A light hearted glossary of phrases and sayings in common use today, which originated from gunpowder production and military use.

STICK TO YOUR GUNS – maintain your position don’t change your mind

Cannons were both valuable and important on the battlefield.  If enemy soldiers attacked the cannon, the gun crew could switch from using single cannon balls to grapeshot.  These were bags of small musket balls that would burst as they left the open end, or muzzle, of the cannon barrel.  This deadly spray of small musket balls could cause terrible destruction on the attackers if held to the last possible moment.  The deadly blast could stop the attack altogether or stun the attackers allowing the crew to escape to safety.

FLASH IN THE PAN – failure after a showy start

The spark caused by the flint hitting the frizzen lights a small amount of gunpowder in a small pan.  This flame then goes through a small hole, or vent, in the barrel and ignites the main charge of powder.  Sometimes the hole becomes blocked and the promising fizz and flame of the pan powder does not result in the gun being fired.  At a crucial point in a battle this could have proved fatal!

A LOOSE CANNON – someone who is out of control

Early warships used large heavy cannons that needed to be secured in place by ropes and blocks when not in use.  The pitch of the sea could cause a loose cannon to roll around crushing and killing men in the cramped conditions on a ship’s gun deck.

A LOAD OF JUNK - unwanted items or rubbish

Junk was a navel term for old rope that was collected and used to make wads to put into the barrels of cannons after gunpowder charge and cannon ball. This helped to prevent the cannon ball from moving up and down the barrel while the ship rolled.

OVER A BARREL – in a helpless situation

In the navy this could mean being tied over a cannon barrel and flogged as a punishment.

SON OF A GUN – a bit of a rogue

On board early warships the men were often not allowed to go ashore at all, for fear of desertion.  The men slept, ate and worked around the large guns on the gun deck.  Sometimes a few women were allowed to live on board ship too. If any children were born on the ship, they were often recorded as “Son of a Gun”.

BRASS MONKEYS – very cold weather

Early ships sometimes used brass racks to hold cannon balls.  In extremely cold weather these racks could contract enough to release the cannon balls, allowing them to roll around while the ship pitched.

POWDER MONKEY – agile young person

The danger of fire and explosion on a wooden warship was great.  The magazine room was designed to protect the gunpowder from a stray spark that could destroy the whole ship.  Each gun crew had a powder charge carrier, usually a young boy, who had to collect the gunpowder for them.  To do this he had to: run to the magazine, pick up the gunpowder charge in a canvas bag, place it in his wooden or metal charge holder and close its lid, then run back to the gun and deliver the charge to the gun loader.  The sight of a small boy rushing through, up and over the various obstacles on the gun deck, earned him the nickname of powder monkey, from his agility and speed.

HANG FIRE – delay an action until later

A hang fire is when a gunpowder weapons fails to fire on the first attempt.  This can be caused by the initial spark from the flint failing to light the pan powder or by the ignited pan powder failing to light the main charge in the barrel.  Sometimes a small ember in the pan can suddenly be fanned back to life and fire the main charge much to the shooter’s surprise and potential danger!

Gunpowder Processing Glossary

In Order of Manufacture

Mixing: Mixing the three ingredients -saltpetre, sulphur, charcoal together -'green charge'.

Incorporation: Pulverising and grinding together the green charge under edge runners in the incorporating mill to obtain the closest mix possible- mill cake. Fundamental process - improperly incorporated material will make the following operations useless.

Breaking Down: Putting the mill cake into more even form, in breaking down machine, for pressing meal.

Pressing: Meal is subjected to pressure in hydraulic presses, to prepare for corning - press cake.
Purpose of pressing: Increases closeness of mix - better explosiveness. Increases density - prevents mix falling apart in transport and handling. Makes less hygroscopic, moisture absorbing. Produces more grains when corned - less dust. Increases volume of exploding gas - more power.

Corning or Granulating: Transforming the press cake into grains in corning machines. Performance of gunpowder depends on size and shape of grains. Produces uniformity, essential for controlled operation and predictability of firing. Grains, containing moisture and dust, are termed 'foul grain powder'.

Dusting and Glazing: Dust is removed from the foul grains in dusting reels. Reduces moisture absorption and therefore improves transportation and storage quality. Action of dusting removes grain imperfections, corners and protrusions, which would form dust. This also creates the spherical shape which gives best performance. For some larger grain sizes a small amount of graphite is added in glazing barrels to impart a hard glazed finish. This aids moisture resistance and also slightly retards ignition, to avoid damage to gun.

Stoving or Drying: Final moisture removal by drying in steam stoves - rooms with steam pipes.

Heading Up: Dried gunpowder is put into 100 lb. barrels.