Poudre B
Poudre B: was the first practical smokeless
Smokeless powder
Smokeless powder is the name given to a number of propellants used in firearms and artillery which produce negligible smoke when fired, unlike the older gunpowder which they replaced...

Gunpowder, also known since in the late 19th century as black powder, was the first chemical explosive and the only one known until the mid 1800s. It is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate - with the sulfur and charcoal acting as fuels, while the saltpeter works as an oxidizer...

. Originally called "Poudre V" from the name of the inventor, Paul Vieille, it was later renamed "Poudre B" to distract German espionage. It was first used to load the 8mm Lebel cartridge issued in 1886 for the Lebel rifle.


Paul Vieille had followed the findings of German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schonbein
Christian Friedrich Schönbein
Christian Friedrich Schönbein was a German-Swiss chemist who is best known for inventing the fuel cell and his discoveries of guncotton and ozone.- Life :...

, who had created the explosive "guncotton" in 1846 by treating cotton fibers with a nitric acid and sulphuric acid mixture. Paul Vieille went further in 1883-84 and transformed guncotton into a colloidal substance by gelatinizing it in an alcohol-ether mixture then stabilizing it with amyl alcohol. He then used roller presses to transform this gelatinized colloidal substance into extremely thin sheets which, after drying, were cut up into small flakes. The original "Poudre B" was almost immediately replaced by improved "Poudre BF(NT)" in 1888. In 1896 "Poudre BF(NT)" was replaced by "Poudre BF(AM)" which was followed by " Poudre BN3F " in 1901. The latter was stabilized with the antioxidant diphenylamine
Diphenylamine is the organic compound with the formula 2NH. It is a colourless solid, but samples are often yellow due to oxidized impurities.-Preparation and reactivity:...

 instead of amyl alcohol and it gave safe and regular performance as the standard French gunpowder used during World War I (1914–1918). It was followed during the 1920s by Poudre BN3F(Ae) and later by Poudre BPF1, which remained in service until the 1960s.


Three times more powerful than black powder for the same weight, and not generating large quantities of smoke, "Poudre B" gave the user a huge tactical advantage. It was hastily adopted by the French military in 1886, followed by all the major military powers within a few years.

Prior to its introduction, a squad of soldier
A soldier is a member of the land component of national armed forces; whereas a soldier hired for service in a foreign army would be termed a mercenary...

s firing volleys would be unable to see their targets after a few shots, whilst their own location would be obvious because of the cloud of smoke
Smoke is a collection of airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases emitted when a material undergoes combustion or pyrolysis, together with the quantity of air that is entrained or otherwise mixed into the mass. It is commonly an unwanted by-product of fires , but may also be used for pest...

 hanging over them. The higher power of the new powder gave a higher muzzle velocity, which in turn produced a flatter bullet trajectory and thus a longer range. It also required lesser volumes of gunpowder and smaller caliber, thus lighter bullets, so a soldier could carry more ammunition . The French Army quickly introduced a new rifle, the Lebel Model 1886
Lebel Model 1886 rifle
The Lebel Model 1886 rifle is also known as the "Fusil Mle 1886 M93", after a bolt modification was added in 1893. It is an 8mm bolt action infantry rifle which entered service in the French Army in April 1887...

 firing a new, 8 mm calibre cartridge, to exploit these benefits.

Stability and safety

The earliest "Poudre B" tended to eventually become unstable, which has been attributed to evaporation of the volatile solvents, but may also have been due to the difficulty in fully removing the acids used to make guncotton. In the early years of their use both the original Poudre B and guncotton led to accidents. For example two French battleship
A battleship is a large armored warship with a main battery consisting of heavy caliber guns. Battleships were larger, better armed and armored than cruisers and destroyers. As the largest armed ships in a fleet, battleships were used to attain command of the sea and represented the apex of a...

s, the Iéna
French battleship Iéna (1898)
Iéna was a pre-dreadnought battleship of the French Navy. The ship's keel was laid in 1898 and she was completed four years later. Her design was derived from the preceding s with a heavier secondary battery and thicker armour. She retained the tumblehome characteristic of all large French warships...

 and the Liberté
French battleship Liberté (1905)
The Liberté was a pre-dreadnought battleship of the French Navy, and the lead ship of her class. Commanded by capitaine de vaisseau Louis Jaurès, She sailed to the United States after her commissioning...

 blew up in Toulon
Toulon is a town in southern France and a large military harbor on the Mediterranean coast, with a major French naval base. Located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur region, Toulon is the capital of the Var department in the former province of Provence....

 harbour in 1907 and 1911 respectively with heavy loss of life. By the end of the 1890s, safer smokeless powders had been developed, including improved and stabilized versions of "Poudre B" ( e.g. Poudres BN3F and BPF1), ballistite
Ballistite is a smokeless propellant made from two high explosives, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine. It was developed and patented by Alfred Nobel in the late 19th century.-The development of smokeless powders:...

 and cordite
Cordite is a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom from 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant. Like gunpowder, cordite is classified as a low explosive because of its slow burning rates and consequently low brisance...

. The guncotton problem is not completely solved even today, as an occasional batch of smokeless powder will deteriorate, although this is extremely rare.
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