Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

The Smokeless Powder Plant
by Barry Brown

Photograph of the Smokeless Powder Plant
The Smokeless Powder Plant
Photograph from the John Carney Family Collection

In the mid-1890s, the CPW began making smokeless gunpowder for both the U.S. Army and Navy. Smokeless powder is the name given to a number of propellants used in firearms and artillery which produced negligible smoke when fired, unlike black powder. The explosive substance in smokeless powder is nitrocellulose, frequently combined with up to 50% nitroglycerine, which was corned into small spherical balls or extruded into cylinders or flakes using solvents such as ether. Nitrocellulose, also know as cellulose nitrate or flash paper, is a highly flammable compound formed by exposing cellulose (usually wood pulp or cotton) to nitric and sulfuric acids or other powerful nitrating agents.

Photograph of the Smokeless Powder Plant
The Smokeless Powder Plant
Photograph Courtesy of the Museum of Art & History @
The McPherson Center, Santa Cruz, CA

Smokeless powder was considered a major improvement because it resulted in a cleaner combustion. Black powder left a solid product made up of potassium carbonate and potassium sulfate, etc. This solid product was both moisture-retentive and corrosive and heavily fouled a gun's chamber and barrel which caused rapidly repeating firearms to jam or seize up. Smokeless powder, instead, left little residue because its byproducts were primarily gaseous. This cleaner-burning product lead to the development of automatic weapons.

Unfortunately, manufacture of this product was also extremely dangerous. It was at this plant in 1898 that the largest and most destructive explosion ever occurred at the Powder Works. (see Historical Marker #16).

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View similarly tagged articles:

dynamite, powder works, San Lorenzo River


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