History of Smokeless Ammunition

Discussion in 'General Gun Discussions' started by BringHomeTheBacon, Apr 20, 2022.

  1. BringHomeTheBacon

    BringHomeTheBacon member

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    Which cartridge guns (make, model, year, caliber) were the first guns to use smokeless ammunition in the following categories:

    1. American single-shot rifle
    2. American lever-action rifle
    3. American double-action revolver
    4. American single-action revolver
    5. American double-barrel shotgun
    6. European bolt-action rifle
    7. European double-barrel shotgun
    8. European pistol of any design

    I'm certain that when auto handguns, auto rifles, submachine guns, auto shotguns and over/under shotguns came out they were pretty much all smokeless by then. I doubt if there were any black powder pump shotguns and rifles.

    I would say that the transition to smokeless powders was the single greatest milestone in firearms history.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2022
  2. CapnMac

    CapnMac Member

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    Well, the French were first to the game with "The great Secret." Which lasted for about 7-8 months.

    Once smokeless was a 'thing' it was pretty quickly adopted. But, there were decades of having to distinguish "nitro" powders from "ordinary black."

    Cartridge loaded ammunition is in something of a tie with smokeless as a "greatest" milestone. We had any number of repeating firearms before smokeless. Which included any number of rimfire and pinfire as well as centerfire cartridges. Most of the "classic" revolver cartridges were established using black powder. Virtually all the lever arms out there, the rolling blocks and low/high walls, all used BP cartridges.

    Now, smokeless did let us reduce bore diameter and improved bullet velocities by significant amounts.

    And, really, smokeless powder is what really made self-loading firearms a near universal reality (the Maxim MG spoils this a bit in terms of timeline "neatness").
     
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  3. PapaG

    PapaG Member

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    There were BP shotguns and rifles. Win 1887, Colt Lightnings, Burgess and others. First smokeless lever, 94 Win in 1895 with the 30-30 and 32 WS.
     
  4. Pete D.

    Pete D. Member

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    Definitive reading (if you can find a copy) is George Hoyem’s four volume “The History and Development of Small Arms Ammunition.”
    There is also Hackley and Woodin’s “History of Modern U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition”
     
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  5. BringHomeTheBacon

    BringHomeTheBacon member

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    Besides the French, the Germans and Austrians played with the notion of smokeless powders and guncotton earlier on. It had some disastrous results, though. I just read it on Wikipedia. A Frenchman finally got it down pat in 1884 and the French, Germans, Austrians and other Europeans soon followed with guns suitable for this new propellant.

    My grandfather's 1962-vintage Husqvarna Model 3000 Crown Grade had ".308 Nitro" stamped on the side of the barrel. The Swedish government must have approved that bolt-action rifle for smokeless powder use. You see NITRO a lot associated with European calibers. I suppose many European hunters used BP long guns well into the 20th century that they had to be assured that modern long guns could handle smokeless powders once they decided to take up more modern firearms. I would never suspect that any bolt-action rifle or over/under shotgun made in America could not handle smokeless powders.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2022
  6. CapnMac

    CapnMac Member

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    Probably a safe bet. But, there were probably any number of SxS only built for BP loads.
    And there will be things built for the various "Sharps" calibers, or 45-70, 30-40, even the original 30-30 were al BP.

    That's part of the legacy of some of the cheap Spanish firearms, where they were made for, say, 32-20, which in BP is a very different loading than the smokeless 32s.

    JMB, the Mauser brothers, Hugo Borschardt, all started out with BP and had to adjust their designs and thinking when smokeless came around.
     
  7. Speedo66

    Speedo66 Member

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    The Swedes started using smokeless 68 years earlier in their 1894 Mausers with the fantastic 6.5x55 cartridge.
     
  8. Jim Watson

    Jim Watson Member

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    Although the Internet will freak out at the thought, the first smokeless powder shot in a revolver or shotgun was probably the day after the ammo hit the shelves, without regard to whether the guns were "rated" for it. My 1901 Sears catalog shows plenty of smokeless ammo.

    Really? It is my understanding that the 1894 rifle was first made in .32-40 and .38-55, it took until the next year for them to get smokeless ready for the .30-30.

    I wonder if Winchester built some Single Shots in .30-40 Krag before that.

    .32 Winchester Special is actually a 20th century cartridge, introduced 1901. It is commonly said that it was intended to be factory loaded with smokeless and reloaded with black.
     
  9. kcofohio
    • Contributing Member

    kcofohio Contributing Member

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    Here are some well done videos out of the U.K.
     
  10. BringHomeTheBacon

    BringHomeTheBacon member

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    Still, the ".308 Nitro" stamping on a 1960's Swedish bolt gun is interesting. For years, I've wondered what that NITRO really meant. Who would ever consider the possibility of a .308 cartridge loaded with BP anyway? The rifle actually chambered and fired .308 Winchester rounds. I have seen the term "Nitro" in a number of cartridge designations. I think it is in British and European calibers.
     
  11. Jim Watson

    Jim Watson Member

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    Nitro really means that it was proof tested for use with smokeless powder. You know, made of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine.
    It is not that the .308 Winchester was ever a black powder round - although I bet somebody, somewhere has tried it - it is that proof laws in European countries were established in the late 19th century and they had to make a distinction. And once you get something in the law, it is hard to change.
     
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  12. .455_Hunter

    .455_Hunter Member

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    That's correct- the .30-30 was intended to be smokeless from the beginning.
     
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  13. Pete D.

    Pete D. Member

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    Yep about the .30-30. You can find the info in "Cartridges of the World"
     
  14. TRX

    TRX Member

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    Paul Vielle of France invented the first practical smokeless powder and patented it. The patent was then taken by the French government.

    Black powder was always in short supply; it depended on potassium nitrate, which in turn was in even shorter supply. Small amounts could be leached from urine and fecal matter, but most of it came from caves or "guano islands" where birds deposited it. There were military "skirmishes" over a few of those islands.

    The powder shortage was serious; warships would sail with mostly-empty magazines and artillery practice was minimal. With Vielle's powder - which all modern powders descend from - France was able to make as much powder as they needed. It was a huge military advantage. And they weren't interested in sharing it.

    Britain and France had reciprocal recognition of patents, but since the French were uncooperative, the Brits started making unlicensed powder anyway. The French promptly retaliated... with lawyers that kept some of the Crown Court busy for years. Eventually a compromise deal was worked out, but Vielle's invention very nearly started another war between England and France.
     
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  15. Archie

    Archie Member

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    One of the rather interesting events of the day, and somewhat amusing in some regards.
    When the secret - France had developed a 'smokeless' powder substitute for 'black powder' - an arms race ensued. Everyone and everyone's dog HAD to have such a material. One notes various nations and 'secret laboratories' had been working on the concept for decades since the development of 'gun cotton' in 1845. The compound had great power available, but was rather sensitive and uncontrollable, similar in those regards to nitroglycerine. So the 'arms' race was to further treat the compound to make it more stable and control the burning rate. That was what was done first by Paul Vielle (a chemist, go figure).
    The resultant arms race was much like the atom bomb race of the 1950s. I do not recall any serious wars from the 'smokeless powder' fever, but all the nations capable sped up research into the matter.
    One should note there were - perhaps are still - several different compounds of 'smokeless powder'. Probably the most widely known is 'Cordite'. It is a form of futher treated nitrocellulose, but produced in long (roughly as long as the case will allow and still seat a bullet) strands instead of small bits.
    Another related history is that of the development of smokeless powder ammunition, in the form of cartridges. Why the custom moved from heavy bullets to lighter bullets. Why the change from larger to smaller calibers.
     
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  16. Jim Watson

    Jim Watson Member

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    Only "widely known" because of its persistence in mystery, adventure, and intrigue fiction. I don't know of anybody still making Cordite. Do you? It was a double base powder, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine, with additives like camphor to stabilize and Vaseline to reduce barrel erosion. Similar chemically to Ballistite, which may still be in production somewhere, but distinctive in being an uncut extrusion.
     
  17. Archie

    Archie Member

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    You are right as it happens.
    To answer the question about manufacture: No. I don't believe it is made anymore. (Perhaps in a barn in what ever the Afghanis consider their Ozarks.) The British used it for a couple decades and finally quit using it as there were better products available. I was trying to be short instead of long winded, but Cordite as a propellant tended to burn hotter than other compounds of nitrocellulose.

    And I agree, most people are aware of the substance due to fiction writing and movies. And precious few of those aware know any more about than the name and the mystique of a telling odor.
     
  18. TRX

    TRX Member

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    Ballistics of the smaller, skinnier 6.5 to 8mm bullets were better than the fat .40 to 50-ish bullets, but to be effective, they needed relatively high velocity. Black powder wouldn't deliver the desired performance in the smaller bores, which also fouled more easily and were harder to clean.

    Vielle's nitrated "smokeless" powder burned faster and cleaner, and the ballistics guys made prompt use of that.
     
  19. TRX

    TRX Member

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    Cordite was made at Pakistan Ordnance Factory up into the 1980s; I've shot .303 British from POF that had Cordite. The US Navy also used to use "chopped Cordite" bag charges for some of their cannon (which the Navy insists on calling "rifles") up into the early 1990s, but at least some of that propellant was made during WWII.

    Unlike some fancier propellants, Cordite is stable in extremes of heat and cold, and, if not impervious, then remarkably stable even after being in salt water. There are a number of reports of powder bags being salvaged after decades, dried out, and demonstrated as functional, though I don't remember anyone doing any ballistic testing.

    Cordite was sold under several different names; I'm not sure if that was marketing or different manufacturers. It also had several forms - the long strands you normally think of, "chopped" at various lengths, or "sheet Cordite", which was a flake powder like most reloaders would be familiar with.

    Cordite was also remarkably flexible; the British used it for almost everything, up to WWII anyway. Everything from cannons to pistol cartridges.

    Cordite mostly went away because it burned very hot, and it eroded barrels noticeably more than other powders. Enough that barrel replacement for British small arms was a regular thing. Switching away from Cordite was a maintenance cost thing, not a performance problem.
     
  20. TRX

    TRX Member

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    I don't remember the Cordite rounds I shot as smelling unusual, but I was shooting outdoors.

    The only smell I remember was some military surplus 5.56x45; Lake City headstamped, 1990s manufacture. I went to an (indoor) range with several loaded magazines; I fired eight or nine rounds and that was all I could handle. They *should* have used a ball powder equivalent to one of the commercial powders I was familiar with, but it was smoky and the smell would gag a maggot. It smelled like burning catbox chunks. The ammo was all properly crimped and had the factory sealed primers, and I knew there it came from; not reloads. Maybe it was stored somewhere hot and started to decompose. But... gaaaagggg...
     
  21. Jim Watson

    Jim Watson Member

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    Original Cordite contained more nitroglycerine than nitrocellulose, no wonder it was erosive.
    Cordite MD (MoDified or maybe ModifieD) reversed the proportions but was still pretty hot.

    I have heard of chopped Cordite but not sheet Cordite, although there was plenty of cut sheet Ballistite which is not enough different to worry about.

    Not only did the British use Cordite as propellant in all calibres, it could also be formed into solid rocket propellant and, with a bit of a booster charge, into demolitions explosive. (Some of the good old boys here said they had put a blasting cap in a can of double base Bullseye and had it go high order and eliminate the stump it was placed on. I'd have paid admission to see that experiment.)

    The longest lasting high NG American powder was Hi Vel No 2, which gave great accuracy by the standards of the day, but was hard on barrels, so most shooters were glad to get MR and IMR nitrocellulose powder.
     
  22. Old Hobo

    Old Hobo Member

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    Wooden bullets? Yep, they were blanks. I've read that when firing them, they can splinter. Out of curiosity, I bought some; hundreds of years ago it seems -- I'm very old. I never fired them. Curios.

    upload_2022-9-23_14-0-37.png Mercuric primers = cracked brass
     
  23. herrwalther

    herrwalther Member

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    7. European double barrel. This video on FW basically challenges a lot of what we think we know about firearms development. This is a cartridge firing shotgun invented in 1812.

     
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