I was at the local council fireworks tonight when I remembered a strange little legend that was widely known during the post medieval period, although I do wonder when it first arose.

It is of gunpowder that doesn’t make a noise when it explodes.

In the early 17th century, we have Francis Bacon mentioning a white gunpowder which “will discharge a piece without noises: and it is a dangerous Experiment if true.”

Fortunately for his reputation, he went on to write, “But it seems to me impossible; for it confined air be drive out, and strike the open air, it will certainly make a noise.”


But then he goes on to discuss how it might might possible to achieve an explosion and operation of a gun without the confined air meeting the open air.

J. R. Partington, in his book “A history of Greek Fire and Gunpowder”, still a good starting point for the history of both substances, wrote that “The idea of noiseless and (apparently) flameless gunpowder is found in old European works.”


Certainly, in the 1540 “De Pyrotechnia” of Biringuccio, based on the previous decades of his life and work, he writes, “There are many who start a lie circulating by saying that they make a powder that does not make a noise when guns are fired with it. This is impossible for the aforesaid reasons since fire and air are present, and far from being able to do what they say in artillery, they would not do it in one of those popguns that children are accustomed to shoot when laurel berries are ripe. Besides this, other things could be mentioned in which it is recognised that everything proceeds from the shattering of the air when they are struck.”

(Page 416 of the Dover Paperback of Smith and Gnudi’s translation)

He had previously explained the noise made by firing a gun as due to the hot air inside meeting cold air outside, the air pushed out of the gun by the bullet colliding with the air outside, etc etc.

So the interesting thing is where and when did this idea originate? I have been unable to find any more information so far, but suspect it comes from either an early book of secrets (Which contained many impossible recipes as well as ones that did work) or from a pseudo-magical book of some sort written by someone who was not actually involved in alchemy or foundry work or anything practical.

If anyone has any ideas it would be nice to know.

2011 fireworks photo