Between the black-powder era and the age of smokeless, there lies a fascinating but heretofore under-reported period ruled by shades of gray. Contrary to what some would have us believe, black powder did not disappear from use overnight in 1898, nor did smokeless powder take over with the suddenness of a military coup. There was a long period of overlap, underlap, and what we might call combo-lap.
This last was the couple of decades in which target shooters, especially, experimented with, and often triumphed, using “duplex” loads combining black and smokeless or “white” powder. In fact, early smokeless powders came in a range of colors, including gray, beige, orange and pink, as well as whitish, but since none of them were black, they were lumped together as “white.”
The first smokeless powder was invented by Captain Edward Schultze of the Prussian Artillery in 1856 – 40 years before it came into general use. This was followed by independent developments by experimenters in several countries, most of them driven by a desire to come up with a powder suitable for military use. Ballistic considerations aside, even the earliest smokeless powders had two great advantages over black: They did not enshroud a battlefield in clouds of smoke, and greatly reduced the need for cleaning.
Capt. Schultze’s earliest powder was too fast-burning for rifles, so most subsequent development was concentrated on powder for an infantry rifle. It was not until 1886 that Paul Vielle of France perfected a smokeless rifle powder – Poudre Blanche, or ‘white powder’ – which then made possible the Lebel military rifle. In England, Sir Frederick Abel and Sir James Dewar developed Cordite in the late 1880s. This allowed the army to switch its new (1887) .303 cartridge from black powder to smokeless in 1892.
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