CORDITE, the name given to the smokeless propellant in use in the British army and navy. The material is produced in the form of cylindrical rods or strings of varying thicknesses by pressing the material, whilst in a soft and pasty state, through dies or perforations in a steel plate by hydraulic or screw pressure, hence the name cordite. The thickness or size of the rods varies from about 1 mm. diameter to 5 or more mm. according to the nature of the charge for which it is intended. The smallest diameter is used for revolver cartridge and the largest for heavy guns. When first devised by the Ordnance Committee, presided over by Sir Frederick Abel, in 1891, this explosive consisted of 58% of nitro-glycerin, 37% of gun-cotton, and 5% of mineral jelly. This variety is now known as Cordite Mark 1. At the present time a modification is made which contains gun-cotton 65%, nitro-glycerin 30%, and mineral jelly 5%. This is known as Cordite M.D. The advantages of Cordite M.D. over Mark 1 are slightly reduced rate of burning, higher velocities and more regular pressure in the gun, and lower temperature.
Cordite of either mark is a perfectly waterproof substance, containing only traces of water remaining from the manufacturing processes. It has a density of about 1.56 at the ordinary temperature (15° C.), and, as its coefficient of expansion is small, this density does not change to any serious extent under climatic temperature variations. A rod may be bent to a moderate extent without breaking, and Cordite M.D. especially shows considerable elasticity. It can be impressed by the nail and cut with a knife, but is not in the least sticky, nor does the nitro-glycerin exude to any appreciable extent. It can be obtained in a finely-divided state by scraping with a sharp knife, or on a new file, or by grinding in a mill, such as a coffee-mill, but can scarcely be pounded in a mortar. Cordite is of a brownish colour in mass, but is much paler when finely ground or scraped. The rods easily become electrified by gentle friction with a dry substance. Like all colloidal substances it is an exceedingly bad conductor of heat. A piece ignited in air burns with a yellowish flame. With the smaller sizes, about 2 mm. diameter or less, this flame may be blown out, and the rod will continue to burn in a suppressed manner without actual flame, fumes containing oxides of nitrogen being emitted. Temperature appears to have an effect on the rate of burning. When much cooled it certainly burns more slowly than when at the ordinary air temperature, and is also more difficult to ignite. Rods of moderate thickness, say from 5 mm. diameter, will continue to burn under water if first ignited in air and the burning portion slowly immersed. The end of a rod of cordite may be struck a moderately heavy blow on an anvil without exploding or igniting. The rod will first flatten out. A sharp blow will then detonate or explode the portion immediately under the hammer, the remainder of the rod remaining quite intact. Bullets may be fired through a bundle or package of cordite without detonating or inflaming it. This is of course a valuable quality. The exact temperature at which substances ignite or take fire is in all cases difficult to determine with any exactness. Cordite is not instantly ignited on contact with a flame such as that of a candle, because, perhaps, of the condensation of some moisture from the products of burning of the candle upon it. A blow-pipe flame or a red-hot wire is more rapid in action. The ignition temperature may be somewhere in the region of 180° C.
All the members of this class of explosive when kept for some time at (for them) moderately high temperatures, such as the boiling-point of water (100° C.), show signs of decomposition; oxides of nitrogen are liberated, and some complex oxidation processes are started. Carefully prepared gun-cotton and nitro-glycerin will, however, withstand this temperature for a long time without serious detriment, excepting that nitro-glycerin is slightly volatilized. When incorporated in cordite, however, the nitro-glycerin appears to be much less volatile than when free at this temperature. Under reduced pressure (3 or 4 in. only of mercury instead of 30) it is possible to distil away a considerable amount of nitro-glycerin from cordite at 100° C. It is very doubtful whether at ordinary temperatures and pressures any nitro-glycerin whatever evaporates.
Cordite may be kept in contact with clean, dry metals, wood, paper, and a number of ordinary substances without deterioration. In contact with damp and easily oxidizable metals all the substances of the gun-cotton class are liable to a slight local action, but the colloid nature, and probably also the contained mineral jelly, protect cordite considerably in these circumstances. Ammonia has a deleterious action, but even this proceeds but slowly. Cordite does not appear to change when kept under water.
The manufacturing processes comprise: drying the gun-cotton and nitro-glycerin; melting and filtering the mineral jelly; weighing and mixing the nitro-glycerin with the gun-cotton; moistening this mixture with acetone until it becomes a jelly; and then incorporating in a special mixing mill for about three hours, after which the weighed amount of mineral jelly is added and the incorporation continued for about one hour or until judged complete. The incorporating or mixing machine is covered as closely as possible to prevent too great evaporation of the very volatile acetone. Before complete incorporation the mixture is termed, in the works, "paste," and, when finally mixed, "dough."
The right consistency having been produced, the material is placed in a steel cylinder provided with an arrangement of dies or holes of regulated size at one end, and a piston or plunger at the other. The plunger is worked either by hydraulic power or by a screw (driven from ordinary shafting). Before reaching and passing through the holes in the die, the material is filtered through a disk of fine wire gauze to retain any foreign substances, such as sand, bits of wood or metal, or unchanged fibres of cellulose, etc., which might choke the dies or be otherwise dangerous. The material issues from the cylinders in the form of cord or string of the diameter of the holes of the die. The thicker sizes are cut off, as they issue, into lengths (of about 3 ft.), it being generally arranged that a certain number of these - say ten - should have, within narrow limits, a definite weight. The small sizes, such as those employed for rifle cartridges, are wound on reels or drums, as the material issues from the press cylinders, in lengths of many yards.
Some of the solvent or gelatinizing material (acetone) is lost during the incorporating, and more during the pressing process and the necessary handling, but much still remains in the cordite at this stage. It is now dried in heated rooms, where it is generally spread out on shelves, a current of air passing through carrying the acetone vapour with it. In the more modern works this air current is drawn, finally, through a solution of a substance such as sodium bisulphite; a fixed compound is thus formed with the acetone, which by suitable treatment may be recovered. The time taken in the drying varies with the thickness of the cordite from a few days to several weeks. For several reasons it is desirable that this process should go on gradually and slowly.
After drying, all the various batches of cordite of the same size are carefully "blended," so that any slight differences in the manufacture of one batch or one day's output may be equalized as much as possible. Slight differences may arise from the raw materials, cotton waste or glycerin, or in the making of these into gun-cotton or nitro-glycerin respectively. To help in controlling the blending, each "make" of gun-cotton and nitro-glycerin is "marked" or numbered, and carries its mark to the cordite batch of which it is an ingredient. The history of each box of large-sized or reel of small-sized cordite is therefore known up to the operation of blending and packing. The final testing is by firing proofs, as in the case of the old gunpowders.
The gun-cotton employed for cordite is made in the usual way (see Gun-Cotton), with the exception of treating with alkali. It is also after complete washing with water gently pressed into small cylinders (about 3 in. diameter and 4 in. high) whilst wet, and these are carefully dried before the nitro-glycerin is added. The pressure applied is only sufficient to make the gun-cotton just hold together so that it is easily mixed with the nitro-glycerin. The mineral jelly or vaseline is obtained at a certain stage of distillation of petroleum, and is a mixture of hydrocarbons, paraffins, olefines and some other unsaturated hydrocarbons, possibly aromatic, which no doubt play a very important part as preservatives in cordite.
The stability of cordite, that is, its capability of keeping without chemical or ballistic changes, is judged of by certain "heat tests." The Abel heat test consists in subjecting a weighed quantity, 2 grams, of the finely divided cordite contained in a test tube, to a temperature of 70° C. maintained constant by a water bath. The test tube is about 6× in., and dips into the water sufficiently to immerse about 2 in., viz. the part containing the cordite. In the upper free portion a piece of filter-paper impregnated with a mixture of potassium iodide and starch paste is suspended by a platinum wire from the stopper of the tube. A portion of the test paper is moistened with a solution of glycerin to render it more sensitive than the dry part. A faint brown colour appearing on the moistened portion indicates that some oxides of nitrogen have been evolved from the cordite. This brown tint is compared with a standard, and the time taken before the standard tint appears is noted. The time fixed upon as a test of relative stability is an arbitrary one determined by examination of well-known specimens. Should the cordite or other explosive contain traces of mercury salts, such as mercuric chloride, which is sometimes added as a preservative, this test is rendered nugatory, and no coloration may appear (or only after a long exposure), although the sample may be of indifferent stability. It is now customary to examine specially for mercury, either by heating the explosive in contact with gold leaf or silver foil, or by burning the substance and examining the flame in the spectroscope.
The method of examination known as the vacuum silvered vessel process is probably not interfered with by the presence of very small quantities of mercury. It consists in heating 50 grams of the finely divided explosive in a Dewar's silvered vacuum glass bulb to a rigidly constant temperature of 80° C. for many hours. A sensitive thermometer having its bulb immersed in the centre of the cordite shows when the temperature rises above 80°. Such a rise indicates internal oxidation or decomposition of the explosive; it is accompanied by an evolution of nitrogen dioxide, NO2, the depth of colour of which is noted through a side tube attached to the bulb. As all explosives of this class would in time decompose sufficiently to give these indications, time periods or limits have been fixed at which an appreciable and definite rise in temperature and production of red fumes indicate relative stability or instability.
(W. R. E. H.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)