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.
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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:
61 thoughts on “What’s that Smell? Cordite vs. Gunpowder vs. Propellant”
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 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.
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.
I have no objection all. Please do and thanks for all your help. And I look forward to the book, I’ll be preordering!
Thanks, James! All the best for your novel, and I hope you enjoy the book.
OMG This is so useful. Thanks. ❤ -Dahlia Legacy
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I’m happy to hear that! Thank you for letting me know you found it helpful.
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Ack. I think there’s a short story of mine I’ll need to correct for Cordite misuse. Thanks for the info.
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Happens to the best of us.
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.
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!
Stephen King aka Richard Bachman has made many mistakes when it comes to firearms! I have always given him a pass but after reading some of the comments I must state this fact!
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).
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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.
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.
I don’t think that’s strange or trivial at all. This website and my Writer’s Digest book are all about that exact thing.
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.
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.
This is super useful, thank you. One question—was ‘gunpowder’ also what was used in cannon, say in the Revolutionary War era?
Yes, and calling it “powder” for short works, too. There’s a great article about cannons in the Revolution here:
The difference between the blackpowder used in canons and the blackpowder used in firearm (pistols, muskets, rifles, shotguns) is the size of the grain. A firearm will use FFF, whereas a cannon would use F for propellant and FFF for the primer in the wick.
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.
I did once, and it used a .22 blank as a charge. Was that what you were using?
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.
Correction, caliber is not the length of the gun barrel in inches. The barrel length is bore size times caliber. On the 3 inch 50, the barrel length is 150 inches.
Welll that puts me in a quandary….my Swift Boat had twin .50 caliber machine guns in a gun tub and a single 50 piggy-backed on top of an 81mm mortar on the fantail. SKUNK ALPHA is just about finsihed (Google it). BRAVO ZULU Dan!
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!
That is the smell of freedom.
I found the answer elsewhere. It’s sulfur but I guess you all knew that. I was being serious with my question and wanted a serious answer. I asked a cop.
There is no sulphur in firecrackers. Fireworks don’t use blackpowder for the bang. They use flash powder. Flash powder is classified by the ATFE as an explosive. It is made of aluminum powder, about 5 micron flake (e.g. German blackhead) as the fuel and potassium chlorate (KClO3) or potassium perchlorate (KClO4) as the oxidizer. POTASSIUM CHLORATE MUST NEVER COME IN CONTACT WITH SULPHER!!! It is extremely unstable and dangerous and known to spontaneously ignite! Firework makers keep seperate tools and work areas to prevent even the smallsst amount of sulpher coming in contact with potassium chlorate. There is really no reason to KClO3, KClO4 is almost always used instead.
What you smell is probably the burnt paper.
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We use the term cordite to mean smokeless powder. Cordite therapy is what we need after a long day; technically correct, no but it is all we need to say to someone in the know. Anyone who knows anything about guns knows what is meant.
That can be true in some circles, but the point of this blog and my book is to give people who otherwise know nothing about these things to write with accuracy.
Thanks for this, I’m just writing a scene where a character is about to encounter the smell of weapons fire.
Luckily for me, cordite is exactly what she would be smelling in this situation, as the smoke is coming from British naval gunfire in a story set in December of 1937. (The story is an alternate history pulp adventure and the guns are on a flying battle station like the one from Sky Captain but at least I’m trying to get the smell right.)
I was watching a documentary yesterday on Vietnam. One gentleman said the smell of cordite filled the air.
Did they use cordite with the weaponry of Vietnam?
Nope, that’s just another example of the cliche popping up.
OK writers, here are my pet leaves on writers and firearms:
1. It is NOT A CLIP! It is a magazine, or mag. A magazine feeds the round I to the chamber. A clip is used to load a magazine. After WWII, there is almost no use of clips. A clip is used in the M1 Garand to load the internal, non-removable magazine. Same with the SKS, 1903, Lee-Enfield and any other military bolt action rifle. Please, never use clip when it’s a magazine.
2. Cordite is covered here.
3. Revolvers don’t have safeties. At least none I’ve ever seen or heard of. Also, Glocks don’t have a safety you can switch off. The Glock’s safety is in the trigger mechanism.
4. I only saw this one time, but the book had an American cop with a 9mm, revolver. Yes, there are several types of 9mm, but they are all for automatics. Can there be a 9mm revolver? Yes. But because pistol (vs revolver) ammo is rimless it would require the use of a moonclip, which is an unwieldy pain in the butt and no cop in his right mind would do that. I won’t mention the book or the autnef because I enjoyed the book and all the author’s works. There are .45ACP revolvers, bt the ones ive seen are all old.
If you care about being correct about this stuff, and you are not immersed in the gun culture, go to a gun store if you have questions. BTW, I mean a real gun store, not just a place that sells guns, li,e Wal-Mart, Dick’s, or Cabellas. GOOD WRITING!
I’m writing a story about two monster trucks, equipped with modern weaponry, that attack AFB across the continental U.S. My question is definitive odors: what odor does a Chinese Multiple Launch Rocket System emit after firing? What odor does an AGM High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) emit with its smokeless motors? How about a super-heated gas canon? Specifics can make a great difference as you know, so any ideas you have will help.
Sounds like a cool story, but that’s above my pay grade.
Ben: Thanks for the reply. And thank you for the cordite info. I changed “the smell of cordite” in my book thanks to your savvy knowhow. Cy
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Ben: Do you ever read scripts? If so, what do you charge? I need an objective viewpoint on my piece.
Scripts aren’t my game, I wouldn’t be much help. That makes me zero for two for your requests so far. Sorry!
Thanks for getting back.
Hi Ben. I’m writing a novel set in Soviet-occupied Germany immediately after WW2 ends. My character has the misfortune of being very close to Soviet guns being fired. These would probably have been rifles; very unlikely, according to my sources, that the Soviet soldiers would have carried pistols. I would like to describe the smell that lingers in the air after the guns have been fired. Would cordite have been part of that smell?
Thank you so much for your help. I know literally nothing about guns—maybe you can tell 😉
Thanks for dropping in! I wouldn’t use cordite. I’d put it as “gunpowder” and leave it at that.
Correct. Avoid cordite in this setting. It was developed by the British, and really only ever used by them (and British Empire colonies). I’m not aware of anyone else ever using it. Other countries had their own variations of propellant, of different chemical composition and appearance (cordite is so called because it’s formed into long, narrow strands — cords — and looks rather like orange-brown spaghetti).
Fascinating! I’m reading a series set in modern-day Pennsylvania and, yep, the writer misuses ‘cordite.’ It does take you right out of the action.
So, how would you describe the smell in the air during a shootout in a house in South Africa, 1974, with cops using service revolvers (.38s) against someone else using a revolver? (also a .38) The entire shootout takes place in a small living room. I was using the term ‘cordite,’ but that is clearly wrong. Would you substitute ‘propellant’ for cordite or ‘gunpowder?’ Thanks!
You can never go wrong with gunpowder. Propellant is fine for your situation, too.
Thank you for your response!
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So glad I came across your site! I’m writing a novel where a murder takes place in 1959. The victim is shot in his vehicle and the body is discovered within a half hour after the murder. The police arrive about 45 minutes after the murder. The death is staged to look like a suicide, with the victim having fired a shot from a pistol with his right hand. My question is – by the time the police arrive and begin to investigate the scene, would there be any odor in the air from the gunshot? Second, would there be any signs on the victim’s body – ie: scent of gunpowder or minute particles. I realize that CSI techniques at that point in time were not as sophisticated as today. Thanks for any assistance you can provide.
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Hello. Interesting blog. I am a gun collector, target shooter, engineer and huge fan of crime fiction. This has been my pet peeve for 15 or 20 years. I can remember the approximate time (and I believe the actual book) where I first noticed this error and the rapid rate at which the mistake propagated through popular literature. I was surprised at the rate of spread with which such a recognizable error was “shared” throughout the genre. I found this such an off-putting error to be included by so many major authors that I posted comments to several them through their listed websites. These were some of the most popular mystery writers in the game. I sent them polite, concise comments on the subject and explained to them how knowledgeable fans were really negatively impressed by obvious technical mistakes. Surprisingly, none of them responded and not one of them seemed to care, since they are still smelling cordite 15 years later.
If you think cordite is bad, read some writers work on ballistics, where bullets defy gravity and Newton’s laws. One such author spent two pages getting a sniper’s bullet from the barrel to the target and tried to impress his readers with his detailed knowledge of the subject. Anyone marginally in tune with the subject was rolling with laughter. Writers should understand the damage they can do to their reputation with such unfounded drivel. They write pages of acknowledgements for sources of expert knowledge, yet don’t seem to seek any help in areas in which they are totally naïve.
I enjoyed this article and found it helpful for the novel I am writing.
One caveat about generalities. Anyone researching a historical setting should toss out generalities and find out about the setting. For example, my novel takes place in German East Africa at the start of World War I, so after the introduction of cordite. But describing the smell of smokeless powder would be inaccurate.
The main rifles of the German colony, including the “Schutztruppe,” were older Mausers that used blackpowder. The Germans rejoiced whenever they captured British Enfields and their ‘smokeless’ ammunition, e.g., at the First Battle of Tanga. So, for the fight in which German settlers are involved, I needed the smell of blackpowder.
Thanks for the musty and sulfuric (and horse manure) description.
Great point. The rule with firearm history is that there are always exceptions!
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My partner and I have a neighbor rehabbing very old ammunition. It is exactly like what you described in the article. It is horrible and we are moving because no one including fire department, police, management, and landlord all agree it is okay to do this in an apartment with many neighbors complaining regularly. Such a shame a very interesting and historical experience is affecting us soooo negatively. Thank you for the article. I don’t know if it is safe/legal to do this the way it is being done in our situation? Have a pleasant day.
may be late to conversation but…
please do not attempt shooting old cordite rounds out of any firearm. to begin, they all use corrosive primers and will likely cause some degree of damage to the bore. most importantly, cordite is cotton string soaked with nitroglycerin and coated with vaseline. it burns extremely hot under pressure. it has not been commercially produced in many years. it becomes unstable with heat, an unknown in long term storage, and unpredictable of pressure. one can pull down a cartridge, isolate a strand or two and lite with a match to get an idea of fragrance. my grandsons do this on my reloading bench in patterns to make “chord-art”.
Thank you for mentioning the sophisticated ventilation systems used by indoor shooting ranges. My friend is taking shooting sports lessons. I will advise him to get a used gun and look for a pistol that is compatible with indoor ventilation because his sport involves indoor shooting.
black powder is black because it contains charcoal
it also contains sulfur giving it’s burned smell
it’s potency in use is based on the size of the kernels
modern gunpowder is manufactured opaque and then is coated with graphite to protect from static electric discharge
that’s why some of it looks grey
(not all manufacturers use the graphite coating)
it often smells like an electrical fire when burned
it’s potency in use is based on shape
ie. flake, spherical, or pencil lead
cordite is gauges of cotton string soaked in nitroglycerin and then coated with vaseline
it has a softer, not unpleasant smell when burned
potency based on size, length and number of “stings”
burn rate, potency, is based on surface area of propellant