The More You Know: Black VS Smokeless Powder

If you are a fan of Star Trek – The Original Series, the title picture needs no explanation. If not, I’ll indulge you: In episode 19 ‘Arena’, Captain James T. Kirk is left on a seemingly desolate planet to fight a reptilian enemy known as The Gorn. Both Kirk and The Gorn are weaponless, meaning that the Star Fleet Captain is outmatched by an alien with ten times his strength. Using the planet’s natural resources, The Gorn manufactures a crude blade, while Kirk uses basic chemistry to make black powder.

Last week I stumbled upon a YouTube video where a shooter apparently loaded a black powder muzzle loader with smokeless powder (video below) and I was reminded of Captain Kirk making a crude muzzle-loading canon to defeat the lizard-like Gorn.

The More You Know: Black VS Smokeless Powder @TFB

Paramount Television


The More You Know: Black VS Smokeless Powder

Paramount Television


So, what’s the difference between Black Powder and Smokeless powder? Let’s take a look.



Rather than being one particular compound, gunpowder is actually a mix of three different components. It consists of potassium nitrate (75% by weight), charcoal (15% by weight), and sulfur (10% by weight). Each of these components plays an important role in the combustion of gunpowder.

The precise reactions of gunpowder are difficult to elucidate. Rather than being a simple single reaction, the combustion of gunpowder consists of many differing complex reactions. It’s possible, however, to provide simplified equation that provides an overall idea of the products of the various reactions, as shown in the graphic. A mixture of solid and gaseous products are produced by the reactions, along with a very small amount of water.


It is important to note that the byproducts of burning black powder are hygroscopic, meaning that they will attract water and thus promote corrosion. Which is why you will see some muzzleloaders washing their guns with soap and water after shooting.


SAAMI on Smokeless Powder: 


When it burns under pressure, as in a cartridge fired in a gun, smokeless powder produces very little smoke, a small glow and leaves very little or no residue. The burning rate of smokeless powder increases with increased pressure.

Smokeless powder does not detonate like high explosives as it has a controlled rate of burn and differs considerably in its burning characteristics from common “black powder.” Black powder burns at essentially the same rate out in the open (unconfined) as when in a gun.

The basis of the term smokeless is that the combustion products are mainly gaseous, compared to around 55% solid products (mostly potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, and potassium sulfide) for black powder.[1] Despite its name, smokeless powder is not completely free of smoke;

From Wikipedia:

Smokeless propellant components

The propellant formulations may contain various energetic and auxiliary components:


  • Nitrocellulose, an energetic component of most smokeless propellants
  • Nitroglycerin, an energetic component of double-base and triple-base formulations
  • Nitroguanidine, a component of triple-base formulations
  • DINA (bis-nitroxyethylnitramine)
  • Fivonite (tetramethylolcyclopentanone tetranitrate)
  • DGN (di-ethylene glycol dinitrate)
  • Acetyl cellulose

Deterrents, (or moderants), to slow the burning rate:

  • Centralites (symmetrical diphenyl urea—primarily diethyl or dimethyl)
  • Dibutyl phthalate
  • Dinitrotoluene (toxic, carcinogenic, and obsolete)
  • Akardite (asymmetrical diphenyl urea)
  • ortho-tolyl urethane
  • Polyester adipate
  • Camphor (obsolete)
  • Stabilizers, to prevent or slow down self-decomposition
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Calcium carbonate
  • Magnesium oxide
  • Sodium bicarbonate
  • beta-naphthol methyl ether
  • Amyl alcohol (obsolete)
  • Aniline (obsolete)

Decoppering additives, to hinder the buildup of copper residues from the gun barrel rifling:

  • Tin metal and compounds (e.g., tin dioxide)
  • Bismuth metal and compounds (e.g., bismuth trioxide, bismuth subcarbonate, bismuth nitrate,
  • bismuth antimonide); the bismuth compounds are favored as copper dissolves in molten bismuth, forming brittle and easily removable alloy
  • Lead foil and lead compounds, phased out due to toxicity

Flash reducers, to reduce the brightness of the muzzle flash (all have a disadvantage: the production of smoke):

  • Potassium chloride
  • Potassium nitrate
  • Potassium sulfate
  • Potassium hydrogen tartarate (a byproduct of wine production formerly used by French artillery)

Wear reduction additives, to lower the wear of the gun barrel liners:

  • Wax
  • Talc
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Polyurethane jackets over the powder bags, in large guns
  • Other additives
  • Ethyl acetate, a solvent for manufacture of spherical powder
  • Rosin, a surfactant to hold the grain shape of spherical powder
  • Graphite, a lubricant to cover the grains and prevent them from sticking together, and to dissipate static electricity

There are three categories of smokeless powder:

Single-Base Powder: Propellants using nitrocellulose (detonation velocity 7,300 m/s (23,950 ft/s)) (typically an ether-alcohol colloid of nitrocellulose) as the sole explosive propellant ingredient.

Double-Base Powder: Propellants mixtures containing nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin (detonation velocity 7,700 m/s (25,260 ft/s)) as explosive propellant ingredients.

Triple-Base Powder:  Contains nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, and a substantial quantity of nitroguanidine (detonation velocity 8,200 m/s (26,900 ft/s)) as explosive propellants.

Over-Simplified Black Powder VS Smokeless Powder Conclusions:

  • Black Powder typically burns (deflagrates) rather than detonates like Smokeless Powder
  • Smokeless Powder reacts at much higher pressures than Black Powder
  • Black Powder byproducts attract water and promote corrosion whereas Smokeless Powder usually includes additives to inhibit corrosion.
  • Black Powder is actually a powder whereas Smokeless Powder is normally pelletized extrusions.
  • The solid wastes from Black Powder makes the smoke.
  • Smokeless Powder isn’t completely smokeless.
  • Black Powder and Smokeless Powder are NOT interchangeable.

To prove the last point:

That’s ‘The More You Know’ – Black and Smokeless Powders



LE – Science – OSINT.
On a mission to make all of my guns as quiet as possible.
Twitter: @gunboxready
Instagram: @tfb_pete


  • Major Tom

    One thing that should also be mentioned is black powder and smokeless powder DO NOT produce the same recoil impulses. Black powder produces more of a “push” that’s far gentler than its bore size would imply. Smokeless powder produces the well-known sharp “jolt” of recoil, sometimes producing effects harsher than its bore size would imply.

    • PK

      Burn/pressure curves vary widely, and there are some loads of some powders that produce an even gentler push than black powder. It all depends.

      In general though, you’re quite correct!

    • John Henry Bicycle Lucas

      I beg to differ. Load a black powder shotgun with lead shot, newspaper between the powder and the front of the shotgun. Touch it off. Come back and let us know your results.

  • BattleshipGrey
  • Slab Rankle

    Best Star Trek episode ever. Mythbusters honored this episode with one of their own. Busted the whole thing. Doesn’t matter.

    The one thing they couldn’t show in “Arena” was how you mix the ingredients together with urine and let it dry out. Kirk didn’t really have time for that anyway.

    • Ambassador Vader

      Kirk didn’t have time for all your science he had to get back to all the green babes floating through the solar system. He left the science to Picard.

      • Phillip Cooper

        Priorities! He has them….

    • Swarf

      I don’t know, I dint mix it with urine and let it dry out when I nearly burned my (Mom’s) house down making light bulb bombs as a teenager. Seemed to work just fine without that step.

      • Slab Rankle

        Please describe your process, starting with where you obtained those particular ingredients, and don’t worry, I’m sure the statute of limitations has long since run out on your little prank.

        • Swarf

          Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen, Agent Creepingmeout, whose name I don’t recognize.

          Suffice it to say that, at least in the 80’s, the local hardware store was one stop shopping for a punk rock “anarchist” dumb-ass kid who had a copy of what was at the time actual subversive and hard to find literature like the Anarchist’s Cookbook.

          I was going to go back and edit my OP, but realized that light bulbs aren’t what they used to be.

          I also had a wonderful book published in the mid 1800’s called The Techno-Chemical Receipt Book. I share this because it is rare, and no kid is going to be getting a copy at BandN.

          It had recipes from gun powder to nitroglycerin and smoke screens, on down to ways to tell if a painting was a forgery. It was “liberated” by a “friend” along the way, and I keep hoping to one day stumble across a copy of it. Extremely unlikely, but how cool would that be?

          • iksnilol
          • Dougscamo

            And only $22.99 with free shipping if you have Amazon Prime!….

          • iksnilol

            Well, knowledge does cost.

          • Swarf

            F’ing internet.

            I kind of expected some smart ass to come through like that.

            Looks like someone decided to photocopy their version and try and sell it with, what, staple binding or something?

            Mine was from (if I recall correctly) 1858 and was the actual book.

            I hadn’t thought about it for many, many years actually. Maybe I’ll see if a book dealer has it.

            Kids, if you’re watching, there are no emojis in this book, and you’ll have to learn to understand some Latin and words of greater than four syllables if you want to get up to real, burn unit type mischief.

          • iksnilol

            I mean, I just literally downloaded the entire book by accident from forgottenbooks or something the site was called. It has the occasional add thrown in but still, free book on ancient chemistry.

            I had to pay decent money for my college chemistry textbook.

          • Swarf

            Let us know how the nitro turns out.

    • Rodford Smith

      Hey, alien bamboo is much stronger than terrestrial bamboo! ‘Cause it’s, y’know, alien! :-^)

  • PK

    “Black Powder typically burns (deflagrates) rather than detonates like Smokeless Powder”

    Black powder does indeed burn and cannot be made to detonate, although it can of course be used to burst containers. However, without a sufficient quantity of primary high explosive such as that found in a blasting cap, possibly along with a booster depending on the smokeless powder in question, smokeless powder doesn’t detonate either. It’s just better at bursting containers, in general.

    • ostiariusalpha

      Smokeless powder can detonate under a surprising number of conditions, no “boosters” required. Tube geometries (such as a barrel) are ideal shapes for inducing a detonation with smokeless powder; you can get one fairly easy with an overcharge and a barrel obstruction. Detonations induced by mere static electricity in the propellant feed tubes at ammunition plants are a constant danger that has to be engineered for.

      • PK

        Are you certain you’re not thinking of overpressure/bursting? Detonation has a very concrete meaning, and it’s vanishingly unlikely to occur with smokeless powders in modern form with stabilizers and so on, unless a primary is used to initiate a shockwave.

        • ostiariusalpha

          Yes, quite certain. Nitrocellulose propellant can reach the point at which it enters supersonic ignition without going to any particular great lengths to force it to do so. Under “normal” circumstances it will progressively deflagrate with no real danger of detonation, so it isn’t like it’s teetering on the edge of supersonic ignition, but it takes remarkably little deliberate effort to get a partial detonation. There is a large body of scientific literature on the subject of DTT (deflagration-to-detonation).

          • Dougscamo

            Though this is not a link friendly site….google “Assessment of Accident at Radford Army Ammunition Plant”… that will give an example of deflagration to detonation….in those exact words in a short pdf…so…yep….nitrocellulose propellant….

          • jack

            What is the ratio of solids and gas particles in black powder compared to the solids and gas particles produced by smokeless powder

          • ostiariusalpha

            It’s variable according to the amount of pressure the smokeless powder burns at. In open air, it leaves about the same amount of residue as black powder, but as the combustion is increasingly pressurized, it becomes magnitudes more efficient. The amount of deterrents in the propellant also has a measurable effect on the ratio of gas to solids.

    • Dougscamo

      Though I don’t recommend it….it has a tendency to remove eyebrows….light a pile of FF black powder and a pile of IMR powder….watch which one truly burns when neither is under pressure…

      • PK

        They both deflagrate, neither set up a shockwave in open air.

        • Dougscamo

          That’s why I said “under pressure”….but unconditioned, the black powder will go “boom”….just a fun observation of burning…

  • Ambassador Vader

    You can’t fool me. Titanium Dioxide, the additives the democrats warned us about in the 80’s that made simple harmless bullets go straight through police officers and then ricocheted into babies. Lol

  • Connor Christensen

    Thanks Pete, I love these features of yours. Love learning. Very informative and the Star Trek inclusion was awesome

  • LazyReader

    But seriously, the bamboo tube would have exploded, simply not enough durability or pressure to exert on the projectiles…

    • phuzz

      pft, next you’ll be saying it was a guy in a suit

    • codfilet

      Remember when they used a ‘gator at the Battle of New Orleans? They filled his head with cannonballs and powdered his behind…..

      • Rodford Smith

        And when they touched the powder off, the ‘gator…

    • iksnilol

      Wood cannons have been done tho.

      • Phil Hsueh

        True, but in those cases they were either hollowed out logs with fairly small openings giving the canon more strength and they could be reinforced with iron bands wrapped around it at different spots along the cannon. In Kirk’s “cannon” it was simply a large piece of bamboo with an opening so large that it only left a fairly thin wall.

  • TheNotoriousIUD

    That looked very painful when the barrel bounced off his forehead.

  • Kirk Newsted

    One thing to note is that Kirk’s powder actually doesn’t work in the real world. Mythbusters tried it and busted it. Mixing your own like Kirk did is bogus.

  • Jim Slade ~sigh~
    Activists will question why Shatner had to use lethal force when all the green dude had was a rock.

    • LCON

      Gorn LIVES MATTER!

  • adverse4

    Think I’ll stay with store bought, rolling my own can come to no good.

  • Henry C.

    That kid is lucky as hell to get away with such minor injuries.

  • Jim_Macklin

    Captain Kirk discovers that a race of giants once lived on a planet. His ego was shaken.

  • valorius

    This episode of Star Trek scared the living bejesus out of me when i was a little kid.

  • .45

    Arena, The Balance of Terror, The Doomsday Machine, these are among the best of the Original Series…

  • Stanley Rabbid

    >tfw you’re the only post-TNG fan here

  • Mark Lee

    The Gorn player in the video below sounded too much like Barney the drunk in The Simpsons. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.