TLDR: Avoid depicting cordite, use gunpowder as a default, reference propellant to look like a smarty pants.
When articles debunk common firearm tropes in fiction, they usually mention how the “smell of cordite” isn’t in the air after a gunfight. Cordite’s heyday as the substance that makes a gun go bang started in the late 1800s and ended with the close of World War II. That means scenes set after 1945 wouldn’t include cordite.
What isn’t usually explained is a better alternative. Browse the aisles of a sporting goods store (always a good idea when researching guns and knives) and you’ll spot canisters labeled gunpowder, blackpowder, propellant, smokeless powder, blackpowder substitute, muzzleloader powder, Pyrodex® and other proprietary names, and itching powder (wait, turn around, you’ve left the store and wandered into a Three Stooges sketch). They all do about the same thing, so why are there so many kinds?
Different powders are designed for specific purposes. Some are designed for older firearms that can’t take the extreme pressures of modern powders. Others are high-performance rocket fuel for the latest guns. These commercial powders are used to manufacture ammunition at home or as part of a business. (Yes, that’s legal to do in the civilian world.)
You don’t need to know the specifics to determine the best term to use in your writing. This cheat sheet sums it up nicely, but by no means is an exhaustive list.
Blackpowder/Black Powder (pick one and be consistent) – Use this term in settings from from the dawn of firearms in 9th century China to the 1880s. Antique or vintage-style firearms would use blackpowder after that.
Cordite – Only use in settings from about 1889 to 1945. Fun fact: instead of powder, cordite actually looks like tiny spaghetti noodles.
* Gunpowder – A blanket term OK to use in any setting, even if the material isn’t too powder-y. This gets the gold star as the best go-to term. Writing this as gun powder (two words) isn’t common but still acceptable so long as it’s used consistently.
Propellant – Any substance that makes a gun go bang is technically a propellant, but today this usage normally applies to a variety of modern powders that don’t always look powder-y to the eye. Check out the cylinder-shaped grains in the photo at the top for an example. Use propellant if a modern character is exceptionally familiar with firearms or if you want your writing to look hip.
What’s that Smell? Cordite
Although they’re similar, each formula of powder has a distinct aroma to hang in characters’ nostrils. I’ve never caught a whiff of cordite, but you can get the sense of it by sticking your schnoz near some nail polish remover. Acetone is a primary ingredient in both nail polish remover and cordite. I’ve read that cordite smoke is sharp and a little sweet.
Blog reader Ralph Schneider wrote to me to offer this perspective:
Acetone was used (as a solvent, presumably) in the manufacture of cordite, but I doubt that it remained as any part of the finished material itself—so the odor of acetone isn’t present if you take a whiff of the unburned cords (trust me on this), and it certainly would not be a part of the complex of odors present when guns using cordite have been fired.
Recently, as part of an experiment determining the corrosive nature of some primers in modern ammunition, I had occasion to pull the bullets from a couple of rounds of .303 British ammo and empty out the cordite strands. It is pretty much as you described it—looks like short pieces of spaghetti—but a dark tan in color.
What’s that Smell? Blackpowder
Blackpowder smoke is musty and sulfuric. The farther back in history you go, the worse it probably smelled, although I don’t have a source for that. Impurities likely made their way into the powder as people made the stuff in all sorts of conditions. And nothing smells better than burning horse shit.
As blog reader Darren pointed out in the comments below, it may be necessary to use the vanilla term “gunpowder” if the character making the reference to it is in a setting prior to 1884. There wasn’t a need to distinguish “blackpowder” from anything else. It was the only game in town. After smokeless powders came along in 1884, there became a need to tell the difference between the two versions. (Thank you, Darren, for the excellent tip.)
What’s that Smell? Modern Gunpowder/Propellant
Most modern gunpowder/propellant has an acrid bite to it, but it usually isn’t overwhelming. Much depends on the kind of firearm and whether the shooter is indoors or outdoors. There’s a reason indoor gun ranges use high-tech ventilation systems. (OK, sometimes that tech is just a window, but still.)
As for any other unusual smells on the scene, I’m looking at you, dear writer. I won’t judge you unless you blame it on the dog.
Get the Book
The Writer’s Guide to Weapons: A Practical Reference for Using Firearms and Knives in Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books) comes with everything but the ammo. Pick up a print or digital copy from these fine retailers: