Propellant in World War I and World War II

By Wee Dave and Nathan Okun
Updated 18 December 1998

You are right about the German BCs at Jutland. As Tony says the British shells used Lyddite, which was a pyric acid, or Trinitrophenol. While somewhat unstable - it readily attacks metals to form metal-picrates, which are so sensitive as to be used as priming cap fillers, replacing the even more unstable mercury fulminates in this role - upon detonation, it had a very powerful shock-wave. Nathan Okun has pointed out that this was not the only potential deficiency in British shells. They were designed to punch holes through armor, but not to penetrate behind it. The resultant effect was far more localized damage (from concussion and splinters) than was the case with fully penetrating shells. So shell design and fuzing were less effective than they should have been, with a result that the German ships survived (albeit Von der Tann, Seydlitz and Derfflinger, barely) from the number of hits that should have sunk them. The post-Jutland investigation resulted in the design of new APC shells, as Nathan has pointed out, called Green-boys, due to the distinctive green paint used on them.

Hindenburg was a half-sister to Lutzow and Derfflinger. Along with most of the capital ships, some cruisers and destroyers she was scuttled at Scapa Flow to deny the allies the ships. At that time negotiations were still proceeding with the somewhat fluid, socialist government that replaced that Imperial regime in Germany. The poor officers who negotiated the surrender of the High Seas fleet were assassinated for their troubles.

Hindenburg was sufficiently unfinished to have benefited from some of the lessons of the Dogger Bank, and she was slightly larger and was considered a better ship than Derfflinger of Lutzow, possibly the best BC of WW1.

Seydlitz was battered to a ruin at Jutland. During the second retiral of the HSF from having its 'T' crossed the SG had to come to a complete stop, twice, to avoid Derflinger and Seydlitz actually driving themselves under. Seydlitz was incapacitated in 3 of her five turrets. The fore turret erupted in the same kind of fire that had threatened the ship at Dogger, but it did not flash to the magazines, which were subsequently flooded. She made it back to the Jade with her forecastle almost submerged. I forget the exact numbers, but she had taken something like 15 hits of 12 inch caliber and above. Had she not actually been towed backward into Willhelmshaven she would have probably have foundered, just as the British Warrior did on her tow back across the N Sea. There are some memorable pictures of her in dock, not a pretty sight. Derfflinger was no better, having been hit about 13 times by heavy shells.

Much has been made of the flash protection that the Germans installed after Dogger. The fact is, according to a number of sources, the British BCF had adopted a philosophy of having exceptionally high rates of fire as a tactical advantage. Flash protection and interlocks were considered an impediment to this and, in some cases BCF ships had removed what rudimentary flash protection they had, to speed up ammunition feeds.

The actual charges used to fire the guns were cordite (Colloidal-propellant) and in British use consisted of a blend of nitrocellulose and nitro-glycerin with stabilizing additives. During WW1 we seemed to have used vaseline as a plasticiser (C15-C20 normal paraffins), which has the distinct disadvantage of being quite temperature sensitive. The Americans used a Nitro-cellulose only propellant with plasticiser and stabilizer.

It was the propellant that was the cause of flash fires in barbettes and magazines on the British side. By WW2 dibutyl-pthalate plasticiser replaced vaseline, and diphenylamine or diethyl-diphenylurea was used as a stabilizer. Dinitrotoluene was used to achieve lower burn. action temperatures (and longer gun life). The flashless propellant in use by the time of the Barents Sea action was a triple based compound of nitrocellulose, nitro-glycerin and nitroguanidine with diethyl-diphenylurea. The point is it is correct to call all of these 'cordite' as this is a generic term for nitrate based colloidal propellants (Miall, 1961).

The vaseline was there as a plasticiser. If you read about how the explosives were mixed and rolled, it sends chills up your spine! Nitroglycerin is a liquid and nitrocellulose a solid. Nitroglycerin is unstable when pure, but becomes more stable when mixed with a substrate such as diatomaceous earth (early Dynamite). The problem is decomposition of the Nitroglycerin to form acids. The resultant 'sweaty' dynamite has been the subject of numerous moments of high-drama in movies. To make cordite the Nitrocellulose is dissolved in acetone and mixed with the plasticised nitroglycerin. The mixture can be rolled and formed and the acetone baked off. Stabilizers are aimed at improving the shelf-life and avoiding premature detonation while forming the charge.

In this context 'volatility' meant the colloquial 'ease of ignition' rather than some measure of its vapor pressure. Having said that, nitroglycerin is quite volatile, in the true sense, and toxic enough to produce severe headaches and even unconsciousness when inhaled.

In WWII, the British continued to use nitroglycerin in cordite, but improved the additives. Both dinirophenol and nitroguanamine reduce the temperature of the combustion, the stabilizers control the pH and the plasticisers the physical stability. The end product had much less nitroglycerin than WW1 cordite and much more 'gun cotton' (Nitrocellulose). The mixture was safe and had a good shelf life. As an aside, I would also point out that nitrocellulose is also prone to deterioration and also generates acid by-products, which in the past have been neutralized by the addition of calcium carbonate, amongst other things. Not good for gun barrels.

The Japanese used British style formulations but were probably only using binary mixtures, without adequate stabilizers, judging by the probable cause of the loss of Mutsu.

Nathan will have far more info on US powders but my impression is that they were dominantly nitrocellulose.

I haven't got a clue what German formulations were. Suffice to say that in the latter part of the last century and leading upto WW1 the Germans had the premier chemical industry in the world. I doubt they were any worse and probable were better than ours. Again Nathan may be able to help.

As a point of chemistry, there have been different partial replacements for nitroglycerin. Tetranitrodiglycerin and nitroglycol have been used to increase the temperature band in which the propellant remains stable.

Disclaimer: It occurs to me that anyone reading this with a bent for bangs may think to make something. It may sound trite, but do not attempt to make these mixtures at home/school! You WILL kill yourself.

I am not a chemist per se, I am a petroleum engineer specializing in petrophysics, which requires more than a passing knowledge of chemistry.


U.S. Navy used single-based (nitrocellulose-only) propellants through the end of WWII, as did the French ("Poudre 'B'"), though I do not know much about the stabilizers used to prevent deterioration--they were steadily improved and the propellants were quite stable by the end of WWII, from what I have read. It was somewhat cooler-burning and, thus, weaker than British "Cordite" but did not offer as much of a problem with barrel wear or burn as fast in a magazine--USS BOISE in 1943 took a Japanese diving 8" Type 91 AP projectile in its forward main magazine in a classic "below the belt" hit, but the slow U.S. gun propellant burning rate, coupled with the 8" lower-hull hole spraying high-pressure water into the magazine, let the pressure build up slowly enough to blow open (actually bend back the upper half of) the magazine door, relieving the pressure, though it burned up the entire front end of the ship in the process. Analysis of the hit showed that British Codite would have blown up, causing another HOOD. The U.S. concept of "safety first" is proved true here.

See a copy of U.S. Navy Ordnance Pamphlet OP 4, "Ordnance Safety Precautions: Their Origins and Necessity"--one of the very first Ordnance Pamphlets issued circa WWI--to get an idea of why safety is important; it contains many rather gruesome examples of what happens if safety is compromised and influenced generations of U.S. Navy ordnance-ralated people rather a lot!!

During WWII, the requirement for night battles where muzzle flash temporarily blinded people caused a double-base nitrocellulose/niroguanadine low-temperature, low-flash propellant to be developed. I would think that it would need somewhat large amnounts for the same muzzle velocity.

German WWI and WWII propellants used nitro-glycerine as well, but a rather lower amount than British "Cordite" (named for its long, spaghetti-like shape when formed for optimum burning rate in the breech and barrel) and it had a rather slower burning rate; hence the few major explosions destroying German ships when hit or in port. I think that the German stabilizers were rather good, too.

Nathan Okun


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