The key component in modern smokeless gunpowder is nitrocellulose. This quick and efficient burning compound is the cornerstone upon which the various blends of gunpowder are built and without it the majority of ammunition you see on the wall at your local sporting goods store would disappear. Since time immemorial the ATF has held that wetted nitrocellulose (a mixture of the explosive compound and water or alcohol, designed to reduce the probability of explosion during shipping) destined for small arms ammunition manufacturing was not an explosive and therefore exempt from the usually onerous requirements of logging the material in a bound book (like firearms) and storing it in an approved explosives magazine. Until just a few weeks ago, that is, when the ATF threw all that out the window.
From the Ammoland article:
The June 2016 newsletter article [see image above] states that ATF was recently asked about the status of nitrocellulose under the federal explosives laws and regulations. The article notes that “Nitrocellulose explosive” is on ATF’s List of Explosive Materials and states ATF has determined that “nitrocellulose containing greater than 12.6 percent nitrogen is a high explosive under 27 C.F.R. Part 555.” The article indicates ATF is aware that the U.S. Department of Transportation may assign a nonexplosive classification to nitrocellulose when it has been wetted with water or alcohol, based, in part, on the diminished likelihood of explosion in a transportation accident. However, because nitrocellulose retains its explosive characteristics when the water or alcohol is removed, the wetted nitrocellulose remains a nitrocellulose explosive subject to all controls of the federal explosives laws.
One of our readers summarized the impact about as succinctly as possible:
This ruling effectively prohibits importation of double base smokeless powder for ammunition production and reloading. Almost all smokeless propellants (and black powder substitutes) exceed the 12.6% nitrogen content threshold set by BATFE. Low nitrogen (incompletely reacted) single base nitrocellulose powders are only made for the very slowest burning rate applications. The high nitrogen stuff is used for pistol, shotgun, and most rifle powders.
International shipping regulations require wetting nitrocellulose powders to ensure safety during transport. The powders are then dried and packaged for retail sale domestically.
This ruling will probably also end production of nail polish and most printing inks. Will screw up guitar production as well.
It looks like this was one of those instances where the ATF and the ammunition manufacturers had come to something of a gentlemen’s agreement over the years, but someone finally asked the right question and the ATF saw the opportunity to significantly impact the availability of ammunition for American gun owners.
The ATF’s stance that wetted nitrocellulose is an explosive is consistent with the law in the same way as restricting the availability of bananas due to their radioactivity.