In the late 1800s, countries raced to make smokeless gunpowder. The result changed the face of battle.
The story of smokeless gunpowder begins in Switzerland, in the impeccable kitchen of Frau Schönbein. One fateful day in 1845, her husband, Christian, a professor of chemistry at the University of Basel, was absentmindedly toying with a vial of nitric acid and spilled it over the kitchen table. Worried about his formidable wife’s reaction, Schönbein mopped up the mess with a cotton apron, which he tucked away near the stove to dry. She would be none the wiser, he congratulated himself. Then the apron exploded.
A year later, the professor addressed an august gathering of scientists on his technique of treating cotton with nitric and sulfuric acids. Journalists reported his findings, and overnight Herr Professor Schönbein and his nitrocellulose—soon dubbed guncotton—were famous. In its November 1846 issue, Scientific American commented on this “curious discovery,” jocularly warning that henceforth ladies in cotton dresses “who travel by railroad will have more than ordinary occasion to ‘beware of sparks.’ ”
Events took a more serious turn when amateurs tried to make their own guncotton. One loaded his old gun with 12 grains of guncotton (less than a quarter of his usual gunpowder charge) and rammed a ball down on top. “On discharging the rifle, about five inches of the breech end of the barrel together with the lock, were completely blown to pieces,” he told the magazine. “One piece weighing eight ounces was carried through the roof of the building.” And a Mr. J. H. Pennington, who had been “trying to fly for two or three years,” pledged that he would turn himself into a human rocket by strapping on a few pounds of homemade guncotton. His fate remains unknown.
To the military, guncotton seemed as marvelous and revolutionary an innovation as would the atomic bomb a century later. Experts were amazed at its sheer explosive power. Army officer Alfred Mordecai, the leading American ordnance specialist, conducted tests and reported that “gun-cotton seems to produce in the musket an effect equal to about twice its weight of good rifle-powder.” Muzzle velocities climbed beyond all expectations, topping 2,000 feet per second for military-issue shoulder arms. Since the advent of the Brown Bess musket in the first half of the 18th century, these had hovered between 900 and 1,350 feet per second.
Military men also liked that guncotton fired cold. With regular powder, a rifle barrel after shooting 45 rounds heated up to 144 degrees Fahrenheit—too hot to touch. But scientists found that with guncotton the barrel temperature reached just 128, and then only after firing 75 rounds. Moreover, British researchers discovered that even after submerging a wad of guncotton in water for 60 hours the stuff still “possess[ed] all its original inflammability and strength” once it dried out. Unlike gunpowder, which needed to be stored bone dry, guncotton could be moistened and transported with no risk of ignition from a stray spark. Equally important, armies could now fight in the rain, or at least in damp conditions, extending the traditional summer campaigning season into the fall and spring.
One more advantage of guncotton seemed to ensure that traditional black powder would be rendered obsolete: Schönbein’s kitchen discovery was smokeless. When fired, it produced only a slightly bluish transparent haze around the muzzle that dissipated in seconds. Soldiers in combat would no longer be shrouded in thick, gray smoke, forcing batteries and regiments to shoot almost blindly. Guncotton’s advocates excitedly predicted that old Napoleonic tactics would give way as armies adapted to greater visibility on the battlefield. Guncotton—used in newly developed long-range muskets with rifled barrels—would necessitate greater emphasis on flexible small-unit movement and individual marksmanship as traditionally dense formations grew increasingly vulnerable to accurate artillery.
By clearing the air, in other words, guncotton threatened to muddy once-still doctrinal waters.
Despite the amazing promise of smokeless powder and the ambitious claims of the military avant garde, the transformation of war would have to wait. Not a single army adopted Schönbein’s innovation at first, as serious problems soon emerged. It turned out that no firearm could handle successive guncotton loads without buckling, for guncotton burned far faster than gunpowder, creating ferocious pressures that ruptured breeches, burst barrels, and sheared off rifle grooving. Even manufacturing the guncotton proved dangerous: Several European factories blew up, leaving scores dead. By 1850, production of the miracle material had been almost wholly banned in Europe.
Interest did not fade entirely, however. Chemistry was the exciting Victorian equivalent to today’s biotechnology, and the burgeoning field was attracting the brightest minds to networks of new government-funded research institutes and universities, many closely linked to national armies and navies. These chemists faced a host of obstacles to realizing guncotton’s potential. Producing and weaponizing gunpowder required only stirring together its three basic ingredients—sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter—in standardized proportions. So straightforward was the process that armies often traveled with barrels of each and simply combined them just before battle. Producing guncotton was a much more complicated affair. Since its constituent parts were bound organically together, manufacturing it for military use required an expensive laboratory, specialized chemicals, heavy equipment, highly skilled technicians, and at least three weeks of intensive monitoring, purifying, and processing, followed by meticulous refining, grinding, sieving, drying, seasoning, blending, and packing of the nitrated cellulose.
Perfecting the process was a tall order, but laurels and fame awaited the chemist who succeeded. The Austrian general Wilhelm Freiherr Baron von Lenk, a confidant of the Habsburg emperor, maintained a secret, officially sanctioned project to investigate using guncotton as a bursting charge in howitzer shells and was soon testing guncotton cartridges for small arms. In 1863, Theodore Canisius, President Abraham Lincoln’s consul in Vienna, learned of Lenk’s work and secured several experimental cartridges to ship home. The army’s Ordnance Department in Washington recommended purchasing the rights to Lenk’s purification process. But after analyzing the results, Ordnance evidently concluded that Lenk had been far too optimistic, for that was the last anyone heard of guncotton until 1879, when the department confidently reported that it would remain too unstable for military service use in the future.
There were, accordingly, any number of red faces when, just five years later, Paul Vieille, a young French military chemist, unveiled Poudre B—guncotton that had been gelatinized by ether-alcohol and shaped into small slabs for easy cartridge loading. Poudre B slowed guncotton’s furious burn rate, thereby regulating the pressure buildup and at a stroke making smokeless powder a viable propellant.
Soon afterward, a state-owned French manufacturer introduced a new rifle designed specifically to work with Poudre B. Called the Lebel, it was the first smokeless service weapon, and it astounded the world. The New York Times dubbed it “the most vicious small arm in existence.”
The Frenchman’s innovation sparked a frantic powder race among the other European powers. Within a few years, most had managed to catch up by hook or by crook—mostly crook, as Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, discovered to his chagrin. In 1887, after Nobel patented ballistite (guncotton gelatinized with nitroglycerin and camphor), Frederick Abel of Britain’s Royal Arsenal begged for a few samples to conduct research. Abel soon produced a knockoff called cordite. Nobel, livid at the betrayal, sued (unsuccessfully) for patent infringement.
Diplomatic intervention was another option to elicit guncotton’s secrets. When in 1890 the Russian naval ministry asked Dmitry Mendeleev, inventor of the original periodic table, to develop a smokeless powder, he traveled to France to visit its government explosives experts, only to have every door closed to him for reasons of national security. (So highly classified a state secret was Vieille’s process that it wouldn’t be publicly divulged until the 1930s.) Fortunately for Mendeleev, France and Russia were at the time negotiating a military treaty to counter the threat posed by the 1882 Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. In the spirit of bilateral friendship, the Russian ambassador prevailed upon the French war minister to allow the scientist to witness a demonstration and take home a two-gram sample of the precious substance.
Unable to procure any guncotton abroad by fair means or foul, the Americans lagged behind their European rivals. In 1889, the Ordnance Department grimly confessed that its every attempt to produce a viable smokeless powder had failed. In the early 1890s, U.S. Navy chemist Charles Munroe came close to saving national face by deriving indurite, otherwise known as naval smokeless powder, but it could not be put into production owing to scaling-up problems and other issues.
Humiliatingly, Ordnance was obliged to invite private industry to join the quest. Ever since the Civil War, Ordnance staffers and businessmen had regarded each other with contempt. The sides had originally fallen out when the department refused to countenance issuing repeating rifles to Union troops. Its controversial rejection of James Lee’s advanced magazine-fed rifle in the 1880s—some thought it too radical a change—had further poisoned the atmosphere; Lee was so incensed by his treatment that he sold what would become the Lee-Enfield to the British. For their part, Ordnance officials noted that several major gunmakers had recently gone bankrupt, which didn’t speak well for their ability to manage the army’s needs.
Now, thanks to the turmoil created by the desperate desire for smokeless powder, these rivals were forced into competitive cooperation, with surprisingly beneficial results. By 1893, shortly after Ordnance and the companies began collaborating, the army was set to approve its first rifle to use smokeless powder, and the larger firms, assured of lavish government contracts, were forging ahead with improved forms of powder.
Recalling the hard-won lessons of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, when soldiers had suffered grievously from ammunition shortages, Ordnance divided its production requirements among several private manufacturers—each prepared to expand capacity upon the declaration of hostilities. Quite remarkably, the government had by 1898 succeeded in stockpiling what it optimistically believed to be a sufficient supply of domestically made smokeless—some 4,500,000 cartridges.
In many ways, the arrival of smokeless powder heralded modern war. Before Schönbein’s kitchen accident was successfully adapted for military use, no repeater rifle could cope with the high-caliber, high-powered military loads, which generated tremendous heat and stresses during rapid fire. But guncotton’s elimination of temperature issues made smaller rounds possible, prompting armies around the world to adopt infantry rifles that could fire and reload quickly.
In the United States, the venerable .45-70-405—a .45-caliber bullet charged with 70 grains (4.5 grams) of black powder and weighing 405 grains (26.2 grams)—gave way to the .30-40-220, a pipsqueak of a bullet at the time. The U.S. Army in 1892 selected as its service weapon the Krag-Jørgensen, a repeating bolt-action rifle from Norway, then the famous M1903 Springfield about a decade later. Both guns helped weaken the military’s traditional emphasis on conserving bullets and husbanding one’s shots.
Naturally, ammunition expenditure soared. While Union soldiers at Gettysburg had been ordered to carry 60 cartridges, experts in the late 1890s reckoned 175 rounds should be standard issue, with 300 the minimum if a battle was in the offing. It only went up from there. By the time the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, American manufacturers were producing 525,000 pounds of smokeless per day. By that time nearly the entire world had gone smokeless.
The race to develop and stockpile smokeless powder—combined with the new, insatiable appetite for ammunition—also birthed an early military-scientific-industrial complex. All the powder chemists, even those privately employed, were tied to military-aligned government institutions—arrangements that contributed to the idea that modern warfare required coordination between government, its research affiliates, and corporations.
On the battlefield itself, smokeless powder helped destroy the old-world style of fighting. The vivid and distinctive uniforms of the previous era disappeared, along with such medieval relics as the glittering gorgets, breastplates, and buckles that had for so long been the soldier’s pride. In their place came dull khaki, gunmetal gray, and olive drab, all the better to camouflage soldiers now startlingly visible in smokeless terrain. The U.S. Army relegated its Revolutionary War–style dark blue to strictly formal use in 1902, and the British even abandoned their famous red coats for khaki.
Despite the attention traditionally lavished by military historians on such 19th-century developments as the introduction of the rifle-musket, the relative decline of cavalry, and the rise of artillery, smokeless powder was clearly one of the signal influences on the transformation of warfare between 1865 and 1918. Indeed, as early as the Spanish-American War, the first conflict in which smokeless powder was deployed to any degree, the shock of the new order was already evident. The U.S. Army at the time was still largely dependent on traditional gunpowder, but a British correspondent noted that the Spaniards were using smokeless powder—and giving the Americans fits: “It was almost impossible to say exactly where some of their batteries were placed, for there was nothing but the flash to guide one, and that is a poor guide on a sunny day. One of the American captains of artillery spent most of the day searching for a battery on the side of a hill which he was expected to destroy. The smoke lay in front of the American guns in the almost still air, and made prompt and opportune firing difficult.”
“One of the lessons of the day,” he concluded, “was the inestimable value of smokeless powder.” With that, even Frau Schönbein, notwithstanding the loss of her apron, might have allowed herself a moment of pride in her husband’s accidental achievement.
A military historian and former journalist, Alexander Rose (www.alexrose.com) is the author of Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring and American Rifle: A Biography.
Originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.