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Thread: Controversy Over Confederate Powder ........ From the start

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    Controversy Over Confederate Powder ........ From the start

    I'm attempting to restart this including all the messages ........

    This is how it started:

    Don said... The original Austrian Army charge was 62 grains of powder. The granulation corresponded roughly to modern cartridge powder. The Federal Army used 50 grains of musket powder, which was too light, and the Confederate Army used 70 grains of musket powder, illustrating exactly how poor their powder manufacturing process was.

    Southern Sr said ...
    Actually the powder manufactured at the Augusta Powder works in Augusta, GA was as good as, if not better than Yankee made gun powder. This was confirmed by post-war tests by the U.S. Army on captured Confederate gun powder.

    Don said ... While the Augusta plant made massive amounts of black powder, Rains adopted an essentially experimental manufacturing process resulting of powder of questionable quality.

    In two of a number of reports from the field, Confederate artillerymen at Charleston complained that the one-ounce bursting charge for the 12-pounder shell specified in the Ordnance Manual would not burst their shells. Mallet also wrote to Gorgas that the gunners had complained that the variations in the strength of the propellant in artillery cartridges made firing accurate ranging shots impossible, with "the same elevation giving quite discrepant results as to range." (Melton, Major Military Industries of the Confederate Government, 346 and 424)

    The fact that the Federal Army seized the Augusta plant intact in April 1865 and dismantled it rather than using it serves as a counterpoint to the assertion that Confederate gunpowder was superior. This occurred despite an 1864 report by the Federal Chief of Ordnance to the Secretary of War and Congress which stated "In this connexion [sic.] I must notice the fact that the government has no manufactory of gunpowder, but is entirely dependent on private powder mills for its supplies of this essential article?it is very important that the government should have the means of preparing a standard of quality for gunpowder, and of prescribing the exact proportions of the components and the mode of manufacture necessary to secure the production of powder of that standard quality. In order to do this a government powder mill, under the control of United States officers, should be established. It will not be necessary to have a large government powder manufactory, but only one of sufficient capacity to fabricate standard samples of powder for experimental purposes." In view of Rains' claims that his wet mixing process was quicker, cheaper, and produced better powder, it is also very telling that the system was never adopted by any major powder manufacturer in the U.S. or Europe. (Serial Set No. 1230, Report of the Chief of Ordnance, 115; Curtis, "Unorthodox British Technology at the Confederate Powder Works, Augusta, Georgia," passim)

    Mallet also wrote to Gorgas that "I have inspected some samples of the Augusta [arsenal] made [percussion] caps, and am sorry to say that thus far I cannot speak well of them. The cap itself is very roughly and coarsely formed, and its performance has not proved satisfactory. Quite a considerable number of them failed altogether, or exploded so feebly as not to be capable of firing a musket." After testing the worst musket caps he had seen from the Atlanta Arsenal, Mallet wrote Gorgas that two thirds failed to fire. Recognizing the problems with Confederate manufactured percussion caps, Confederate ammunition laboratories were directed to pack 13 caps vice 12 caps in each packet of 10 musket cartridges. (Mallet to Gorgas, 19 and 20 January 1864, cited at Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, IV, 131; Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, IV, 256)
    Additionally, the standard Confederate load for .58 caliber ammunition was 80 grains of musket powder vice the 60 and later [1864] 65 grain load used in Federal Army ammunition.

    Southern said ...
    Was the decision for the Ordnance Department NOT to have its own powder mill in the post war era a political one or a military one? As all public property of the Confederate government automatically became U.S. property with the surrender of the Confederacy, the fully intact Augusta Powder Works could have easily been managed by U.S. Ordnance Department personnel and the powder manufacturing processes modified to produce any high quality powder the Ordnance Department desired.

    Besides the fact that in the post war era Congress desired to keep all military spending as small as possible, I am also sure that the DuPont and Hazard Powder companies (and possibly the other explosives companies) used all of their political influence with Congress to keep the Ordnance Department out of powder manufacturing endeavors.

    As for the war time reports of the poor performance of Confederate artillery ammunition at Charleston I refer you to Page 424-425 of Maurice Melton's Major Military Industries of the Confederate Government, Emory University his PhD dissertation, 1976.

    "[Major] Mallet found [Confederate] gunners frustrated by deficiencies in all types of arsenal products. The primers did not always fire, the fuses were not always precise or even certain to ignite, while variations in the strength of cartridges made accurate ranging impossible.....All over the Charleston batteries Mallet saw indications that ammunition culled as defective and condemned was finding its way back into use, being indiscriminately mixed in with good ammunition."

    So in light of Mallet's report, condemning the powder manufactured at the Augusta Powder Works because of what was going on with the ammunition in use by the Charleston batteries is a bit unfair.

    Don said ...In my post I cited Melton at page 424. So, I am aware that he cited Mallet as writing: "All over the Charleston batteries Mallet saw indications that ammunition culled as defective and condemned was finding its way back into use, being indiscriminately mixed in with good ammunition." Surely such egregious incompetence couldn't have occurred in the vaunted Confederate Army? But, even that is an indication that the Confederates were experiencing problems with defective artillery ammunition.

    I don't discount the possibility that politics dissuaded the War Department from operating the Augusta plant, but I've never seen sources that discussed it or confirm it. More telling is the fact that no powder manufacturer ever adopted Rains' process. Mallet's, Rains', and Gorgas' rather self serving assertions regarding the superiority of Confederate gunpowder have been generally accepted by Civil War historians without question. I have several technical concerns regarding the accuracy of this assertion, however, and believe it should be viewed with skepticism. Similar questions were raised by LT Brian O'Flynn in his paper An Analysis of the Quality of Confederate Gunpowder Produced at Augusta Powder Mills, Unpublished Non-Thesis Research Paper. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 1996. Starting with O'Flynn's research, I did some more research. It would take pages to discuss the flaws in Rains' process here, and I have included a discussion of the issue in the draft of my book on Austrian Rifles.

    Getting back to the original post: The bottom line here is that the Federal Army used 50 grains of musket powder, the Austrian Army 62 grains of powder, and the Confederate Army 70 grains of musket powder in ".54" caliber ammunition; and the Federals 60/65 grains of musket power and the Confederates 80 Grains of musket powder in .577/.58 caliber ammunition. The sights of military weapons during the Civil War were calibrated to a standard projectile propelled at a standard velocity. If you changed the projectile, or the velocity, or both, the sights were no longer calibrated to the cartridge. That the Confederates had to use much larger loads to attempt to achieve the standard velocity is a telling argument regarding the quality of their powder. I have tested modern lots of Swiss, GOEX, and Elephant powder over my chronograph, with each requiring progressively larger loads to achieve the same velocity. This, I believe is a technical validation of the quality of the each of the brands/lots of powder tested.

    One problem in the entire discussion is that the Confederates operated at least six other powder factories producing smaller amounts of powder than Augusta, and imported hundreds of tons of British and Continental powder. In this context, I would be most interested in the primary sources of your statement that the superiority of captured Confederate powder was demonstrated in post-war testing by the U.S. Army. Hopefully, that sourcing would describe exactly whose powder they tested.

    Gary said ... At about 1 hour into his presentation, West Point history instructor Major David Lambert starts talking about gunpowder manufacturing in the Confederacy:

    https://www.c-span.org/video/?457655-1/gunpowder-manufacturing-1850-65


    I said ... To be cont'd........

    Last edited by Bruce Cobb 1723V; 07-12-2019 at 10:41 AM.
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    confederate powder con't

    I said .... Probably should have started a new thread but..... I am not arguing about or contradicting anyone's statement regarding the following. Just passing along what I heard on a lecture about black powder manufacturing in America 1850 to 1865 on the CSPAN history lecture series that airs on weekends. The Confederate black powder came from England, was Union captured & also Southern made. The British powder was sold to them as 2nd class powder. The Union powder was passable to very good and varied in lots. The Confederates did test their powder too before distribution. The least passable powder / low pressure was used in the largest coastal artillery / navy guns. The reason ...... poor metallurgy in their barrels (North and South) and they were very sensitive / susceptible to bursting. Various historians have written how at Gettysburg the Confederate artillery overshot the Union lines. They state it was because they had hotter / better powder and were still using the only calculations they had which were captured Union artillery calculations. This WAS Confederate made powder. Other sources describe how during the Monitor / Merrimac battle they were afraid to use full charges because of the chance of bursting barrels too. Bottom line from the lecture was that the Confederates did have better powder and improved upon its manufacture. Yes it was inconsistent, because it came from different sources. Yes, the black powder works were destroyed BUT the person responsible for its manufacture was given a likewise job up north after the war. That alone should tell us something. Find this lecture on CSPAN ..... Gary and I must have been typing at the same time..........
    Southern SR said .... The Confederate "Overshoot" at Gettysburg may have several causes. I've heard lousy fuses, smoke of battle, less than expert gunnery, and now the powder. These all may have some validity but one big problem with placing fire on the Union line at Gettysburg that I seldom hear or see in print is the fact that the target area is very thin north to south and has a pronounced slope on it's east and west sides. At that kind of range and on such a thin target area the slightest error in muzzle elevation or fuse performance will cause a wasted shot. Yes damage was a done to some of the Fed batteries and personnel but many, many rounds flew over to become "Quartermaster Hunters" or land harmlessly far to the rear. Yes Meade was driven from his HQ at the Leister House but not by Confederate intent The men of Knap's Battery on Powers Hill wrote about shells striking into the battery on their left a long way from the Union line. When the old Fantasy Land amusement site was closed and before the ground went to the NPS relic hunters found many projectiles some under the walking paths around the property. I was present when an intact 3 inch Read was unearthed on what is now the Visitors Center property along Hunt ave. Again a considerable distance in the rear of the line. I think the terrain played a major role in the Confederate artillery problems. Kinda like trying to hit a 6 inch tile at 100 yards after a piece of debris turns it edge on. (I did that once years ago back in my younger days. And on purpose too with a pointy nosed Lyman Sharps Ringtail.)

    Southern Sr said ....
    I can proudly say that I might have shot some Augusta manufactured gun powder back in the 1970's. A friend of mine had found a long abandoned, old Confederate battery position in the marshlands of Tidewater Virginia. He dug into the old magazine and recovered several long buried, unfired, Confederate artillery shells.

    He unloaded the shells and I recall that the powder in the shells, the "bursting charge," consisted of a variety of grain sizes (very large to small) of black powder. He screened out the grains of powder that were roughly the size of modern 2Fg and 3Fg and we shot that powder in our rifle-muskets.

    I recall that the smoke of the powder on firing produced was a very whiteish smoke. What was the "quality" of the powder? Well, after over a century of being "hermetically sealed" inside of those old artillery shells, the powder fired without a problem.

    Of course the powder we fired could have been imported powder or powder produced in another one of the government run powder mills at Richmond, Virginia, Raleigh, N.C., Columbia, S.C., etc.

    As for the real "quality" of the powder produced at Augusta keep in mind that Colonel George Rains was a man at the top of his profession at the time he commanded the powder works. In an address he delivered to the fourth annual meeting of the Confederate Survivors Association at Augusta, GA on Memorial Day in 1882, some of his remarks touched on the "quality control" measures he employed at the powder works:

    "The continual testing of the powder, as it was being manufactured, to insure its equality in strength, and to ascertain its actual propelling force, was done for the fine graded powders, by excellent musket and ballistic pendulums constructed at the Confederate Machine Works. For the cannon or large grain powders, by the initial velocities given to the proper projectiles in an 8 inch Columbiad. To determine these velocities an accurately made electro-ballistic machine , such as employed at the West Point Military Academy, was constructed at the same works. Also Rodman's apparatus for determining the absolute pressure on each square inch of the bore of the gun, exerted by the charge. In addition to these instruments,complete arrangements for determining the gravimetric densities and hygrometric properties of different properties were made.

    The foregoing appliances enabled accurate comparisons to be made at all points between different gunpowders, and to determine the various matters required in the manufacture of the first quality [powder] for the various arms of the service. That this was successfully done was was certified to by Boards of Artillery and Infantry officers; after the war the captured powder of these works was used in the School of Artillery practice at Fort Monroe, on account of its superiority."

    Quote from book: Never For Want of Powder by C.L. Bragg, Charles D. Ross, Gordon A. Blaker, Stephanie Jacobe and Theodore Savas. The University of South Carolina Press, 2007, P 259-260. With My Best Regards

    Charlie said ...
    Never apologize for turning a worn out conversation into one of the most interesting strings I've seen in years. We're talking about how Confederate powder inconsistencies affected the bombardment of Cemetery Ridge! This is an important historical discovery, if true. I'd like to know if it's true!
    That's not to say I wasn't completely interested in how various governments used different loads of powder to get a standard load for a Lorenz Musket. I shot a Lorenz for years, so was very interested in Don's post...but the idea that this anomaly of C.S. powder consistency vs U.S. powder, could have affected the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg is HUGE! (To quote a favorite politician.) I mean everyone wants to know, why the C.S. Artillery Batteries didn't wipe Cemetery Ridge slick. I still want to know.
    Been there, walked the ground with Artillery Officers, looked at the amount of ammo expended over the time allocated, and as a Naval Aviator, asked the experts...What happened? The answers I got were, "They must have been uniquely ill equipped to provide the support that they had done in the past...or, they had lost the the first rate Artillerymen that they had at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville."
    This is the first time I've heard anyone explain the "uniquely ill equipped" part of that Staff Ride.
    Well done, to everyone that contributed to this strangely truncated story, but one of the most interesting strings I've ever read.

    I said .....
    THE best ....... I really can't believe I'm the only one that has heard this / remembers this. I've been quoting this for 40 years or more and have always said this was fact, not fiction. I think the first place I heard this was in Gettysburg. I may have first heard it during the description of the battle during the show at that old museum across from the cemetery.

    There was a minimum of editing to the above .....
    Has anyone taken the time to watch the CNN program????
    Last edited by Bruce Cobb 1723V; 07-12-2019 at 10:57 AM.
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    Southron Sr. is offline
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    Well, my point all along is that Rains went to a lot of trouble to constantly test the quality of the powder the Augusta Works was producing. IF he had detected some problems with the powder, I am sure he would have corrected the problem(s).

    As for the controversial "wet mixing" process Rains was using making the powder, it seems to me that everyone that condemns the process seems to automatically assume that it produced an inferior powder, yet none of them have any actual experience making black powder.

    There are a lot of rumors out there that cannot be proven one way or the other. For example, Union soldiers would take cartridges from the cartridge boxes of dead Confederates because the Southern ammo was "better." Why? Because greedy Yankee powder contractors would mix powdered charcoal into their powder delivered to the government to increase their profits.

    Until GOEX decides to try Rains' "wet mixing" process and learns IF it produces better or worse black powder, we will never know. I don't see that happening anytime soon.

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    John Holland is offline Moderator
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    Personally, I believe there is a lot of Myth, Legend, and Lore, involved here! Example: The "Yankees" took the ammunition from the dead Confederates for two reasons: (1) They needed it. (2) It kept it from falling back into Confederate hands, only to be used against them once again!

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    Dear John:

    You have it perfectly right. That is why I said in my post above:
    "There are a lot of rumors out there that cannot be proven one way or the other."

    All My Best

    Southron

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    Carry on my friend......carry on, indeed!

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    powder

    I have been following this tread with great interest, a few years ago there was an article in American Riflemen about a confederate factory ( not sure of name) that was making a superior powder. If memory serves me right it also mentioned that the person in charge ended up getting a job offer in a Northern powder factory after the war. Does anyone else remember this story?

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    Southron Sr. is offline
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    You are probably thinking about C.L. Bragg's article in a 2001 issue of The American Rifleman magazine. Unfortunately I don't have access to that issue, but I remember the article.

    Here is some more information on the Col. Rains and the Augusta Powder Works:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Rains

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    I'm going to try and make a long technical issue short:

    The manufacture of gunpowder was and is largely a physical rather than chemical process. In normal operations, dampened saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur were mixed and spread on a circular iron bed and then mixed, ground, crushed and incorporated under the pressure of large iron or stone rollers weighing three to five tons; forming mill cake. In incorporation saltpeter and sulfur were physically forced into the pores in the charcoal. This was the most crucial step in powder manufacture. At Waltham Abbey, the Royal powder factory in England, incorporating a 42-pound charge of powder took three and a half hours. Prior to the Civil War, some British inventors had suggested that heating the rolling mill bed with hot water or steam might effectively speed the process. Charged with manufacturing vast quantities of powder, Rains expanded upon this concept. He placed charges of the dampened mixture into copper retorts approximately 30 inches long and 18 inches in diameter which rotated on their axis and had a perforated brass tube at their axis. He then introduced high pressure steam into the closed retort through the brass tube; producing a pressure cooker effect. Rains believed that the mixture in the retort would be turned into a semiliquid by the steam, and that the resulting hot solution of saltpeter would rapidly penetrate the minute pores of the charcoal. After the mixture was steamed for eight minutes it was removed from the retort and allowed to cool into a solid cake. Then it was processed on a standard incorporation mill for an hour. Rains thus based his powder manufacture on unproven theory. (O'Flynn, An Analysis, 6-16 and 34-5. See the full citation in my post above.)

    In standard production, a hydraulic press was then used to apply massive pressure to mill cake after the incorporation process. This increased the gunpowder's specific gravity and expelled moisture. Waltham Abbey pressed its mill cake at 70 tons per square foot for 15 minutes. Although the Augusta mill had a press, Rains elected not to use it to save production time; believing that the five-ton rollers he used in incorporation were adequate. He only used the press to compress powder dust into cakes to produce fine grade powder. (O'Flynn, An Analysis, 17)

    In standard production, after pressing the press cake was broken up, granulated into different sizes of powder, and dusted in three separate processes. In dusting, the powder was put in a horizontal drum clothed with fine mesh canvas and rotated. The dust fell through the canvas and was collected, leaving the granulated powder in the drum. While the powder was rotating in the drum the granules were glazed as their corners were rounded off, giving them a polished appearance. Glazing helped prevent the powder from absorbing moisture and throwing dust while being transported. At Waltham Abbey the powder was then thinly spread on trays and dried for 24-hours in a well ventilated room heated to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. After drying, the powder was dusted again. Rains devised a combined drying, dusting, and glazing process to speed production. He constructed cylinders with hollow axles, and blew warm air through the axles, simultaneously dusting, drying, and glazing the powder. (O'Flynn, An Analysis, 19-20)

    Rains certainly succeeded in his charge to make large quantities of powder. Between April 1862 and April 1865 his Augusta mill produced 2.75 million pounds [1,375 tons/1,247.4 metric tons] of gunpowder, which was a truly remarkable achievement. The question is, how good was it? There were several significant flaws in Rains' process: (O'Flynn, An Analysis, 6)

    • Sulfur is a solid at room temperature, melts at 111 degrees Celsius [231.8 degrees Fahrenheit], and boils at 460 degrees Celsius [860 degrees Fahrenheit]. Saltpeter melts at 339 degrees Celsius [642.2 degrees Fahrenheit]. When steam was introduced into the copper retorts, probably at at least 120 degrees Celsius [248 degrees Fahrenheit], the sulfur would have melted, but not the saltpeter or charcoal. Since charcoal absorbs liquid, the charcoal probably absorbed sulfur, adversely affecting the mechanical mixing of charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur in incorporation. This was contrary to Rains' assumption that a hot solution of saltpeter would speedily penetrate the minute pores of the charcoal, since the saltpeter was not liquid at the temperatures he was using. (O'Flynn, An Analysis, 17)
    • Since Rains did not use a hydraulic press for most of his production, O'Flynn believed that Augusta powder lacked the proper density, and consequently absorbed moisture quickly and did not store well. In dense powder the ingredients were packed closely together, forming a more consistent powder and producing more consistent projectile velocity. (O'Flynn, An Analysis, 18-9)
    • O'Flynn believed that Rains' combined drying, dusting, and glazing process left Augusta powder more likely to contain more moisture during production, and more likely to absorb moisture after production. (O'Flynn, An Analysis, 20)


    Mallet wrote in 1863 in a discussion of the powder weights in British and Confederate cartridges that "our powder is for the present decidedly below the average of English regulation strength." In October 1863 he wrote "Much irregularity still exists with regard to powder charges both for artillery and small arms. This is no doubt due, in part, to the use of gunpowder of various densities and various sizes and shapes of grain." (Mallet, "Work of the Ordnance Bureau," Southern Historical Society Papers, XXXVII, 4; O'Flynn, An Analysis, 1

    The bottom line is still that the Confederates either had to use, or chose to use, 33 to 40% more powder in the charges of their .54 and .58 rifle musket cartridges than the Federals. I've found a number of reports from the field by Confederate officers complaining of the miserable quality of the ammunition they were receiving.

    Also, whomever from the Augusta plant might have worked in a northern powder works after the war, it wasn't Rains.

    Regards,
    Don Dixon
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    Last edited by Don Dixon; 07-21-2019 at 12:35 PM.

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    I never cease to be impressed by the high level of technology and extensive infrastructure of the Victorian world. They were a lot more sophisticated than we give them credit for.
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