Smokeless Powder

When we think about great inventions of the modern day, the personal computer, the internet, and Google’s search engine all come to mind.

In the mid 1800’s when warfare and arms technology were evolving at a similar rapid pace, Smokeless Gunpowder was an invention that revolutionized the operation and effectiveness of firearms, and as names like Gates, Jobs, and Ellison would become synonymous with the computer age, so would the names Nobel, Maxim, and Colt do likewise in arms and explosives.

Black Powder was the world’s explosive and gun propellant for over a thousand years.  It was made by mixing charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate which was often mined from remote islands with large bird populations, or from caves inhabited by bats; their droppings were rich in the substance.      

Little change was made to black powder’s concoction until the demands of war and the ingenuity of man conspired. 

Black Powder was plagued by a myriad of problems manifest in battle.  It’s use would quickly obscure the field with thick smoke making it difficult for officers to direct soldiers.  It would not burn if it became wet.  Snipers would give away their positions when firing, making follow up shots hazardous. 

Hunters found that birds would evade their shots when a small puff of smoke from the pan warned of their impending doom.  There was significant time delay from the time that smoke emanated from the pan and the time the shot actually left the bore.  This time delay allowed birds to take flight before a shot was fired.  Not only was this an impetus to do something about black powder’s drawbacks, it also prompted development of shock-sensitive explosives which would detonate immediately, and when combined with smokeless powder would lead to mass production of the revolutionary self contained cartridge.

Guncotton (nitrocellulose), the precursor to smokeless powder, was an explosive made by soaking cotton with sulfuric and nitric acids.  The mixture made a propellant many times more powerful than gun powder, and it burned with little smoke.  Because of its instability, however, it saw limited use as a propellant for pistols and rifles.

The first viable smokeless powder was created by the Frenchman, Paul Vieille, in the mid 1880’s.  Based on the unstable nitrocellulose, Vieille added alcohol and pressed the material out wafer thin, the wafers were chopped up into small pieces.  The resulting flakes made a much more stable propellant applicable for firearms use.  When burned, it did so without smoke.

Alfred Nobel, the famed inventor of dynamite, who tamed the volatile character of nitro-glycerin by mixing it with diatomaceous earth, developed a smokeless powder in 1887 by building on his experience.  His mix included alcohol and ether as did Vielle’s, but guncotton was replaced with nitro-glycerin.

In the United States, Hudson Maxim secured his own patent for smokeless powder.  

Between the Civil War and WWI gun technology changed at its fastest pace in history.

The rifled barrel came into its own as the advent of breech loading made arming such a weapon much faster and easier.  The mini-ball, replaced traditional musket ball projectiles; by incorporating a cylindrical shape and hollowed rear section which would expand to conform to rifling grooves, this invention made bullets much more effective over much greater distances. 

The development of shock-sensitive explosives and self-contained cartridges made possible the development of WWI’s most devastating weapon, the machine gun.  Curiously, the machine gun was invented by Hudson Maxim’s brother, Hiram Maxim.
When gun historians get together to debate the nineteenth century’s greatest firearm inventions, invariably one stands out as the most influential without which the others could not have advanced as they had.

That invention was smokeless powder.

Editor’s Note: Jim is a handgun manufacturer. Please take a moment to visit his site.