31 July 19
Progressive-burning, nitro-cellulose, “smokeless” propellant was developed by the French in the 1880s.
As French always are, they were secretive about this new ontogenesis, but within a decade, smokeless propellants were widely known (and rapidly displacing) conventional black powder in much of the world.
The sage of the era quickly recognized that the emergence of smokeless powder carried with it a number of major implications:
1. Self-loading cartridge weapons, particularly military rifles, pistols, and machineguns, were now possible.
Black-powder weapons did not generate suitable pressure-curves for autoloading systems. In fact, they were rarely capable of bullet velocities much in excess of the speed of sound (1,125 f/s at sea-level).
Suddenly, super-sonic projectile velocities of two, even three, times that were possible!
Yet, while smokeless powder made autoloading rifles technically possible, “corrosive” priming was still a problem, particularly with gas-operation. War planners calculated that without meticulous user-level maintenance (unlikely with conscript armies), corrosion of rifle gas-systems would quickly render these new weapons inoperable.
While conventional black powder was greasy, messy, dangerous, and did not burn particularly clean, it was not “corrosive,” nor were mercury-fulminate percussion caps and primers of the era.
Salts, generated when potassium perchlorate primers (used with first-generation smokeless-powder cartridges) burned, were!
Thus, the “Golden Age” of autoloading military rifles and machineguns would have to wait for the development of “non-corrosive” primers (lead styphnate) in the 1940s, most not seeing the light of day until after WWII.
In fact, American M1 Carbine ammunition was issued, from the beginning, with non-corrosive primers only, starting in the early 1940s.
The reason was:
The M1 Carbine’s “gas-tappet system” was not disassembleable for cleaning at the user level.
The “tappet” piston is captured within the rifle’s gas block and is not intended to be removed during user-level servicing. As a short-stroke, gas piston, the tappet applies force to the operating-rod for less than a centimeter.
Inertia then carries the op-rod the rest of the way to the rear.
Corrosive ammunition, it was assumed, would corrode the gas-tappet system, rendering the rifle inoperable, with the user unable to correct the problem.
Non-corrosive primers subsequently became “standard” for all other military rifles, pistols, and machineguns only after WWII.
Curiously, “dust-covers” appeared almost immediately on virtually all first-generation autoloading rifles, starting shortly after the turn of the Century, because designers realized that these new complex weapons would have maintenance issues previously unimagined!
2. Round-nose rifle bullets, along with tube magazines and rimmed cartridges, were now obsolete.
Super-sonic bullet velocities vastly increased typical rifle ranges, but required pointed (“spitzer”) bullets that are not suitable for use in tube magazines.
With the capability of effectiveness at increased ranges also came a new emphasis on individual soldier initiative, not a popular concept with old-school war planners!
Spring-loaded, “box,” magazines (soon to become detachable), were the obvious solution, but don’t work well with rimmed cartridges (8mm Lebel, 303 British, 30-40 Krag, 7.62x54R).
“Rimlock” was the problem with rimmed cartridges in box magazines. Thus, rimmed cartridges (mostly from the black-powder era) were abruptly on their way out, replaced by a new generation of “rimless” cartridges.
The only survivor today is the long-obsolete Russian 7.62x54R!
3. Manual “safeties” were now necessary!
Manual “safeties” on military rifles only came into existence when carrying rifles with a round chambered became “routine,” and a standard part of military doctrine.
When cartridge rifles, not equipped with magazines, were routinely carried with an empty chamber (rifles were only loaded when the command to do so was given), a manual safety was unnecessary (and irrelevant), and in fact for that very reason, was not found on most military rifles of the 1800s and early 1900s
4. Correct trigger manipulation of autoloading weapons had to be discovered, and learned.
The act of pressing a trigger, holding the weapon as it discharged, and then having it instantly ready to discharge again, without having to “do” anything to it, was only an imaginary concept prior to 1900!
Soldiers now had to learn and understand that their rifles, and pistols, were always “ready to fire.”
Now, soldiers had to be taught to smoothly press the trigger to the rear (while continuously correcting the sight picture), hold it all the way to the rear through discharge and recovery, then “ride” the trigger back forward, but only until it resets (“catching the link”), and then immediately press it back to the rear again for the next shot (when necessary).
Full-auto fire, unknown and unimagined prior to autoloading weapons, required a whole new and separate procedure and doctrine!
The foregoing narrative only covers the past 120 years of world history!
A lot has happened since my father was born!
We’re still learning, hopefully fast enough!