This section is from the "Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas Recipes Processes" encyclopedia, by Norman W. Henley and others.
Explosives may be divided into two great classes—mechanical mixtures and chemical compounds. In the former the combustible substances are intimately mixed with some oxygen supplying materia], as in the case of gunpowder, where carbon and sulphur are intimately mixed with potassium nitrate; while gun cotton and nitro-glycerine are examples of the latter class, where each molecule of the substance contains the necessary oxygen for the oxidation of the carbon and hydrogen present, the oxygen being in feeble combination with nitrogen. Many explosives are, however, mechanical mixtures of compounds which are themselves explosive, e. g., cordite, which is mainly composed of gun cotton and nitro-glycerine.
The most common and familiar of explosives is undoubtedly gunpowder. The mixture first adopted appears to have consisted of equal parts of the three ingredients—sulphur, charcoal, and niter; but some time later the proportions, even now taken for all ordinary purposes, were introduced, namely:
Potassium nitrate.... 75 parts
Charcoal........... 15 parts
Sulphur............ 10 parts
Since gunpowder is a mechanical mixture, it is clear that the first aim of the maker must be to obtain perfect incorporation, and, necessarily, in order to obtain this, the materials must be in a very finely divided state. Moreover, in order that uniformity of effect may be obtained, purity of the original substances, the percentage of moisture present, and the density of the finished powder are of importance.
The weighed quantities of the ingredients are first mixed in gun metal or copper drums, having blades in the interior capable of working in the opposite direction to that in which the drum itself is traveling. After passing through a sieve, the mixture (green charge) is passed on to the incorporating mills, where it is thoroughly ground under heavy metal rollers, a small quantity of water being added to prevent dust and facilitating incorporation, and during this process the risk of explosion is greater possibly than at any other stage in the manufacture. There are usually 6 mills working in the same building, with partitions between. Over the bed of each mill is a horizontal board, the "flash board," which is connected with a tank of water overhead, the arrangement being such that the upsetting of one tank discharges the contents of the other tanks onto the corresponding mill beds below, so that in the event of an accident the charge is drowned in each case. The "mill cake" is now broken down between rollers, the "meal" produced being placed in strong oak boxes and subjected to hydraulic pressure, thus increasing its density and hardness, at the same time bringing the ingredients into more intimate contact. After once more breaking down the material (press cake), the powder only requires special treatment to adapt it for the various purposes for which it is intended.
The products of the combustion of powder and its manner of burning are largely influenced by the pressure, a property well illustrated by the failure of a red-hot platinum wire to ignite a mass of powder in a vacuum, only a few grains actually in contact with the platinum undergoing combustion.
Nitro-glycerine is a substance of a similar chemical nature to gun cotton, the principles of its formation and purification being very similar, only in this case the materials and product are liquids, thereby rendering the operations of manufacture and washing much less difficult. The glycerine is sprayed into the acid mixture by compressed-air injectors, care being taken that the temperature during nitration does not rise above 86° F. The nitro-glycerine formed readily separates from the mixed acids, and being insoluble in cold water, the washing is comparatively simple.
Nitro-glycerine is an oily liquid readily soluble in most organic solvents, but becomes solid at 3° or 4° above the freezing point of water, and in this condition is less sensitive. It detonates when heated to 500° F., or by a sudden blow, yielding carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, and water. Being a fluid under ordinary conditions, its uses as an explosive were limited, and Alfred Nobel conceived the idea of mixing it with other substances which would act as absorbents, first using charcoal and afterwards an infusorial earth, "kieselguhr," and obtaining what he termed "dynamite." Nobel found that "collodion cotton"— soluble gun cotton—could be converted by treatment with nitro-glycerine into a jellylike mass which was more trustworthy in action than the components alone, and from its nature the substance was christened "blasting gelatin."
Nobel took out a patent for a smokeless powder for use in guns, in which these ingredients were adopted with or without the use of retarding agents. The powders of this class are ballistite and filite, the former being in sheets, the latter in threads. Originally camphor was introduced, but its use has been abandoned, a small quantity of aniline taking its place.
Sir Frederick Abel and Prof. Dewar patented in 1889 the use of trinitro-cellulose and nitro-glycerine, for although, as is well known, this form of nitro-cellulose is not soluble in nitro-glyc-erine, yet by dissolving the bodies in a mutual solvent, perfect incorporation can be attained. Acetone is the solvent used in the preparation of "cordite," and for all ammunition except blank charges a certain proportion of vaseline is also added. The combustion of the powder without vaseline gives products so free from solid or liquid substances that excessive friction of the projectile in the gun causes rapid wearing of the rifling, and it is chiefly to overcome this that the vaseline is introduced, for on explosion a thin film of solid matter is deposited in the gun, and acts as a lubricant.
The proportion of the ingredients are:
Nitro-glycerine...... 58 parts
Gun-cotton......... 37 parts
Vaseline............ 5 parts
Gun cotton to be used for cordite is prepared as previously described, but the alkali is omitted, and the mass is not submitted to great pressure, to avoid making it so dense that ready absorption of nitro-glycerine would not take place. The nitro-glycerine is poured over the dried gun cotton and first well mixed by hand, afterwards in a kneading machine with the requisite quantity of acetone for 3.5 hours. A water jacket is provided, since, on mixing, the temperature rises. The vaseline is now added, and the kneading continued for a similar period. The cordite paste is first subjected to a preliminary pressing, and is finally forced through a hole of the proper size in a plate either by hand or by hydraulic pressure. The smaller sizes are wound on drums, while the larger cordite is cut off in suitable lengths, the drums and cut material being dried at 100° F., thus driving off the remainder of the acetone.
Cordite varies from yellow to dark brown in color, according to its thickness. When ignited it burns with a strong flame, which may be extinguished by a vigorous puff of air. Macnab and Ristori give the yield of permanent gases from English cordite as 647 cubic centimeters, containing a much higher per cent of carbon monoxide than the gases evolved from the old form of powder. Sir Andrew Noble failed in attempts to detonate the substance, and a rifle bullet fired into the mass only caused it to burn quietly.