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Ballistite is a smokeless propellant made from two high explosives, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. It was developed and patented by Alfred Nobel in the late 19th century.


The development of smokeless powders

Gunpowder, or black powder (Poudre N, Poudre Noire), as it was also known, was for about a thousand years the only practical propellant. However, there were two major tactical disadvantages attached to the use of black powder. Firstly, a squad of soldiers firing volleys would be completely unable to see their targets after a few shots; and secondly, their own location would be obvious because of the huge cloud of white smoke hanging over them.

In 1886, a French chemist, Paul Vieille invented the first smokeless powder, called Poudre B (Poudre Blanche = white powder). It was a great improvement over black powder.

Poudre B was made from two forms of nitrocellulose (collodion and guncotton), softened with ethanol and ether, and kneaded together. It was three times more powerful than black powder and it did not generate vast quantities of smoke.

The reason that smokeless powders are smokeless is that the combustion products are mainly gaseous, compared to around 60% solid products for black powder, i.e. (potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, etc).

Poudre B was therefore immediately adopted by the French military; but it tended to become unstable over time, as the volatile solvents evaporated, and this led to many accidents. For example, two battleships, the Iéna and the Liberté blew up in Toulon harbour in 1907 and 1911, respectively.

Military adoption of Ballistite

Alfred Nobel patented Ballistite in 1887 whilst he was living in Paris. It was composed of 10% camphor and equal parts of nitroglycerin and collodion. The camphor reacted with any acidic products of the chemical breakdown of the two explosives, but it tended to evaporate over time, leaving a potentially unstable mixture.

His patent specified that the nitrocellulose should be "of the well-known soluble kind". He offered to sell the rights to the new explosive to the French government, but they declined, largely because they had just adopted Poudre B. He subsequently licensed the rights to the Italian government, and opened a factory at Avigliana, Turin in 1889.

The Italian Army swiftly replaced their M1870 and M1870/87 rifles, which used black powder cartridges, to a new model, the M1890 Vetterli, which used a cartridge loaded with Ballistite.

As Italy was a competing Great Power to France, this was not received well by the French press and the public. The newspapers accused Nobel of industrial espionage, by spying on Vieille, and "high treason against France". Following a police investigation he was refused permission to conduct any more research, or to manufacture explosives in France. He therefore moved to San Remo in Italy, in 1891, where he spent the last five years of his life.

Patent infringement claim against Great Britain

Meanwhile, a government committee in Great Britain, called the "Explosives Committee" and chaired by Sir Frederick Abel monitored foreign developments in explosives. Abel and Sir James Dewar, who was also on the committee, jointly patented a modified form of ballistite in 1889. This consisted of 58% nitroglycerin by weight, 37% guncotton and 5% petroleum jelly. Using acetone as a solvent, it was extruded as spaghetti-like rods initially called "cord powder" or "the Committee's modification of Ballistite", but this was swiftly abbreviated to Cordite.

Nobel sued Abel and Dewer over patent infringement; it eventually reached the House of Lords in 1895 but he lost. The claim was lost because the words "of the well-known soluble kind" in his patent were taken to mean soluble collodion, and to specifically exclude the water-insoluble guncotton.

Cordite, Ballistite and Poudre B continued to be used in various different armed forces for many years, but Cordite gradually became predominant.

Ballistite is still manufactured as a solid fuel rocket propellant, although the less volatile but chemically similar diphenylamine is used instead of camphor.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Ballistite". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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