What is Smokeless Powder and How it is Made

Abhijit Naik Mar 2, 2019
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Did you know that it was the range of drawbacks of gunpowder that paved way for the invention of smokeless powder in the 19th century?
Smokeless powder is a propellant used in modern firearms, which is typically characterized by its ability to fire without creating a lot of smoke. Despite its name, it is neither smoke free, nor fine powder.
On the contrary, it is available in a granular or tubular form and tends to produce a negligent amount of smoke when used in firearms. This 'negligent' amount, however, is a lot less than the amount of smoke produced by its predecessor―the gunpowder or black powder.

History

During the Napoleonic Wars, soldiers faced two prominent problems on the battlefield. While the loud gunshots in the war made it impossible for them to hear each other, the thick, black smoke produced from these gunshots made it impossible for them to see beyond a certain distance.
Additionally, the smoke that followed a gunshot often led to corrosion of the barrel of their guns. To tackle these problems, chemists from different parts of the world started working on finding a replacement for the gunpowder.
A breakthrough came in the form of the invention of guncotton―a highly flammable compound formed by nitrating cellulose through exposure to some powerful nitrating agent―by German-Swiss chemist, Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1846.
The fact that guncotton was quite unstable in nature made its handling a bit too dangerous and it took the world another couple of decades to see its full-fledged use. The moment finally came in 1884, when French chemist, Paul Vieille invented the modern nitrocellulose-based smokeless powder and named it Poudre B.
It wasn't just smokeless, but also 3 times more powerful than the traditionally used gunpowder. In 1887, Alfred Nobel developed his own variant of smokeless gunpowder―the Cordite, which was relatively easier to handle and more powerful than Poudre B.

Properties

Smokeless powder is prepared by mixing various chemicals, which are especially designed to burn under controlled conditions, in order to facilitate propulsion of projectile from a gun.
Basically, this propellant comes in three forms: thin flakes, small cylinders, and flattened spheres, which are grouped into two categories ...
  • Single-base smokeless powder, which derives the necessary power from nitrocellulose.
  • Double-base smokeless powder, which depends on both, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin.
The burn rate of this powder, which depends on composition, deterrent coating, temperature, diameter, etc., differs from one type to another. Owing to the fact that smoking powder has controlled rate of burning, it doesn't detonate like other high-impact explosives.
Interestingly, these propellants are prepared in such a manner that they don't need atmospheric oxygen to burn. Instead, they depend on oxygen that they themselves contain and thus, easily burn even in the remote chamber of a gun wherein there is no oxygen available.
These propellants are also categorized on the basis of applications in which they are used, i.e., handgun powders, rifle powders, etc. While a significant proportion of these propellants is specifically developed for certain firearms, a single type of smokeless powder being used in two different types of firearms is not very rare.
The invention of smokeless powder propellants is considered one of the most crucial events in the history of firearms. As in case of firearms, even this powder is quite dangerous and hence, has to be used with utmost care. After all, the dangerous component that smokeless powder is, it can easily cause a disastrous accident.
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