A Brief History of Winchester Smokeless Propellants

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The Winchester® Smokeless Powders reloader’s know today trace their origin back 120 years to the Equitable Powder Company of East Alton, Illinois. The Equitable Powder Company was established by Franklin Olin as a blasting powder manufacturer for coal mines, a then booming industry in central Illinois.

In 1898 Franklin Olin founded the Western Cartridge Company to sell ammunition, providing another outlet for his Equitable Powder Company’s blasting powder. Three decades later in 1931 Western Cartridge bought the bankrupt Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The new joint company was renamed Winchester-Western.

In 1929 Western Cartridge Company hired Dr. Fredrich Olsen, who had been working with Picatinny Arsenal. Dr. Olsen had filed applications for two patents for methods to purify nitrocellulose for gunpowder. These were in relation to work Dr. Olsen was doing to prolong the life of gunpowder. Continued work in this process lead to the 1932 filing of a patent application to manufacture smokeless powder. In 1933 U.S. Patent #2,027,114 was issued to Western Cartridge titled “Manufacture of Smokeless Powders”. That same year Western Cartridge Company commercially introduced BALL POWDER® smokeless propellant. Note that this was the first of numerous patents relating to the BALL POWDER propellant manufacturing process.

The innovative BALL POWDER process provides a number of technological advantages over common extruded type powders that were quickly taken advantage of by ammunition factories and the U.S. military. The key advantages of BALL POWDER propellant include:

The first BALL POWDER manufacturing plant was established across the Wood River creek from the Winchester ammunition plant located in East Alton, site of the original Equitable Powder Company. The BALL POWDER process is unique in that its manufacture is done mostly under water. This made the process the safest for gunpowder manufacturing in the world. However, this also made the process susceptible to freezing – not ideal for cold winters in central Illinois.

Between encroachment from the growing East Alton community and cold mid-western winters it was determined to move the BALL POWDER manufacturing facility to a warmer climate and a remote location. A large tract of undeveloped swamp land was secured south of Tallahassee, Florida between the St. Marks river and the Gulf Coast. The East Alton plant facilities were moved and BALL POWDER propellant manufacture in St. Marks was initiated in 1969. This facility has developed into one of the largest, most modern high tech gunpowder plants in the world. Winchester Smokeless Propellants continue to be made in this facility today.

At near sea-level elevation, the St. Marks plant is home to numerous water holes containing alligators. One old twelve foot long monster lived in a swamp along-side the powder storage magazines. This alligator was recognizable because one eye was visibly damaged, probably the result of an ancient fight with another alligator. Plant employees made this alligator a local mascot, nick-naming him “Old George”. By the early 1980’s Old George had gotten a little too comfortable with the daily plant activities and decided to try a plant employee as lunch. The employee was able to run to safety, distracting Old George by throwing his hard hat on the ground. Old George quickly clamped his teeth over the hat. As a result of this incident, Old George was moved to a nearby wildlife refuge, safely away from the plant. The employee’s hard hat, bent in half by Old George’s jaw, is a historic relic of the company’s history.

The BALL POWDER process is highly adaptable to new chemistries and geometric characteristics. This has lead to continuous advancements in ballistic performance. Each generation of BALL POWDER propellant is improved in some way, such as cleaner burning, more efficient, and higher velocity. This makes each new powder introduced into the Winchester Smokeless Propellant line the preferred choice for its intended usage. Unlike many other competitive powders that have not changed (in some cases for 100 years or more) Winchester Smokeless Propellants, like computer technology, get better every generation.

In March 2006, Hodgdon® Powder Company and Winchester Ammunition announced that Winchester branded reloading powders would be licensed to Hodgdon. Winchester Smokeless Propellants, the choice of loading professionals, are available to the handloader to duplicate the factory performance of loads from handgun to rifle and shotgun.

For the last 75 years Winchester Smokeless Propellants have provided quality, high performance BALL POWDER to the ammunition loading factories, the U.S. Military, and reloaders. It is safe to say that more ammunition is loaded in America today with BALL POWDER propellants than any other powder type. Are you ready to take advantage of the choice of loading professionals?