Early 1800's cannon black powder logistics


As we are rapidly approaching 200th anniversaries of famous battles like Borodino and Waterloo, I started looking at those battles’ reenactment photos like these
flickr.com/photos/vukki/sets … 272347485/
And, noticing cannons, I started thinking…(it’s not gonna be good). How did Napoleon’s army supply themselves with cannon gun powder? Did they bring a lot of it from France or they made it locally in Russia? Or did they rely on capture as a means of replenishment? Surely they anticipated a significant usage of that “commodity”.


By the time of the Napoleonic Wars the situation with the supply of gunpower had eased with the importation of nitrates from South America. They were however limited by the amount that could be transported. It had to be used sparingly.

At Gettysberg on the third day Lee’s whole reserve of gunpowder was all used up in the bombardment prior to Pickett’s Charge. After that, (and not witstanding the huge loss of men on the third day) any ability to stand and make a fight was gone and he had to turn tail and flee.

In the middle ages in Europe the rate at which gunpowder could be produced was a defining limitation to armies and nations. Even after the attack on the Spanish Armada Drake’s ships had to return to port primarily for lack of powder and the majority never were resupplied and most never went to sea again. They were a spent force in every sense of the word.

It took years to build up a fighting stock of gunpowder. It was a slow and labourious process which, before the discovery of South American nitrates, involved boiling down gallons of urine to extract the nitrates. The collection and rendering down was both costly in terms of time and labour. The urine had to be boiled dry then mixed with water to separate the nitrates from the urea and boiled dry again. Very slow and used lots of wood which wasn’t plentiful at the best of times, even in a wooded country like Britain.

Slightly off topic but the same was true of wooden ships, it took thousands of oak trees 200 years to grow the wood required to produce a ship the size of HMS Victory, they didn’t cut down the trees they just harvested the boughs. but each bough took 200 years to grow with a frame around it to make it grow in a curve. Then it had to be cut, transported, seasoned then sawn by hand into ribs.

In Henry VIII’s time anything up to 20-25% of the population, even in peace time, was involved in some way or another with what could be described loosely as war work. And this at a time when people struggled to grow enough food to feed themselves.


If anyone is interested, there is a comprehensive and very interesting book on the social history of gunpowder, entitled “Gunpowder - Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics - The History of the Explosive that Changed the World” by Jack Kelly (Basic Books, 2004). I’d highly recommend it as it touches on the logistics difficulties involved through the ages.


Yes I’ve got that, still available on Amazon if anybody is interested