What’s that Smell? Cordite vs. Gunpowder vs. Propellant

TLDR: Avoid depicting cordite, use gunpowder as a default, reference propellant to look like a smarty pants.

Gunpowder propellant cordite fiction writing

Modern gunpowder (aka propellant) doesn’t always look like a powder. It’s still OK to call it gunpowder when writing, though.

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.)

Cheat Sheet

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 Writers Guide to WeaponsThe 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:

25 thoughts on “What’s that Smell? Cordite vs. Gunpowder vs. Propellant

  1. Hi there

    This is a great post and is exactly what I was looking for. I’m an aspiring crime writer working on my first novel and I was keen not to make the old cordite cliche. But as someone who knows little about guns can I ask you to expand on your last point on the smell of modern day firearms propellant. In my scene there’s a big shootout indoors (a medium sized, poorly ventilated warehouse) with multiple shooters firing automatic weapons. How strong would the smell be and are the modern propellants completely smokeless?

    Thanks

    James

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    • Hi James,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog. “Smokeless” powders/propellants are sort of like “stainless” steel and rust in that they’re less smoky but not smoke-free. A lot depends on the quality of the ammunition and the firearm. Cheap ammo, like the kind I buy for target shooting, is smokier than the premium rounds a professional would use for gunfighting. Based on what you’ve described with your scene in the poorly ventilated warehouse, I’d say multiple gunshots would leave a haze similar to cigarette smoke.

      As far as the smell, it’s sort of like trying to describe the taste of chocolate. Everyone is going to have a different take on it. I think modern propellants smell like sweet charcoal smoke with a hint of sulfur. In your warehouse scene, the smell would be strong and obvious to everyone in the room, but not so much that it would choke someone. Think burning toast strong, but not burning house, if that makes any sense.

      Hope that helps! Good luck.

      Ben

      P.S. Would you mind if I turned your question into a proper post later? Others might be interested in this topic. I try to get new posts up every Thursday.

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  2. Pingback: The Smell of Cordite Hung in the Air | DV Berkom Books

  3. I’ve wondered for years why otherwise good crime writers (e.g. James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly) can remain so profoundly bloody ignorant about firearms, ammunition and explosives. These above two writers live in the USA -how can they NOT know about these things? All they have to do is drop into their local gunshop and ask! Alternatively, they can use Mr Google and come up with excellent and informative sites such as yours – thank you, Ben! Please keep up the good work.
    Regards
    Alan
    (Australia)

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    • Thanks, Alan! Some writers, even big name ones, may not know how to ask the question. You don’t know what you don’t know. Sort of like me and car repair. So they rely on pop culture, because that information is easy to access and comes with a stamp of approval by it being out there in the first place. Either that or they come from a POV that celebrates ignorance on this topic. Wouldn’t want to look like a backwoods hick now would we? (Newsflash: You don’t have to be a redneck to know something about guns.) But I don’t get personal with other writers. I just put the information out there and let it stand on its own. Thanks for stopping by, Alan!

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  4. You might want to amend this slightly. For anything set before the advent of modern smokeless powder (credited to to French chemist Paul Vielle, who introduced his “poudre B” in 1884), the term black powder would be anachronistic. Back then, they simply called it gunpowder, or just powder. It didn’t start getting called black powder until after the smokeless variety was introduced, to differentiate the old stuff from the new, smokeless variety of propellant (black powder is an almost black, charcoal gray, while smokeless powder is usually a lighter gray).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terrific point, Darren. I was looking at it from the POV of a contemporary person, but you’re right. Back then there wouldn’t be a need for a distinction. I’ll make a note of that in the article, and give you credit.

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      • No trubs. Glad to help. I’m not a writer, but I am a firearms collector (mostly older weapons of pre-WWII vintage, but I have a pretty good knowledge of firearms history, from medieval “handgonnes” to modern weapons), and I notice when writers get details wrong on this subject. It’s a trivial thing, and no doubt applies to all kinds of fields besides firearms, but a seemingly insignificant slip up of such technical details can take a reader right out of a story when he spots such an error.

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  5. Great info! As an avid reader of these types of novels, and a shooter, too, I have wondered what this cordite smell was all about. Now I know. Its wrong! I have noticed a very clear difference between the smell when I shoot my Springfield 9mm compared to the .556 ammo used in my AR, which leaves an odor with a strong ammonia element. that is what these writers should be describing, it seems to me.

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    • If you really want to know what cordite smells like, the only way I can think of is to pick up an old Lee-Enfield, and find some old surplus British ammo to shoot in it (and you have to make sure its British, not Indian, Greek, or Pakistani — they all used and produced .303 ammo at one time). I’m not aware of any other country that ever used cordite. It does indeed have a distinct smell, quite unlike that of other smokeless propellants, and rather unpleasant if you ask me. But British-made .303 British surplus ammo can be hard to come by these days. Most of it has long since been fired away.

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  6. This is super useful, thank you. One question—was ‘gunpowder’ also what was used in cannon, say in the Revolutionary War era?
    Thanks again!

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  7. have you ever used a concrete nail gun? i once used one. it was in a very small room, the smell was overwhelming, sharp, and pungent. my entire sinus system was affected.

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  8. As a Sailor 1972-1975 I was taught what most people call guns are actually small arms. Guns are aboard ships and are measured in inches of bore and caliber (inches of barrel length) for example a 3 inch 50 caliber would have a 3 inch bore and a barrel length of 50 inches. Guns would also include cannons, the rare Williams gun which is ultra rare (my cousin has one) and artillery for ground troups.
    As you mentioned black powder was simply called powder until smokeless powders came out. Early black powder was made from salt peter mined from caves. I have been in several caves and seen the leaching vats used prior to and during the civil war. Cordite is rare and I have only seen it once and the reloader that had it has been dead many years. I saw it in 1961. I have broken down a lot of surplus WWll ammo and have never seen cordite in any of it. By the way the 2nd Ammendment guarantees the right to keep and bear ARMS. It doesn’t mention guns. Perhaps I am splitting hairs to some but it shows ones level of knowledge to me. When someone writes about “the smell of cordite in the morning” in a current setting I think what a moron and usually stop reading. I guess it’s like the James Bond movie where he gets picked up in a 57 Chevy convertible and then they show the dash and instrument cluster of a 57 Ford.

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  9. What is the awful smell left behind from firecrackers? It always gives me a migraine. I always thought it was cordite. Guess I thought wrong. Tonight my whole street stinks, my cat won’t come out from under the bed, I have a splitting headache and Happy Birthday America!

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