Whether you use the good old Imperial system, what I like to refer to as “moon landing units,” or the metric system that the rest of the world seems enslaved to, there’s no arguing that there are some truly peculiar units of measurement out there.
One of the most peculiar, naturally, belongs to my beloved imperial system in the form of the grain.
A grain is a truly tiny unit of measure, often used for equally tiny things or objects that don’t weigh much in the first place. Neat trivia, sure, but let’s make it a little more practical. Just how many grains are in a pound?
There are 7,000 grains in a pound. Despite being quite archaic or only used in specialist contexts today, the grain as a unit of measure was instrumental in the development of following imperial measurements.
Interesting stuff! Believe it or not, though grain is not a unit of measure you’re likely to run into today unless you are an archer, shooter, or jeweler, it still has practical applications in everyday life.
If you need to measure tiny volumes or tiny things, or just need maximum precision for any kind of recipe or formula, grains are what you want to use assuming you aren’t using the metric system. Keep reading and I’ll tell you a lot more about it…
Does a Grain Weigh as Much as an Actual Grain?
Yes and no. The first thing you need to know about a grain is that it was, in fact, originally based on a single seed taken from cereal grains, typically wheat, and barley.
So, considering how small and how light those seeds are individually it’s easy to see where we got the measurement from.
The problem is that actual grains all have a different weight depending on the species they come from, their phase of development, their overall health, humidity and moisture levels, and a whole lot more.
Said plainly, the weight of an individual, grain seed is indeed highly variable but grains, the unit of measure, is of course fixed and precise.
Where Did the Measurement of “Grain” Come From?
As best we can tell, grain as a unit of measure has been used since antiquity. In the West, it has been in use in Britain since at least the 8th century AD.
Back then, it was, as the name suggests, used specifically to measure the weight of cereal grains and items of corresponding value that were traded for them.
With time, it became a standard unit of measure (though one that changed over and over again through the years) and influenced all following measures- gram, ounce, pound, etc. – that became the Imperial standards we know and use today.
But back then, owing to the lack of precision in scales, measures and accurate weights for verification “grain” was still something of a convention or rule of thumb rather than an absolute standard unit of measurement.
That isn’t the case in our era, though, and since at least 1824 a grain has been solidly codified as weighing 1/7000th of a pound.
Although there are many other and arguably more useful units of measure that have replaced it over the years in modernity, like the ounce and gram, grains still remain in common usage in certain specific contexts or for dealing with certain industries.
What Kinds of Things are Measured in Grains?
Today, things that are commonly measured in grains are those that are extremely light, very small, or of exceeding value.
For instance, as mentioned above, grains are used for both bullets and powder charges used in the production of ammunition.
Even though it seems archaic considering that even the slightest change in either variable can dramatically impact the accuracy and performance of a given firearm, this makes sense.
Another projectile that’s commonly measured in grains owing to minute changes impacting ballistics is the common arrow, or bolt fired from a crossbow. Typically, grains are used to measure the weight of an arrow shaft, by itself, and also a complete arrow assembled with fletching and point.
Once again, something that is reasonably more familiar to everyday usage, the gram, is far too heavy for the delicateness and precision required of the task.
Lastly, grains are commonly used to measure valuable metals and stones but in the form of carats. The story of the carat is another one entirely, but all you need to know is that today a carat equals four grains, or 1/1,500th of a pound.
You’ll routinely see pearls and diamonds with a quoted weight that is measured in carats, while the fineness of gold is likewise measured in carats by another calculation.
Suffice it to say, the grain is still going strong!
Are Grain Measurements Useful in Everyday Life?
Yes, they are, but it really does depend on what you are doing. If you are working with any of the above materials or applications, it is in your best interest to become intimately acquainted with grains as a unit of measure.
If you’re making any kind of pyrotechnics, fireworks or similar things measuring a propellant charge in grains is imperative for safety and consistent performance.
Doing it by eyeball or something that is relatively large and also inaccurate like a teaspoon measure is just not going to cut it!
It’s also obviously important for shooters who need to pick out the right kind of ammunition for best performance in their firearms; even tiny changes in bullet weight affect the ballistic trajectory, and certain kinds of barrels perform best with bullets of a certain weight.
You can also weigh a large quantity of powder or lead for casting projectiles and then divide it by the desired weight of both to make a complete unit of ammunition and figure out how much ammo you can make from your resources on hand.
Likewise, archers and arbalests that are trying to fine-tune their shot need to understand grains as a unit of measure for choosing all of their arrow and bolt components.
Lastly, anyone who is a jeweler or just dealing with precious metals and stones is well served by grains because they are so much more precise than anything else, even grams. The tiniest fraction of gold is valuable, and should be treated accordingly!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.