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Smokeless Powder


The technology of the shooting world has seen many improvements over that last century and a half, but no improvements compared to the transition made from black powder to smokeless powders. First introduced in the 1880’s, smokeless powder quickly became the popular of the two because of it being much cleaner and efficient than its black powder cousin. The performance of all firearms was greatly improved, as well as many lives saved due to it being much safer to produce.

Smokeless Powder

The creation of smokeless powders began in the mid 1800’s with experiments with gun cotton. Essentially, developers exposed wood and cotton fibers to nitric acid. While it wasn’t a suitable replacement for black powder, softening the gun-cotton in ether or alcohol produced the crude first edition of smokeless powders. Since then, modern smokeless powders have improved greatly.

Smokeless Powder Types

There are essentially two types of smokeless powders available to reloaders today; single base and double base. Single base powders are essentially only nitrocellulose while double base powders add in nitroglycerin, increasing the energy it produces. Both have their uses, though reloaders tend to have their personal favorite.

The Unexploding Truth

The common misconception with smokeless powder is that is explodes inside the cartridge. However, unlike black powder, which explodes when unconfined, smokeless powders do not explode. Instead, it burns at a rapid rate, producing a large amount of gasses in an extremely short amount of time. This gas, when confined in the cramped space of the gun’s chamber, is what pushes the bullet out of the chamber and through the barrel.

The faster the burn rate of the powder, the faster the gas is produced, meaning the faster the bullet is expelled from the gun. In fact, most smokeless powders have the ability to cause a bullet to go from zero to Mach 2 in the short 26 inches of a centerfire rifle.

Powder Shapes

Smokeless powders come in several different grain shapes. Mainly, these shapes are either flakes, cylinders, and spheres. All ball, or sphere, powders are double base while flakes and cylinders can be either.

Also, in addition to being classified by shape, smokeless powders are also categorized by their use. Yes, there are powders made specifically for you in rifle, shotguns, or pistols. However, veteran reloaders have the knowledge and experience to crossover powders.

Burning Rate

The rate at which the powder burns plays a major role in the performance of the round. While it might be true for some things, faster isn’t always better when it comes to a powder’s burn rate. To control this burn rate, there are several methods available to a reloader, the first of which is the size of the powder grains.

The larger the actual powder grains, flakes, or spheres are, the slower the powder will burn. Secondly, the composition of the chemicals can greatly influence how fast, or slow, it burns. The third way is to increase the surface area of the grains of powder. One would think that the bigger the grain of powder, the larger the surface area. However, most cylindrical powders are hollow, lowering the surface area.

Remember, the burn rate of a powder is not consistent over every caliber; it varies depending on how confined the space between the case and bullet is. It’s for this reason that veteran reloaders will use a different powder for each round.

As always, start off by using the powder recommended in the reloading manual. When it comes time to experiment with different powders, do so in small increments.