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:
- 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.
- 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 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.
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.