By Matthew Bennett
Last updated 2011-02-17
The explosive was a combination of sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal, initially mixed in dry powder form. This was inefficient, and by 1500 the process of 'corning' had been developed. This involved dampening the mix and then grinding it, to produce various levels of coarseness depending upon the weapon it was destined for. Known as 'black powder' this kind of gunpowder continued in use until the development of early high explosive, resulting from the discovery of nitro-glycerine in the 1840s.
During the 1860s the shells fired by a range of weapons began to be filled with an explosive known as 'gun cotton' (nitro-cellulose). This was exactly the period of the American Civil War, and the use of the gun cotton is one of the many reasons why the conflict can be seen as the first 'modern war'.
In combination with rifled, breech-loading artillery pieces, high-explosive shells could wreak much greater damage than the solid balls of earlier cannon. This new, frightful power encouraged the use of trenches for soldiers to protect themselves in, and also the development of the 'empty battlefield' - two elements that were to characterise warfare from the time of World War One onwards.
Thus from the 1860s artillery became the dominant force in warfare, and continues to be so to this day - bomber aircraft being an aerial development of the weapons that once delivered explosives at ground level.
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