What’s the Difference between Gun Powder, Black Powder, and Smokeless Powder?
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See the full explanation below.
Invented by the Chinese, also known since the late 19th century as black powder, was the first chemical explosive and the only one known until the mid-1800s. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). The sulfur and charcoal acting as fuels, while the saltpeter works as an oxidizer.
The formula for basic Gunpowder is as follows:
75% saltpeter (5 parts)
15% softwood charcoal (1 part)
10% sulfur (2/3 of 1 part)
These ratios have varied over the centuries and by country, and can be altered somewhat depending on the purpose of the powder. For instance, power grades of black powder, unsuitable for use in firearms but adequate for blasting rock in quarrying operations, is called blasting powder rather than gunpowder with standard proportions of 70% nitrate, 14% charcoal, and 16% sulfur; blasting powder may be made with the cheaper sodium nitrate substituted for potassium nitrate and proportions may be as low as 40% nitrate, 30% charcoal, and 30% sulfur.
Improvements were made my DuPont around 1863 and changed the formula of gunpowder used in ammunition and explosives due to the high cost of importing saltpeter.
Chemists developed a process using potash or mined potassium chloride to convert plentiful sodium nitrate to potassium nitrate. This process was sensitive to things like moisture, humidity, and conversion and the process had to be tightly controlled to get a quality product.
The term black powder was coined in the late 19th century, primarily in the United States, to distinguish prior gunpowder formulations from the new smokeless powders and semi-smokeless powders.
Black Powder continued to be refined by grades through 1970 for use in replica firearms.
In 1911 DuPont developed semi-smokeless powder for Winchester for the use in 22 and 32 caliber firearms. This was known as Lesmok Powder.
The development of modern smokeless powders is the name given to a number of propellants used in firearms and artillery which produce negligible smoke when fired, unlike black powder which they replaced. Smokeless powder can only be produced as a pelletized or extruded granular material. Alfred Nobel invented a smokeless propellent called ballistite. It was composed of 10% camphor, 45% nitroglycerine, and 45% collodion (nitrocellulose). Over time the camphor tended to evaporate, leaving an unstable explosive, known commonly as dynamite.
Unlike basic gunpowder invented by the Chinese, modern smokeless gunpowder formulas vary depending on use: Firearms, Artillery, or TNT.
Making modern smokeless powder is very dangerous and requires controlled environments, knowledge of explosives and chemistry.
Important Safety Note: If you are reloading your own ammo, buy the recommended smokeless powder and primers for the type of caliber or gauge your are making.
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