The Necessity of Powder

By April 1775, rebellion was in the air. Of the 2.5 million citizens living in the Thirteen Colonies, ~70% wanted independence. When the British Army set forth from Boston to seize arms owned by the Minutemen, almost everything was in place for a war for independence. The citizens had the political will and motivation. Militia units were being trained in every colony. There were enough arms – smoothbore and rifled muskets and pistols – in the colonies to fight.

Men were willing to lead the rebellion and risk their lives for freedom from Britain. Their feelings were epitomized by Patrick Henry’s ended his speech where he was a delegate to the Second Virginia Convention on March 20th 1775 when he said, “Almighty God, I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

However, the rebels lacked one critical material absolutely necessary to waging war. Shortages of this material would plague the Continental Army and Navy throughout the entire revolution. That one item was gunpowder.

When the revolution broke out, there was only one “large” gunpowder mill in the U.S. that could provide quality gunpowder in any quantity. Located in Frankford, Pennsylvania, the mill could produce only a fraction of what was needed.

On June 17th, 1775, the shortage of gunpowder forced the Continental Army to pull back after giving the British Army a very, very bloody nose at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Most of the fighting took place on Breed’s Hill and when it was over, three British Army charges left 226 British Army soldiers dead and another 828 wounded versus less than 450 Continental casualties. Had the Continentals had more powder, the British Army would not been able to push the Continentals off Breeds hill.

In early 1775, the Continental Army had 80,000 pounds (40 tons) of gunpowder on hand. By the end of the year, it had almost none. During the year, the Continental Congress desperately sought sources and authorized the purchase of 500 tons.

Early in the war, the Continental Congress set up a clandestine operation on the island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean. Its primary purpose was to buy and transport gunpowder from France and the Netherlands to Washington’s army. Without this operation, the Continental Army would have been unable to fight. For more on this story, see April 20, 2020 post – A Shell Company Provides Arms to the American Revolution –

The Continental Army had three sources of powder, the French, the Dutch, and what was captured from the British. Most – about 400 tons – of the powder used by the Continental Army during the war came from France. Despite the shipments, powder shortages plagued both the Continental Army and Navy throughout the revolution.

What is odd is that during the 1750s and the Seven Years War, there were plenty of gunpowder mills in the Thirteen Colonies. However, making it North America was expensive so the mills were shut down because it was cheaper to import it from England! There is a lesson here that we are re-learning today. Instead of gunpowder, it is chips and rare earth metals.

Image is grains of black powder for muzzle-loading firearms. Photo taken by Lord Mountbatten.


  1. Marta Black on February 9, 2023 at 9:28 pm

    I’ve read a lot about the Revolution, but had never read of the gunpowder shortage, or how the French and Dutch helped, let alone about the company in St. Eustatius… there is always more to know! Thanks.

    • Marc Liebman on February 12, 2023 at 12:05 pm

      Thanx for your note. So here’s a bit more detail. Initially, Washington’s staff repeatedly underestimated the amount of powder and shot it would need to fight. To his credit, he also knew that the Continental Congress was running the war on the proverbial shoestring. The Continental Dollar and the individual colony dollars weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. The only viable currencies were the English pound, the French livre, the Dutch guilder and the Spanish silver Dollar. Hence Washington was reluctant to ask for more than he thought he absolutely needed. There are two lessons from this story. One is that which is mentioned at the end which is don’t become dependent on foreign suppliers for critical items needed for national defense. Second one is that members of the military often underestimate the munition consumption rates of the next war. This is further compounded by democratic organizations, U.S. Congress, British Parliament, French Chamber of Deputies, and many more, reluctance to use tax payer dollars to produce, store and update large stocks of munitions.

      What the U.S. and its NATO allies along with those in the Pacific Rim are facing today is the bill for recapitalizing their militaries. The tab is for all of us enornmous but we have no choice. AS they say, freedom is not free and the price is paid in blood and treasure.

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