Taking Inventory: Gunpowder

Light it up!

Hunting a creeper is a complicated business. Wait for it to approach, a quick stab, then retreat as it flashes in anger. Dart forward for another quick stab, and back again. Repeat a few times until it finally falls to the ground. But wait, eww, what’s this pile of grey powder that it left behind? It’s our item of the week – gunpowder.

For a game without guns, Minecraft sure has a lot of gunpowder. You’ll find it in shipwrecks, in dungeons, in desert temples and in woodland mansions. You’ll even find them in Minecraft.net’s very own community highlights, with explosive references to Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot (that guy sure had a short fuse). Creepers drop up to two piles on death, as do ghasts. Witches hoard the stuff – dropping up to six pieces of gunpowder when they die.

Gunpowder came to Minecraft in Indev version 0.31 as a crafting ingredient for TNT, though it was originally called sulphur and dropped from any mob. It became gunpowder in beta version 1.3. As well as crafting TNT, you can use gunpowder to make fire charges, as well as firework rockets and firework stars. Adding more to a rocket during crafting will increase the height it soars to before it explodes. Wheeeee.

Since version 1.0.0 you can also use gunpowder to make splash potions that inflict their effects on anyone you throw them at. Splash potions of weakness, slowness, poison, decay and harming are obvious candidates, but you can also make splash potions that heal your friends. You might even consider making splash potions of slow falling, which come in very handy if you’re trying to escape someone during a clifftop chase. Just jump off the side and hope you don’t die, then leg it while they float down slowly like Mary Poppins.

Real-world gunpowder was originally called “black powder”, and is a mixture of three different chemicals – sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter. It dates all the way back to the 9th century when it was invented by Chinese alchemists searching for an elixir that would make the drinker immortal. It didn’t make anyone immortal, but it was highly flammable, so they called it 火药, or "fire medicine".

The most useful quality of gunpowder is that when it’s burnt it creates a lot of gases very quickly. These gases take up a lot more space than the gunpowder they came from, so they push outward, building up huge pressure. In fireworks, this pressure is pointed downward so that the rocket shoots up into the air. In guns and cannons, the pressure pushes the bullet or cannonball out of the barrel at high speeds.

Today, gunpowder is no longer widely used in weapons or explosives because we’ve developed more effective alternatives. It’s not as efficient as dynamite, nitrocellulose, or industrial explosives like ANFO. It’s still used in fireworks, so it’s still in Minecraft, but maybe not for much longer – Disneyland is trying out fireworks launched with compressed air, which creates less smoke and is capable of far more accurate timing.

But we’re keeping gunpowder in Minecraft, because otherwise there’d be no use for creepers any more and they’d go extinct. On second thoughts, maybe that wouldn’t be so terrible after all?

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere