Properties and storage of smokeless powders

Smokeless powders, or propellants, are essentially mixtures of chemicals designed to burn under controlled conditions at the proper rate to propel a projectile from a firearm. Smokeless powders are made in three forms:

  1. Thin, circular flakes or wafers
  2. Small cylinders
  3. Small spheres

Single-base smokeless powders derive their main source of energy from nitrocellulose. The energy released from double-base smokeless powders is derived from both nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine. All smokeless powders are extremely flammable by design, they are intended to bum rapidly and vigorously when ignited. Oxygen from the air is not necessary for the combustion of smokeless powders, since they contain sufficient built-in oxygen to burn completely, even in an  enclosed space such as the chamber of a firearm.

In effect, ignition occurs when the powder granules are heated above their ignition temperature. This can occur by exposing powder to:

  1. A flame such as a match or primer flash.
  2. An electrical spark or the sparks from welding, grinding, etc.
  3. Heat from an electric hot plate or a fire directed or near a closed container even if the powder itself is not exposed to the flame.

When smokeless powder burns, a great deal of gas at high temperature is formed. If the powder is confined, this gas will create pressure in the surrounding structure. The rate of gas generation is such, however, that the pressure can be kept at a low level if sufficient space is available or if the gas can escape. In this respect smokeless powder differs from blasting agents or high explosives such as dynamite or blasting gelatin, although smokeless powder may contain chemical ingredients common to some of these products. High explosives such as dynamite are made to detonate, that is, to change from solid state to gaseous state with evolution of intense heat at such a rapid rate that shock waves are propagated through any medium in contact with them. Such shock waves exert pressure on anything they contact, and, as a matter of practical consideration, it is almost impossible to satisfactorily vent away the effects of a detonation involving any appreciable quantity of dynamite.

Smokeless powder differs considerably in its burning characteristics from common “black powder”. Black powder burns essentially at the same rate out in the
open (unconfined) as when in a gun. When ignited in an unconfined state, smokeless powder burns inefficiently with an orange-colored flame. It produces a considerable amount of light brown noxious smelling smoke. It leaves a residue of ash and partially burned powder. The flame is hot enough to cause severe burns. The opposite is true when it burns under pressure as in a cartridge fired in a weapon. Then it produces very little smoke, a small glow, and leaves very little or no residue. The burning rate of smokeless powder increases with increased pressure.

If burning smokeless powder is confined, gas pressure will rise and eventually can cause the container to burst. Under such circumstances, the bursting of a strong container creates effects similar to an explosion. For this reason, the Department of Transportation (formerly Interstate Commerce Commission) sets specifications for shipping containers for propellants and requires tests for loaded containers – under actual fire conditions – before approving them for use. When smokeless powder in D.O.T. approved containers is ignited during such tests, container seams split open or lids pop off – to release gases and powder from confinement at low pressure.

Recommendations for Storage of Smokeless Powder

STORE IN A COOL, DRY PLACE. Be sure the storage area selected is free from any possible sources of excess heat and is isolated from open flame, furnaces, hot water heaters, etc. Do not store smokeless powder where it will be exposed to the sun’s rays. Avoid storage in areas where mechanical or electrical equipment is in operation. Restrict from the storage areas heat or sparks which may result from improper, defective or overloaded electrical circuits.

DO NOT STORE SMOKELESS POWDER IN THE SAME AREA WITH SOLVENTS, FLAMMABLE GASES OR HIGHLY COMBUSTIBLE MATERIALS. STORE ONLY IN DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION APPROVED CONTAINERS.

Do not transfer the powder from an approved container into one which is not approved.

DO NOT SMOKE IN AREAS WHERE POWDER IS STORED OR USED. Place appropriate “NO SMOKING” signs in these areas.

THE STORAGE CABINETS SHOULD BE CONSTRUCTED OF INSULATING MATERIALS AND WITH A WEAK WALL, SEAMS OR JOINTS TO PROVIDE AN EASY MEANS OF SELFVENTING.
DO NOT KEEP OLD OR SALVAGED POWDERS. Check old powders for deterioration regularly. Destroy deteriorated powders immediately.

OBEY ALL REGULATIONS REGARDING QUANTITY AND METHODS OF STORING. Do not store all your powders in one place. If you can, maintain separate storage locations. Many small containers are safer than one or more large containers.

KEEP YOUR STORAGE AND USE AREA CLEAN. Clean up spilled powder promptly. Make sure the surrounding area is free of trash or other readily combustible materials.
The above information has been provided with permission from SAAMI: SPORTING ARMS AND AMMUNITION MANUFACTURERS’ INSTITUTE, INC. P.O. Box 838, Branford, CT 06405.