Hap's Corner November 2015

Published 11/01/2015

Gunpowder or Gruyère, It is all the same…


Late one recent autumn afternoon the family was gathered to quietly celebrate the 85th birthday of our patriarch, Uncle Frank, when an explosion startled us, rattled the windows, knocked a few pictures askew, and otherwise disturbed the relaxed atmosphere.

One of our politically well connected relatives whipped out his cell phone and quickly had the Chief of Police’s attention. He learned that the blast had come from the local quarry where the police had destroyed a cache of homemade gunpowder squirreled away by a local resident. We also learned that it was the second explosion of the day.

The first blast occurred earlier that morning while a cartage company crew was moving items from the man’s house. A worker tossed a cardboard box labeled “explosives” from the second floor into the truck. The impact detonated the contents. Witnesses described a black smoke cloud and a small fire coming from the truck. What this says about the quality of the gunpowder as well as the workman’s literacy, professionalism, and common sense fills volumes.

No one was hurt, but the man, who had reportedly lost fingers in an earlier incident, told police his hobby was “making pipe bombs, fireworks and ammunition.” The police investigation found that, other than possessing a sawed off shotgun, the man had broken no laws.

In a laudable effort to rid the town of the dangerous material the authorities trucked all of the confiscated explosives to a local quarry, added a huge charge of their own, and set it off.  However, they neglected to inform the local population of their intentions through the town’s Red Alert system. While the dust was still roiling upward and the boom was echoing around town the telephones of every politician, policeman, and firefighter went off. The resultant combination of cacophonous ring tones was almost as loud and annoying as the controlled explosion. 

All of who have reloaded understand that the amount of powder and loaded ammunition in our ammunition lockers sound like a lot to the uninitiated outside world, but a high power shooter’s ten pounds of powder or 10,000 rounds of 22 rimfire for a smallbore shooter is really not much.  However, large lots or small lots, we are all very aware of the proper storage methods required to keep components and ammunition safe and at their very best. Not so the French.

French chemist Paul Vieille perfected the first practical smokeless gunpowder in the early 1880s and called "Poudre V", the V for Vieille not the Latin number five. It was later renamed "Poudre B," Gallic logic believing that this brilliant juxtaposition of letters would bewilder and bamboozle the intelligence service of France’s foe, the Kaiserreich.

The smokeless Poudre B was three times more powerful than black powder and gave the French a huge tactical advantage. However, unless the temperature in powder magazines was strictly controlled the explosive quickly became unstable.  Maintaining a constant cool temperature was a difficult task for ships cruising in the warm waters in which the French Navy regularly operated and made all the more difficult in ships where the routing of steam lines took precedence over storage.  

On September 12, 1905, just three months after Admiral Togo stood on her bridge, hoisted the Z flag, “crossed the T,” and defeated the Russians at Tsushima, the contents of the magazines of HIJMS Mikasa exploded. The symbol of emerging Japanese imperialism sank at her moorings.

The Brazilian battleship Aquidabã lay quietly at anchor in Jacuacanga Bay on January 21, 1906 when an explosion in the powder magazines tore the ship apart. Just three minutes after the blast the ship lay on the bottom and 212 people, including three admirals and most of the ship’s officers, were dead.

Explosions plagued the French Navy based in Toulon. A torpedo boat blew up in February of 1907. A month later, the French battleship Léna lay in dry dock she when she was gutted by a series of magazine explosions.  Because Léna was resting on blocks in the dry dock it was impossible to flood the magazines. The desperate commanding officer of the battleship Patrie, moored nearby, opened fired on the gate of the dry dock in a vain attempt blow it open and allow in water.

Three more fatal ship explosions followed before September 29, 1911 when an explosion aboard the Liberté blew the ship’s bugler, as well as a 40 ton chunk of the armor plate, more than 200 yards through the air and onto the deck of the nearby battleship République. A long overdue investigation determined that the unstable Poudre B was responsible for the sinking of the Liberté, as well as the other vessels.

At long last, and at an astronomical cost in life and ships, the French replaced Poudre B with a more stable derivative. But the unstable powder would have the last word. After ten years lying on the floor of Toulon harbor the French Navy decided to clear the Liberté wreckage site. Salvors raised numerous 305cm and 194cm shells from the ship’s main and secondary batteries and deposited them into the hold of a lighter. Before the waterlogged shells filled with Poudre B could be dumped into deep water they blew up, atomizing the lighter and its crew.

The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute recommends that powder be stored in a cool, dry place, the same conditions required for the proper storage of cheese. You would think that France, a nation that produces 350 to 400 distinct types of cheese, might have been able to apply the same rules required for the safe storage of Gruyère to gunpowder.