The History of Gunpowder

Part 3

Educational Video Series

The History of Gunpowder – Part 3

In the final part of the three-part look at The History of Gunpowder, Chris talks about the need for a new kind of powder. As firearms and strategic warfare evolved, black powder became less suited to these tactics. Enter smokeless powder. This new substance led to a turning point in history for civilian and military applications of gunpowder and its components.

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Hi, I’m Chris, Firearms instruction, Chief Range Safety Officer and Marine Corps veteran with Mission94 Firearms Education Center. Today, we’re going to wrap up our conversation about gunpowder. 

Have you heard the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention?” Invention and innovation is driven by the need to improve something you have. If black powder was good, how can we make it better? The answer? Smokeless powder. Let’s see why there was a need for improvement. 

Black powder, or traditional gunpowder, came onto the scene with a bang. It triggered huge developments, particularly in warfare. But as firearms evolved to become more powerful and stealth became more important in warfare, the drawbacks of black powder became clear. 

When shot, a firearm using black powder produced lots of smoke. As military tactics evolved, the smoke began to pose a problem. It would cloud the shooter’s view and give away their position. 

Black powder also left residue in the firearm. Over time, this residue would build up and contribute to unreliable performance. When reliability is essential, the remaining residue became a matter of life of death. 

And so, the search for a better version of black powder began. 

In 1884, a French chemist named Paul Vieille found the answer. He called it “Poudre B” nut we have come to know it as smokeless powder. 

His concoction, was 3x more powerful than black powder, and although not entirely smokeless, produced significantly less smoke than black powder. More power and less smoke combined to improve the shooter’s visibility on his target and made firearms more reliable and accurate. 

Smokeless powder triggered a revolution not only in firearms design, but in the world overall. 

A component of the new smokeless powder is a substance called nitroglycerine. Alfred Nobel put this versatile chemical to work through the creation of dynamite and propelled advancements in construction, demolition and mining. 

But that’s not all it was used for. Doctors found that nitroglycerine helped alleviate chest pain and began prescribing small doses to treat a variety of cardiac ailments. 

In the world of firearms, the cleaner burning smokeless powder enabled new developments like bolt-action rifles and eventually self-loading firearms, marking a big leap in firearm technology. These advances significantly increased the capabilities of the common soldier. 

The transition from black powder to smokeless powder marked a turning point in history. In civilian applications and the world of firearms, smokeless powder and its components helped shape the modern world. 

Join us next time as we explore the mechanics of firearms and firearm types

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