate is created with animal manure and allowing it to sit around a decay. The crystals form on top of the manure and can be drained off by pouring water through the manure.

It also occurs naturally in some caves and can simply be mined. The ancient Chinese mixed all three ingredients in a specific formula.

Fireworks and gunpowder

The ancient Chinese weren’t looking to create either gunpowder or fireworks, but the combination of the three elements gave them something that would explode.

While they enjoyed fireworks for many uses, they didn’t do much with it for hundreds of years other than fireworks.

Gunpowder as a weapon

By 904 AD, ancient Chinese inventors began to recognize that they could use gunpowder as a weapon.

Their soldiers added it to their spear and arrow tips which was like adding a firecracker to their ends. When they landed on their target they would burn whatever they hit.

It’s thought that the first battle in which gunpowder was used might have been in the last days of the Tang dynasty.

This was a time when the ruler, Prince Yang Xingmi, might have used fire arrows against the Du Hong in the southern China in the siege of Wuchang.
Manual Fire Arrow

Gunpowder in cannons

Once the ancient Chinese got the idea for gunpowder as a weapon they graduated to using it in rocket form.

They would put small stone cannonballs inside of the tubes of bamboo and shoot the cannon balls out by lighting the gunpowder at the other end.

While it’s not known exactly when they began using gunpowder in cannons, the first image of a cannon of this type is under the Song dynasty in 1128 AD.

The first known battle using cannons is in 1287 when a Mongol general used them to end the Mongol Nayan’s rebellion.

The Mongol army also used gunpowder bombs in 1281 AD during the time when they made an attempt to invade Japan.

Gunpowder uses

Once the ancient Chinese engineers figured out that they could use the explosive nature of gunpowder, they expanded the uses so that they could create canals and roads more quickly by blasting the rocks and debris away.

They also used gunpowder in their mining and stone quarry expeditions to break loose areas away.

Gunpowder as a secret

The ancient Chinese wanted to keep their discovery of gunpowder a complete secret, however, it got out in the 1100s AD when both the Roman Empire and the Islamic Empire began to understand how weapons with gunpowder were being used.

Once the secret was out it moved quickly throughout Europe. It’s thought that the knowledge made its way to Europe during the Third Crusade.
Fire Lance

  • The word “gunpowder” was first used in 1411.
  • The only known method of creating an explosion for over 1,000 years was gunpowder.
  • “Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot!” This was the plot by Guy Fawkes to blow up the British parliament in 1605 using gunpowder.
  • 10,500,018 pounds of gunpowder was exported in 1856 by England.


What are the three elements that gunpowder is made of?

charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter (potassium nitrate)

How many years did people rely on gunpowder as the only method of explosion?

over 1,000

What was the first type of ancient Chinese weapon using gunpowder?

adding it to the tip of spears and arrows

What other uses did the ancient Chinese have for gunpowder?

blowing up mines and quarries/clearing for roads and canals

What weapon did the Mongol army design using gunpowder?

gunpowder bombs

Once they realized gunpowder could be a weapon, what did the ancient Chinese create?