In Blood Meridian (1985), Cormac McCarthy has the gang of "Indian fighters" surrounded and out of powder, so one of them manages to make it from scratch, making charcoal from wood, saltpeter from bat guano and finding sulfur in a volcanic area, but the final step has them urinating on the mixture and then drying it in the sun.
I am puzzled by the final step in which the Judge asks his comrades to urinate on the mixture. It may have some literary significance but I am wondering if anyone can explain if there was any good reason for doing it. I asked this in Chemistry Stack Exchange but got no real answer.
Here's what we know: McCarthy gives us what sound like valid details for creating gunpowder from scratch -- the Judge has been examining the landscape for signs indicating that the rawest of ingredients might be found, given that gunpowder essentially is made from simply mixing sulfur, saltpeter and powdered charcoal together.
I know from childhood experience that just doing that makes something that burns like crazy, hot enough to the chagrin of the landlord that it pits (melts?) concrete. But I never saw it do much else -- I could not get an explosion or use it to fuel a rocket. I may have packed it wrong but I have also read that the grain size is important for different uses. This will come up later.
So the Judge finds a volcano, and they take brimstone, which is sulfur crystals, and they powder that. This is 100% legit.
He finds bats and follows them to their cave, and he collects this and extracts saltpeter from the stuff using some process using the water of a stream. Not sure how this is done, but it is completely true that large islands of bird guano were of great value in the 19th century because of the presence of saltpeter in the stuff. Napoleon, cut off from saltpeter by the British had human and animal waster, including urine collected.
I just don't know if you could take guano and convert it saltpeter using just water but let's say you can.
The easy part was making and powdering charcoal from wood that was found.
Finally, they are stuck at the top of a mountain and Los Indios are approaching -- they know from having found two of Glanton's scouts that the gang is out of powder, for the scouts had none.
The Judge is mixing the 3 components with the Indians visible in the distance; they have little time. When the ingredients are mixed, the Judge, with time again being critical, asked the men to urinate on it and then he spreads the stuff on a rock to dry. Frighteningly, a cloud threatens to block the sun -- clearly, this was a crucial step to have taken, he did not do it for fun. Had it not dried in time, it would have been useless.
Now, we already know that urine is a source of saltpeter, but they had obtained that previously. Water is used to form the grains into the right size, but since they had been by a stream, they could have obtained all the water they needed.
I am wondering if this step was something done due to an incomplete understanding of chemistry -- maybe they figured if the mixture needed to be moistened, urine, which is a source of saltpeter, is somehow better than plain water? Alternatively, maybe simply water was at such a premium always in that dry area that they would not use drinkable water when something else would do?
A side question is, would their weapons not also need primers? The gang at some point encounters the 4 men and the boy in an abandoned fortress and while the won't accept these men into their gang, they do generously leave them lead for bullets, powder and primers -- primers as I understand it are made from mercury fulminate (a chemical featured in Breaking Bad) that could not be made without a well-equipped lab because mercury and I think nitric acid are required and perhaps other stuff. Moreover primers include a small metal enclosure -- they are not just chemical, they are a tiny device which fits precisely in a pistol and it is the primer which the hammer strikes to ignite the powder. No way they could have fabricated such things on the run in the desert.
There certainly were weapons that worked without primers, flintlocks which used a spark. Maybe they had such pistols at one point. But I am pretty sure that if a pistol used a primer, it simply would not work without a primer, not at all.
Maybe McCarthy was just using poetic license, maybe the primer thing could be, since you could not make them, anyone planning on doing a vast amount of shooting would buy so many primers before setting out and/or replenished them at every opportunity, that it was usual to run out of powder and lead (which of course could be retrieved and recast after it was shot from a weapon) well before running out of primers. Maybe McCarthy missed this detail or thought no one would care.
Anyway, my main interest is in the final step in making the powder.