Smokeless powder basics

Widener’s has a web page and video Guide to Smokeless Powder (via email from Anne Taylor at Widener’s where I buy some of my reloading supplies). The basics are explained at a superficial but useful level:

Smokeless powder may be the most important component for any shooter who is reloading ammo and it’s probably the most complicated as well. With different characteristics and a ton of variables, gunpowder needs to be fully understood before you attempt to reload ammunition.

This guide will take you through the basics of reloading powder, show how all smokeless powder is not the same and demonstrate how the different characteristics of powder can make your reloads more effective depending upon your intended purpose.

I liked the video in particular (but check out the web page as well) because I have had people insist smokeless powder in open air will go up in a flash from a spark. My experience attempting to use it for recreational purposes in such a fashion was quite disappointing. This video is consistent with my experience. It’s tough to even ignite smokeless powder and, in open air, it burns slowly.


8 thoughts on “Smokeless powder basics

  1. Neat. I’m reminded of the old story that you can use C4 as cooking fuel. I’m not sure if that is accurate.

  2. I think the operative word is “burns”, it does not explode. Black powder is much more “flashy”. Years ago, at a Scouting campfire, we had an old timer who was a “mountain man” come in and tell some of the American Indian stories about the stars. He capped it off by shooting his muzzle loader, while a hidden helper, while all the attention was drawn to the shooter, lit a trail of powder that led to the unlit campfire. The helper didn’t realize that black powder would flash, and his face was only about 2 feet above the powder when it ignited, causing 1st degree burns to much of his face and 2nd degrees burns to small areas around his eyes. Fortunately, no permanent damage, but black powder does FLASH!

  3. black powder is an explosive, though some say it burns progressively but, it will detonate without the aid of a pressure vessel.*** something to remember.

    by contrast, in open air, cordite will barely burn. put it in a pressure vessel, and it is a different breed of cat.

    *** e.g., without being confined in a limited space.

  4. What? That was it? I thought that was going to be just the introduction, and then it was over.

    Yes, (to those of you who don’t speak the language of gunpowder) powder comes in different “burning rates”, each designed to operate “politely” within one range out of a vast range of different pressures, depending on the gun and it’s cartridge.

    A very good example of that concept is the octane rating of gasoline– a high compression engine wants a slower burning fuel. The reason why is very simple; more compression means higher pressure and higher pressure means higher temperature, and higher temperature means the chemical reaction will go faster, and since in this case the chemical reaction is what makes the pressure, the pressure and temperature will go higher still, and at some point the reaction goes way out of control and the engine gets hammered with spikes of extreme pressure. We call that a “ping” and it’s really rough on the engine.

    When a gun “pings” it might explode like a pipe bomb, and therefore using a powder with the correct burning rate for the cartridge is critically important. Low power cartridges operating at relatively low pressure, like those used in small caliber pistols, need a faster powder than the large, extremely powerful rifle cartridges. You fill a large rifle cartridge case with that fast pistol powder, seat a bullet in it and fire it, and you’re going to have a very bad day. You load using the very slow power intended for a magnum rifle into a little pistol cartridge case, and you’ll get a very underpowered shot because the powder won’t hardly get to burning before it’s pushed out the barrel.

    This is why it’s critically important to keep track of which powder you have in your powder dispensers in your loading room. When a friend died a while back (of natural causes), we found large unmarked containers of gun powder in his loading room, and so it had to be thrown out because it was an unknown powder.

    OK, so maybe one person will have learned something there.

  5. On the other hand, shotgun powder will flash, I had a friend in collage who reloaded his own shells in his room. One evening he had one of those ‘hey guys, watch this’ moments and proceeded to toss a match into a small quantity of powder he had left over in the cup he had finished dipping his powder from. Well….it ‘flashed’ as high as the ceiling with enough heat to melt the nylon fishing line his roommate used to hang his model airplanes he constructed as a hobby. Several prized models crashed to the floor…. it was a flaked ‘Dot’ powder.

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