July 21, 2022
Most shooters associate “Ball Powder” propellant with Winchester, located in East Alton, Illinois, and Oxford, Mississippi. However, Ball powder has not been made by Winchester or at East Alton since the late 1960s. Ball powder propellant has been made by St. Marks Powder since 1969. St. Marks Powder is located near St. Marks, Florida, which is 2 miles north of the Gulf coast. Olin Corporation still owns Winchester ammunition, and formerly owned the St. Marks Ball powder plant until 1996. The plant and its operations are now owned by General Dynamics (GD) Ordnance and Tactical Systems (OTS) of Reston, Virginia.
The history and ingenuity of Ball powder is fascinating, and it’s closely tied to both World Wars. Today, St. Marks Ball powder propellants are used in almost all U.S. military small arms ammunition up to 20mm, and constitutes nearly all U.S. mortar propellant and ignition charges for many newer large-caliber propelling charges.
St. Marks Powder also manufactures propellant for the commercial sporting and reloading market, and produces propellant for just about every propellant distributor in the U.S., including Alliant, Hodgdon and Winchester. Today, St. Marks is responsible for producing a staggering amount of propellant and likely offers the widest range of types, speeds and special applications.
Let’s take a look at the history and development of St. Marks’ Ball powder propellant, as well as the current product line and recent developments.
Invention and Refinement
After World War I, there were huge quantities of propellant remaining in U.S. military inventory. The government believed that America had just fought the war to end all wars, so it saw no need to keep its surplus ordnance. Additionally, the chemistry of that era wasn’t as good as it is now; nitrocellulose-based powder deteriorated and had to be disposed of. Small amounts were processed to create other propellants, but short of simply burning it, what was the government supposed to do with leftover propellant?
During the 1920s, Dr. Fred Olsen was an employee of the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. There, he experimented with ways to salvage and reuse surplus powder. In 1929, Olsen was hired by Western Cartridge Company which was eventually absorbed into Winchester’s East Alton ammunition plant. It was there, in 1933, that Olsen developed a process for manufacturing Ball powder propellant. Interestingly, he would go on to become vice president of the Olin Corporation in 1952.
The process was fairly simple: Surplus powder was dissolved in ethyl acetate solvent and mixed with new-manufacture nitrocellulose to form a slurry. The slurry was then forced through a plate with many holes in it, and a rotating knife would cut the spaghetti-like solution into small cylinders with a length-to-diameter ratio of 1:1. These cylinders were then put into a large pressurized still with agitating blades (like a dough mixer) until the soft cylinders formed into small spheres. The still was heated to a carefully controlled temperature with steam. Nitroglycerine, stabilizers and burn-rate-inhibitor chemicals were added, and the whole mix was “cooked.” During its cook time, the spheres of nitrocellulose absorb the nitroglycerine and other chemicals. One of the revolutionary benefits about making Ball powder propellant was that it was all done (and still is) under water, which made for a safer production process. The resulting propellant was dried and coated with graphite, resulting in what we know as Ball powder.
Olsen continued refining the process through the 1930s. One improvement was the practice of flattening the small spheres just after they come out of the still and before they are dried. (This flattening process is similar to how Corn Flakes cereal are made.) The spheres are fed through counter-rotating rollers that flatten them into flakes. This process results in a more favorable shape and improves burning characteristics.
Still, the spheres and flakes are not the most favorable shapes for high-performance progressive burning propellant. For that, the addition of nitroglycerine increases the energy content and performance of the propellant, but it also makes it easy to get the nitrocellulose grains to absorb the burn-rate inhibitors, rather than having them only on the surface (like extruded stick powder). This allows Ball powder propellant to be chemically imbued with progressive burning characteristics, rather than relying on the shapes of the grains.
Amazingly, St. Marks Powder still had inventory of World War I-vintage propellant all the way up until the early 1990s. It has since used up that store, and now only uses new-manufacture nitrocellulose for its powder production. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of Ball powder propellant is the time required to produce a typical lot, 40,000 pounds, of propellant: About 40 hours for Ball, compared to two weeks for extruded stick powder.
World War II & Post-War Propellant
Ball powder played a major role as a small-arms ammunition propellant during World War II. M1 Carbine ammunition was loaded with WC820, which is almost the same as today’s WC296/297. WC846 was originally designed for and used in the .303 British cartridge during the war. Interestingly, the Hodgdon Powder Company was started in order to salvage propellant from 20mm ammunition and WC846 — called “BLC-2” by Hodgdon — from .303 British ammo to create what became H4831. The amount of propellant salvaged was many tens of tons. (And you think you hate pulling bullets!)
Ball powder propellant continued to be developed through the 1950s, and demand for its manufacture continued to grow along with demand for military and commercial ammunition. The adoption of the 7.62 NATO by the U.S. and NATO resulted in WC846 once again being used in military ammunition. The U.S. adoption of the 5.56x45mm in the early 1960s secured another military ammunition Ball powder: WC844, or H335 under the Hodgdon brand. Worth noting, Ball powder propellant began to be offered to the commercial reloading market in 1960.
Because of the encroaching urban sprawl of the St. Louis metropolitan area during the 1960s, it was decided to move the East Alton propellant plant to a more remote area. To that end, construction of the St. Marks plant in Florida was completed in 1969 and production began in 1970. Ball powder propellant continued to gain market share through the 1970s with rimfire and shotshell powders being added to the line. Ball powder propellant gained a reputation as being an easy-to-load and consistent-performing powder at a very good price point.
Ball Powder Today
St. Marks Powder has never rested on its laurels. It has one of the most aggressive research and development departments in the industry. Since the early 1990s, St. Marks Powder has had a steady development effort, which has resulted in the introduction of new and improved propellants for the commercial and reloading markets.
St. Marks Powder developed high-loading-density, compacted, Ball powder propellants, as well as new loading techniques in the early ’90s. This resulted in Hornady’s Light Magnum and Federal’s High Energy lines of ammunition. Both are successful, but there are some drawbacks in loadability and some guns are finicky shooting these loads. Hornady and St. Marks Powder teamed up to design an entirely new line of propellants for high-energy loads in the late 2000s. These propellants resulted in the acclaimed Hornady Superformance line of ammunition. They offered the same or better performance as the compacted propellants, but with lower charge weight and recoil, more flexibility in commercial loading, better accuracy and improved temperature sensitivity characteristics.
In the mid-2000s, Hornady and St. Marks Powder worked together again to develop a line of high-performance propellants for the Hornady Leverevolution loads. This line of ammunition enjoys a reputation for high performance and accuracy and its Ball powder propellant plays a significant role in its capabilities.
St. Marks Powder has continued to improve its shotshell propellants and applied much of this technology to improve pistol propellants. These offer good performance, consistency and extremely good temperature sensitivity. A testament to this is the 9mm Hornady Critical Duty ammunition used by the FBI. It, too, is loaded with St. Marks’ powder.
In the early 2000s, St. Marks Powder developed an extruded stick propellant that used the Ball powder production process and resulted in double base, high energy and highly progressive stick propellant. Hodgdon Hybrid 100V is one of these propellants.
St. Marks Powder has a large piece of the commercial propellant market. Alliant markets several powders produced by St. Marks Powder, as does Hodgdon, Western Powders Ramshot, Accurate Powders and Winchester Ball propellant. Much more powder is sold to commercial manufacturers, too, such as Black Hills Ammunition. St. Marks Powder is the largest producer of propellant in the U.S — and the world.
The most recent development by St. Marks Powder addresses one of the biggest drawbacks of Ball powder propellant: poor temperature sensitivity performance as compared to extruded stick powders. St. Marks Powder has solved that problem and is now offering a line of propellant called “AccuFlat.” This family of powders matches Hodgdon’s Varget, H4350, H1000 and Retumbo for charge weight, performance and temperature sensitivity. Initial reports from the industry indicate that this propellant also offers high levels of accuracy. The military is currently taking a close look at these propellants for its match ammunition because of its loadability, performance and reduced cost.
St. Marks dominates the military small-arms ammunition market. At this time, St. Marks Powder supplies nearly 100 percent of the propellant used in U.S. military small arms up to 20mm, including 9mm, 5.56 NATO, 7.62 NATO, .50 BMG and 20mm loadings. St. Marks Powder even supplies the propellant for 60mm, 81mm and 120mm mortar ammunition, as well as powder for some large-caliber ignition propellants.
The next time you see, purchase or use a Ball powder propellant, remember who is actually behind the production and development of those powders. St. Marks Powder is a relatively small company, but it contributes a lot to the U.S. ammunition and reloading markets. One of the biggest reasons to support St. Marks Powder is that they are an on-shore producer. A large percentage of the three big distributors’ powders comes from off-shore sources. St. Marks Powder is not subject to the whims of importation, the lack of understanding, or slow responsiveness to the U.S. market by a foreign manufacturer. Ball powder propellant and St. Marks Powder have been servicing the American market for a long time, and it will undoubtedly continue to do so long into the future.
Enjoy articles like this?
Subscribe to the magazine.
Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine