Smokeless Powders, their use, and how to use them to your advantage when reloading

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Smokeless Powders, their use, and how to use them to your advantage when reloading

Category : Reloading

Smokeless Powders, their use and how to use them to your advantage when reloading

Black powder ruled the propellant world for centuries. A combination of sulphur, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), and charcoal. It was first developed by the Chinese in the 11th century AD. It was around, and in use for a long time, including through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and right up until the designs of the auto loading rifle. That was just as the 1st World War was happening. Old fashioned black powder has no use for modern center fire cartridge reloading. While the old rifle cartridge 45-70 Government was a 45 caliber (.458″ diameter bullet) case using 75 grains of black powder, it is commonly now reloaded using smokeless powders. Keep the black powder usage only for traditional soft lead ball type muzzle loaders, where you stuff a patch and a ball down the muzzle of a rifle or musket.

Cordite. While it kind of looks like spaghetti it is a slow burning smokeless propellant

Cordite was the first among a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom since 1889 to replace gunpowder (black powder) as a military propellant.



Current day manufacturing of smokeless powders falls into three types, as a function of their method of manufacturing. In each case, the chemicals which make up each formulation affect it’s burn rate. The adjustments to that burn rate are further enhanced by adjustments in the length, diameter, flatness, etc, of it’s physical size. Smokeless powders, in the open air, and not subject to any containment, burn slowly like crumpled paper or dry leaves. (Unlike the old black powder which burns very quickly, usually with a white flash. The old time photographers would use a tray full of very fine and custom modified black powder to illuminate their photographic subjects)

The three types of currently manufactured smokeless powders are:

  • Extruded or Stick Powder – This type of powder is made by mixing the base chemicals, and then extruding them through a round die, and cutting the pieces to a given length. These powders are almost nearly rifle powders. The smaller diameters and shorter lengths increase their burning rate.

    Extruded or Stick powders look like mechanical pencil leads. Pencil leads are made from graphite. Extruded smokeless powders are made from several base chemicals designed to burn at specific burn rates. Diamater, length, and chemical composition affect the burn rate of extruded stick powders.






  • Ball Powder – Depending on the formulation, ball powders can be used wither for rifle cartridges or for pistol cartridges. This powder is commonly made by spraying the base chemical formulations in a vacuum chamber, allowing the resultant shape to form into a round ball. These powders vary in burn rate by adjusting their diameter and chemical composition. The ball powders can also be adjusted for burn rate by sending the round balls through a set of polished rollers, making them flat and shiny.

    Ball powder in it’s simplest form. Ball powders commonly are formulated to burn at somewhat lower temperatures than other powder types, around 3200 degrees, F. While 3200 degrees F is still “plasma hot gas” temperature, it’s still easier on a barrel than it’s hotter alternatives





Modified or flattened ball powder from a rifle cartridge. These powders vary the burn rate by the diameter, flatness, and chemical composition. Modified ball powders are the best choice for new reloaders as the powder packs well in the powder dispenser, and flows like slippery shingles from a roof. It’s very easy to hold tighter than +/- .1 grain powder weights (that’s the resolution of analog and digital scales), making for veryu accurate groups.

A “modified ball powder” is the type made by flattening round ball powders to increase their burn rate.







  • The third type of powder is called, “Flake Powder”. It starts off in it’s manufacturing phase in sheets like paper, which is then punched out with cookie cutter type cutters to produce their flat round shapes. They are different in appearance (from flattened ball powder) due to their dull surface appearance.

    An example of flake powder. Notice it’s flat but dull appearance. They don;t slide as easilyb through a powder measure as the modified ball powders. Flake powders are nearly always pistol reloading powders.







  • Specialty types – Odd Shapes – Commonly available powders such as Unique have a sand crystal granular shape. While formulated to produce a granular size and burn rate suitable for a number of rifle and pistol cartridges, they are not as easy to accurately dispense as the modified ball powders. A light fluffy powder, which can be used for nearly any cartridge (fill the case right up to the base of the seated bullet, and it’s never over pressure) is a powder made by Hodgdon called, “Trail Boss”. It looks like light gray donuts. There are several other examples of odd shaped powders. While they each have a following and broad usage, they don;t meter as well as other powder types, when dispensed through a powder measure.

    A number of years ago, Alliant had to reformulate Unique Powder. The old style is on the right, the lew style on the left. It is a granular powder

    Unique Powder from Alliant Powders

    Trail Boss Powder from Hodgdon. “Don’t crush the donuts”

    Trail Boss powder is great for large chamberings like these 500 Special and 500 S&W Magnum cartridge cases. Even with a heavy bullet in place, the felt recoil is about what a 357 magnum would produce. See my article about loading for the 500 S&W Magnum for more details

















Choosing the correct powder has everything to do with following the guidelines in any current Reloading Data Guide for any given Cartridge/Bullet combination. Hornady, Speer, and many of the bullet manufacturers publish an updated version of their tested load data for a variety of powders for any given bullet weight in a cartridge size. I encourage you to have more than one reference source for this data. Not every bullet manufacturer tests every possible powder. Many of the powder manufacturers have tested load data also available on their web sites, including the leading manufacturers such as Hodgdon, Alliant, etc. If you find yourself not being able to find a tested load for any given powder/bullet/cartridge cvombo, call the powder manufacturer. They have a vested interest in keeping you safe. They will provide expert advice, based on solid scientific testing, and give you either safe starting and max loads for a given powder, or alternative powders to use if they feel that the powder you’d like to use isn;t safe or hasn’t been tested.

Some considerations for choosing what’s best for your cartridge
  • When a properly tested powder is selected for use from a reloading data guide chart, the powders are designed to burn completely inside the brass case, turning all of the powder into gas, before the bullet leaves the case mouth (neck).
  • The type of powder.
  • Stick powders stay jumbled in the powder sispenser. Sometimes the sticks stick out above the rotating or sliding dispensing feature of the powder dispenser and can get “chopped off” during dispensing. This chopping effect is safe. However, due to the shape of the stick powders, they don;t dispense as accurately as the modified ball powders when loading rifle cartridges. Please note that the large capacity rifle cartridges virtually always use only extruded or stick powders, due to the large volumes of powder in those cases and the needed burn rate.
  • Ball powders pack tightly in the powder dispenser and flow smoothly from the powder dispenser into the cartridge cases, making them a great choice for new reloaders, and reloaders seeking the best repeatable powder weight. Modified ball powders can be adjusted to provide average dispenses in the +/- .01 grain range (1/10th the ability of the scale for any one dispensing).
  • Flake powders, when used in their appropriate chambering/bullet combinations are about the same level of difficulty to dispense as the stick or extruded powders.
  • I try to use a modified ball powder for my pistol cartridges, and also that same powder type for rifle cartridges, when tested as safe. For example, I love using TiteGroup powder from Hodgdon in my 380 autos, 9mm Lugers, .40 S&Ws,  and 45 ACPs. It’s a very clean burning powder, in the shape of flat, dense, and shiny round shapes that pack tightly  and flow like slippery shingles into the cases. I also love using Hodgdon’s BLC(2) modified ball powder for most 223 Remingtons, 308 Win, and a host of other chamberings including: 303 Brit, 7.62 X 54R Mosin Nagant, and others where described in the load data guide book.
  • Some powders have to be used for some applications. For example, when loading 300 Blackout cartridges, Alliant’s Lil’Gun powder is amazing. Good for a wide variety of bullet weights in that cartridge, it produces an amazing level or accuracy in that small cartridge case. Lil’Gun was originally developed as a powder for use in reloading 410 shotgun shells (hence the reference to little guns). It’s a flake powder. For some of the big magnum cartridges, where it’s common to need 70-80 grains of powder in the cartridge, the stick powders are the only option. For the massive Lapua 338 Magnum with a 300 grain bullet, Reloder 33, made by Alliant, was developed by them specifically for that massive cartridge. It’s a stick/extruded powder.
  • Try using a powder which is readily available, and uses the least amount for a given cartridge bullet combo.
  • Choose powders which are usable across several cartridge platforms. A lot of powder cost is in the packaging. So buying a 5 or 8 pounder is much cheaper than buying 5 one pounders of a given powder. To justify a 5 or 8 pounder, you need to have sufficient usage. One powder for 3, 4, or five or more cartridges makes a lot of economic sense.
  • Avoid the pricey “designer powders”. Many of the manufacturers, in an effort to keep the crowd excited at every years, “Shot Show”, sometimes announce new formulations designed to do this or that. One formulation from a few years go were the line of CFE powders. It was designed to reduce the amount of copper fouling from the bullets in your lands and grooves. A bit pricier per pound, and not always as easy to get at a retailer, I think it makes more sense to use a standard and more available powder, and just clean your gun like you are supposed to.
  • High quality powders like the Vihtavuori  (made in Italy), are made to very exacting standards. However, they are commonly hard to find, especially in the larger container sizes, and priced about $10 more per pound than USA made powders. Some match pistol shooters wouldn’t consider any thing other than Vihtavuori  for their pistol cartridges, and don’t care that it costs more. But, a frugal reloader, who just needs cheap plinking powder can save money by choosing lesser expensive powders.
  • I suggest that when you make powder selections for your cartridge and bullet combinations, you bring a written note with you to your local retailer. Write down your top four choices using some of the criteria I have suggested. The manufacturers numbers start looking confusing when you are staring at all those containers. IMR 4350 is not the same as H 4350. So, with written list in hand, even if your first or second choices are not available, you can still make a purchase.
  • I really like supporting the small local reloading supply retailers. They are usually knowledgeable people who can help make suggestions for powder. Big Box store clerks do not need to be proficient reloaders to work there, and are never a good source for powder selection information.
  • Remember, sometimes even two reloading data books, each with the same bullet weight for a given powder, can have different test results for starting and max loads. When in conflict over powder loads, even from a reloable tested source, call the powder manufacturer and have them give you their latest tested data information.
  • Never, no not ever, use any load data that someone might post in some forum or user group for powder amounts. It’s one thing to make general statements like TiteGroup burns cleaner than Win 231 (which it does!). It’s quite easy, however, for some well intentioned person to give improper powder weights off the top of his otherwise well meaning head, which can quickly get you into trouble, pressure wise. So, please, only use published and properly tested load data from a reliable source such as the bullet or powder manufacturer directly.
  • Also, do not use OLD load data books for your current loading data. While the classic powders (IMR 4064 is an excellent example) are still made on the same machinery that made tyhen 50 years ago; the old IMR 4064 was made by vase chemicals and final formulation by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. No longer in existence as a base chemical or powder manufacturing company. They still exist as a holding company in Delaware. When  Hodgdon took over the manufacturing of those powders previously made by DuPont, they had to reformulate  them to provide a good approximation of performance. However, old IMR 4064 load data is no longer valid. Also, the method of testing has changed from the old dedicated barrel copper disk way of measuring approximate pressures (referred to in many of the old books as CUP, copper units of pressure). The new method is to epoxy a pressure transducer to the outside of a chamber, and measure the pressure much more accurately directly through wires to software on a laptop in the testing department. The results are measured in PSI (Pounds per square inch). That is more in line with the pressure limits for each cartridge as recognized by SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute). Additionally, I challenge you to find powder listings for recebnt cartridges such as 357 Sig, 500 S&W Magnum, and 300 Blackout in any 1970’s reloading data book. Spend the $35 to $40 or so for updated copies of the reloading data books published by the companies that publish them. Lymans data guide (currently their 50th edition) is especially good for cast lead bullet load data, primarily because they manufacture casting molds for the bullets.
  • My reloading class covers the selection and use of smokeless reloading powders in great detail. I’d advise taking my class, RL01, if you are seeking to get into reloading, and are confused by the deep subject of smokeless powders and their selection and use. It’s the area of reloading that most new reloaders stumble over. My class makes the subject clear and easy to understand. If you have questions about classes, or about powders, also feel free to call me at 386-753-8898.
  • Here are the numbers for the powder manufacturers:
    Hodgdon – 7:00am to 5:30pm Central Monday-Thursday : 913-362-9455
    Alliant – 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday (866) 286-7436
    Vihtavuori – They want you to install their new app. I can’t find a number for them
    Winchester Powders – Same as for Hodgdon
    IMR POwders – Same as for Hodgdon
  • Note: Companies such as DuPont, Hercules and other old powder companies are out of business. Do not attempt to use old powders you might find at yard sales and flea markets.

Click for details on my reloading classes

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