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07 July 2011

Tierra de los Sueños / 6-sheet: historic issue reprint / Gunpowder / components / proportions

Click stamp sheet once or twice to enlarge.

Tierra de los Sueños / TdSPosta
6-sheet: Historic issue reprint
Gunpowder / components / proportions

Dingbats by Adina Weinand

Someone asked me what saltpetre (the British spelling; in the USA it's spelled saltpeter) was, so I had to tell her. It's potassium nitrate KNO3. Where do you get it? It forms, after time, as a white powder on the surface of mammal or bird excrement and urine. It's the component of gunpowder that supplies the big bolus of oxygen for the rapid combustion. 

Charcoal (from softwood) is obviously the carbon fuel, and the relatively small amount of sulfur lowers the ignition temperature, so that the heat of a match or a flintlock spark will begin the combustion. I found the proportions (from a standard circa 1750 recipe) expressed as percentages -- 75, 15, 10 percent -- but simply reduced them to lowest terms: 15, 3, 2 (by weight).

The Fourth of July was just a few days ago so my thoughts have been nudged toward gunpowder -- cheap Macau-style firecrackers particularly. But the celebration features gunpowder explosions because it celebrates a war that used gunpowder/black powder as its high-tech weaponry, Sufficient to kill or maim either by musket or cannon. (By the end of the 19th century, gunpowder had been replaced by smokeless powder, which doesn't reveal the location of the rifleman.)

From China to Turkey to North Africa, and then finally to Europe, the world of the last 1200 or so years would be unrecognizable without gunpowder. In Europe it instantly extincted the knight in shining armor, and drastically changed the design of castles, whose walls were now angled so cannonballs would bounce off them.

Emerging from an era of magic, gunpowder weapons and their spherical bullets quickly took on magical and legendary trappings. Wikipedia:


A Freischütz ("freeshooter"), in German folklore, is a marksman who, by a contract with the devil, has obtained a certain number of bullets destined to hit without fail whatever object he wishes. As the legend is usually told, six of the Freikugeln, or "free bullets", are thus subservient to the marksman's will, but the seventh is at the absolute disposal of the devil himself.

Various methods were adopted in order to procure possession of the marvelous missiles. According to one, the marksman, instead of swallowing the sacramental host, kept it and fixed it on a tree, shot at it and caused it to bleed great drops of blood ... He then gathered the drops on a piece of cloth and reduced the whole to ashes, and then with these ashes added the requisite virtue to the lead of which his bullets were made ... Various vegetable or animal substances had the reputation of serving the same purpose.

Stories about the Freischütz were especially common in Germany during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries; but the first time that the legend was turned to literary profit is said to have been by Johann August Apel in the Gespensterbuch or Book of Ghosts. It formed the subject of Weber's opera Der Freischütz (1821), the libretto of which was written by Johann Friedrich Kind, who had suggested Apel's story as an excellent theme for the composer.


There was also the legend of the "hard man," a warrior with a magical invulnerability to harm by bullets.

Flash paper is wonderful stuff you can buy at a Magic Shop, if you can still find a Magic Shop. It's sheets of tissue paper impregnated with gunpowder. Magicians use it for sudden smokey flashes -- guaranteed to distract the audience -- and bookies write their bets on flash paper, and if the cops start to smash the door in, someone tosses a cigarette or a match into the bowl of betting slips and FOOMF! -- no evidence.


Anonymous said...

Ya know, bob, I almost now understand men, thanks to this really interesting stampsheet and your explanations. And I'm being serious. Would have never, ever been excited about the big boom boom. But now I think I realize our differences....I like what you do. Louella Stellabianca

Vleeptron Dude said...

Thanks Louella!

I am wild about your Big Blue Birds!

if i managed to find your e-mail addie correctly, I'm replying at some length via e-mail.