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Smokeless Powder

Smokeless Powder

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Military commanders had been complaining since the Napoleonic Wars about the problems of giving orders on a battlefield that was swathed in thick smoke from the gunpowder used by the guns. In 1886 Paul Vieille invented a smokeless gunpowder called Poudre B. Vielle's powder was used in the Lebel rifle that was adopted by the French Army in the late 1880s.

The French Army was the first to use Poudre B but it was not long before other European countries followed their example. Vieille's powder revolutionized the effectiveness of small guns and rifles. Firstly because practically no smoke was formed when the gun was fired and secondly because it was much more powerful than gun powder, giving an accurate rifle range of up to 1000 yards.

In 1887 Alfred Nobel also developed a smokeless gunpowder. This eventually became known as cordite, a powder easier to handle and more powerful than Poudre B.

Tag: Smokeless Powder

Learn about Charlestown’s rapid transformation resulting from the WWII smokeless powder plant in Part I.

Employment of women and African Americans at the Charlestown smokeless powder ordnance facility, groups that often faced exclusion or discrimination in the workplace, contributed to the plant’s nationally-recognized production accomplishments.

Power Plant Building 401-1 at the Charlestown ordnance facility, Image courtesy of Abandoned, http://abandonedonline.net/locations/industry/indiana-ammunitions-depot/

WWII defense needs quickly brought women into the labor force, particularly later in the war as men left factories to enter into combat. The New York Times reported on October 19, 1941 that “entry of women into the defense factories of the nation is something that is just beginning on a considerable scale . . . now they are utilized for a wide variety of tasks by at least nineteen large plants.” The article asserted that women surpassed male workers in “finger dexterity” and “powers of observation” and possessed “superior traits in number memory,” completing tasks like painting planes, covering oil lines and packing powder bags. The article also reported that thousands of women had begun to produce smokeless powder at plants in Indiana, Alabama and Virginia and that “care is taken to select only women who are emotionally stable for these hazardous tasks.”

Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 1, 11, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

As with the nation, Indiana began employing women en masse at munitions factories and by 1944 the Indianapolis Star reported that while industrial work was once considered “unsuitable for women . . . this view has been abandoned since employers have found that women can and have been willing to adjust themselves to practically any type of labor if given the opportunity.”

Women were hired in large numbers at Charlestown’s ordnance facility and, while originally serving as mail runners and lab technicians, they eventually replaced men as powder cutting machine attendants. The bag-loading plant known as HOP employed 3,200 workers by December 1941, most of whom were women, who sewed bags and packed them with powder. By 1942, so many women worked at the Charlestown plants that the town had to rapidly expand child care facilities, enlarging the community center nursery at Pleasant Ridge Project.

In addition to child care, transportation proved an obstacle to women hoping to enter Charlestown’s workforce. The Charlestown Courier reported that women were prohibited from riding the “four special trains bringing employes to the Powder Plant. They have to find some other way to get to their jobs here.” Additionally, the New York Times reported that women working industrial jobs made “only about 60 percent of that of men doing comparable work.”

Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 6, 2, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

“Trailer wives” in Charlestown felt they too contributed to defense efforts by relocating their families to ordnance towns where their husbands found employment. The Indianapolis Star described these women as a “gallant band who ‘follow construction’ in order to keep the family life being lived as a unit and not subject themselves and their husbands to the hardships of separation.”

Much like women in WWII, defense needs partially opened the labor force to African Americans. A questionnaire from the Indiana State Defense Council reported that from July 1, 1941 to July 1, 1942 those firms reporting African American employment experienced a net increase of 82% in the number of blacks employed. Initially African Americans worked at Charlestown’s smokeless powder plant primarily in janitorial and unskilled fields. However, by the end of 1942, due to a labor shortage, they found employment in various roles, such as chemists, plant laborers, and plant operators.

John Williams, Nitrocellulose Department employee, after safety incident, Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 12, 5, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

Former plant employees stated in interviews that they witnessed little or no segregation, but that separate restrooms may have existed at one time. However, housing and schooling for African Americans in Charlestown was segregated and often in poor condition. Due to protests by some white residents regarding mixed housing units, a section of 130 units were separated for black workers with a 300 foot wide area. A 1942 Louisville Courier-Journal article about the deplorable state of Clark County African-American schools, particularly in Charlestown Township, stated that grade school students:

were broken out in a rash of goose pimples yesterday morning as they shivered at their antiquated desks. . . . A not unbitter wind whistled thru broken window panes and thru cracks in the walls of the sixty-five year old frame building as twenty-three students . . . huddled together and with stiffened fingers signed up for a year of ‘education.’

The boom afforded limited employment opportunities for African Americans outside the plant, despite earlier employer prejudice, which often barred them from working at local Charlestown businesses.

In the spring of 1945, after deliberation by the Army, War Production Board, and union officials, approximately 1,000 German prisoners of war were transferred to Charlestown to supplement construction of the rocket powder plant (IOW2), the third WWII ordnance plant at the facility. The Charlestown Courier described the POWs:

“Far from supermen, the German POWs employed on the Rocket Plant are predominantly youthful, many never having required a razor to date. They seem to be in good spirits and are healthy and husky. A surprisingly large number speak English and don’t hesitate to say they would rather remain in this country.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19, 1945 that the POWs had left the plant and returned to Fort Knox and other camps where they were “obtained.” Newspapers located by IHB staff did not report on the POWs’ contributions, but Steve Gaither and Kimberly Kane state in their report on the facility that it was “doubtful that the POWs contributed directly to construction.”

The massive Charlestown ordnance facility produced more than one billion pounds of smokeless powder in World War II, nearly as much as the “total volume of military explosives made for the United States in World War I” (Indianapolis Star Magazine, 1948). Output levels were so high that the military nationally recognized the facility’s production and safety records, conferring upon the plant the Army-Navy “E” Award, awarded to only 5% of the estimated war plants in the country during WWII.

Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 9, 3, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections. Indiana Ordnance Works Excellence of Performance Program August 10, 1942, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

National munitions production wound down with termination of the two-front war, which concluded first on May 7, 1945 with German surrender and Japan’s informal agreement to surrender on August 14, 1945. The plants at Charlestown gradually reduced payroll in August before eventually shutting down. The Richmond Palladium noted that after reductions “scarcely a wheel turned, or a hammer fell. Now there are just a few thousand ‘running out’ the powder which was in process, and putting the whole installation in weather-tight conditions.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19 of that year that Charlestown is “dying with the same gusto with which it was born.” The Richmond Palladium described Charlestown folding up “like an Arabian tent village,” as trailer caravans departed and workers returned to various states across the nation. Although the abrupt exodus shocked local residents, worried about maintaining their postwar economy, a trickle of new residents soon arrived, including veterans and their families. Boom town activity returned to Charlestown during the Korean and Vietnam wars when the ordnance facility again began producing powder, reuniting workers from the WWII era.

Charlestown’s 1940s ordnance plants illustrated how WWII energized local economies and afforded women and African Americans job opportunities. Accommodating the massive facility transformed Charlestown from a town to a city and led to its first sewage system,the resurfacing and improvement of miles of roads, and two major housing projects.

Our History

Alliant's origins as a gunpowder manufacturer can be traced back more than 125 years to the DuPont Company, whose leadership position in the explosives industry is legendary. DuPont's divestiture in 1912 created the Hercules Power Company as an independent entity, and eventually resulted in Alliant becoming America's premier gunpowder manufacturer.

The long, proud history of Alliant Powder began in 1872 as Laflin & Rand, later to become Hercules Powder Company &mdash the most respected name in the reloading industry.

Unique, the Powder That Really Is

This post describes the characteristics, applications, and tips for measurement of Alliant Unique gunpowder.

History of Unique

Good things last a long time in the shooting sports arena. Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, Unique gunpowder is one of those good things. Smokeless powder development was centralized in the Dupont company after DuPont absorbed Laflin and Rand and Unique came out of that development. When Hercules Powder Company split from DuPont in 1912, Unique was one of the new company’s premier propellants and it has remained available to the present day. It is now made and offered by Alliant Powder, a division of the huge company, ATK (Alliant Techsystems), that also controls such well-known names as Bushnell, Weaver, Federal, Speer CCI, RCBS, Savage, and others.

Chemical Facts

The two main components of Unique powder, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin, were both invented in the 1840s. It was the Swedish chemist, Alfred Nobel, famous for using nitroglycerin to make “Dynamite,” that first investigated a mixture of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose as a small arms smokeless propellant. The successful product that resulted in 1888 was called “Ballistite.” In the present day, smokeless propellants still contain either nitrocellulose alone or nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin, and are known as “single-base” and “double-base” powders, respectively. Other, minor components are included in modern smokeless powders and this, along with fabrication of powders as flakes, balls, or sticks leads to the myriad of powders available for pistol, rifle, and shotgun today. Unique is a powder of the “flake” variety, being actually composed of small disks about 0.06″ in diameter.

Applications of Unique

Unique can be used to boost pistol bullets, rifle bullets, or shot charges out the barrel of your chosen boomer. Sound versatile? Yes, Allliant calls Unique the most versatile of powders, and that is perhaps the ground of its uniqueness.

That is not to say it is a top performer in all of those applications. I believe most shooters consider it to have greatest applicability for handgun reloading, and I agree. It is my handgun projects that would suffer most if Unique were to disappear. It is, however, also very good for 1-1/8 and 1-1/4 oz. loads in the twelve gauge shotgun and it may be used with smaller gauges. With rifles, it must be confined to light charges with cast bullets. Such loads often give excellent accuracy for plinking and small game applications.

It is the moderate burning rate of Unique that gives it great success with handgun cartridges. You can use it to load the .32 S&W, and you can use it to load the .45 Long Colt, and you can use it to load everything in between those case capacity extremes. Now that is real versatility. With 3.5 grains you can push a 95-gr bullet at about 1000 fps from a 4-in .32 S&W Long. Regular and +P loads to 920 fps are possible in the .38 Special and.44 Special. Use 10 grains to kick a .45 Colt 255 grainer out at 950 fps, maybe a little more from the strong Ruger Bisley or Super Blackhawk. Eleven grains will give about 1200 fps of scoot with a 240-grainer in the .44 Magnum. These are all serious, effective loads for hunting or self defense, achieved with modest charge weights.

Reloading with Unique

The excellence of Unique has long been tempered by two criticisms. It is said to be dirty, too much residue remaining after firing. Secondly, the flakes do not feed well through a powder measure, thus making it difficult to get uniform charges in your loads.

The firing residue has never bothered me much, although I can see that folks who get in a rage when a bird poops on their car might complain. No matter, Alliant has recently improved the combustion characteristics and it now burns more cleanly.

The measuring characteristics are more difficult to deal with, but, really, all big boys and girls should be able to have success in measuring Unique with a little practice.

I will tell you what I do. I use a Lee Perfect Powder Measure, a plastic and aluminum, rotating drum device that

The Lee Perfect Powder Measure

usually costs less than $25 and generally gives good results with stick and flake powders. I fill the reservoir about ¾ full with Unique while shaking it back and forth. Then, with the measure supported on its stand, I play pittypat, pitty-pat, pitty-pat-pat-pat with my fingers on the side of the reservoir for at least a minute.

The powder being well settled I am now ready to adjust for the weight I want using the rather crude micro adjustment of the cavity in the drum. The main thing to remember as you try to zero in on your desired weight is: do not adjust the measure on the basis of one throw. It takes more time, but I throw ten charges at a setting and weigh the total. The average gives me a very accurate idea of what the measure is throwing and what adjustment I need to make to get to my desired weight. It may take several adjustments, but when I get there, I charge all of the cases I want to load with no further weighing. Then I visually check the powder levels before seating bullets.


Wanting to load some moderate .38 Specials, I set the Lee measure as close as I could to 3.8 grains. Then I threw five sets of ten charges each and weighed each set of ten. These weights for the series of five sets were 38.4 gr, 38.6 gr, 39.0 gr, 38.6 gr, and 38.4 gr. This excellent uniformity shows that the long term stability of weights of Unique thrown by this kind of measure is very good. The throw-to-throw variation in weight is small enough to always average out in ten throws.

Then I sized and capped 20 pieces of .38 Special brass and charged them with no further weighing of the charges from the adjusted measure. I finished the loads by seating hard-cast, 148-gr, double-ended wadcutters. At my range, I used a 6″ Smith and Wesson Model 14 to fire the 20 rounds consecutively over my Pro Chrono, with the following velocity results.

Low, 934 fps, High,, 988 fps, Ave 969 fps, Extreme spread 54 fps, Std Deviation 18 fps.

For a second trial, I loaded 20, .32 S&W Long cases with 3.4 grains of Unique using the method described above, and using a cast, 95-gr cast semiwadcutter. At the range with my Smith and Wesson Model 30-1 with 4 in. barrel, the first ten shots averaged 976 fps with a spread of 52 fps and a Std deviation of 18 fps. The second set of the load was not quite as uniform, same average velocity, but a spread of 71 fps and a Std deviation of 24 fps.

For comparison I fired 10 rounds of .32 Long using 3.3 grains of Hodgdon Universal Clays and the 95-gr bullet. The average velocity was 978 fps, extreme spread 53 fps, std deviation 18 fps. Thus, the uniformity of the Unique loads is comparable to that of loads using Universal, a powder that many feel has no special measuring problems.

Note that these are very strong loads for the .32 Long and should only be used in modern revolvers. No old top-break revolvers allowed for this one!

This level of uniformity for Unique loads in two different calibers is very good and I am quite satisfied with it for general shooting activities. Note that my charge weights are relatively low. Even better relative uniformity could be expected for heavier charges in larger calibers.


Shifting gears here to something else on my mind. I occasionally look at some of the shooting forums, and I sometimes see posts about “making my own black powder.” It seems to be a survivalist thing arising from the idea that when the apocalypse comes, even though powder might not be available, one could, perhaps, still lay one’s hands on some charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate. Thus, a means for sustenance and self defense would be at hand.

There are a couple of reasons, at least, that this is not a good idea. First, in spite of the simple formula, it is not easy to make good black powder. It is easy to fail. Second, it is a very dangerous activity. You could kill yourself or members of your family, even when seeming to be very careful.

If you wish to persist in the face of these difficulties, well, OK, but I will tell you what I would do. I would get an 8-lb canister of Unique, maybe two, and squirrel them away in a cool, dry place. Then, when it hits the fan, I could load any handgun round I wanted, any shotgun shell of 20 gauge or above, and any thirty caliber rifle with cast bullets with a smokeless powder giving good performance and requiring no special handling or cleaning effort after firing. Oh, I must not forget to lay in a good supply of primers and bullets, also. My guess is that I would tire of living in the post-apocalyptic world long before the Unique was used up.

What To Use?

One of my choices would be my Ruger Bisley Blackhawk in .45 Colt. If you want to blast with a real fistful of handgun, then this very strong, well made revolver is for you. With 7-1/2 inch barrel I have loaded it to 1200 fps with H110 pushing a 250-gr jacketed bullet. Others have exceeded this. With Unique, I can exceed 1000 fps with cast or jacketed bullets, and that would take a deer with a good shot at close range. The Bisley grip frame is one of the best for shooting heavy loads, and my gun was known to shoot 2-inch groups at 50 yards back in the days when I had a Leupold 2X handgun scope attached to it.

Ruger Bisley Blackhawk .45 Colt

Better for hunting and self defense would be a lever action carbine in .45 Colt, to pair with the Bisley. I do not have one at the present time, but would consider a Winchester Model 92 pattern by Winchester or Cimarron, or possibly a Marlin Model 94. Holding up to 14 rounds, these arms would give you quite a bit of firepower. Not enough, but quite a bit.


We are your Reloading Superstore. We are the largest provider of all brands for reloading. There are two primary types of powder, Smokeless, and Black & Substitutes. We carry every brand offered in the United States. Brands we stock are Accurate, Alliant, Blackhorn, Hodgdon, IMR, Goex, and Olde Eynsford, Nobel Sport and Vectan, Norma, Ramshot, Shooters World and Lovex, Vihtavuori, and Winchester. You can also combine all powders and primers in one shipment for only one hazmat fee. We also have everything for your muzzleloading needs. Combine everything you need in one shipment with your powder, primers, brass, and bullets for one low shipping fee.

Smokeless Powder - History

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Instability and stabilization

Nitrocellulose deteriorates with time, yielding acidic byproducts. Those byproducts catalyze the further deterioration, increasing its rate. The released heat, in case of bulk storage of the powder, or too large blocks of solid propellant, can cause self-ignition of the material. Single-base nitrocellulose propellants are most susceptible to degradation double-base and triple-base propellants tend to deteriorate more slowly. To neutralize the decomposition products, which could otherwise cause corrosion of metals of the cartridges and gun barrels, calcium carbonate is added to some formulations.

To prevent buildup of the deterioration products, stabilizers are added. 2-Nitrodiphenylamine is one of the most common stabilizers used. Others are 4-nitrodiphenylamine, N-nitrosodiphenylamine, N-methyl-p-nitroaniline, and diphenylamine. The stabilizers are added in the amount of 0.5-2% of the total amount of the formulation higher amounts tend to degrade its ballistic properties. The amount of the stabilizer is depleted with time. Propellants in storage should be periodically tested on the remaining amount of stabilizer, as its depletion may lead to autoignition of the propellant.

Clearing the Fog of War

The story of smokeless gunpowder begins in Switzerland, in the impeccable kitchen of Frau Schönbein. One fateful day in 1845, her husband, Christian, a professor of chemistry at the University of Basel, was absentmindedly toying with a vial of nitric acid and spilled it over the kitchen table. Worried about his formidable wife’s reaction, Schönbein mopped up the mess with a cotton apron, which he tucked away near the stove to dry. She would be none the wiser, he congratulated himself. Then the apron exploded.

A year later, the professor addressed an august gathering of scientists on his technique of treating cotton with nitric and sulfuric acids. Journalists reported his findings, and overnight Herr Professor Schönbein and his nitrocellulose—soon dubbed guncotton—were famous. In its November 1846 issue, Scientific American commented on this “curious discovery,” jocularly warning that henceforth ladies in cotton dresses “who travel by railroad will have more than ordinary occasion to ‘beware of sparks.’ ”

Events took a more serious turn when amateurs tried to make their own guncotton. One loaded his old gun with 12 grains of guncotton (less than a quarter of his usual gunpowder charge) and rammed a ball down on top. “On discharging the rifle, about five inches of the breech end of the barrel together with the lock, were completely blown to pieces,” he told the magazine. “One piece weighing eight ounces was carried through the roof of the building.” And a Mr. J. H. Pennington, who had been “trying to fly for two or three years,” pledged that he would turn himself into a human rocket by strapping on a few pounds of homemade guncotton. His fate remains unknown.

To the military, guncotton seemed as marvelous and revolutionary an innovation as would the atomic bomb a century later. Experts were amazed at its sheer explosive power. Army officer Alfred Mordecai, the leading American ordnance specialist, conducted tests and reported that “gun-cotton seems to produce in the musket an effect equal to about twice its weight of good rifle-powder.” Muzzle velocities climbed beyond all expectations, topping 2,000 feet per second for military-issue shoulder arms. Since the advent of the Brown Bess musket in the first half of the 18th century, these had hovered between 900 and 1,350 feet per second.

Military men also liked that guncotton fired cold. With regular powder, a rifle barrel after shooting 45 rounds heated up to 144 degrees Fahrenheit—too hot to touch. But scientists found that with guncotton the barrel temperature reached just 128, and then only after firing 75 rounds. Moreover, British researchers discovered that even after submerging a wad of guncotton in water for 60 hours the stuff still “possess[ed] all its original inflammability and strength” once it dried out. Unlike gunpowder, which needed to be stored bone dry, guncotton could be moistened and transported with no risk of ignition from a stray spark. Equally important, armies could now fight in the rain, or at least in damp conditions, extending the traditional summer campaigning season into the fall and spring.

One more advantage of guncotton seemed to ensure that traditional black powder would be rendered obsolete: Schönbein’s kitchen discovery was smokeless. When fired, it produced only a slightly bluish transparent haze around the muzzle that dissipated in seconds. Soldiers in combat would no longer be shrouded in thick, gray smoke, forcing batteries and regiments to shoot almost blindly. Guncotton’s advocates excitedly predicted that old Napoleonic tactics would give way as armies adapted to greater visibility on the battlefield. Guncotton—used in newly developed long-range muskets with rifled barrels—would necessitate greater emphasis on flexible small-unit movement and individual marksmanship as traditionally dense formations grew increasingly vulnerable to accurate artillery.

By clearing the air, in other words, guncotton threatened to muddy once-still doctrinal waters.

Despite the amazing promise of smokeless powder and the ambitious claims of the military avant garde, the transformation of war would have to wait. Not a single army adopted Schönbein’s innovation at first, as serious problems soon emerged. It turned out that no firearm could handle successive guncotton loads without buckling, for guncotton burned far faster than gunpowder, creating ferocious pressures that ruptured breeches, burst barrels, and sheared off rifle grooving. Even manufacturing the guncotton proved dangerous: Several European factories blew up, leaving scores dead. By 1850, production of the miracle material had been almost wholly banned in Europe.

Interest did not fade entirely, however. Chemistry was the exciting Victorian equivalent to today’s biotechnology, and the burgeoning field was attracting the brightest minds to networks of new government-funded research institutes and universities, many closely linked to national armies and navies. These chemists faced a host of obstacles to realizing guncotton’s potential. Producing and weaponizing gunpowder required only stirring together its three basic ingredients—sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter—in standardized proportions. So straightforward was the process that armies often traveled with barrels of each and simply combined them just before battle. Producing guncotton was a much more complicated affair. Since its constituent parts were bound organically together, manufacturing it for military use required an expensive laboratory, specialized chemicals, heavy equipment, highly skilled technicians, and at least three weeks of intensive monitoring, purifying, and processing, followed by meticulous refining, grinding, sieving, drying, seasoning, blending, and packing of the nitrated cellulose.

Perfecting the process was a tall order, but laurels and fame awaited the chemist who succeeded. The Austrian general Wilhelm Freiherr Baron von Lenk, a confidant of the Habsburg emperor, maintained a secret, officially sanctioned project to investigate using guncotton as a bursting charge in howitzer shells and was soon testing guncotton cartridges for small arms. In 1863, Theodore Canisius, President Abraham Lincoln’s consul in Vienna, learned of Lenk’s work and secured several experimental cartridges to ship home. The army’s Ordnance Department in Washington recommended purchasing the rights to Lenk’s purification process. But after analyzing the results, Ordnance evidently concluded that Lenk had been far too optimistic, for that was the last anyone heard of guncotton until 1879, when the department confidently reported that it would remain too unstable for military service use in the future.

There were, accordingly, any number of red faces when, just five years later, Paul Vieille, a young French military chemist, unveiled Poudre B—guncotton that had been gelatinized by ether-alcohol and shaped into small slabs for easy cartridge loading. Poudre B slowed guncotton’s furious burn rate, thereby regulating the pressure buildup and at a stroke making smokeless powder a viable propellant.

Soon afterward, a state-owned French manufacturer introduced a new rifle designed specifically to work with Poudre B. Called the Lebel, it was the first smokeless service weapon, and it astounded the world. The New York Times dubbed it “the most vicious small arm in existence.”

The Frenchman’s innovation sparked a frantic powder race among the other European powers. Within a few years, most had managed to catch up by hook or by crook—mostly crook, as Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, discovered to his chagrin. In 1887, after Nobel patented ballistite (guncotton gelatinized with nitroglycerin and camphor), Frederick Abel of Britain’s Royal Arsenal begged for a few samples to conduct research. Abel soon produced a knockoff called cordite. Nobel, livid at the betrayal, sued (unsuccessfully) for patent infringement.

Diplomatic intervention was another option to elicit guncotton’s secrets. When in 1890 the Russian naval ministry asked Dmitry Mendeleev, inventor of the original periodic table, to develop a smokeless powder, he traveled to France to visit its government explosives experts, only to have every door closed to him for reasons of national security. (So highly classified a state secret was Vieille’s process that it wouldn’t be publicly divulged until the 1930s.) Fortunately for Mendeleev, France and Russia were at the time negotiating a military treaty to counter the threat posed by the 1882 Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. In the spirit of bilateral friendship, the Russian ambassador prevailed upon the French war minister to allow the scientist to witness a demonstration and take home a two-gram sample of the precious substance.

Unable to procure any guncotton abroad by fair means or foul, the Americans lagged behind their European rivals. In 1889, the Ordnance Department grimly confessed that its every attempt to produce a viable smokeless powder had failed. In the early 1890s, U.S. Navy chemist Charles Munroe came close to saving national face by deriving indurite, otherwise known as naval smokeless powder, but it could not be put into production owing to scaling-up problems and other issues.

Humiliatingly, Ordnance was obliged to invite private industry to join the quest. Ever since the Civil War, Ordnance staffers and businessmen had regarded each other with contempt. The sides had originally fallen out when the department refused to countenance issuing repeating rifles to Union troops. Its controversial rejection of James Lee’s advanced magazine-fed rifle in the 1880s—some thought it too radical a change—had further poisoned the atmosphere Lee was so incensed by his treatment that he sold what would become the Lee-Enfield to the British. For their part, Ordnance officials noted that several major gunmakers had recently gone bankrupt, which didn’t speak well for their ability to manage the army’s needs.

Now, thanks to the turmoil created by the desperate desire for smokeless powder, these rivals were forced into competitive cooperation, with surprisingly beneficial results. By 1893, shortly after Ordnance and the companies began collaborating, the army was set to approve its first rifle to use smokeless powder, and the larger firms, assured of lavish government contracts, were forging ahead with improved forms of powder.

Recalling the hard-won lessons of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, when soldiers had suffered grievously from ammunition shortages, Ordnance divided its production requirements among several private manufacturers—each prepared to expand capacity upon the declaration of hostilities. Quite remarkably, the government had by 1898 succeeded in stockpiling what it optimistically believed to be a sufficient supply of domestically made smokeless—some 4,500,000 cartridges.

In many ways, the arrival of smokeless powder heralded modern war. Before Schönbein’s kitchen accident was successfully adapted for military use, no repeater rifle could cope with the high-caliber, high-powered military loads, which generated tremendous heat and stresses during rapid fire. But guncotton’s elimination of temperature issues made smaller rounds possible, prompting armies around the world to adopt infantry rifles that could fire and reload quickly.

In the United States, the venerable .45-70-405—a .45-caliber bullet charged with 70 grains (4.5 grams) of black powder and weighing 405 grains (26.2 grams)—gave way to the .30-40-220, a pipsqueak of a bullet at the time. The U.S. Army in 1892 selected as its service weapon the Krag-Jørgensen, a repeating bolt-action rifle from Norway, then the famous M1903 Springfield about a decade later. Both guns helped weaken the military’s traditional emphasis on conserving bullets and husbanding one’s shots.

Naturally, ammunition expenditure soared. While Union soldiers at Gettysburg had been ordered to carry 60 cartridges, experts in the late 1890s reckoned 175 rounds should be standard issue, with 300 the minimum if a battle was in the offing. It only went up from there. By the time the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, American manufacturers were producing 525,000 pounds of smokeless per day. By that time nearly the entire world had gone smokeless.

The race to develop and stockpile smokeless powder—combined with the new, insatiable appetite for ammunition—also birthed an early military-scientific-industrial complex. All the powder chemists, even those privately employed, were tied to military-aligned government institutions—arrangements that contributed to the idea that modern warfare required coordination between government, its research affiliates, and corporations.

On the battlefield itself, smokeless powder helped destroy the old-world style of fighting. The vivid and distinctive uniforms of the previous era disappeared, along with such medieval relics as the glittering gorgets, breastplates, and buckles that had for so long been the soldier’s pride. In their place came dull khaki, gunmetal gray, and olive drab, all the better to camouflage soldiers now startlingly visible in smokeless terrain. The U.S. Army relegated its Revolutionary War–style dark blue to strictly formal use in 1902, and the British even abandoned their famous red coats for khaki.

Despite the attention traditionally lavished by military historians on such 19th-century developments as the introduction of the rifle-musket, the relative decline of cavalry, and the rise of artillery, smokeless powder was clearly one of the signal influences on the transformation of warfare between 1865 and 1918. Indeed, as early as the Spanish-American War, the first conflict in which smokeless powder was deployed to any degree, the shock of the new order was already evident. The U.S. Army at the time was still largely dependent on traditional gunpowder, but a British correspondent noted that the Spaniards were using smokeless powder—and giving the Americans fits: “It was almost impossible to say exactly where some of their batteries were placed, for there was nothing but the flash to guide one, and that is a poor guide on a sunny day. One of the American captains of artillery spent most of the day searching for a battery on the side of a hill which he was expected to destroy. The smoke lay in front of the American guns in the almost still air, and made prompt and opportune firing difficult.”

“One of the lessons of the day,” he concluded, “was the inestimable value of smokeless powder.” With that, even Frau Schönbein, notwithstanding the loss of her apron, might have allowed herself a moment of pride in her husband’s accidental achievement.

A military historian and former journalist, Alexander Rose (www.alexrose.com) is the author of Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring and American Rifle: A Biography.

Originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.


The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute traces its roots to 1913 and the Society of American Manufacturers of Small Arms and Ammunition (SAMSAA). During the lead up to World War 1, SAMSAA was created at the encouragement of the United States War Department as a way to establish an exchange of technical information between U.S. factories producing military arms and ammunition. This information exchange allowed firearms to accept ammunition made by a wide variety of both civilian manufacturers and government contractors, which previously had not always been the case. SAMSAA was active until the early 1920s when it was allowed to lapse in the post-war area.

The mid‐1920s were interesting times for the arms and ammunition industries. Smokeless powder had replaced black and semi‐smokeless powders in practically all sporting ammunition, and that led to safety concerns about the shooting public’s understanding of smokeless powder’s higher performance level compared to black and semi‐smokeless. At the same time, the Commerce Department was pressing Congress to recognize that WWI had created strategic materials shortages of brass, copper and lead, and those shortages were hindering many U.S. industries. Also, the warehouses of ammunition makers and distributors were stocked with more than 4,000 different shotshell loads and 350 different centerfire rifle and pistol loads. Concerns about inventories of obsolete and nearly obsolete ammunition coupled with the scarcity of strategic materials highlighted the need for the revival of some sort of body to voluntarily standardize product dimensional, pressure and performance parameters.

In 1925 Congress, acting through the Commerce Department, requested the industry to revitalize the small arms and ammunition society that had existed during WWI. In January of 1926, representatives of all smokeless powder producers, every major ammunition manufacturing company, and most of the major makers of firearms founded a successor group and titled it the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI). The first major project carried out by SAAMI was a major reduction of obsolete and nearly obsolete black powder and semi‐smokeless powder loads for both shotshells and metallic cartridges. When that undertaking was complete, the number of shotshell loads had been reduced by 95 percent and metallic cartridge loads by 70 percent.

By the 1920s, market hunting, habitat loss and non‐existent or inadequate statutory protection had reduced populations of America’s game animals to an alarming level. Recognizing how critical the situation had become, SAAMI took steps to save our wildlife resources. In 1928 it funded game surveys conducted by Aldo Leopold in nine Midwestern states and underwrote publication of a book‐length summary of the surveys. Leopold went on to become the acknowledged father of modern wildlife management through regulated sport hunting of many species, and SAAMI was instrumental in bringing about the 1933 publication of his foundational textbook, Game Management.

From 1931 through 1935, SAAMI financially supported the Clinton Game School in New Jersey, which graduated 145 of the first technically trained wildlife management professionals employed by federal and state wildlife agencies. In 1933, the federal government imposed a 11 percent excise tax on firearms and ammunition. Originally the excise tax went straight into the federal government’s general fund, but the Pittman‐Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 mandated that the excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition should be used solely for wildlife restoration and related purposes. SAAMI’s executive committee was instrumental in gaining the support of shooters, hunters and politicians to ensure passage of the Pittman‐Robertson Act.

In the 1940s, SAAMI began publishing “The Ten Commandments of Safety, Published in the Interest of Making and Keeping Shooting a Safe Sport.” Millions of copies have been distributed by many manufacturers and organizations. Since that time, fatal firearm accidents have decreased dramatically and are currently at historic low levels.

Also, during the same time period, SAAMI published a broad array of booklets that educate consumers on the safe and responsible use, handling, and storage of firearms, ammunition, and components for reloading of ammunition.

By the late 1950s, SAAMI members realized there was a need to promote, protect and preserve hunting and shooting sports in the United States. At the same time, SAAMI saw it was necessary that it maintain its place as the technical expert in the field of firearms and ammunition. As a result, in 1961, the National Shooting Sports Foundation was founded as an independent industry organization tasked with delivering the public education mission of the industry, separate from SAAMI’s mission regarding technical product performance, safety and interchangeability matters.

The 1970s was the start of three decades of transformation and modernization of the firearms and ammunition industry. SAAMI started the transition of the decades-old copper crusher chamber pressure measurement system (CUP) to the modern piezoelectric transducer chamber pressure measurement system (PSI). In addition, there was the formation of a product standards development task force responsible for the creation of the five American National Standards standards, which have been repeatedly reaffirmed or revised through the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) consensus process. SAAMI also published several pamphlets relating to the safe handling and storage of firearms and ammunition.

In the 1980s, SAAMI submitted empirical technical data supporting the inclusion of ammunition in the ORM-D shipping classification. The classification safely enabled tens of millions of cost effective small package shipments of sporting ammunition. SAAMI also produced the first “Sporting Ammunition and the Fire Fighter” video, providing fact-based information to help firefighters address the realities of fires containing sporting ammunition while dispelling myths and fears about their safety.

In the 1990s, SAAMI took a leadership role in orchestrating industry members voluntarily participating in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (BATF) “Access 2000” program. This program significantly enhanced the ATF National Tracing Center’s ability to quickly trace firearms recovered in connection with a criminal investigation.

In 2005, SAAMI was accredited as a United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with Consultative Status. In 2008, SAAMI remade the “Sporting Ammunition and the Fire Fighter” video in cooperation with the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The updated video provided firefighters with even more comprehensive fact-based information on fighting fires containing sporting ammunition, in addition to addressing the latest changes in technology.

In the mid-2000s, in order to expand the global market for sporting firearms and ammunition products, SAAMI formed a partnership with Commission Internationale Permanente pour l’Epreuve des Armes à Feu Portatives (“Permanent International Commission for the Proof of Small Arms” – commonly abbreviated as C.I.P.) to harmonize standards between the two organizations.

In 2012, SAAMI spearheaded the effort at the UN to modify the Limited Quantities (LQ) classification for 1.4S items to replace the ORM-D classification that was being phased out. The LQ classification allowed for the continued safe and cost-effective shipment of sporting ammunition and expanded ORD-D-style shipments to international scope.

These are but a few of the projects SAAMI has achieved and promoted since being founded in 1926. Every day brings new opportunities to provide technical leadership to address the many issues surrounding sporting firearms, ammunition, and components.

Today, SAAMI remains the global leader in its mission to create and promulgate voluntary technical, performance and safety standards for commerce in firearms, ammunition and their components.

Early Smokeless Powders

The development of the cartridge went in lock-step with the improvement of available powders in the latter part of the 19th century. We shall review here some of the brands that became popular with gunmakers and sportsmen, as they transitioned from black powder to 'smokeless' powders. Today, few shooting men could name their 'fevourite powder' but in 1900 it was a keen topic of discussion.

Smokeless Diamond. Smokeless Diamond was a 33-grain bulk powder described as ideal for loads for &lsquomodern short and medium range game shooting. A &lsquofast&rsquo powder which is comfortable to shoot.&rsquo

Smokeless Diamond was the first completely gelatinised bulk powder, made by pressing plastic nitro-cellulose through holes in a die, slicing it into black, saucer-shaped flakes at the die face.

Each flake is made porous and it creates a hard and homogeneous powder, resistant to climactic variations and easily ignited by the cap flame. A common 12-bore cartridge load for game shooting was 33 grains of Smokeless Diamond in a 2 1/2&rdquo case, with 1 1/16oz lead shot. This replaced the previous load of 3 drams of black powder, behind 1 1/8oz of shot.

E.C. No.3 Powder. Like Smokeless Diamond, E.C. powder was a 33 grain bulk powder. Orange in colour, it was developed from the 42 grain E.C. No.2, which was a 42 grain powder. &lsquoE.C.&rsquo stood for &lsquoExplosives Company&rsquo (of Stowmarket), who introduced a smokeless powder in 1882.

No.3 was suited to shooting light game loads, where soft recoil was required, and became very popular in the first quarter of the 20th century as a shotgun propellant, though it was too coarse grained o be suited to rifle ammunition.

E.C, made from nitro-cotton and nitrates of potassium and barium in grain-gelatinised ether alcohol, was stable and had a long-life when stored and was loaded as an option into Eley&rsquos range of cartridges.

A typical game cartridge loading with this powder for a 12-bore was 33 grains of powder in a 2 1/2&rdquo case pushing a shot load of 1 1/6oz. The &lsquoPegamoid&rsquo cartridge was loaded with E.C. powder as an option. It replaced the old black powder load of 3 drams behind 1 1/8oz of shot.

Empire Powder. &lsquoIt throws a good pattern, is easy on the shoulder and is undoubtedly the powder for the game or clay pigeon shot with a heavy day&rsquos shooting in front of him&rsquo. so stated Eley&rsquos 1928 advertisement for the Nobel product.

&lsquoEmpire&rsquo was a 33 grain bulk smokeless powder, like smokeless Diamond and E.C and was available loaded into many proprietary cartridges as an option, on a like-for-like basis with these.

Eley sold an &lsquoEmpire&rsquo cartridge, in a blue paper case, which they recommended for comfortable shooting particularly in tropical climates, where its stability contributed to its reliability in conditions hotter than typical in Europe. This was loaded with 1 1/6oz of shot in a 2 1/2&rdquo paper case with a high steel base.

Schultze. Schultze was the original &lsquosmokeless&rsquo powder, introduced in the mid 1860s by Nobel Industries. Schultze was a 42 grain bulk powder, white in colour and suited to firing heavy charges as well as standard loads, while maintaining moderate chamber pressures. It was made from nitrated pellets of wood impregnated with barium nitrate and potassium nitrate.

Eley loaded a &lsquoPegamoid&rsquo case, paper, lined with metal in order to be both water-tight and gas-tight. Into this they packed Schultze powder under 1 1/16 ox of shot. They also loaded Schultze into their &lsquoSpecial Wildfowling&rsquo cartridge, loaded with 1 1/8oz of shot.

Among the stranger claims to fame the company made was the burning down of the Prussian factory where it was once made, in 1869. The notable exception was that the factory burned to the ground, whereas a black powder factory would have exploded!

Sporting Ballistite. Unlike the other &lsquosmokeless&rsquo powders we have featured to date, which are &lsquobulk powders&rsquo, Sporting Ballistite, made by Nobel Industries, was a &lsquodense&rsquo powder. Bulk powders were made so as to deliver the same pressure as the equivalent volume of black powder. This was useful as a loader could use the same measure for loading his cartridges whether using the standard 3 drams of black powder, or an equal volume of, for example, &lsquoE.C.&rsquo powder.

Sporting Ballistite was a dense powder, not a bulk powder, meaning less of it was needed to produce the same pressure. Home-loaders had to be wary of dense powders because it was easy to over-load and cause cartridges to exert too much pressure, in extreme cases, causing damage to the gun.

Sporting Ballistite was a gelatinised powder and was loaded into cartridges with cone-shaped bases and special wads. It was resistant to moisture and well suited to use in extreme climactic conditions. A typical 12-bore load using this powder was 25 grains of Sporting Ballistite pushing 1 1/16oz of shot from a 2 1/2&rdquo case.

Nobel-branded yellow cartridges, labelled &lsquoNobel&rsquos Sporting Ballistite&rsquo in a gas-tight paper case with metal lining and reinforced steel base were available in 12-bore and 16-bore.

Modified Smokeless Diamond. Like Smokeless Diamond powder, &lsquoModified Smokeless Diamond&rsquo was made by pressing nitro cellulose through holes in a die and slicing it into flakes. However, while Smokeless Diamond was made into round flakes, the &lsquoModified&rsquo version was square in shape. It was a 36-grain bulk gelatinised powder, made by Curtis&rsquos & Harvey in London.

The makers described it as suitable for &lsquo loads for which Smokeless Diamond is not designed heavy shot charges and small bore loads where the weight of shot is greater than that usually considered suitable for the transverse area of the case.&rsquo

A recommended 20-bore load consisted of 29 grains of powder in a paper 2 3/4&rdquo case, under 7/8oz of shot.

Amberite. Amberite was another product of Curtis&rsquos & Harvey, who had factories in Tonbridge and London. It was a 42 grain bulk powder, very similar to Schultze but intended for heavier loads and bores larger than twelve.

In appearance it was a grey, granular, powder, whereas Schultze was white. When used in a 12-bore the recommended load was 3 drams (by measure) of powder (or 42 grains by weight) with a shot load of 1 1/8oz. Of reducing the shot load to 1oz, the powder should be reduced to 40 grains.

The makers claimed Amberite to be &lsquovery hard in grain and unaffected by atmospheric influences&rsquo. They also caution that while it is possible to use it in rook rifles, it should not be used with any other class of rifle.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on 1 st December 2020 (modified 1 st January 2021 )

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