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March 13, 2007

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A Gunpowder Plot At The History Channel?

Like many people, I’m hopelessly addicted to the History Channel. Barring the occasional hour on the story of tapioca, or putty, they do lots of interesting stuff, and last night it was ancient Chinese weaponry. Everything was going swimmingly until the program reached the invention of gunpowder. It showed a fellow mixing the stuff in a solid-silver (!) bowl, and we were informed that charcoal is the main ingredient, and there are two others.

 “Huh?”, thinks I. “Why are they being coy about the other two ingredients?” And then it came to me. They are doing it for the same reason that the TSA does most of their  stupid stuff—security. I can think of no other reason for omitting two thirds of the recipe than the fear that a viewer might rush right out, mix up a batch of black powder, and explode something he shouldn’t.

This is absurd for many, many reasons, the most prominent of which is the ease with which you can get this information. Working against a watch, I went on line this morning and got the answer in 11 seconds. As a security measure, the History Channel’s one-ingredient ploy ranks with the airlines refusing to hand out plastic knives so passengers can slice their tiny, rock-hard, airline-issue bagels.

The truth is, anyone can find out just about anything if they want to. Some years ago I had lunch with the president of a knife-sharpener company, and he told me the following story:

“During World War II I was a professor of metallurgy at the University of Chicago, which was one of the centers of development for the atom bomb. One of my jobs was recruiting graduate students to work on the Manhattan Project. I was interviewing a young man and told him what he would be doing, but that I couldn’t tell him why he would be doing it.

“He said, ‘You’re working on an atom bomb.’”

“I nearly passed out. This was one of the most closely guarded secrets in World War II.

“How in God’s name did you know?” I asked him.

“It wasn’t hard,” he said. “We just keep track of who’s disappearing, and what they do, and we put two and two together.”

So much for secrecy.

And if there is no History Channel gunpowder plot I apologize to all the appropriate people.


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Take of refined nitre, 75 parts; sulphur, 10 parts; best refined willow charcoal, 15 parts. Powder each separately, and mix intimately with a little water in a mortar. The paste may be rolled out into thin rods, cut into grains and dried on a board in the sun. On the large scale the grains are made by forcing the paste through sieves, dried by steam-heat and polished by rolling against each other in a barrel. Meal-powder is ungrained powder.


Lawyers, Lawyers and more Lawyers would be why people aren't going to tell the ingredient list.
Maybe not listing the whole recipe will keep a few morons from trying to make it. Probably not, buy why make it easy for them?


Seems like a crock of poo. They also do demonstrations of 50 BMG rifles, shouldn't they censor that also.......


Far be it from a plot. It is survival in today's world of excessive litigation. If one person (probably a teenager) concocted black powder after watching the History Channel and blew him/herself up, the lawsuits would start. Thank you America's lawyers for incidents like this and factory triggers you can't pull.

Chad Love

I don't know what you guys are griping about. It makes perfect sense to me for the History Channel to do the prudently altruistic thing and omit the complete ingredients list. Just being safe. I can see the possibility that a terroristically-inlined person would prefer to make his or her own low/grade blackpowder rather than run down to his local Wal-Mart and buy a few pounds of Pyrodex or Triple 7.
Besides, I don't think most terrorists have discovered the Internet(s) yet, so I don't think that's a valid argument, either...

As for the TSA, those folks are doing a great job. Couple years ago they told me I absolutely could not take a small tacklebox (no knives, no scissors, just spinnerbaits basically) as a carry-on because (and I quote) "due to the sharp hook your spiinerbait could be used as a weapon."

After I thought about it I could see their point. I envisioned a terrorist grabbing one of my baits, bursting into the cockpit and dispatching both pilots with a half-ounce chartruese willow-leaf Terminator.

Stranger things have happened, I guess...

Rod M.

If only the airlines did hand out rock hard bagels, the last flight I took bottle water was $2 and a bag of chips $3. At least the TSA didn't take my mulit-tool from my checked bag.


When you get bumped up to First Class the Bagels are still rock hard (just free).

I have had a cork screw in my brief case since before 9-11 and it always gets looked at and nobody ever says anything.

I think it is very funny that a "History channel" would omit this info as it does not accurately depict History. The name of the show was not BOMB making 101........


This isn’t Big Brother nor is the History Channel in error.

Gunpowder is a catch-all phrase for several combinations of combustibles or propellants

Gunpowder can be made from more than just the three most commonly recognized ingredients

The theory of an atomic weapon was common knowledge in the scientific community during the 40s. How to develop such a weapon was the nut everyone had to crack.


Ever hear of S.C.S.L.B…..or sniveling, chicken-sh-t, little bast-rds????

Special Interests, Corporate America and Government are filled with them, and invaded the History Channel. :-)

...and they wonder why we are the way we are.

Frank Lopez

I did not see the specific program you mention, however I can state, without reservation, that there are no Guy Fawkes at the History Channel, nor is there any gunpowder plot or conspiracy. I have seen on several other programs on the History Channel where the exact formula and the ingredients for gunpwoder are listed. For example, last Saturday, March 10, on Wild West Tech, the formula was listed in a segment comparing black powder and smokeless powder.

Joe S

knowing the ingredients of gunpowder was a prerequisite in elementary science class in the 40's. Most curious minds checked it out ....charcoal (a no brainer),for sulphur we ground match heads, toughest to get, except from a drugstore, was potasium. We never moistened ,rolled it etc. Our success was to get a flash and no bang when we lit it. Gosh, I guess our use of that knowledge really messed up the world.....

Joe S

Sorry to Frank Lopez...they listed my posting under your name and we never got to see your posting.


I saw Dave interviewed by the History Channel last night in a story about the evolution of the bullet.

Even though he was disguised (wearing a tie!) he looked younger than his charicature at the top of this blog, and not too ugly for a former jar-head...

Dave Petzal

To Lastearlofshaw: I plead guilty to the tie, but I was never a Marine. I was a soldier. How I came to not join the Corps is a sad story, which I may tell some time on this blog.


I seem to remember several shows on the History Channel in the past where they mentioned all the different components of gunpowder. Don't know why they suddenyl got cold feet but it wouldn't surprise me if lawyers are involved.

Ralph the Rifleman

I also remember the Wild West Tech shows mentioning specifics on gun-vs-black powder, so I wonder if the editors just didn't think it was important enough to mention them? So Dave, why the Army and not the Corps? Sad story? Now we have got to hear this story!

Chuck Atley

You said it, JS. Lawyers. I'm sure the History Channel was just covering its hind end. All it would take for a huge lawsuit is one numbskull to get blown up after getting the recipe on the History Channel. In today's America, there is no such thing as taking responsibility for one's own actions--it's always someone else's fault.



The gunpowder recipe disclosure probably has more to do with liability. Inevitably, someone's little Johnny will blow his arm off and then...

I can empathize with your feelings about the TSA. I am an airline pilot and have had my plastic knife taken away at the checkpoint, even though I have full access to a big, sharp fire axe behind my seat. The rationale must be that I might use that little plastic knife to take control of myself. A friend of mine had his bottle of wine taken away, so he went to a store on the secure side and bought another bottle. Very...intelligent. North of the 49th it feels like the wolves are minding the sheep, but I digress.


Frank Lopez

Thanks, Joe S for the explaination. I was wondering what happened. What I posted was this:

While I did not see the show in question and have no doubt that the purposely left out the other ingredients, I don't think that Guy Fawkes resides at the History Channel. Perhaps the show's producers felt it necessary, but I have seen the exact formula published on the History Channel several times. Most recently this past Saturday there was a segment on Wild West Tech where the exact Formula was given both verbally and in text.


Dave. Here is a recipe that will not get you in any trouble. And it is awesome.

7-Layer Diamond Bites

8 large flour tortillas
1 large cream cheese
2 small cans Underwood brand chicken spread. (It has a red devil on the can).
1 bunch green onions
1 small can of sliced black olives
About 1oz parsley or cilantro. Whichever you prefer.
1 container of salsa

Get a mixing bowl and put in the cream cheese. Make sure it's soft enough to work with. Add the two cans of chicken spread, the black olives and about three tablespoons of the salsa. Now chop up the green onions and parsley (or cilantro) until it's fine cut. Get a flexible mixing spatula and strongarm all the ingredients up into a paste.

Now get a big plate and put down the first tortilla. Spread the cream cheese paste on the tortilla in a thin layer (quite thin!) and get it even, all the way up to the edges. Put on the next tortilla and do the same thing. Keep doing it, like you're making a layered cake, until the creation has seven layers. Don't put any of the cream cheese paste on the top! Unless you like messy fingers. Section it
into smallish diamonds with a long, sharp knife and serve with a bowl of salsa for dipping. And some napkins.


I see both sides of the issue on the liability aspect, on one hand the HC wants to cover their rear end due to the fact that there are people that would use this information to 1) create a small amount of powder 2) blow a body part off (on purpose) and 3) sue the HC to become independently wealthy without working for it. This is called a predatory lawsuit, and what the HC is doing is using what politicians have been using for hundreds of years it is called "plausible deniability". In the absence of a predatory lawsuit some Jackass (yes I am referring to the movies and television shows) would see the program and think it novel to build a "fire cracker" the size of a 2 liter soda bottle, and blow up their "friend's" whatever. I have been a cop for several years and have seen some of the stupidest people on the face of this planet; it would not surprise me to see them do anything. Oh and as far as the other two ingredients, my wife was reading the blog while I was, and as soon as we both finished she asked what the other two ingredients were and I named them out of memory from high school chemistry class (that was some 20 years ago) and I learned how to make compounds there that are much more destructive than black powder or "gun powder". My take on the issue is a little more in-depth, however not for a blog, for more.....wait for the book.

Dave Petzal

To Andre: Many thanks.

To ralph: The Marine Corps story needs a blog of its own.


Local News at 6pm

Little Johnny blew three fingers off and put out his left eye tring to make blackpowder, he said he saw it on the History Channel, flim at eleven.

It's sad but true...

Ed Park

Your Manhattan Project story reminded me of military secrecy. I was in counter intelligence, Tokyo, Korean War, guys comparing specialties. One said he couldn't reveal his MOS. I said, "Oh, a cryptographer," He asked how I knew. We'd been told in training the only MOS we couldn't reveal was cryptographer. Duh!


Did the History channel condemn the use of some "types" of black powder?

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