Isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) has recently made its appearance in the forensic community. This high-precision technology has already been applied to a broad range of forensic fields such as illicit drugs, explosives and flammable liquids, where current, routinely used techniques have limited powers of discrimination. The conclusions drawn from the majority of these IRMS studies appear to be very promising. Used in a comparative process, as in food or drug authentication, the measurement of stable isotope ratios is a new and remarkable analytical tool for the discrimination or the identification of a substance with a definite source or origin. However, the research consists mostly of preliminary studies. The significance of this ‘new’ piece of information needs to be evaluated in light of a forensic framework to assess the actual potential and validity of IRMS, considering the characteristics of each field. Through the isotopic study of black powder, this paper aims at illustrating the potential of the method and the limitations of current knowledge in stable isotopes when facing forensic problems. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.