What Type Of Explosive Is Ammunition?

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All types of ammunition are designed to destroy the target, no matter the kind of weapon it is created for. If you are curious about the different types of explosives used in various kinds of ammunition, Hale Law talks about ammunition explosion causes and much more in this article.

The effectiveness of a weapon is measured depending on the potential damage it can inflict on a target which in turn is dictated by the quantity of energy discharged. New weapons rely on potential and kinetic energy to ensure maximum damage. Kinetic energy can convert motion into work. In contrast, potential energy depends on the explosive energy in the form of blast or heat to accelerate the kinetic energy and increase the amount of work done and thus the volume of damage inflicted.  Here is a list of  explosives used in the many types of ammo on the market today. 

Classification of the Chemical Explosives Most Commonly Used in Ammunition 

Chemical explosives are compounds/mixtures which rearrange themselves or decompose with extreme rapidity (thereby yielding high amounts of heat and gas) upon applying shock or heat. An explosive’s decomposition rate dictates its categorization as a high or low explosive. There is no distinct line that serves to differentiate between high and low explosives. 

Usually, high explosives are expected to detonate, while low explosives are expected to deflagrate (burn rapidly). Detonation is a rapid decomposition that is observed as an explosive phenomenon. There are slower forms of decomposition that occur during storage and transportation, which are only considered to guarantee the explosive remains stable before it is deployed. The complete chemical decomposition of explosives may take between a fraction of a second to several years. The class of the explosive is determined by its properties and the conditions under which it is initiated. 

Low Explosives/Propellants 

Propellants are the primary type of explosive used in most ammunition and are made from low explosives. The low explosives used to make propellants are designed to automatically undergo combustion at rates ranging from several centimeters per second to about 400 meters per second. The most common propellants include smokeless gunpowder and pyrotechnics like illumination devices and flares. 

Types of Nitrocellulose Gunpowder

Gunpowder (also called smokeless powder) is the most common propellant used in ammunition. It is formulated by combining nitric acid and cotton (nitrocellulose) with alcohol and ether to make a low explosive. The resulting compound is usually in granule form rather than powder, as the name implies. The fact that the compound smokes when ignited is also contrary to the name. Nonetheless, smokeless powders can either be single-base or multi-base. 

Single base gunpowder only has nitrocellulose as the primary explosive; other additions only serve to obtain stability, desired burning characteristics, and the most suitable form. The US Navy uses single-base smokeless powder after adding a small amount of diphenylamine to guarantee chemical stability. 

Multibase gunpowder can be classified into double and triple base powders containing nitroglycerin that dissolves the nitrocellulose. The nitroglycerin increases the explosive qualities, tendency to detonate, flame temperature, and burning rate. The high flame temperature decreases the residue and smoke while increasing the gun tube erosion and flash. Double base propellants are not commonly used in US artillery weapons due to the severe gun tube erosion. They are used for small rocket engines, mortar propellants, shotgun shells, recoilless rifles, and the 7.62mm NATO rifle cartridge. 

Triple base propellants are composed of double-base propellants mixed with nitroguanidine that lowers the flame’s temperature, thus causing less flash and gun tube erosion. The major disadvantage of third base propellants is the scarcity of nitroguanidine, a critical raw material. Presently, third base propellants are used for tank rounds, with long-range artillery rounds ongoing testing. 

High Explosives 

High explosives have the potential to be very unstable and are primarily used in warheads. The compounds that qualify as high explosives may experience detonation rates that range between 1000 and 8500 meters each second. These explosives can be divided into two categories, distinguished by sensitivity. Primary high explosives are very sensitive to friction, shock, and heat. They typically burn extremely rapidly or detonate upon ignition. Secondary high explosives are much more stable and thereby relatively unresponsive to friction, shock, or heat. Secondary high explosives will either detonate or burn when ignited, depending on the condition. Burning occurs when the secondary high explosives are ignited in small and unconfined amounts. Detonation is likely to occur when the secondary high explosive is united in confined and large quantities. High explosives are only used in military-grade ammunition.

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