The Invention of Smokeless Gunpowder

Posted in: History

Smokeless gunpowder has been around since the late 19th century. Engineered to replace black powder, the term ‘smokeless’ is in reference to the amount of residue left in a gun’s barrel. The following is an overview of what smokeless gunpowder is, how it was invented, and why it’s advantageous to use.

Composition and Manufacturing

Smokeless propellants contain many compounds and come in one of three classes based on their chemical composition.

  • Single-base – A single-base powder contains nitrocellulose.

  • Double-base – A double-base powder contains nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine.

  • Triple-base – A triple-base powder contains both of the above components along with nitroguanidine. Triple-base powders are most often used in large caliber munitions, and are not easy to acquire.

Additional compounds include:

  • Stabilizers, which prevent other components from decomposing

  • Flash suppressants, which help stop the secondary flash

  • Energetics, which aid in the explosion

  • Plasticizers, which reduce the need for volatile solvents

  • Deterrents, which reduce the initial burning rate, flame temperature, and ignitability

  • Opacifiers, which keep radiant heat from penetrating the surface

  • Dyes, which help identify smokeless gunpowder

A History of Smokeless Gunpowder

The first smokeless gunpowders were created in Europe in 1846. The result of an accident, Swiss scientist Christian Schonbein spilled a chemistry experiment in his home kitchen (while the wife was away), and wiped it up with her cotton apron. Hanging it over the stove to dry, the apron ignited and left behind almost no ash. This was the first accidental creation of nitrocellulose. After this experience, he was able to reproduce this compound with the aid of a colleague. This reproduction resulted in an explosive material, guncotton, which provided less heat and smoke than conventional gunpowder. Although progressive, this first attempt at gunpowder lacked the stability shown by later attempts.

In 1884, French chemist Paul Vielle improved on guncotton by treating it with alcohol and ether. This material could be gelatinized and flaked, then stabilized with diphenylamine. Named Poudre B, this secret formula was guarded by the French government. This was the creation of the first single-base smokeless gunpowder. The Lebel Model 1886 rifle was the first to use this new formula.

In 1888, Alfred Nobel added nitroglycerine to the compound to create the first double-base powder, which provided smokeless gunpowder with a greater range than Poudre B. This new compound was dubbed “ballistite”, and patented in the U.S. in 1891. The German Navy began using ballistite in 1898, and it was later adopted by the Italians and the Russians. Several additional permutations were formulated by adding various types of propellants, eventually resulting in Cordite, which could be made into any shape or size, and had a reduced combustion temperature resulting in less erosion and barrel wear. Cordite’s success went on to spur a court battle between inventors, Nobel (of the Nobel Prize), Maxim, and others.

Why Is Smokeless Powder Advantageous?

Smokeless gunpowder has many advantages over black powder. First and foremost, the main advantage lies in the lack of need for incombustible materials to be included. Black powder produces a cloud of smoke on account of the addition of non-combusted carbon and cations produced from the nitrates included. Black powder also produces a good amount of ash on account of the inorganic saltpeter, which makes up approximately two-thirds of the total weight.

Smokeless powders are highly popular in the United States, and approximately 10 million pounds of commercial powders are produced every year. Most are sold to original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or military entities, and the rest are sold to smaller stores or individuals. Aside from providing a low-residue explosive, this compound also saves manufacturers money and reduces pollution, as surplus or obsolete powder can be returned to the manufacturer and reused. From a long and interesting history, smokeless powder has found its way into use as one of today’s popular propellants.

Disclaimer: Always check with your state and local laws for restrictions before ordering ammunition, and make sure you use the correct ammunition for your specific firearm.

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