Smokeless powder is a type of gunpowder that doesn’t produce smoke when it burns. It is also known as an explosive because it can produce a rapid and sudden release of energy when it burns. Smokeless powder has been used in weapons for about 100 years, and was discovered in the late 1800s.
Smokeless powder is made from nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin and has been modified to have a much faster burn rate than ordinary gunpowder. It is the most popular reloading powder, and ammo component in the United States and in the world because of its great strength. It is less smoky than older types of propellants because it burns more completely when ignited.
Gunpowder itself was actually first used in China, where records indicate that it was invented by Chinese alchemists sometime between the 9th and 13th centuries A.D.
Let’s learn more about smokeless powder.
Smokeless powder can be used in smaller quantities, which results in the same effect as using larger amounts of the older propellant. The main advantage of this is that it is much easier to control the power of the gunpowder, and this can make it much safer to use.
This type of propellant is commonly used in handgun and rifle ammunition, although it hasn’t completely replaced old gunpowder. It is also used in other items like fireworks and in firecrackers. It’s most popular use is as a propellant for bullets that are shot from a variety of cartridge weapons such as rifles and handguns.
The timeline of events that led to the discovery of smokeless powder is shown below:
• In 1847, Christian Schonbein discovered that when he put potassium chlorate and sugar together they would react. He published his findings in 1849.
• In 1854, Frederick Augustus Abel (the younger) obtained Schonbein’s work and improved upon it. It wasn’t until 1863 that Abel wrote a complete paper on his study of the reactions of potassium chlorate, sugar, and charcoal. He named the product “guncotton.”
• In 1860, Paul Vieille developed smokeless powder that wouldn’t damage guns when it was fired. It was able to be stored safely and ignited more easily than other gunpowders of the time.
How smokeless powder works
Smokeless powder contains nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose, and is a dry, flaky material. Here’s how it works: when the propellant ignites, it explodes violently and produces combustion gases under extremely high pressure. The gases push on the bullet in the cartridge case. Pressure generated by this explosion usually gives the bullet a velocity of about 2,000 feet per second (610 meters per second). This is fast enough to cause severe damage to living tissue or organs.
The speed of an object is related to its momentum and its mass: for an object with a given mass (m) moving at a given speed (v), the momentum p = mv.
How to manufacture smokeless powder
Smokeless powder is formed from nitroglycerin powder, which is mixed with binder plastic pellets called cellulose nitrate. After this mixture is molded into bricks and placed in a press, it’s formed into pellets and packed in a cartridge case. The force needed to press smokeless powder forces the compressed gas out of the cartridge case and forms a bullet.
Nitroglycerin can’t be stored without becoming unstable because it breaks down quickly. Putting smokeless powder into pistol cases can prevent this from happening and keeps it safe until it’s needed.
Smokeless powders today are made by mixing different nitrocellulose powders with water in large tanks.
Smokeless powder burn rate chart
The burn rate of smokeless powder depends on the speed at which the burning gas travels and the pressure. When explosives are confined in a small chamber they burn quickly. This is why high pressures such as used in cartridge guns are so effective. The differences of these three types of smokeless powder for reloading firearm ammunition are:
• Slow burning powders. This type is made to burn slowly so that it produces less smoke and waste.
• Regular burning powders. They burn quickly, but this also causes more smoke when they’re being used in cartridges, and they can be more dangerous to handle as well. This is generally considered the value type of powder with a lower price of granules per pound.
• Very fast burning powders – These are the ones that create the most gas pressure when they burn, and are by far the most deadly to use in ammunition.
High speed powder develops a lot of gases when they burn, so large amounts of smoke and flame are produced. These powders are also very sensitive to shock and friction, so they can be easily damaged when handling, shipping, or storing them.
How many grains in a pound of smokeless powder?
Since the actual weight of a pound of smokeless powder will vary based on the manufacturer, the number of grains is generally indicated by the last digit in the weight. For example, H-4350 might be 2-2-1 or 2-28. Some manufacturers don’t even break out this information, and simply list it as 1000. Generally 1000 means a specific powder type and is not an indication of how many grains make up a pound of that powder.
Reloading ammo with smokeless powder
When you reload your cartridges with primers and smokeless powder, you need to take the following steps:
Smokeless powder is trickier than black powder because it needs to be chemically treated correctly in order for it to work.
Cleaning your brass and plastic cases is just as important as cleaning your gun. Wipe down the inside of your components with a solvent that isn’t too strong, like acetone or hydrogen peroxide. You clean the inside of the case so that when you fire a round using smokeless powder, there’s no dirt left behind inside.
When you load with your own components, primers and supplies, the powder has to be carefully measured out in small amounts and placed into a cartridge case. An adequate amount of powder has to be used so that the projectile can travel down the barrel and exit with enough force. If too little powder is used, it’s possible for the cartridge to simply slide into place without igniting any of the propellant, or it could ignite only partially and the primers will not produce enough force to shoot the bullet into the air.
If too much powder is used, this could cause too much pressure to build up in the case while it’s still within the chamber of a gun.
Safety concerns surrounding the use of smokeless powder
• Explosions. When smokeless powder is compressed, it can explode prematurely. This is why cartridges have to be stored in a dry place, and need to be preheated before they’re loaded into the chamber so that they can fire correctly.
• Some brands of smokeless propellants are flammable, and this causes fires if anyone is smoking around them.
• Smokeless powders are sometimes made using heavy metals such as antimony and lead. These metals can cause health problems if they get into the water systems that people drink from daily. When bullets decompose in the ground, a type of heavy metal component is produced which can leach into the soil and pollute groundwater as well.
• Smokeless powder products can be unstable – They self-combust without warning. This is why they should be used in accordance with the manufacturer’s safety information.
The most popular gunpowder manufacturers
• Hercules Powder Company. It’s 163 year old, and the largest manufacturer of smokeless powders in the world. They produce a lot of military components and propellants for missiles like the Tomahawk.
• Olin Corporation: This company has produced smokeless powders for over 100 years. They manufacture firearms propellants used in shotgun shells, bullets, and primer mixes that go into many brands of ammunition used in rifles and handguns. They make other industrial products such as coatings, antiperspirants and cosmetics.
• DuPont. In 1802, Eleuthère Irénée du Pont developed a smokeless powder. He formed his business in 1802 that is now considered to be the world’s largest manufacturer of smokeless powders. They also make chemicals and nuclear fuel as well as explosives.
The most popular smokeless powder brands
• Accurate Arms: This is one of the oldest smokeless powder companies in the US. They’ve been in business for over 50 years, and supply powder to many other companies around the world.
• Hodgdon Powder: They produce high quality smokeless powders for rifles and pistols. Hodgdon Powders brands are popular all over the world, and are used by competitors in Olympic events. Since 1866, they have been operating their facilities in Belgium.
• IMR Powder Company: This powder manufacturer was first founded in 1951 to produce powders for military purposes, but now they sell their powders to sporting markets as well as industrial markets all over the world.
• DuPont: Although all their powders are designed for military and industrial use, they do have high quality smokeless propellants available for reloading as well. They sell to the public directly, as well as through retail stores and online.
• Ramshot: They specialize in shotgun powder, but also produce high quality rifle powder as well. Many hunters use Ramshot powder in their ammunition, and the powder is sold to companies around the world.
• Nobel Sport: Is a small brand based in Colorado, and is a market leader in making reloading equipment. They have specialized equipment for shotgun and rifle powders, and offer reloading kits. They also sell quality shotgun shells made with their powder.
• Winchester: Their smokeless powder is used by many ammunition manufacturers worldwide, and they’ve also designed bullets for military applications. These powders were developed in 1806, and are still produced today.
• Alliant: founded in 1912 to produce smokeless powder for competition shooters, they developed their powder for shooting sports, they also sell many of them for industrial applications as well.
• Cor-Bon: is renowned for their high quality ammunition, and their smokeless powders are also a popular choice among reloaders.
• H&H: this gun powder brand produces very high quality shotgun powder, as well as plinking powders and smokeless powder for the sporting market. These powders are designed to be safe to handle at high temperatures when they’re being used by themselves in the rifle, or after they’ve been heated in a cartridge case during reloading. They sell a wide range of their products directly to the public, as well as through retail stores and online retailers.
• Vihtavuori Powder Company: is the largest manufacturer in Finland of military and industrial powders, non-corrosive powders, propellants and specialty chemicals. It has a large production facility with several production lines which produce powders for 7mm, 8mm and 9mm long rifle ammunition.
• Maxam Powder: is a small company in the US that manufactures powders for their hunting market. They offer reloading data for over 30 cartridges, and sell their products through some retailers as well as online.
• Hornady: they specialize in shotgun powders, but they also make high quality handgun powder. Most of these are designed for rifle calibers, which shooters use to reload cartridges at home.
Where to buy bulk smokeless powder online for a low price
When searching for bulk reloading components and smokeless powder online, it’s important to know who you’re buying from. There are many smokeless powder companies in the US that buy from commercial brands and offer bulk powders for sale on their web page. The problem is that manufacturers should be making a profit when they’re selling bulk reloading powder online from popular brands, and the profit margin has to be high enough to stay in business, which is tough to do with the recent increasing cost of powder granules.
The future of Smokeless Powder
How smokeless powder will continue to be used in the future.
• It will continue to be used to load many different guns and rifles, just as it does now.
• More cost efficient smokeless powders will be discovered. This means that the amount of powder that is needed to produce a bullet for cartridges will be lessened, and this will make cartridges cheaper to buy.
There’s also been talk of using different propulsion methods with smokeless powder in order to reduce the carbon footprint of the bullets that are being produced.
The next big question is: how long can we expect smokeless powder to remain in use? It’s difficult to say because there are so many different military applications for it, and it’s still an important part of military shows and demonstrations throughout the world.