Before the Old Man allowed me to even pick up a rifle he required me to memorize the National Rifle Association’s Ten Commandments of Safety. The tenth was “Do not mix gunpowder and alcohol.” Being eight years old it was meaningless to me but as I grew to maturity I found that there was more to it than a simple exhortation to not drink when shooting, much like the pilots’ rule of eight hours from bottle to throttle.
It seems that the term proof for alcohol came about during the Tudor dynasty in 16th Century England. Black powder had been around for a few hundred years but about this time manufactures began wet mixing it. The addition of distilled spirits to the three ingredients, sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate, or ‘villainous saltpeter’ in the words of Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part One, created a paste. Once dried the paste could ‘corned,’ easily broken down into uniform size pieces.
‘Corned’ gunpowder was more efficient than its predecessor, dry mixed ‘Serpentine’ powder. ‘Serpentine’ was mechanically milled and mixed which gave it the consistency of flour allowing its components to easily separate when the barrels were jarred while being transported over rough roads in unsprung wagons. This often required it to be remixed before use. Not so with ‘corned’ powder.
The Tudor Dynasty was not a peaceable period of English history. Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, only became king after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. The Tudors also dealt with civil unrest: the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Prayer Book Rebellion, Kett’s Rebellion, Wyatt’s Rebellion, and the Rising of the North. Add to that the cost of building coastal defenses, creating the Royal Navy, and too many vainglorious continental wars which won them neither power nor territory. The only byproduct of this profligate spending was staggering debt, especially during the reign of Henry VIII.
Henry was not willing to give up his extravagant life style. And there was also the matter of his six wives but he was lucky for he ruled in the days before alimony and so they were dispatched, in order, by being divorced, beheaded, death by natural causes, divorced, beheaded, until survived by Catherine Parr. She was his third wife named Catherine and so the third time was indeed the charm. With the Royal Treasury running low what else was Henry to do? So he took control of the Church of England confiscating the property of the Church of Rome and raised taxes.
It is with Henry’s taxation that mixing alcohol and gunpowder come together with the creation of the proof system, so called so called because it would “prove” the alcohol content of distilled spirits. Liquors were taxed according to their alcohol content and the test involved soaking a ‘corn’ of gunpowder with the liquor. If it the gunpowder burned with a steady blue flame it was proof, if it burned quickly it was over proof and if it did not burn it was under proof. This determined its tax rate.
It was not a very accurate measure of alcohol content as the flammability of alcohol is dependent on its temperature but, without a thermometer or hydrometer-devices centuries in the future, it was the best Tudor tax collectors could do. But Henry, an accomplished musician and composer, didn’t care much about accuracy as long as he heard the musical chime of pence, groats, and shillings striking each other as they cascaded into the coffers of the royal treasury.
But proof has yet another definition involving gunpowder and firearms. A proof test is a stress test to determine if a firearm is safe with a given load. They are performed during the development of the firearm and then on each production model to ensure the safety of the user.
Proofing was codified in England by the Gun Barrel Proof Act of 1868 and Germany adopted a similar plan in 1891. By 1914 the European nations formed the Commission Internationale Permanente pour l’Epreuve des Armes à Feu Portatives, the Permanent International Commission for Firearms Testing, commonly known as CIP. The United States followed suit in 1926 with the establishment of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI).
The testing procedure has evolved over the years. At first an excessive charge was used and then the firearm examined for damage. By most standards it was primitive. The Copper Unit of Pressure (CUP) or Lead Unit of Pressure (LUP), was a more sophisticated method of determining the chamber pressure. A hole drilled in the chamber was fitted with a piston and a precisely made lead or copper slug was placed on top and held in place by a fixture. When the cartridge was fired, the amount the slug was crushed allowed engineers to determine the pressure. Today, electric transducers provide the most accurate measurement of chamber pressure.
Once a firearm is passed, a proof mark is punched into its receiver, frame, barrel, and/or slide. Anyone who owns a firearm manufactured by Anschütz, Heckler & Koch, SIG Sauer, Walther, or any other German firearms factory can’t help but notice the Teutonic obsession for proof marks for their runes are scattered all over the firearm. Shooters find them reassuring for safety and collectors find them useful in determining the age and origin of a firearm.
The Tudors loved their food and, as the head of the Tudor household, King Henry VIII spared no expense in the kitchen. Actually, he spared no expense at anything which is the reason he ran up so much debt and started to tax spirits. That begs the question, why, when proofing was developed in the reign of one of the greatest of royal gastronomes , is the old expression ‘the proof is in the pudding and not ‘the proof is in the gunpowder?’