Blackpowder vs. Smokeless Powder Terminal Effectiveness

    Earlier this week, I was asked what my thoughts were on the video below, coming from HEMA instructor Matt Easton, on his YouTube channel Scholagladiatoria. In it, he discusses some of the limitations of early blackpowder (especially muzzleloading) firearms, specifically within the context of how they affected the development of edged weapons:

    I am certainly not an expert on firearms development before the year 1886, but I do make a very serious effort to understand terminal ballistics. Fundamentally, a projectile hitting a target doesn’t care whether it was propelled to 300 m/s by a load of blackpowder, or smokeless nitrocellulose. Therefore, I feel reasonably comfortable discussing the terminal effects of weapons before 1886.

    What Matt says in the video is generally correct. Blackpowder weapons are generally speaking less effective than smokeless propellant weapons, all else being equal. There are a few dimensions to this problem, which I will discuss briefly below:

    1. Performance

    First, blackpowder is a less energetic propellant than smokeless. Matt Easton mentions this and it’s very true. What this means is that, in general, a blackpowder weapon will have to be larger and fire larger cartridges (whether metallic or paper) than a smokeless gun for the same performance, or a gun of comparable size that is blackpowder will be much less energetic to start with than a smokeless powder equivalent.

    Now, it’s not correct to think of this energy as directly related to what the projectile will do when it hits the body. Certainly, a higher energy round is capable of doing a lot of damage, but it may not actually perform better than a lower energy cartridge if it doesn’t expend all of its energy in the target or makes a narrow wound channel.

    However, there’s another important advantage that smokeless powder guns have: They tend to produce much, much higher velocity. At low velocities like those below the speed of sound in air, a projectile that hits a target will generally poke a hole the same size as it, or possibly it may expand or flatten somewhat increasing the size of this hole. Generally speaking, though, the effectiveness at these speeds is proportional to the frontal area of the bullet – and in all cases effectiveness is by modern standards pretty underwhelming, for example a round might simply poke a hole of a certain size.

    Smokeless powder is more energetic, meaning cartridges loaded with it will pound-for-pound launch the same bullet at a higher velocity than a blackpowder round will. Rounds traveling above the speed of sound may exhibit more dramatic effects, disrupting organs near but not directly in the path of the bullet – at lower velocities, say 1,200-1,400 ft/s you might think of this as getting a slight free caliber boost. There is another happy side effect of these higher smokeless velocities that is especially relevant to pistols, which will be discussed below.

    Blackpowder rifles are capable of these velocities, too; in fact the highest performance blackpowder rounds from late in the era were capable of nearly 2,000 ft/s velocity. Therefore, the above paragraph mostly relates to pistols. However, rifles from the period before 1870 typically did not approach these high velocities, and generally sat more in the 900-1,500 ft/s range. So they were sometimes supersonic, but sometimes not. Regardless, velocity would quickly drop off and a target even 50m away might be struck by a bullet traveling at subsonic speeds, and exhibiting effects similar in type to pistol rounds, according to the above paragraph.

    2. Bullet Technology

    Since the 1900s, bullet technology has absolutely exploded and is in fact still in a state of radical and constant change. Better modeling capabilities from the 1890s to today can mean that a low energy round can more consistently perform at its best relative to higher energy rounds, resulting in rounds that are deadlier per pound than they ever have been.

    In contrast, bullet technology in the mid to late 19th Century basically amounted to throwing chunks of lead in the direction of the enemy. Thankfully, lead is a soft metal, so this may have had its own virtues to it, but even a lead ball at moderate velocity striking a target and flattening won’t produce wounds any more grievous than a modern jacketed hollow point projectile fired from a subcompact handgun. It is in fact true that at short ranges the man armed with a Ruger LCP firing Hornady Critical Defense ammunition is much better armed than the 19th Century soldier with an 1853 Enfield pattern rifle firing Minie ball projectiles.

    I mentioned before that smokeless powder rounds are more energetic than blackpowder ones and will generally produce higher velocities – this higher velocity makes practical some of the more effective bullet types in use today, and certain velocity thresholds are reached where bullets may expand or flatten (and jacketed hollow point rounds are in fact designed specifically to do this – a characteristic that makes them the favorite choice of law enforcement officers and private citizens with an interest in self-defense), and even explode into many fragments (certain types of .223/5.56mm caliber rounds have a reputation for doing this at shorter ranges). These effects, in terms of their ability to stop a target and to wound him in such a way that is difficult to treat, generally separate smokeless powder rifles and pistols from their blackpowder counterparts, although a blackpowder rifle may exhibit similar characteristics to a smokeless powder pistol.

    3. Medicine

    Which brings us to the medical realities of both today and the mid-19th Century. Medical science in the 19th Century should not be underestimated, but it was crude by today’s standards. A clean bone fracture could still cripple a man for life, and wounds that would not be difficult to treat today caused a high rate of mortality in soldiers at the time. Some of the techniques used at the time could harm a patient as much or more than the original injury, and germ theory had not yet become dominant. The chance of infection and maiming was very high, even for wounds that today would be considered minor. In contrast, today medical science is in an arms race against extremely deadly weapons, such as IEDs that are often made from old artillery warheads, which can disintegrate a limb without hope of recovery.

    This is all to say that what would be a terrible, grievous wound by 19th Century medicinal standards might be a wound that today a soldier could be successfully treated for in a matter of hours, and returned to duty in a week or two.

    4. Metallic Cartridges

    One final mention should be made of the realities of paper cartridges vs. metallic cartridges. Metallic cartridges are self-contained and fed into the gun whole – not broken until firing. A paper cartridge was typically broken before use – this means that there was always the chance of some powder spilling or being lost during the loading of a muzzle-loading firearm. It would not be inconceivable for a rifled-musket of the time to be accidentally downloaded and fired at an adversary, leading to the “bouncing off” phenomenon that Matt describes in the video. Further, paper cartridges preserved the propellant inside much more poorly than do modern metallic cartridges, meaning that some of the propellant could be ruined even before the cartridge is loaded, and might not ignite, amount to a weak charge. Any of these things could lead to a projectile moving too slow to penetrate heavy clothing, and are more the result of the ammunition configuration of the time than the propellant used.

     

    In closing, it’s important to recognize that there’s nothing special about the propellant used to send a bullet downrange. A projectile of a given type fired on a load of smokeless powder to a velocity of 1,000 ft/s is no more deadly than one of the same type fired on a load of blackpowder to the same velocity. However, that basic principle does not account for every difference in the comparison between historical 19th Century blackpowder firearms and modern, highly effective smokeless powder weapons.

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]


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