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Nitrocellulose or Smokeless Powder

Nitrocellulose can also be called cellulose nitrate and this is the material of smokeless gunpowder, the substance developed by Paul Vieille in 1884. It was the first stabile and reliable propellant. Wood pulp soon became the preferred source of raw cellulose. Cotton linters can also provide a source of raw cellulose. These sources of raw cellulose have different properties so they are used and blended based upon the intended purpose of the finished product.

Smokeless Powder Made from Wood, 9-18-1919.

Smokeless Powder Made from Wood, 18 September, 1919.
Forest Products Laboratory, Madison, Wisconsin.
Photo: War Department.
National Archives and Records Administration.
Still Picture Branch; College Park, Maryland.

To make nitrocellulose gunpowder, nitrocellulose is dissolved in certain organic solvents such as an ether-ethanol mixture and it becomes a gelatinous mass. More modern solvents can also be used. When the solvents evaporate, a hard-plastic material remains. This gelatinous blob is usually rolled into sheets before it hardens. It can also be molded or extruded. After solidification, it is cut up into particles of various sizes and shapes. The size and shape of the flakes control the burning characteristics.

Nitrocellulose powders rapidly replaced black powder because when they burn, they produce a much higher percentage of gases than black powder. Consequently, they do not foul guns nearly as badly and they produce far less smoke (solids). That is why nitrocellulose powders are called smokeless powders. They tend to burn progressively, a factor that improves their performance as propellants. Smokeless powder contains more than 13 percent nitrogen and is about three times more powerful than black powder.

After nitrocellulose was formulated into a relatively safe and stabile substance, it rapidly replaced black powder as a propellant during the late 1800s. Black powder nearly disappeared from use as a military propellant by World War I. Nitrocellulose is the principle type of propellant used today.

The terrific explosion of the destroyer USS SHAW when her magazine exploded after being bombed by Japanese aircraft in the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941.

The terrific explosion of the destroyer USS SHAW when her magazine exploded after being bombed by Japanese aircraft in the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941.
Photo: United States Navy.
United States District Courts, District of Hawaii.
National Archives and Records Administration.
Still Picture Branch; College Park, Maryland.

Before nitrocellulose came into widespread use, black powder was called gunpowder, but after nitrocellulose replaced black powder, it began to be called gunpowder and black powder was called black powder.