How Long Does Gunpowder Live?

For those of you who worry about the health and well-being of their smokeless powder, here’s a story.

Around 1980, I had a co-worker who was sunken-ship crazy, and since I was a Titanic and Edmund Fitzgerald nut, we found a lot to talk about. One day he came into my office with the grubbiest-looking .30/06 round I'd ever seen.

He explained that he'd bought the cartridge at an auction, and that it had been salvaged from the hulk of the U.S.S. San Diego, which had been sunk by a German submarine on July 19, 1918, off the coast of Fire Island, New York. (Or it may have hit a mine. No one knows for sure.)

“Do you think the powder’s any good?” my friend asked.

“Let’s find out,” said I, and punched a hole in the brass case with my thumbnail. Not that I have strong thumbnails, but the brass was corroded that badly. I poured some in a glass ashtray (yes, offices had ashtrays then) and, violating 25 building-safety codes, tossed a match (yes, people had matches in their desks then) into the powder.

Whoomp, it went, and burned with a brief, merry flame, just the way gunpowder is supposed to. And this after 62 years under the Atlantic Ocean. Amazing.