What a Historical Analysis of Gunpowder Can Teach Us about Gun Culture in the United States
Jennifer Monroe McCutchen
In September 2021, the Hodgdon Powder Company closed its Louisiana facility, marking the end of black powder manufacturing in the United States. The shutdown did not make mainstream news but did create buzz among muzzleloading gun enthusiasts and military reenactors. With European-produced black powder now their only option, antique gun owners took to online forums to complain about expensive prices, long shipping times, and possible regulations from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Many expressed disbelief not only that United States citizens would have to import the black powder needed to use their vintage firearms, but that a gun-related company could fail in America.
The closure of Hodgdon’s manufacturing plant represents a full-circle moment in the history of gunpowder in the United States. Before the DuPont Company began manufacturing black powder along Delaware’s Brandywine River in 1802, North American populations could access gunpowder only from Europeans, as colonists could not manufacture it in quantities necessary to meet consumer demand. Consisting of carbon (for combustion), sulfur (for instantaneous ignition), and saltpeter or potassium nitrate (which provided the oxygen needed to facilitate an explosion), gunpowder was difficult to produce. Of the major ingredients, carbon was the easiest to obtain, with sulfur extracted from iron mines or mineral springs a close second. Saltpeter proved the rarest of the three, posing a significant problem as it was also the chief component of gunpowder. Unlike a gun, which was reusable and repairable, gunpowder was an exhaustible commodity that had to be constantly imported from Europe before the nineteenth century. Euro–American demand for gunpowder grew alongside those of Native populations, as both groups needed it for hunting and protection. While Europeans recognized the risks associated with trading guns and gunpowder to Native peoples, the fur and deerskin trades required it. Thus, both populations came to share a mutual dependence on foreign gunpowder supplies, shaping Native and colonial relations with one another.
Current debates about gun violence and regulation in the United States generally overlook access to gunpowder and ammunition. Except for black powder, it is relatively easy for American consumers to purchase ammunition. In most states it can be bought in stores or online with no background check, and more than half of states have no minimum age law. This differs substantially from the ways in which individuals in North America accessed gunpowder before the nineteenth century. Though Euro–American officials did not control the gunpowder trade in ways that align with modern-day regulation, high demand and limited accessibility often made it unavailable to those who needed it. Bob Captain, an eighteenth-century Creek headman, underscored the significance of this dependence in a 1766 speech to his community. Questioning what Creek men would do with their guns if the British cut off their gunpowder and ammunition, he proposed, “Why, we may throw them at our enemies, and we shall find they will do no more execution than a stick or stone.”
There is a clear connection between how people in colonial America, both European and Indigenous, thought about gunpowder and the ways in which many United States citizens think about firearms in the present day. During this period, the availability of gunpowder supplies, not necessarily guns, determined whether an individual could use action or force to defend their property and independence. Unpredictable access to gunpowder and ammunition ensured that the use of these goods and, in turn, the use of guns, remained deliberate and intentional. Today, however, personal protection is associated with one’s ability to obtain their gun (or guns) of choice. The majority of individuals surveyed in a 2019 Gallup poll cited personal safety or protection as the reason they own a firearm. In 2020, amid the Coronavirus pandemic and growing political unrest, gun sales rose 65 percent. But there is no year or decade during the colonial period in which we see private gun ownership comparably spike. While gun owners throughout eighteenth-century North America valued their weapons and the security they allowed, men were generally uninterested in upgrading their guns or purchasing additional firearms; in fact, most owned only one gun throughout their adult lives. While some established weapons arsenals, there was no ongoing need for individuals or communities to stockpile large amounts of firearms like they did gunpowder. This contrasts sharply with recent figures on civilian gun posession, which have determined that 66 percent of American gun owners own more than one gun. Of that number, 29 percent own five or more guns and 8 percent own ten or more, accounting for 39 percent of the nation’s total civilian gun stock. It is also no surprise that the majority of people who own multiple guns are men.
The fact that gun owners in colonial America were more interested in reliable access to gunpowder than firearms reveals that historically, this commodity assumed the political, cultural, and symbolic role that many Americans claim guns permit today. Yet gunpowder and ammunition remain largely excluded from current debates regarding the Second Amendment. Understanding the multifaceted history of gunpowder in the United States highlights why ammunition should be included in present conversations about gun culture and gun violence. The purpose of this is not to shift blame or deviate focus from discussions about firearms regulation. Rather, it is to emphasize that questions of accessibility should apply not only to guns, but to the tools that allow us to use them.
While the discontinuation of black powder production in the United States impacts a small number of gun owners, these individuals have created dialogues about the connection between accessible ammunition and gun use that echo historical conversations on the topic. But on a broader level, these discussions reveal how Americans widely regard the domestic manufacture of guns, firearms, and ammunition as something that has always existed in the United States. This misconception has shaped the relationship of guns with American culture, creating a narrative that frames the regulation of firearms, ammunition, and associated goods as anti-American. The history of gunpowder in the United States, however, reveals a very different story, one where gun owners were forced to use their guns purposefully because of limited access and a dependence upon external sources of supplies. An understanding of the history of gunpowder, therefore, might be able to tell us how and why guns and ammunition have become so widely accessible in the present-day United States, providing a historically grounded foundation from which we can develop new strategies toward addressing the gun violence epidemic in America.
 In February 2022 news outlets reported that Estes Energetics, a model rocket company, bought GOEX, the black powder brand that Hodgdon formerly produced. Estes has publicly stated that they plan to begin producing black powder for “sporting use”—meaning muzzleloaders and other antique arms—in 2023. Please see “Everything you need to know about Estes Energetics buying GOTEX,” I Love Muzzleloading (blog), entry posted Feb. 4, 2022, accessed Dec. 2, 2022. https://www.ilovemuzzleloading.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-estes-energetics-buying-goex.
 High-quality gunpowder in the eighteenth century consisted of 75 percent saltpeter, 15 percent charcoal, and 10 percent sulfur. This mix provided the best explosive effect. Please see David Cressy, Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder (New York, 2012).
 “Ammunition Regulation,” Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, last modified 2022, accessed Dec. 2, 2022, https://giffords.org/lawcenter/gun-laws/policy-areas/hardware-ammunition/ammunition-regulation/.
 John T. Juricek, ed., Georgia and Florida Treaties, 1763–1776, Vol. 12 Early American Indian Documents: Treaties and Laws, 1607–1789 (Bethesda, MD, 2002), 314.
 Katharine Schaeffer, “Key Facts About Americans and Guns,” pewresearch.org, last modified Sept. 13, 2021, accessed Jan. 22, 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/09/13/key-facts-about-americans-and-guns/.
 Martin Savidge and Maria Cartaya, “US Record Guns Sales: Americans bought guns in record numbers in 2020 during a year of unrest—and the surge is continuing,” cnn.com, last modified Mar. 4, 2021, accessed Jan. 22, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/14/us/us-gun-sales-record/index.html.
 Kim Parker et al., “The Demographics of Gun Ownership in the U.S.,” pewresearch.org, last modified June 22, 2017, accessed Jan. 22, 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2017/06/22/the-demographics-of-gun-ownership; Harmeet Kaur, “What Studies Reveal About Gun Ownership in the U.S.,” cnn.com, last modified June 2, 2022, accessed Jan. 22, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/02/us/gun-ownership-numbers-us-cec/index.html; Deborah Azrael et al., “The Stock and Flow of U.S. Firearms: Results from the 2015 National Firearms Survey,” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 3, no. 5 (Oct. 2017) [page span?]. The research acknowledges that men are more likely than women to own multiple guns for different purposes, such as protection, hunting, and recreation.
2 October 2023
About the Author
Jennifer Monroe McCutchen is assistant professor of history at the University of St. Thomas.