Making & Testing High-Powered Black Powder

Written by Harry Gilliam

Topics: How to Make Fireworks

Black powder (BP) is an almost ridiculously simple pyro ingredient. Mostly just three chemicals, blended together in simple ways, but producing wonderful results. Black powder exemplifies for me the endless learning, experimentation, and creativity that fireworking holds for us. If so much fun can be had with BP, imagine what else fireworks-making has in store for you.

In this article I’ll be writing about two basic skills:

  1. How to make black powder using 4 basic methods, ranging from the use of only two simple screens, through the use of a star-roller, hydraulic press, and/or a ball-mill.

  2. How to test various black powders to compare their power, and to determine how much to use when lifting a typical fireworks aerial shell.

I hope this article will be useful for both the novice fireworker, and for the most experienced one.

Have you ever taken the covering off of the bottom of an aerial shell and observed the black granules which are used as the shell’s “lift powder?”

Black Powder Used As Shell Lift Powder

Black Powder Used As Shell Lift Powder

Black powder is perhaps the most basic and useful of all fireworks ingredients. It is used to lift shells, comets, mines, Roman candle stars, and as a base-composition in some rockets and many other fireworks components and devices.

Here is the definition of black powder taken straight out of the The Illustrated Dictionary of Pyrotechnics (Skylighter #BK0043):

“Black powder – An intimate mixture of finely powdered potassium nitrate (75%), charcoal (15%), and sulfur (10%). Commercial black powder may be granular or finely powdered. It serves as a propellant and has a wide variety of uses. Black powder should not be confused with smokeless powder, which is not a suitable substitute for black powder (in fireworks).”

For the sake of this article, at least, let’s define high-quality BP as that black powder which will adequately serve the needs of the fireworker, and which comes close to, or exceeds, the quality and explosive power of commercially available black powder. Goex brand is a well-known, and often referred to, example of commercial powder.

Goex Brand Black Powder

Goex Brand Black Powder

First of all, didn’t we say, “Hey, I’d like to learn how to make fireworks”?

You can buy some types of black powder. There are two types available, sporting and blasting. The sporting grades of BP, made by Goex and others, are readily available from some gun and sporting goods shops, and some online sources. These are the “Fg, FFg, FFFg, FFFFg, ” etc. grades listed in the black powder grain size charts.

The blasting grade, “A” powders are most frequently used in fireworks. 2FA, 4FA, and Meal-D are the sizes we need the most. (See the article on black powder sizes and grades Size Does Matter in Skylighter Fireworks Tips #44.) They are available only to holders of a BATFE explosives license.

If you can find BP at your local gun shop, it usually retails for $16 – $24 per pound. Beginner shell makers can easily use more than 50 pounds of 2FA per year. That’s about $1,200 at retail! It doesn’t take long, buying commercial BP, before you start asking yourself, “Self, ain’t there a less expensive way?”

Even if one has the BATFE license to buy commercial 2FA in bulk (50 or 100 lbs at a time), the current price of it is $7-8 per pound.

So, economics, practicality, availability, and the pride of actual fireworks-making, all eventually make it inevitable that most pyro-hobbyists will make their own BP. And the good news is that it is Federally legal to make it yourself, without an ATF license. But, check your state and local laws first to make sure you can comply with them as well.

Many would argue that the very first, important step to learning the art of fireworking is tackling the skill of making high-quality black powder.

Click here to learn how to make your own high powered black powder.

3 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Darren says:

    im literally looking for an easy equation to figure out how much lift i need for very small shells, im talking less than 250grams.

  2. Jon says:

    Once again, thank you for such a great and informative article. I really appreciate all the work you put into this! That goes for both of you, Ned and Harry! I wouldn’t know where to start without some of these articles as an amateur…

    I was wondering if you could give a bit of insite into the different types of woods used for charcoal. A long time ago I was able to find a website (about pyro golf) that compared nearly every type of wood imaginable but unfortunately, I can’t seem to find it anymore. There was a huge variation between some of the different types of wood and it would be great to know which ones to use and which ones to stay away from!

    In this article I see that you prefer Willow as the “pyro’s choice”, but it seems that your Pine works very well also. I purchased a large quantity of Airfloat at this year’s PGI Convention (great price!) not giving much thought to its results as lift powder.

    I initially purchased the airfloat simply for stars and prime, but now I am wondering if it will be suitable for lift or not. The bags are labeled “Poplar Airfloat” however I have not seen anyone speak of Poplar (good or bad) and just wondering what your experience is with it if any. I am also very curious as to how you create your “pucks”, do you have access to some type of machine shop that tells you how many PSI you are applying? Again, as an amateur I don’t have all the resources that you and the rest of the master builders have and am left wondering if there is a more simple way using some type of cheap press? Or even making my own with a simple hydrolic jack?!

    Thanks again, I look forward to hearing your response! (even if it isn’t what I want to hear…)

  3. col says:

    Dear Harry Gilliam

    I think, that you can answer my really unusual question. I just want to shoot up a big cylinder shell and I have almost no idea about the amount of the lifter charge. I have searched a lot after this, but there was almost no helpful information, so I need to ask someone who is much more experienced than me.
    The shell has a 400mm diameter and a 550mm height. The wall of the shell is 8mm wide and it is made from sticked wrapped paper. At the bottom it is 12mm and there is also an 8mm extra plywood layer.

    The effect will be
    -46 piece of 90mm x 125mm multi break cylinder shell with 1,5 second delay in 4 colors.
    -4000g off D1 stars
    -2 piece of 90mm x 125mm salute shell with 4 second delay.
    -1000g of bursting charge what will be black powder coated rice hulls.
    The total weight of the bomb will be 31000-32000 gramms.
    At the end there will be 5 centimeters of extra wave board layer to the bottom as a pressure inhibitor.

    The question would be the amount of the lifting charge.
    The fireworks what I made the amount of the lifting charge was 8% of the bombs weight. This was fairly enough at the 150mm shells.
    The gunpowder what I use is +50% stronger than the Chinese one. The measurements were made in a pressure chamber, so with equal amount of black powder my one produced +50% pressure.
    If I calculate on the same way as I did with the smaller shells, than 2500g of black powder would be needed, what is so much, that there is no shell what would survive it.
    If I calculate the amounts as a maltese firework, than for the 30000g weight shell only 600g black powder would be needed what is not enough as I think, because the maltese bomb has only 200 diameter, so it don’t have so much air drag and in that case not just the lifter charge lifts the bomb, the additional explosions after the shoot up also helps the firework to get up.

    I will make a test shoot also. The test bomb will be filled with sand powdered paint.

    And there would be another question, about the delay charge. As I calculated 5-6 seconds would be enough. What do you think?

    With greetings,

    Csaba Csörgő (col100000) Hungary

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