As most of you know our original gun powder was called black powder and was a mixture (mechanical) of sulfur, charcoal, and nitrate usually in the form of salt peter. this was only marginally successful and very tricky to mix without exploding. It is historically recorded that China invented gun powder however if you read about the travels of merchants in this ancient time period you will find gunpowder being sold to the Chinese. Somewhere along the line someone tried to mix the three ingrediants with some liquid to keep them from exploding and surprisingly it worked and also made a superior powder. In practice the ingrediants are mixed in a paste and spread in a flat container. After drying they are broken up in small pieces. This is called corning. and a small, all brass machine does the grinding up of the cornned powder. It then is run through various screens each one coarser than the first and the powder particles that drop out are graded by the screen that they will pass through. The screens are called "fines". So the fines count backward with 4 Fine being the finest and 1 Fine the coarsest. 1 F was the big chunks and used in cannons. 2 F in large guns 3 F in pistols and small caliber rifles and 4 F used as priming for flint locks. There was actually a 5 F but it was so instable that it was thrown back into the pot as was the larger chunks that would not go through the 1 F screen and recorned. The 5 F was sometimes used to manufacture fireworks. The black powder era lasted for over 600 years but its limitations soon had chemists working to replace it. One reason was, you had to have a large bore to use black powder so you could get off more than a few shots without having to clean out the accumulated crud. Large bullets did not go as far or as fast as small bullets. It took the development of organic chemistery to give the means to achieve the goal of a clean gun powder. The side effect was also less smoke which endeared it to the soldier hiding in the woods.
The first breakthrough in explosives was done independently by a couple of European professors in 1845 and 1846. It was discovered by them that the action of concentrated nitric acid on natural cellulose fibers ( usually common cotton) was to rearrange the atoms and add oxygen and nitrogen molecules to the cellulose. Called nitration. On ignition the cellulose nitrates separate explosively into carbon monoxide,
dioxide, hydrogen, nitrogen and steam. These gases expand to a much greater volume than the solid nitrocellulose. And the action releases considerable heat which further increases the volume of gases. Unfortunately the reaction was uncontrollable and unpredictable so for a while nitrocellulose (also called pyrocellulose, gun cotton) was only used in explosives. About 1870, celluloid was invented. It was an early plastic and was a break through in controlling the burning rate of nitrocellulose. That is something isn't it. First came plastic and then came gunpowder. Now you can say paper, plastic or gunpowder and be correct. Of course the clerk at the check out will not have the foggiest idea what you are talking about. It took 14 years later before the French chemist Vieille, applied this discovery to manuracturing smokeless powder. This propelled France to the top of the military heap. And had the other countries scambling to catch up. He found that nitrated cellulose fibers could be colloided into a gelatinous substance with a mixture of alcohol and ether (don't try this at home laddies) It then was rolled into thin sheets (does this sound familiar "corning") cut into flakes and then the solvents evaporated. The dried flakes were strong, elastic and most important burned only on the surface at a much slower rate than the untreated material. This was the final basic development that made modern smokeless propellents possible.
Later discoveries that the buring rate could be controlled by the granule shape and by the addition of additives and coatings that functioned as a sort of temporary fire proofing of the powder granule and further slowed its burning rate. One unexpected benefit from the deterrents was that they reduced the flame temperature of the burning powder and thereby reduced barrel erosion and gave longer barrel life.
There is more to the gunpowder story as the saga is not over yet. The invention of double base powders and substitute black powders are chapters in themselves. I have always been interested in guns and to learn their history and beyond is a added pleasure and appreciation of their uniqueness. Hope you enjoyed this history lesson.
I am sure most of you have some idea of how to reload. If not then get a good reloading manual and read the thing until you get to the loading table. That should get you started.
But as an old reloader I have learned a few things along the way.
Let us assume you are starting with a single position press.
This is the way I do it:
1. Clean all cases.
a. If you have a vibrator bowl type case polisher
you can just dump them in and turn it on but I
like to go through them and check for rocks,
other cases inside the brass, and make sure they
are all the right caliber case. (.380 cases can
sneak into the batch of 9 mmL)
b. If you don't have a brass polisher then the least
you can do it is put them in very hot water
and shake them and stir them with some dish
soap in the mix. Use hot water so they will dry
c. Then for a single station press I size and decap all
my cases in a batch. My batch is usually about
d. Then I expand and flare all the cases if they are
pistol or straight sided rifle.
e. Then I Prime all the cases using a hand held
primer. A hand held prime seater is a necessity.
And they cost very little. I like the Lee because
of it's ease of changing shell holders. Then comes the place where I differ from the books and from all the gun writers. They all say you should hold the shell holder block up and fill every empty shell. And then they say, be sure and look into every case to make sure you have not double charged any.
And I say. Why charge all the cases at once and take a chance on double charging them, not to mention the chance of bumping the loading bench or loading block and spilling all the powder. After I have all my cases sized, expanded,primed and ready to load, I just pick one case up at a time and charge with powder, put a bullet in the top, and seat and crimp. The case never leaves my hand from the time I pick it up, charge with powder and seat and crimp the bullet. No double charge is possible. I find that I can go very fast with this last stage of reloading. In an hour or so I can complete the last stage of loading of 500 rounds or so of ammo. You can buy little labels to put on your box of reloads and I urge you to do that. Do not think you can remember what that load was. I have two ways to keep my loads. The first one is a 3x5 card index that I write the load on and file under the cartridge name, the other is a book that has two cartridges per page to write all the information on. And I also write it on the box with stick on labels that are available for a couple of dollars.
Next up on the board I will tell how to work a progressive press (two different types)