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.
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
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.
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.
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.