Guide to Smokeless Powder

Smokeless powder may be the most important component for any shooter who is reloading ammo and it’s probably the most complicated as well. With different characteristics and a ton of variables, gunpowder needs to be fully understood before you attempt to reload ammunition.

This guide will take you through the basics of reloading powder, show how all smokeless powder is not the same and demonstrate how the different characteristics of powder can make your reloads more effective depending upon your intended purpose.

Don’t want to read the whole thing? No problem, use the quick links below to jump to whatever section you like.

Largest Gunpowder Brands

When you start looking for reloading powder, one of the first things you'll probably notice is that there are three companies who distribute the majority of powder throughout the country. There are other distributors and brands operating under different names, but if you purchase powder, there is a very strong chance it came through one of the following three companies.

Alliant Powder

The history of Alliant Powder dates back to 1872, when they were known as Laflin & Rand. They later became the Hercules Powder Company, which was one of the most respected and trusted names in ammunition at the time. Their products included items for rifle, shotgun, and handgun cartridges as well as muzzleloading applications.

Today, Alliant provides many different powders that can be used for different purposes. They are a member of Vista Outdoor Inc., a global company that oversees numerous brands including Federal Premium Ammunition, Blazer, Bushnell, and Speer.

Hodgdon Powder

Hodgdon Powder is arguably the most successful powder company in the U.S.A. Founder Bruce Hodgdon purchased 50,000 pounds of surplus gunpowder after World War II and began selling to other gunowners who were interested in reloading.

The Hodgdon company now provides a wide range of smokeless and muzzleloading powders. Even the product that started the company, known as H4895, is still produced and sold. Based in Kansas, Hodgdon regularly creates innovative and technologically-advanced powders that meet the needs of many different shooters and reloaders.

Western Powders

Focusing primarily on powders for outdoor sports, especially big-game hunting, Western Powders is a brand that provides excellent products as well as reloading data, shooting accessories, and gun care supplies. Based out of Montana, it has been a leading powder distributor since 1972.

Their powder brands include Ramshot, which offers a full range of powders for hunting and marksmanship, Accurate, which is focused on shooting precision, and Blackhorn 209, which creates low-residue powder for muzzleloading.

Physical Characteristics of Smokeless Powder

Physical Characteristics of Powder

When selecting a powder, you should take into consideration load density. Density is how much space will be left for air when the powder is poured into the cartridge. There needs to be sufficient room for the explosion to perform properly, and most factory powders will have a listed density somewhere between 80 and 90%.

It is generally recommended that anyone reloading should not try to exceed 95% load density because the primers need room to flame through the powder, which will result in more consistent pressure and bullet velocity.

It is also recommended that density should not go below 80%. This is because low load density causes the point of peak pressure to move towards the muzzle and velocity will drop. Low load density can also allow the powder to shift in the cartridge, causing inconsistent pressures.

In the end, gunpowder density will factor into how much powder should be used for a given load. It is an important characteristic of the gunpowder and should be considered whenever you are reloading ammunition for any purpose. Density will impact the performance and is heavily influenced by the shape of the granules.

Smokeless powder for reloading

Reloading powder comes with various properties that affect how the cartridge will perform. While there are other, more detailed differences, the basic variables that will change from product to product, the ones that you need to become most familiar with, are shape, density, and burn rate. If you understand these three properties, you have the foundation for basic powder knowledge.

Basic Smokeless Powder Shapes and Metering

An essential characteristic that will change in powders is the shape of the grains. The shape is on a tiny level that you can only see with a microscope, but it makes a major impact on how a powder will deliver energy to the bullet.

What Is Powder Metering?

The shape has a direct impact on “metering,” which is a term for how consistently the powder measures. If someone says a powder “meters well,” it means it can be measured with greater precision.

Ball Powder

ball shaped gunpowder

Ball powder consists of tiny spheres that can generally be manufactured more rapidly, often reducing the cost of the final product. It meters better, resulting in more accurate loads and can have a greater shelf life compared to other powders. Many ball powders will burn at lower temperatures, which should extend the life of a barrel. Ball powder burns at about 3,200 to 3,300 Fahrenheit, while other powders only reach a max of about 3,400 Fahrenheit. The difference in temperature might seem minimal but it can make a difference over thousands of shots.

Flattened Ball Powder

Flattened ball shaped gunpowder

This is a product that is very similar to typical ball powder, but has a flattened, oval shape, similar to a ball of bread dough. This powder is known to deliver similar results as spherical ball powder. To create this shape, ball powder is run through rollers, resulting in the flattened ball product. Flattened powder is generally preferred in shotgun shells. This is because the shape minimizes powder movement in the shell, keeping it from moving into compressible areas like the back of the wad.

Flake Powder

flake powder

This type of powder has granules that are shaped like tiny discs. They are essentially powder that is extended into a tube shape and cut into tiny sections, almost like cutting a very tiny summer sausage. They are used mostly in handgun and shotgun cartridges. Because of their shape, they can stack up when measuring, making it difficult to meter with precision. This leads to reduced consistency when reloading cartridges with flake powder.

Stick Powder

stick shaped smokeless powder

Shaped like small cylinders, this is the type of powder that is most popular for rifle cartridges. While highly-effective in rifle ammunition, stick powder is difficult to meter accurately and can lead to inconsistencies in the measurements. While stick powder is often considered the most difficult to meter, reducing the length of the “sticks” can make for more consistent loading. The cylinders, or sticks, may break, leading to further inconsistencies. Most stick powder burns hot, which could reduce barrel quality over time. Despite potential reloading drawbacks, stick powder is a popular choice for shot consistency and accuracy.

What is Burn Rate?

While a gun powder explosion in the cartridge seems instantaneous, if you slow it down you will actually find that each powder has a different “burn rate,” or speed at which it ignites. This is similar to how gasoline burns faster than lighter fluid. Gas burns quickly with a rapid explosion while lighter fluid burns slower and longer. The same effect can be found in different gun powders.

It should be noted that burn rate, does not have a standardized unit of measurement. In fact, burn rate is really only discussed in comparison to other powders; there is no universal yardstick. This makes burn rate a slightly controversial and highly-debated topics, as some reloaders feel that burn rate is less important or practically inconsequential.

Burn rate is important, however, when you are loading magnum vs. non-magnum rounds. Typically, a non-magnum load will use faster burning powders while a magnum cartridge will need slower burning powders. Magnum rounds need to generate greater power. Therefore, they use slower-burning powders, which creates peak pressure for a longer timeframe. This is also needed to give the heavier bullet maximum power and velocity.

Specifics will change by cartridge and bullet type, but in general a fast-burning powder is used for light bullets and low-speed pistols and shotguns. Medium-rate powders are used for magnum pistols, while high-velocity, large bore rifle cartridges will need slow powders, as they deliver the most overall power.

It might seem like an instantaneous explosion, but some powders burn faster than others and you should take this factor into consideration when reloading your cases.

Pistol versus Rifle versus Shotgun Powders

Now that we have a solid understanding of powder characteristics and variables, let’s look over some important information that you need when reloading. This information will help you select the right products for your needs and give you a better understanding for the basic composition of a cartridge.

handgun powder

Pistol Powder

Handgun powder is going to burn faster, giving off the most energy in the shortest amount of time and distance. This is needed because the barrel of a handgun is shorter, so the explosion needs to be completed in about six inches. If you use a slow-burning powder in a handgun, you will likely have a bright flash at the end of the barrel. This flash might look impressive, but that visual explosion is wasted energy.

rifle powder granules

Rifle powder

Because of the long barrel and increased power demands, rifle cartridges need a powder that burns slower, completing the explosion through the entire barrel and delivering consistent pressure from start to finish. If you use fast-burning pistol powder in a rifle, it will make too much energy at the beginning, giving off high pressures in the chamber. This brings the risk of damaging the gun. Slower powders push the bullet evenly down the barrel and keep pressure down while utilizing the most energy.

shotgun powder granules

Shotgun powder

When choosing a shotgun powder, you will find that there is a lot of variety, largely changing based on the shot load. In general, heavier shot loads will require a slower burn rate, as it takes longer to sufficiently accelerate a heavy shot. If a fast-burning powder is ignited behind a heavy load, it could lead to excessive pressures, damaging the firearm and potentially causing injury. At the other end of the spectrum, a slow burning powder behind a light load, such as a bird shot, may not give enough power for sufficient energy and velocity.