View Full Version : Old Powder
Ervery once in a while someone asks how long does powder stay good...
I have a bunch of powder that my Father in Law bought many years ago. When he died I got all the reloading stuff and put it away. A few days ago I cam across a can of AL5 marked Herter's Mitchell S.D. and it was priced at $2.50. I looked in my jurnal and found where we had loaded that powder in 45 Colt in 1972 and got a velocity of 825 fps. Just for grins I loaded the same load the other day and shot it over the chronograph for an average velocity of 818 fps from a 5 1/2" bbl. Not bad for powder that was old when I first used it in 72. This powder was stroed in a wooden cabinet in Dad's closet and I don't think the can had been opened since the mid 70's. I have similar cans of Imr powders and some W/W Ball that dates the same and I am eventually going to try it all out, but so far it pretty much follows my experience thet if it smells like powder it will shoot no matter how old it is. The oldest powder I have tested was FFG black from cases marked 1882. 70 grains of this stuff pushed a 405 grain bullet at 1285 fps from a 28" bbl Sharps. 38 grains of this same powder pushed a 230 grain bullet at 840 Fps from my 45 Colt pistol. Tis is close enough to published velocity to show almost no deterioration.
05-06-2005, 07:48 PM
I heard or read somewhere that blackpowder got more potent or more dangerous the older it got.
05-06-2005, 08:25 PM
The more nitroglycerin the powder has, the longer it will last. Most fast pistol powders have upwards of 20 percent, and even some have up to 40 percent. That new donut powder approaches or is equal 40 percent, and that I just read on the website. With nitro that high, you can store the powder in water and just dry it out before use. Many lifetimes worth of storage, that stuff is without doubt. Be leary of single base powders of not giving full power with age. However, the smell of solvent, usually ether in dupont/imr powders, indicates full power powder. Double base powders, if stored way too hot, will turn reddish-brown and should be discarded if expected velocity has fallen off too much. Only the single base powders are sensitive to water vapor. All are sensitive to heat. I don't know anything about black powder, except for what I have read, and that 'tain't much. ... felix
05-06-2005, 08:48 PM
I don't mind using old powders myself. Generally, they're OK as long as they're not clumping together or emitting sour or nitrous odors.
I've shot Pistol #5, SR-80 and IMR-1204, just to get a feel for "the old days." Thought I'd lucked into an unopened can of Scheutzen #1 once, but it had been cleverly resealed over about 12 oz of Pyrodex P. Luck of the draw...
In reference to black powder...
I do a lot of restoration work and about 1 /3 of all the guns brought in are loaded with something. I have pulled shot and powder from guns wadded with newspaper and one had a date of 1862. The powder in all cases burns and the pile from the 1862 musket was still good enough to be lethal if re loaded into a gun. In my experience evenif black powder gets wet it will still go when it dries. If stored dry it will be good for up to 100 years. Good meaning that it will deliver enough energy to make a lethal load. My work with the 45-70 and 1882 cartridges indicates that in 110 years the powder lost about 40 fps from published data of the 1880's.
05-07-2005, 07:53 AM
Long time ago I read in Guns & Ammo where the writer was talking about an old cap n ball pistol that an old lady had given a fellow, saying she didn't want it in her nightstand drawer anymore. When he received it, it was loaded. She had recounted how many many years that she had that gun and some history of it and it appeared it was loaded since back in the late 1800's some time. So the gentleman decided to run a test. All he did was removed the old caps and put new fresh ones on and fired the pistol. He said all six chambers fired and there were no hangfires. Apparently bp is pretty stable stuff as far as keeping it's usefulness.
You are right about after it gets wet and then drys it still works. I made a slurry of it for nitrating paper. When the paper was dry it worked as suppose to.
05-14-2005, 12:38 PM
When smokeless powder deteriorates with age, you might expect it to get weak, but it usually does the opposite, making excessively high pressures. Read an article a few years back about the reason. Denitration of the nitrocellulose does cause a small loss of energy, but the more important effect is that the nitrocellulose molecules break, reducing the molecular chain length. This process makes the powder grains brittle. They fracture more on firing, increasing the burning surface area, and the pressure goes up. A lot of stored powder and ammo has been retired, sold as milsurp or destroyed when tests show it's getting too "hot."
I've got a batch of 1942 Turkish 8x57 that I'm just a bit leery of as it often shows primer flattening and sticky cases, with several punctured primers.
05-14-2005, 03:02 PM
Interesting. I wonder if that is the reason that the WC-820 many of us purchased acts more like AA-9 than the WW-296/H-110 it is supposed to emulate?
05-14-2005, 03:21 PM
When I was in high school (1960) (yeah, I know I'm old), I got hold of a M1917 Smith and a bunch of half moon clips. A friend had three of those old 20 round boxes of .45 ACP ball. We fired every round and they fired just fine. It was headstamped 1917 and to my calculations, that's 43 years old. Even smokeless lasts a while if its stured and dry.(Yeah, it was corrosive as all get out).
Most of the old civil war stuff is still good as well. I was hunting coins with a metal detector back in the 70s and had friends that hunted civil war battlefields. They're recover artillery rounds and demil them. Most of the black powder was at least still burnable and thats over 100 years stored in the damp and including climate changes in the ground./beagle
05-14-2005, 03:50 PM
As Felix indicated, Nitro powders will last a long, long, long time if properly stored. I have a can of Laflin & Rand "Sharpshooter" that was manufactured between 1898 and 1902. It still smells aok and gives velocities in my .22 W.C.F. and .44 W.C.F. that are comparable with the original loadings.
If that Schutzen can is in good condition it is worth $100-$200 and that's without the powder. In my case, I found a fellow that had a can of Schutzen who wanted to keep the can but didn't care about the powder so I bought it from him. Interesting stuff. According to Phil Sharpe it's DuPont Bulk Smokeless No. 1 but colored green. I've used it in the .22 W.C.F. and .44 W.C.F. A capacity load dulicates b.p. velocities. A case capacity load in the .30 W.C.F. (16 grs.) is a nice mid range load and was recommended in Marlin's 1897 manual.
I have found pretty much the same with black powder. I ran some circa 1890's W.R.A. Co. .44 W.C.F. black powder cartridges ( after changing the primers) across the chronogaph and they were almost dead on to the Winchester published velocity of 1,245 f.p.s. circa late 1890's.
History sure is interesting!
Ballistics in Scotland
05-15-2005, 12:11 AM
As long as black powder looks like it originally was, it at least very nearly is what it originally was. If it got wet enough to destroy the grain structure, it could be that the saltpetre was carried to one side of the mass, and if water actually leaked away too, some saltpetre may be actually gone. I can imagine that exposure to heavy humidity might leave you with grains in which the saltpetre distribution is uneven. But in general, severe deterioration isn't much of a problem.
With smokeless, a lot depends on exposure to the atmosphere, and possibly to ultraviolet light. I picked up nitrocellulose strips from Iraqi artillery charges in Kuwait City, after they had been in the open for about four years of extreme sunlight, and they were almost as hard and brittle as toffee. But it would have taken some very special sort of vibration to break up granules made of powder in a similar condition. When ignited, they burned only about as well as any other plastic, which of course they were, and a lot less than nitrocellulose film stock used to. Conceivably a lot of motor or air transport after deterioration might do it, but I don't think this is a common condition.
Large stocks of powder in arsenals are regularly tested, originally by putting some in a jar with a piece of chemical testing paper which will detect nitrous vapour, and timing how long if ever the colour takes to change. They probably have something more expensive nowadays. In general powders are far more likely to lose power through deterioration than to gain it, or become dangerously unstable. After all, it is giving out some of the things it would give out in intentional combustion.
The trouble is that heat is one of these, and granules with air-spaces are a good insulator. When powders are stored in very large quantities, heat can build up in the centre, from which it doesn't escape quickly enough. Arsenal esplosions have happened this way. I'm not sure whether the heat rose enough for a simple cook-off, triggered some kind of spontaneous combustion, or caused a double-base powder to exude beads of nitroglycerin which can be mechanically triggered, as higher-nitroglycerin blasting explosives are well known to do. I think we are safe with cartridges or reloader-sized canisters, though I wouldn't leave them in a dark-coloured box in strong sunlight.
I don't know that nitroglycerin protects powder very much. After all, cordite, with a nitroglycerin content which started at 58% and was reduced to 36%, had 5% petroleum jelly for the purpose of reducing water absorption. (With a civilian short-grain powder it was found to make quite a difference to the velocity of succeeding shots, but that was an accidental byproduct.) W.W. Greener tells how some ungelatinised and fibrous guncotton was disposed of by burying in the Rotherhythe Marshes, and many years later it was recovered and would burn well when dried. It would presumably still explode when ignited with a detonator, and he records elsewhere that wet cartridges of fibrous guncotton could be exploded as well as dry.
I once read an interview, I think in the NRA Gunsmithing Guide Updated, with the gunsmith for an American military pistol team. His advice, which was a shade strange in the circumstances, was largely for the amateur not to attempt any kind of gunsmithing. He also offered the curious advice that it was necessary for the reloader to recognise the different types of powder by sight, when unlabelled. I bet some of you can think of a better method. I think a better rule is not to attempt this. Powder found in old cans should be experimented with, in circumstances where no mistake is liable to do you any harm. People do use the wrong can to store things. Maybe they will remember, but the knowledge dies with them.
05-15-2005, 02:10 AM
.............If not subjected to tempurature extremes, and usually it higher temps, powders in tightly sealed cans may last for a long long time. Primers on the other hand appear to be much more suceptable to deterioration. An article I read once was titled something like "100 years old and still deadly" had to do with some old 43 Spanish ammo produced in the mid 1870's.
Those tried that did fire had varying lengths of hang-fire problems. Of personal experience was a quantity of old stick cordite loaded Kynoch 577-450 ammo. The rifle ammo was from an intact full wooden crate and the carbine ammo was from a partial crate opened at some unknown date in the past. Both had been sitting in a barn, as the info had been related to me.
In most instances the ammo DID fire. Some was of the click-bang type and others were of the click (frying bacon sounds) bang, type. I disassembled several of the rifle cartridges for bullet and patch measurement purposes, and the long string cordite (still flexable) was put up in new Bertram cases with Win LRP's and fired. Went off without a hitch. Probably 80% of the Kynoch ammo produced neck splits of varying length when fired.
05-15-2005, 05:53 AM
Interesting. I wonder if that is the reason that the WC-820 many of us purchased acts more like AA-9 than the WW-296/H-110 it is supposed to emulate?
Just guessing, but I would say that is mostly related to different production "lots" of powder. Bartlett had two different batches of WC-820 for sale at one time, one was PD the other virgin stock. One listed the loading in 30 Carbine was 13.5 grains and the other was 14.0. That is a pretty hefty change in a small case to provide the "same ballistics". Like any other volume producer the guvmint buys a big . . . BIG batch of powder of a general specification, test loads to a pressure/velocity/accuracy spec and runs the entire batch as a "lot".
Jeff told me one day way back that there was one powder that varied so much from lot to lot that he was greatly surprised that the government would accept some of the "lots". Though most folks think of that powder as two burning rates and one site lists two, there are three very different rates.
05-15-2005, 08:28 AM
My late father in law's stash contained a number of old powders that worked normally for me. Thanks to Gordiie's surplus I was still using up his Hv-2, H240, Du Pont P-5066, etc. in the late 1980s. He had stored his powder cool and dry. I have also shot a lot of old military ammunition. With two exceptions it behaved as intended. A Few rounds of 1930's German 8 x 57 showed high pressure sixty years later, and the famous .43 Spanish that many of us fired in the late fifties was about 75% misfires. Of course, Ye Olde Hunter was selling 75 year-old ammunition that probably had been in Cuba and the Phillipines!
05-15-2005, 09:29 AM
I suspect you're correct, just sort of putting my "think outside the box" tendencies out for a test drive.
I really reduce loads the first time I use a surplus powder, and the lot of WC-820 was no exception. Its first test drive was in the (then) newly-acquired Ruger Blackhawk 41 Magnum, and the low-end H-110 loading data used with the WC-820 produced some pretty hefty recoil. Subsequent chronography showed 210 grain JHP's at 1450 FPS, which was 150 FPS faster than predicted outcomes. Well within Ruger safety margins, but still unexpected. In this case, conservative loading practices paid off--and I'm real glad my buddy's S&W M-57 x 4" wasn't exposed to them.
Ballistics in Scotland
05-16-2005, 01:51 PM
I think most of the old cartridges mentioned would have had primers containing a mixture of potassium chlorate and fulminate of mercury, and the proportins may have varied a good deal. Chorate is pretty stable stuff, but the fulminate, besides attacking brass, becomes insensitive relatively quickly.
05-16-2005, 09:42 PM
I'm guilty of scrounging and using very old components. I never use them in hunting situations, but for plinking and range shooting.
I'm working on using up about 12,000 primers that a friend found at a garage sale and sold to me for $4 per brick. All are CCI, and the original purchaser had written the purchase date on each brick. The oldest were from 1973, and the newest from 1979. So far, I've used about 2500 of these primers in various guns, and not one misfire, hangfire, or problem of any kind.
Years ago, my elderly neighbor gave me several hundred rounds of .45 ACP that had headstamps indicating it was WWI military ammo, made at Frankford Arsenal. Every round functioned normally, however some of the empty brass was split, and I was leary of trying to reuse the brass and threw it all away.
I also inherited some 70 years old powders from my Grandfather. They were pistol #5, and some Unique in the old "salt shaker" square brown colored cans. All of that powder functioned normally, however in those days I didn't yet have a chronograph to check velocity.
05-17-2005, 03:54 AM
I have some 7.62 x 53R Finn VPT ammo (same as 7.62 x 54R Russian) loaded in 1939 and 1940 that still works. Although like Curmudgeon and Ricochetâ€™s German and Turkish 8 x 57 Mauser ammo of the same era, it is getting a bit squirrelly pressure-wise. Their German and Turk ammo, as well as my Finn ammo, are all loaded with the same type of powder manufactured in Nazi Germany, and because of that their similar behavior is not too terribly unusual. My buddy who used to have the gun store over in Fillmore (California) has some 8 mm Lebel loaded in 1918 that still works, and I seem to recall that the Lebel used a powder very similar to Cordite in composition, which of course has a very high nitroglycerine content. His old Lebel ammo has a pretty high rate of misfire, though, and when it does go off it is like Buckshotâ€™s click-bang and frying bacon ammo.
Like has already been said, black powder is very well proven to keep for over a hundred and fifty years when kept cool and dry. It will probably keep for several hundred years, and judging from the evidence of its very slow rate of deterioration it will probably keep for a thousand. I have also read about the so-called increase in strength with age of black powder, and from my experience its burn rate does go up quite dramatically. I have a few United States Army issue .45-70 carbine rounds loaded with 55-grains of ffg that were made in 1885. In 1989 I pulled down two of them to test and play around with, and the powder burned so fast it actually went off with a pretty good pop just sitting in a loose pile on a brick. It wasnâ€™t a loud bang like a .380 makes, but a pretty good noise that would definitely fit under the description of â€œexplosionâ€. I compared the burning characteristics with some Dupont ffg that was made in 1973 and the difference in burn rate was rather astounding. The old stuff even burned faster than some new flintlock priming powder. So, just taking a wild guess, ffg would maybe get up to ffffg burn rate after maybe 50 or 100 years, depending on storage temperature. By the way, a fast burn rate does not mean there is more energy, just that what energy is there is released faster.
Back in 1989 when I was playing around with the .45-70 carbine ammo from 1885, I was talking to NRA technical advisor and chemist Dennis Marshal (now retired technical editor of the American Rifleman/American Hunter) and I mentioned to him how fast the powder burned in comparison to new stuff. We ended up doing an armchair analysis of why black powder changes with age, and after examining the characteristics of its ingredients we came up with a pretty plausible theory of just what goes on with it. Black powder stores best if kept dry and below about 60Â° F. At about 78Â° F the sulfur will sublime (evaporate without turning into a liquid first) approximately twice as fast as at 60Â° F and very slowly migrate out of the powder grains to the grain surfaces and onto the walls of the cartridge or container it is in. At 115Â° F the sulfur actually begins to mobilize on a large scale, so that temperature is the absolute upper limit that black powder should ever be exposed to for more than a few weeks at the very most. Also, black powder becomes a lot more sensitive to shock and friction while it is that hot, and it is getting into the realm of being more dangerous at that temperature than it already is.
For anyone with a bit of background in chemistry or physics, the scientific principles involved here are the â€œLaw of vanâ€™t Hoffâ€ and its related process of â€œGibbs Free Energy Lawâ€, and these take place because all matter prefers being in large chunks instead of small ones under the conditions when heat or other stored energy can be given off when the change from small size to larger size DOES NOT involve a chemical reaction, such as combustion or other change of oxidation state. In freshly made black powder grains, the sulfur is mostly in very small crystals, but because sulfur sublimes at ordinary temperatures, a very tiny amount of it also exists as a gas, which is why you can smell it. When the molecules of the sulfur vapor recombine due to a drop in temperature and/or an increase in pressure, they always reform into larger crystals, and in the process they give up heat. The net amount of heat given off is a tiny amount more than the input heat it took to make it sublime into a gaseous state. In this case, almost all of the extra heat given off is the heat from the work it took to grind up the sulfur when the black powder was compounded, milled, and corned. Eventually, perhaps in many, many hundreds of years time, enough of the sulfur will leave the black powder grains to weaken its strength, but not before another process takes place that increases its burn rate besides also strengthening it bit. The over all picture here is that black powder will get faster and even a bit more powerful, then after that process has stopped it will slowly wind down and lose strength as the sulfur separates from the mixture and leaves the composition. The formula used for making almost all black powder since around the year 1600, or so, is by weight: Saltpeter 75%, charcoal 15%, and sulfur 10%, which is the formula Monsieur du Pont de Nemours used at his powder factory in France before Thomas Jefferson invited him to live in the United States to keep his head out of the guillotine, and consequently was adopted for use in the United States when du Pont became the main manufacturer of gun powder in the United States. However, the range that the composition can vary and still be quite powerful is amazingly broad. For instance, Canada used a formula of Saltpeter 75%, charcoal 12.5%, and sulfur 12.5%, and plenty of grizzlies were taken with it as well as the Mounties still â€œalways got their manâ€ when a gun had to be fired to â€œget himâ€. So, quite a bit of the sulfur has to migrate out of the powder composition before having any great effect.
The finer the particle size of the saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur in the black powder, the faster it burns. In seasoned older black powder that burns faster than when the same batch was new, the sulfur crystal size is what is responsible for the increase in burn rate. What happens is that the sulfur particle size decreases instead of getting bigger like it is supposed to according to the Law of vanâ€™t Hoff and Gibbs Free Energy Law. The reason why the sulfur does the opposite of what it is supposed to do is also from the Law of vanâ€™t Hoff and Gibbs Free Energy Law being at work, but in this case it involves the charcoal and not the sulfur. The reason why some of the sulfur crystals get smaller instead of bigger like they should is because charcoal made from organic matter like wood, nut shells, or other forms of cellulose, has a really weird property, which is called â€œactivation energyâ€. The activated charcoal particles are able to adsorb the sulfur molecules when tiny amounts of it sublime into vapor, and this sulfur gas is trapped and stored as a captured gas on the inside surfaces of very tiny cavities in the charcoal grains. When some of the sulfur becomes trapped in one of the activated charcoal cavities, the activation energy contained in the cavity is released as heat. It is theorized that the cavities in the charcoal are actually located between groups of carbon atoms that are in the form of randomly layered graphite molecules, so they are very, very, small. In fact, it is also theorized that the size of the cavities is just slightly larger than the sulfur gas molecules and it is the cavity size that allows the charcoal to capture certain sizes of molecules and not others. In physics the phenomenon is sometimes referred to as "resonant cavity theory". By comparison, the sulfur particle size in freshly milled black powder is of enormous size. This ability to adsorb gases like this is why charcoal works so well for making gas masks for things like getting paint thinner fumes out of air from when you spray paint something, or for protective anti-gas suits for our soldiers to protect them from Sarin or other poison gases that are released into the air. The amount of sulfur in the black powder that becomes stored as a captured gas increases with its age, and with part of the sulfur in this highly divided condition, the combustion is then able to proceed much more efficiently and swiftly. Eventually all of the activated cavity sites in the charcoal get full of sulfur, so beyond that point the powder begins to lose strength as the sulfur escapes and segregates from the saltpeter and charcoal of the mixture and re-deposits on the grain surfaces or the walls of its container, slowly going down hill in energy content and burn rate.
Gunpowder in the Western World has been around since 1249 AD, so to find out if it lasts a thousand years weâ€™ll have to test some powder from Tibet, where it has been around for probably 3000 years. Either that, or weâ€™ll have to wait another 244 years for 2249 to roll around if there is any powder in existence that Roger Bacon or Berthold Swartz made. The powder that the Tibetan monks made in the north of India has a problem, though, their formula from 1000 years ago uses honey as one of the ingredients, and that would change the sulfur behavior a bit. By the way, sugar, which of course honey is, does work excellently as an ingredient in saltpeter-based gunpowder, and nowadays it is used as a pretty good rocket propellant. See the home page at:
and the sugar formulas at:
05-17-2005, 05:19 AM
Great post, Lindstrum
05-17-2005, 07:35 AM
Amen. Nothing more needs to be said, Lindstrum. You got it all! ... felix
05-17-2005, 08:56 AM
Lindstrum is right on, I worked at a chemical plant that dealth with just sulfur. We turned soluable sulfur into insoluable sulfur. The solvent for we used for sulfur is CS2..carbon disulfide...really nasty, smelly stuff. We made this insoluable sulfur for the the rubber volcanizing industry exclusively. One thing I thought funny about sulfur is that when it's melted (which of course we had to do to pump it around) is that's coal black then. The stuff had an ability to leak throught the best pipeflanges and gaskets too. We had a petrochem furnace where we heated the sulfur to 936 degs. Our final product was in a powder form and because of static electricity we had alot of explosions and fires. We had one fellow, that was a bagger (put the material into 50 lb bags) that conducted so much static electricity in the winter, that we had to ground his body. He would hook a wire to his clothing with an alligator clip. Fumes in the plant were pretty bad, most hydrogen sulfide. Anything copper/brass alloy would turn black. Pennies in your pocket would turn black after three days or so. Even your brass keys would turn black. Number one cause of dealt in the plant was heart attacks and it was because of the CS2 solvent which attacks the central nervous system. Out of about 20 of my fellow employees and friends that died, 18 died from heart attacks. The others were cancer. I got out of the place before I got too much exposure. If I were making BP I sure would have had alot of sulfur I could have gotten my hands on.
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