Ship-type Stuff, or More Tedious Details…



Here’s something I wish every historical fiction author knew:


Gunpowder does not explode.


Black powder (gunpowder) burns very hot and very fast. But it burns; it is not explosive.

What does explode is the super-heated air created in a confined space when black powder burns. So in order to have an explosion, you have to have a confined space, like a gun breech, or a powder magazine, or a closed outbuilding. Just dropping a lighted brand into a barrel of black powder in an inn yard will not cause an explosion. It might very well catch your inn on fire, but the powder won’t explode. You could  make the barrel  explode, if you were to set the powder inside alight without removing the top of the barrel (a trope you have undoubtedly seen in any number of western mining movies.)

Likewise, cannonballs do not explode. A cannonball is only a piece of iron, and unless it was heated in a shot oven before being loaded into the gun, it’s not even particularly warm. (It doesn’t have to be; it can fly the length of three football fields in a matter of seconds. There’s plenty of destructive force behind that ball.) Incendiary shells, like mortars, explode because the burning powder is contained inside the shell. When the burning powder builds up enough super-heated air pressure within the shell, that causes the explosion.

We used to do a demonstration (and I’m sure they still do; it was very popular) at the USS ConstitutionMuseum when I worked there. It’s fun, and you can do this at home. You could also visit the museum the next time you’re in Charlestown, Massachusetts, but they don’t do this activity all the time and I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed.

Take a film cannister – you know, the plastic kind that 35mm camera film comes in. Fill it about 2/3 of the way with water. Then drop in half an Alka-Seltzer tablet and cap the cannister. At the museum we’d have people pretend they were members of the gun crew and tell them to aim their “gun” at the enemy’s ship. (Don’t aim it at your allies, and I’d recommend doing it outside.)

When the fizzing tablet builds up enough pressure in the sealed cannister, it will “fire” the cap across the room. It’s the same principle behind the black powder. It is pressure caused by the burning powder that creates the explosion and propulsion.  And there you have it.

Now you know.

_ _ _ 


It is perfectly correct to say “the USS Constitution” but it is not correct to say (or write) “the HMS Britannia.”  The reason for this is pretty simple. “USS” stands for “United States’ Ship.” To say, “the United States’ ship” is correct. But “HMS” stands for “His Majesty’s Ship.” It would be incredibly awkward if you were to say “the His Majesty’s ship.” You wouldn’t  say “Have you seen the my overcoat”?

This is something that American writers get wrong 90% of the time. Now (whether you are a writer or not) you won’t be one of them. *wink*


photograph courtesy of HM 24th Regiment of Foot in America


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