Gunpowder Stability

Reloading ammunition is a great hobby and saves money. Commodity cost increases in brass and lead in recent years have resulted in many new and/or returning reloaders trying to stretch their budget. 

The following information is provided as an introduction on the stability, storage, and safe handling of modern smokeless propellant.

Smokeless Propellant

The main ingredient of smokeless propellant, comprising from about 55% to 90% of the composition, is nitrocellulose. The process of creating nitrocellulose leaves remnant acid in the material. This acid immediately starts decomposing the finished product. Left alone the decomposition will reach the stage where the propellant becomes unstable and self-ignites. This process resulted in massive explosions at U.S. Government arsenals after World War I. 

To increase the life of the smokeless propellant, a stabilizing chemical is used. This “stabilizer” reacts with the acid to slow down the decomposition process. However, as the stabilizer reacts with the acid it is consumed. After the stabilizer is totally consumed, the propellant is no longer protected from the internal acid. 

The entire stabilizer / decomposition process is a time and temperature function – the higher the temperature, the shorter the safe life of the powder. Even moderate temperature, over extended time, leads to propellant decomposition. As a rule of thumb, any temperature over that which is comfortable to a person is accelerating the decomposition of smokeless propellants. 

Under proper storage, modern smokeless powder can last for decades. However, this does not mean the reloader can ignore how the powder is stored, particularly if in an uncontrolled environment such as a garage or storage building.