History of the Confederate Powder Works By George Washington Rains

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Oct 24, 2008
Fairfax, VA, USA
*Edited* While the Augusta plant made massive amounts of black powder, Rains adopted an essentially experimental manufacturing process resulting of powder of questionable quality.

In two of a number of reports from the field, Confederate artillerymen at Charleston complained that the one-ounce bursting charge for the 12-pounder shell specified in the Ordnance Manual would not burst their shells. Mallet also wrote to Gorgas that the gunners had complained that the variations in the strength of the propellant in artillery cartridges made firing accurate ranging shots impossible, with “the same elevation giving quite discrepant results as to range.” (Melton, Major Military Industries of the Confederate Government, 346 and 424)

The fact that the Federal Army seized the Augusta plant intact in April 1865 and dismantled it rather than using it serves as a counterpoint to the assertion that Confederate gunpowder was superior. This occurred despite an 1864 report by the Federal Chief of Ordnance to the Secretary of War and Congress which stated “In this connexion [sic.] I must notice the fact that the government has no manufactory of gunpowder, but is entirely dependent on private powder mills for its supplies of this essential article…it is very important that the government should have the means of preparing a standard of quality for gunpowder, and of prescribing the exact proportions of the components and the mode of manufacture necessary to secure the production of powder of that standard quality. In order to do this a government powder mill, under the control of United States officers, should be established. It will not be necessary to have a large government powder manufactory, but only one of sufficient capacity to fabricate standard samples of powder for experimental purposes.” In view of Rains’ claims that his wet mixing process was quicker, cheaper, and produced better powder, it is also very telling that the system was never adopted by any major powder manufacturer in the U.S. or Europe. (Serial Set No. 1230, Report of the Chief of Ordnance, 115; Curtis, “Unorthodox British Technology at the Confederate Powder Works, Augusta, Georgia,” passim)

Mallet also wrote to Gorgas that “I have inspected some samples of the Augusta [arsenal] made [percussion] caps, and am sorry to say that thus far I cannot speak well of them. The cap itself is very roughly and coarsely formed, and its performance has not proved satisfactory. Quite a considerable number of them failed altogether, or exploded so feebly as not to be capable of firing a musket.” After testing the worst musket caps he had seen from the Atlanta Arsenal, Mallet wrote Gorgas that two thirds failed to fire. Recognizing the problems with Confederate manufactured percussion caps, Confederate ammunition laboratories were directed to pack 13 caps vice 12 caps in each packet of 10 musket cartridges. (Mallet to Gorgas, 19 and 20 January 1864, cited at Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, IV, 131; Thomas, Round Ball to Rimfire, IV, 256)

Don Dixon
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