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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.

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I think it was likely that he was trying to be accurate.

In the Mississippi Quarterly Vol 46, No. 4, Fall 1993, Journal Article 'A Blood Dark Pastryman', John Emil Sepich writes:

McCarthy's appears to have incorporated information, derived from folk sources gathered in a "Powder, Flint and Balls" article in Foxfire 5 (5). Of the nine pages Carl Darden contributed to this article, the segment presented below would seem to establish Darden as McCarthy's primary source:

"Then the ingredients can be mixed with a small amount of water so the mixture comes out with a biscuit dough consistency. Usually when I mix the ingredients, I add just enough stale urine to make the batch bunch about like biscuit dough. The urine, substituted for water, gives the powder more oxygen and higher performance.

"flowers of sulfur is ideal for gunpowder, and it can be bought in most drug stores in four ounce bottles or pound cans.

"It can also be found in pure deposits around volcanoes, and in early times, because it was found where molten lava issued from the earth, the sulfur condensed around the rims of the volcano and was called brimstone. (p. 246)

In these paragraphs are the Judge's call for the men's urine in Blood Meridian (pp.131-132)(6), the story's "pure flowers of sulfur" phrase (p. 131) and its "brimstone"(pp. 131-134), and in Darden's repeated "biscuit dough" simile, a beginning point for Tobin's characterization of the Judge as a "bloody dark pastryman" mixing the wetted gunpowder into "a foul black dough, a devil's batter" (p. 132).

Another point linking McCarthy and Darden come out of the Judge's choice of "alder charcoal" for his gunpowder, Both Darden (p.247) and Jim Moran (p. 253), another contributor to the Firefox 5 article, mention willow as a standard charcoal source. And McCarthy's charcoal is burned at a stream where willow trees are present (p. 128). But McCarthy's choice of alder, I think firmly links him to Darden through Darden's chatty note that:

" By the way, just yesterday I took time out and made a batch of powder, and this time, when I mixed the ingredients, I added homemade alder charcoal instead of redwood and improved the powder's performance 100 per cent. (p.248)

(5) Carl Darden, Carol A. Hill, and Jim Moran, Powder, Flint and Balls, Foxfire 5, ed. Elliot Wiggington (Garden City, New York: Anchor 1979).

(6) In a History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder (Cambridge: Heffer, 1960) J.R. Partington describes the use of urine when refining saltpetre for black powder (p. 319). The Judge's mixing of the three components wetted in urine does not match his process. Echoes of Ahab's bloody quenching of the harpoons, though, are present in the Judge's call for it.

In Foxfire 5, the page after the 'biscuit dough' references includes the following, my emphasis:

"Saltpeter, the chemical that produces the oxygen for the other ingredi- ents when lit off, can be made by putting urine and manure of any kind in a big cement tank mixed with water until you have about three hundred gallons mixed up. Then you put on a tight lid and let it sit for about ten months. You have to have a drain pipe and valve at the bottom, and a stainless steel filter screen installed beforehand or you'll have one big mess on your hands. At the end of that time, you run the liquid that drains off through ashes into shallow wooden trays lined with plastic sheeting and let them stand for evaporation in the sun. When the water evaporates, potassium nitrate crystals (saltpeter) will form in the bottom of the trays.

In History of Greek Fire and Gunpowder the author is likely referring to this paragraph:

Watson reports that a patent was granted in 1625 to Sir John Brooke and Thomas Russel for making saltpetre by a new invention making great use of all sorts of urine, and in 1627 King Charles I issued a proclamation to all persons to save the urine of their families and as much as they could of that of their animals, for collection every day by the patentees or their assigns. Since the invention was not successful, in 1634 an earlier proclamation of 1625 was revived giving the saltpetre-makers permission to dig up the floors of dove-houses, stables, etc., and prohibiting floors to be laid with anything except mellow earth. In 1656 an Act of Parliament was passed prohibiting saltpetre-makers from digging in houses or lands without the consent of the owners. In England the earth impregnated with pigeon dung, cattle urine, etc., formerly belonged to the Crown, and in France before the Revolution earth of stables, cellars, etc., belonged to the King. In Germany the inhabitants were obliged to build walls of fat earth mixed with straw, which when they became impregnated with saltpetre were demolished and worked up.

This does not contain anything which would be immediately useful to ad hoc manufactury in the field, but does suggest that like the references Sepich and I have quoted from Foxfire 5, there is an emphasis on the urine not being fresh, it is 'stale', it has to 'sit for about ten months', it has to be extracted from where it has soaked into floors and walls...

Sepich has also published a book called Notes on Blood Meridian, which includes the same material I painstakingly copied from his paper above, but he expands in a later chapter on perhaps more literary matters:

The mana-charge originally associated with everything that belongs to the body is expressed in primitive man’s fear of magical influences, due to the fact that every part of the body, from hair to excrement, can stand for the body as a whole and bewitch it. Also, the symbolism of the creation myths, where everything that comes out of the body is creative, derives from the latter’s mana potency. Not only the semen, but urine and spittle, sweat, dung, and breath, words and flatus, are heavy with creation. Out of it all comes the world, and the whole “turn-out” is “birth.” (Neumann 25-26; see also 31, 291)

So McCarthy seems to have used sources from the late 1970s, rather than earlier, and to have disregarded, perhaps for literary effect, the need for urine to be stale to be effectual.

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  • outstanding! just what I was looking for.
    – releseabe
    Mar 10, 2023 at 18:07
  • My thinking that the saltpeter could not have been extracted so rapidly sounds valid although given that the substance is present, perhaps there is a way to hasten the extraction -- chemistry prior to, say, mid 18th century was pretty primitive and a lot could have been learned. Perhaps applying heat might have worked. But obviously the story needed it to be effected much faster than months,
    – releseabe
    Mar 10, 2023 at 18:50
  • I do find this about saltpeter: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. This does indicate that it can be extracted from guano in a day which is about what the book says iirc.
    – releseabe
    Mar 10, 2023 at 18:55
  • BTW, not to be greedy, but the primers thing is also bothering me. They would need so many primers, one for every single shot and I think I am right that there is no gun for which primers are merely optional. Maybe a separate question.
    – releseabe
    Mar 10, 2023 at 23:15
  • @releseabe Any firearm from before 1807 would not have used a primer at all (because percussion caps had not been invented yet), and flintlocks, snaphaunces, and similar early designs continued to be used for many years afterwards, though it would be unlikely that such weapons would have been used in the setting of the novel. Mar 11, 2023 at 1:12

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