I made a gun with leaves!
March 9, 2007 6:49 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to make a gun with a palm tree and some metal?

I recently was told that hunters in some places in Africa make guns locally, and all they use are metal pipes and the products of a palm tree. I didn't get the details, but it went something like this:

* The metal pipe is cut and joined using furnaces to go into the shape of a gun
* The pieces of metal droppings are pounded with a hammer into small metal pellets for the bullets
* The gun powder is gotten from the leaves of a palm tree, which are burnt or somehow modified into some type of explosive substance, then mixed with carbide or something like that.

My question is : Is it possible to make gunpowder purely from whatever a palm tree produces? If so, how?
posted by markesh to Technology (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No. Black powder is composed of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal, and it's only the last ingredient that the palm tree would provide. You'd still need sources for the other elements to actually get anywhere, like in this recipe for palm gunpowder.
posted by ZaphodB at 7:11 AM on March 9, 2007

Response by poster: So where would an African in a village get saltpeter and sulfur?
posted by markesh at 7:18 AM on March 9, 2007

You can't make black powder purely from a palm tree but you might not need to source the other ingredients. As ZaphodB says, black powder is salt peter, sulfur and charcoal. Obviously the charcoal can be made from the palm tree. Salt peter is otherwise known as potassium nitrate and can be produced from manure and ash (palm tree yet again). Sulfur is an element, you can't produce it, you have to find it. Sulfur is common in volcanic regions, so if you luck out and happen to be in one of those regions you don't need to buy the sulfur eiter.
posted by substrate at 7:22 AM on March 9, 2007

You actually could make a gunpowder-like substance from a palm tree, but I don't know how effective the gun would be.

Sulfur is only needed to make the reaction more energetic, so if you don't have it, don't panic.

Charcoal is easy, but even if you didn't want to burn your tree up you could extract sugar from it (there must be some form of sugar in coconuts) and use that instead. You just need something packed with carbon, basically.

Potassium nitrate (or sodium nitrate if your palm tree is near some seaweed) is easy enough to get as already pointed out.

Of course, every shortcut you take makes it work less well. And even if you took no shortcuts, you might have to experiment a while to get the elements mixed well enough to burn explosively fast. I found that my local ag store sells sodium nitrate in a box on open shelves, so my kids and I bought some and ground it up with confectioner's sugar to make a gunpowder-like substance. "Fast-burning powder" might be a better term, but I bet we could get mini-explosions if we really worked at it. Almost certainly non-fatal, though, and therefore useless for a gun.
posted by DU at 7:47 AM on March 9, 2007

Oh *purely* from a palm tree. I doubt it.
posted by DU at 7:49 AM on March 9, 2007

Sulfur is an element, you can't produce it, you have to find it.

All plants (and animals) contain sulfur, specifically in cysteine and methionine.

I don't know how much sulfur you need for gunpowder, or how hard it is to extract it from the palm tree, but it's there.
posted by bingo at 8:08 AM on March 9, 2007

Response by poster: Well, what about the material that is readily available in a jungle/village setting? Is there anything in a jungle that could produce sulphur?

I have it first hand that villagers in Africa produce home made guns, so I'm trying to figure out what. The palm tree plays a big role in this, but I do not think it's the only thing.
posted by markesh at 9:42 AM on March 9, 2007

You don't need sulfur to make a gunpowder-like substance. It just produces a little more energy by reacting with what would otherwise be a waste product.

I don't know what percentage difference, but if you can propel a bullet an N mph with regular black powder, presumably you could propel it at least N/2 mph with charcoal + potassium nitrate. If N/2 is enough to kill your prey, then there you go.

Rough Science made fireworks from jungle/village-type materials in one episode.
posted by DU at 9:50 AM on March 9, 2007

The gun powder is gotten from the leaves of a palm tree, which are burnt or somehow modified into some type of explosive substance, then mixed with carbide or something like that.

If your villagers have access to carbide, they don't need to make gunpowder. I bet they don't have any carbide, though.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:01 AM on March 9, 2007

All plants and animals contain iron too, but that doesn't mean you can make iron from them. Black powder is a pretty specific composition, without sulfur it's still a pyrotechnic compound but not sulfur. If I have time tomorrow I'll try and make something with just charcoal and potassium nitrate. I've never tried that before, I don't know how it'll work.
posted by substrate at 4:05 PM on March 9, 2007

You can make a canon out of a palm tree.
"A canon like the ones used everywhere here during festivals and similar occasions. It consists of a coconut palm trunk which has been split open, hollowed out, put back together and bound up with wire. A small hole is bored at the bottom end and water and a few pieces of carbide are put into it. Once the gas has developed you put a piece of burning wood in the hole, and the canon goes off with a fearful noise."
posted by tellurian at 8:57 PM on February 25, 2008

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