Smokeless Powder: A History And Evolution

Gunpowder has come a long way since its inception. It truly drove the advancement of firearms and artillery over the course of many centuries, shaping the path of warfare. That progression continues to this day. Today we’re looking back at the history of gunpowder and its evolution to modern smokeless powder.

First, there was gunpowder.

Gunpowder was first used in warfare around 1350 and is the oldest known explosive, being invented in China.

ink drawing of chinese soldier lighting a fire arrow
The Fire Arrow was one of the rudimentary, early implements that used gunpowder. Photo courtesy of COVE.

Its basic components were, and still basically are, 75% potassium-nitrate, 13% carbon, and 12% sulfur. The components are pulverized and mixed thoroughly. Generally, the early version of gun powder was known as “Black Powder.” Black Powder is not very stable, being a volatile substance.

Commonly found in gardening stores, sulfur is used to lower the temperature to increase the rate of combustion, and also to act as a fuel to burn.

The carbon or charcoal in the mixture adds fuel that burns quickly.

Potassium Nitrate (also known as Saltpeter), can be found in bat guano. However, it is commercially manufactured these days. It introduces oxygen to allow the carbon to burn hot and quickly.

It was discovered over the years that its rate of burning and explosion could be controlled by caking the powder into grains and pellets. This proved useful for development in firearms.

Disadvantages of Black Powder

Black powder produces a lot of smoke. On the battlefield, that’s not good because it pinpoints the shooter’s location to the enemy very efficiently.

Beyond that, when a couple hundred (or thousand) black powder weapons are firing during a battle, the battlefield quickly becomes filled with that smoke, which hangs like a fog. The opposing armies could not see their foe through the fog and had to close the distance in order to effectively engage.

Black powder is also more corrosive to firearms, necessitating the need to clean them thoroughly and soon after firing. It also causes more fouling because it burns dirtier.

Going Smokeless

German chemist Christian Friedrich Schonbein first developed smokeless powder in 1846. He developed nitrocellulose, which was called guncotton because it was initially made from cotton.

The next boon was invented by Italian chemist Ascanio Sobrero in 1847: Nitroglycerin. It was extremely unstable and was used as an explosive. Eventually, it could be made more stable and used in nitrocellulose, being used in propellants such as cordite and ballistite.

French inventor Paul Vieille developed the first commercial smokeless powder in 1884. This smokeless powder was referred to as Poudre Blanche, and was used in the French 8mm Lebel rifle. This development forced other European countries to come up with their own advancements in propellants.

In 1891, Alfred Nobel (the Nobel Prize was named after him) created Ballistite by combining Nitrocellulose and Nitroglycerin. The Italian military replaced all of their black powder firearms with this new smokeless Ballistite powder.

Also in 1891, Britain was at the powder game, inventing a brand of their own. It was called Cordite, which had a low explosive quality and a slow burn rate. This propellant was used up into the late 1940’s and looked like uncooked strands of dried spaghetti.

cordite in .303 British round
An example of Cordite. The .303 British rounds used in WWII Enfields made use of this type of powder extensively. (Photo: Encyclopedia Britannica)

Advantages Of Smokeless

Smokeless powder generates much less smoke (there is still a little smoke, so the name is a somewhat misleading). The shooter’s position is not given away as easily as with black powder, and there isn’t as much smoke to obscure the shooter’s vision either.

a pile of gunpowder
Gunpowder! Without it, we can’t shoot our guns. Manufacturing techniques have come a very long way. (Photo: Unsplash)

Weapons can operate better and longer using smokeless powders. Unlike with black powder, there is much less corrosion to the firearm and fouling of the action.

One of the more profound advantages is that smokeless powder’s gases expand more rapidly, creating higher pressures that result in higher bullet velocities. The wounding potential is drastically increased as a bullet surpasses 2,000 feet per second. So, lighter bullets with a smaller diameter can be fired, which have equal or superior wounding potential to larger, slower projectiles. The range of the projectile is also increased when smaller, faster bullets are fired. Plus the trajectory of the bullet will be flatter, thus increasing the range at which shooters can accurately hit targets.

As well, projectiles that are traveling faster have less time to be affected by the wind, so there’s a good chance that they will perform better than heavy, slow projectiles.

Rifles and Projectiles

These developments in propellants also led to further developments in bullets and rifles.

When pointed spitzer bullets came on the scene, they were far more aerodynamically efficient than their round-nosed progeny. Higher speeds offered better range and accuracy, not to mention the wound potential that we discussed earlier.

Rifles such as the Lee-Metford bolt action, generally based on the Mauser action, were chambered in .303. Mauser, of course, introduced its own box-magazine-fed rifle in 1889 chambered in 8mm Mauser. The Austrians adopted a straight-pull Steyr Mannlicher 8mm. The US adopted a Krag design in 1892. Russia developed the Mosin Nagant. Italy had their 6.5mm Carano. And then there was the king of them all, the Mauser 98 introduced in 1898.

Things were really going by leaps and bounds at this point, and it was largely due to the advances in powder propellants.

Smokeless Powder in Modern Times

These days, smokeless powder can be had in a few different shapes. Extruded, ball, and flake powders are on the market. The reason for the shapes is that the burn rate and energy varies with each. Additionally, powder manufacturers mix different powders to achieve specific qualities that can affect such things as the velocity of the bullet and other factors.

smokeless powder pellets in rifle cartridge casing
This is how many powders appear nowadays. (Photo courtesy of NRA Women)

Various Types of Powder And Terms

Here are a few different industry terms that it helps to be knowledgeable on.

Single Base Powder

Single base smokeless powder is made from one source of propellant, which happens to be nitrocellulose. Examples that come to mind are Poudre Blanche or guncotton.

Double Base Powder

This one is, obviously, made from two propellant sources: nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. Examples of double base powders are Cordite and Ballistite.

Triple Base Powder

As readers might guess, this smokeless powder is made from three propellant sources: nitroglycerin, nitroguanidine, and nitrocellulose. The advantage of triple base powder is that it burns consistently at a lower temperature, which helps in reducing barrel wear. Another advantage of this powder is that it exhibits less muzzle flash, so it has military advantages.

Powder Shape

Modern powders come in three basic shapes: extruded, ball, and flake.

Ball powder is round, easy to measure, and cheap to make. It can be made as a slow-burning or fast-burning powder.

Flake powders are flattened granules that are fast-burning. They’re typically used in low-pressure handgun and rifle rounds, as well as shotgun rounds.

Extruded powder burns more slowly and is shaped cylindrically, sometimes referred to as logs.

Grains of Powder

Grains are a weight of measurement for powder, with 437.5 grains comprising one ounce. The term “grains” refers to the weight, as opposed to the number of granules.

Other Artillery

Although many of us focus mainly on small arms when we discuss powder development, it also affected artillery, both naval and land-based. Essentially, we can look at artillery as really large rifles (and smooth bores).

As propellants advanced, so did the range and effectiveness of the big guns and their projectiles! Projectiles that were once solid metal began to be filled with various explosive charges, which added a whole new dimension to warfare.

stoneware bombs recovered from shipwreck dating back to the Mongol Invasion
Stoneware Bombs recovered from a shipwreck from the Mongol Invasion were an early form of hand grenade. (Photo: Wikipedia)

As well, grenades (hand artillery) also progressed through the ages. Stoneware bombs from Japan have been dated from 1274 to 1281 AD.

Also, although they’re not artillery or a firearm per se, fireworks are still made using black powder.

Parting Shots

Today’s firearms employ a far more efficient form of gunpowder than they did even 100 years ago. It started out smoky and filthy and has advanced to smokeless, with far less fouling. I, for one, think that’s great!

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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