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Old July 16, 2012, 12:47 AM   #1
Willie Lowman
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What is the smell in gun powder? (not cordite)

All my life I have heard the smell of burnt gun powder as "the smell of cordite." The thing is, cordite hasn't been used in over 60 years.

If it isn't cordite, what makes that distinctive smell? Is it nitroglycerin?

If your answer is "that smell of burning gun powder is gun powder" please slap yourself in the mouth because I can't reach you from here.
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Old July 16, 2012, 12:55 AM   #2
Nine the Ranger
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It isn't just gunpowder?

Just kidding.

I had thought it was cordite, I was unaware that it wasn't used anymore.
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Old July 16, 2012, 01:44 AM   #3
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Quote:
If your answer is "that smell of burning gun powder is gun powder" please slap yourself in the mouth because I can't reach you from here.
Really, that is probably the best answer. It's most likely going to be the nitrocellulose, as I don't notice a significantly different smell between single base and double base powders. When talking single base powders, it's something like 95% nitrocellulose, so that smell of burning gunpowder really is just the gun powder.

Cordite is just the name of a double base smokeless powder used by the Brits a long time ago.
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Old July 16, 2012, 08:52 AM   #4
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"The smell of cordite" was used in the early days of smokeless powder to distinguish the odor from the smell of gunpowder, which referred to black powder.
The smells of smokeless and black powders are very different, for those who aren't familiar with both.
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Old July 16, 2012, 10:06 AM   #5
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So, would it be safe to assume that cordite being a double based propellant, 58% nitroglycerin, 37% nitrocellulose, and 5% Vaseline (according to wikipedea) that it would smell like other double based powders?

So "that cordite smell" really is "that gunpowder smell" (*smacks self in mouth*) ??

Image of cordite propellant from a .303 cartridge.
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Old July 16, 2012, 10:16 AM   #6
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I seem to detect a distinct ammonia smell when I shoot .223 that is not present with other centerfire calibers. Anyone know why that is?

I can shoot a .308, 22-250 and they have an odor that is not unpleasant.

As soon as I run .223 through a gun, that ammonia smell is back.

I am not the only one at the range who notices that.

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Old July 16, 2012, 10:21 AM   #7
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Geetarman, is this ammo you loaded or factory?

I know as soon as I take the cap off of my jug of Varget the entire room stinks of that stuff.
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Old July 16, 2012, 12:44 PM   #8
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Lowman,

This is factory .223. I first noticed the distinct smell when I bought a Mini14 and 1000 rounds of milsurp ammo. That was way back in the early '80s.

I never notice that smell with anything I load INCLUDING .223 that I load here at the house.

I wonder if it is some type of preservative in the powder.

I have burnt a lot of 4895, 4064, 4350, H380 and BLC(2).

They all smell pretty much the same and in truth, I like the smell.

Not so with the .223. Something, and I do not know what, is different.

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Old July 16, 2012, 06:07 PM   #9
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I love the smell of gun powder in the morning.

The smell of Cordite is an expression which like so many has worked itself into the Language and stayed after its real meaning has been lost.
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Old July 16, 2012, 07:06 PM   #10
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Different chemicals...

Willie Loman--There must be very different formulae available for the manufacture of smokeless gunpowder.

I know that the German precision ammo that one of my benchrest .22's likes, really STINKS when I fire it. Ugh. But, the rifle shoots it better than anything else, so I use the stuff. Can't really describe the smell, except that it is bad.

Most .22 ammo seems to have little or no odor when fired, at least on an outdoor range. And, for that matter, I haven't noticed any distinctive odor when firing center-fire ammo. That would include factory center-fire, milsurp ammo, and my own reloads, using several different brands of powder.

Now, real blackpowder, OTOH, smells of sulfur (Or is it SO2?) when shot, and that I know is because sulfur is one of its main components.

So: What is the smell of burning gunpowder? Well, now, I guess the best answer is that old medical-school chestnut: "It varies."
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Old July 16, 2012, 10:59 PM   #11
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If you want to experience a distinctive smell..try Eley .22 rimfire ammo.
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Old July 16, 2012, 11:05 PM   #12
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Burnt Cordite doesn't smell like burnt gunpowder. The sulfur in gunpowder gives it a distinct smell after firing.

I have noticed that different smokeless cartridges have different smells as well. I don't know if the combustion at different pressures accounts for this. Most of what I shoot is cast so I'm sure the lube is a lot of it.
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Old July 17, 2012, 01:13 AM   #13
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"Raw" nitrocellulose has no odor. It is the additives that that we smell.

One of the distinctive smells in many modern powders is dinitrotoluene. It is used to control the burn rate of the powder.

Another comes from the various amines that are used in some powders.
One example: diphenylamine, which is a stabilizer.

The amines are also the source of the "ammonia" smell that comes from certain powders, when fired.

And, ball powders often have their own scent that is distinctly different than flake or extruded powders. That smell is the byproduct of using ethyl acetate during production.


There are many other additives, as well; but those are some of the most common.
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Old July 19, 2012, 05:33 PM   #14
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I was going to start a post about ammonia smell but searched first and found this thread and one other. http://thefiringline.com/forums/show...hlight=ammonia

I experienced the ammonia smell today for the first time and it has me wondering, because I know that ammonia weakens brass. It occurred when I was shooting my 300WSM, but only with Federal factory loads, not with Winchester factory loads. The smell was strong enough for me to go "whoa" the first time I shot the Federal ammo. Different powder possibly? Both loads have 180 grain bullets and shot to the same POI at 100 yards.

My intention is to reload these cases, so should I toss the Federal ones? I didn't notice the smell last year when shooting, and I bought the ammo last year so it's only about a year old. I did shoot some of the Federal rounds last year too, but like I said I didn't notice the smell at that point. I still have the box with the lot number that I can contact Federal on, but I'm just wondering if anyone has any experience. I didn't think the ammunition would go "bad" in a year. Thanks.
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Old July 19, 2012, 06:10 PM   #15
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If you want to experience a distinctive smell..try Eley .22 rimfire ammo.
I have never shot Eley rimfire ammo but Aquilla rimfire with "Eley Priming" leaves a distinctive acrid odor when you shoot it, Wolf MT .22 rimfire has the same odor. I always attributed it to the primer.

Paper shotshells also have a distinctive kind of acrid odor when you open up the gun and eject them, an odor that's unique to paper shells.
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Old July 19, 2012, 08:07 PM   #16
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My intention is to reload these cases, so should I toss the Federal ones?
No. They'll work. You can smell ammonia at much, much lower concentrations that is required to weaken brass. No ammonia condensed on the brass so no problem.
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Old July 20, 2012, 07:07 AM   #17
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The good news I'm awake now, the bad news is my mouth hurts from the slap

Seriously, I shot some Russian stuff that stunk like burnt hair to me. And as others have noted, most Ball powders seem to smell "sharper". I've never thought about what caused it.
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Old July 20, 2012, 08:33 AM   #18
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No. They'll work. You can smell ammonia at much, much lower concentrations that is required to weaken brass. No ammonia condensed on the brass so no problem.
Thanks
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Old July 22, 2012, 02:05 PM   #19
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I doubt cordite has ever been used in US production. And when you do smell someone using cordite loads, it's quite different to modern stuff (which is probably nitro-cellulose)
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Old July 22, 2012, 07:41 PM   #20
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Cordite is only used in Europe. The US uses powdered granules. I've never smelled fired Cordite but I do love the sweet smell of C4 & fired gunpowder. Beautiful.
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Old July 23, 2012, 01:11 AM   #21
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To hell with the scent... The head rush of inhaled nitroglycerin? Shear heavenly bliss.
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Old August 8, 2012, 09:15 AM   #22
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FrankenMauser: I'm curious as to what/where your statements on the smell of nitro come from. I work with reasonably large quantities of nitro and have done so after stabilizers were stripped away (yes, that was a bad thing and it only happened once). I didn't notice any significant difference in that lovely, lovely smell (although I confess that in that situation I wasn't doing any serious analysis of smells... I was just trying to safe the situation). Further, after reading this thread I asked a coworker of mine - who for about 5 years worked in ATK's NG production plant in Magna - if I was smelling stabilizer or nitro. His answer was that both had their own smell.

And so I ask because I'm curious.
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Old August 8, 2012, 11:11 AM   #23
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Collodion is a coating used on some powders, particularly double base stick form, and is the second "base". The incomplete ignition of collodion is one of the more distinctive stenches, akin to a bad catalytic converter. If you are loading H335, this probably isn't what you're smelling. If it's a stick, like 4064, look around for unburnt powder. Unburnt collodion looks like tiny maggots, as the internal component can burn out, leaving the collodion like a limp noodle. With enough neck tension, or dare I say crimp, powders burn much cleaner due to higher start pressures.
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Old August 8, 2012, 11:34 AM   #24
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I never knew that unburned nitrogycerin had any sort of distinctive odor but if dogs can sniff out explosives it certainly makes sense that it would have an odor.
I know that it acts as a drug that dilates blood vessels.

Allegedly, TNT is pretty toxic and there were a lot of health issues with people who handled it in the bomb making factories during the war.
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Old August 8, 2012, 05:22 PM   #25
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Quote:
Further, after reading this thread I asked a coworker of mine - who for about 5 years worked in ATK's NG production plant in Magna - if I was smelling stabilizer or nitro. His answer was that both had their own smell.
Nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin are very different beasts. ATK's Bacchus (Magna) and Promontory sites only deal with the latter.

I was referring to nitrocellulose, if you scroll back up.
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