Mythbusting the Mythbusting of Capt. Kirk and His Handmade Diamond Cannon

By Eric Wolff | June 28, 2010 12:28 am

Alas, Capt. Kirk’s muzzle-loading bamboo gun would more likely have killed Kirk himself then the Gorn attacking him—or at least, so said the Mythbusters a while back. For those who haven’t seen arguably the best episode of Star Trek TOS (Arena), the plot is as follows: An alien race wants to test humanity by pitting Kirk against another alien, called a Gorn, in a fight to the death. The Gorn is bigger and stronger, but Kirk wins the day by finding and mixing together saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal into black powder, loading them into a bamboo tube, and, using diamonds as ammunition, shooting and killing the Gorn.

The Mythbusters set about testing the theory and found that it didn’t work. They handmade some half-decent gunpowder, but it didn’t have enough force to fire anything, and if it had, the bamboo tube couldn’t contain the explosion. The Mythbusters discovered the exploding bamboo  would have been more likely to kill Kirk then the gorn.

But it’s possible the Mythbusters didn’t use optimal ingredients in their low-energy gunpowder.

Like, maybe they used bad charcoal. Ulrich Bretscher is a retired Swiss chemist who turned his discipline and training to the art of homemade black powder, and he says the charcoal is the key element in determining the effectiveness of the gunpowder.

According to Bretscher, Kirk’s recipe was about right: Sulfur has the effect of lowering the ignition temperature by 130 degrees, which, since Kirk was lighting his gun with a spark from a stone, would have been important; and saltpeter acts as a catalyst for the flame, allowing it to burn hotter and more easily.

But the crucial ingredient for releasing the most energy from homemade gunpowder is  charcoal. Bretscher found that charcoal could be made effectively by heating wood under a sealed lid to a temperature of 400 degrees until the wood is thoroughly blackened. He yields 19 percent charcoal by weight, but a more effective technique could get that yield up to 60 percent. But he also found that the type of wood used for the charcoal was crucial. His measurements showed that the highest energy could be extracted from charcoal made from willow and balsa wood —- more energy than some commercial black powder he tested. The making of charcoal was so important, it was the most closely guarded secret of gunpowder makers.

So it seems to me that maybe Kirk found some really great charcoal, better than whatever they used in Mythbusters. Assuming he knew the optimal proportions (which he did, of course–he’s Kirk), he could have mixed up a pretty snappy batch of powder, and the diamond ammunition probably worked well enough. That left the problem of bamboo. Well, maybe it was alien bamboo. Superstrong alien bamboo. That must be it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Chemistry, TV

Comments (1)

  1. Jim

    Slight nitpick, not related to the science of the situation: Kirk didn’t *kill* the Gorn. He incapacitated it, but refused to kill it, showing mercy and thereby winning the admiration of the Metrones (the alien race making him fight). Also, the Metrones weren’t trying to “test humanity” as you claim–they saw the Enterprise chasing the Gorn’s ship and, being a highly advanced and thus “peace-loving” race, they decided to resolve the conflict by having the two captains battle it out.
    Sorry to be annoying :)
    Other than that, I loved this post.

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