Cordite:

“The second I opened the door I knew she was dead. Her body was easy to find, too. The smell of cordite led me to her like the combined scents of fried chicken and potato salad lead a southerner to a summertime church picnic.”

Cordite. Just say NO!

Yes, it’s happened yet again. I read a book last week by one of my favorite authors. It was one of those books you just don’t want to put down, not even to eat or sleep. Well, I had plowed my way almost to the end when I saw the dreaded “C” word. I know, disgusting, right?

Yep. The modern day hero smelled CORDITE. Right there on page so and so. And for all the world to see.

ARGGHHH!!!! If I read that more time I think I’ll shoot myself just before hurling my wounded body in front of a speeding train.

Cordite. What is it, and why do so many writers use the stuff in their books? I can’t answer the second part of the question. It’s still a mystery to me.

Goodness knows, I’ve tried to steer everyone in the right direction. Authors don’t write about cops using sharpened sticks as weapons. They don’t have their heroes carrying a pocket full of rocks to throw at bad guys. Why not? Because times have changed. We aren’t living with the Flintstones. Fred and Barney aren’t our neighbors. We have modern weapons, vehicles, and modern ammunition.

Cordite is gone, folks. Finished. Over. Done. They just don’t make the stuff anymore. It is G.O.N.E.

Actually …

Cordite was developed by the British in the 1800’s. Their scientists blended a concoction of acetone, nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, and petroleum jelly to form a colloid (a substance is dispersed evenly throughout another). The acetone was then evaporated which allowed the goop to be extruded into long, sort of slippery, spaghetti-like cords (see image below). These rods were packed into rounds, standing on their ends, topped with a round piece of cardboard. Depending on the size of the weapon and caliber of ammunition, the cords could be manufactured in thicker or thinner sizes, as well as longer or shorter lengths. In other words, the bigger the round the fatter and longer the strands of cordite.

This stuff is not a powder! It’s basically sticks of nitroglycerin and guncotton lathered up with Vaseline.

Cordite rods and a piece of round cardboard.

Left to right – casing, cordite rods, cardboard disc on top, and bullet.

Cordite was manufactured in sticks. Therefore, it could not be used in tapered rounds. The shell tube had to remain straight until it reached the point where the bullet fit into the neck. A series of dies were used to make that transformation. The cordite had to be packed tightly into each round. If not, air space caused the cordite to burn at an improper rate.

Now, the most important fact in this entire piece.

Cordite manufacturing CEASED somewhere around the end of WWII. I’ll say that again in case you weren’t listening, or in the event the radio was playing too loudly and caused you to miss it.

They don’t make the stuff anymore. It’s not used in modern ammunition. Nope. Not there. Don’t have it.

So no, your cops can’t smell it! That’s not what’s hitting their noses when they enter a crime scene.

What's that smell? It's not cordite!

When writing these scenes think 4th of July fireworks, after they’ve exploded. That’s pretty close to the odor floating about in the air after modern ammunition has been recently discharged.

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  1. Cathy Akers-Jordan
    Cathy Akers-Jordan says:

    Even Ian Fleming made this mistake in one of the Bond books. I don’t remember which one but Miss Moneypenny could smell the cordite because Bond had just been at the range.

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Gina- Thanks for the tip, and for making the case for me. Although, attempting to activate the senses by using something that’s nonexistent is not something I’d consider smart writing. It’s lazy, actually. It’s a simple matter to switch the term cordite for – smokeless powder, burnt powder, smelled like someone recently set off a string of firecrackers, etc. At least those things aren’t something from deep in the history books.

  3. Gina
    Gina says:

    Maybe authors are just trying to “use all the senses” like we’re told, although I suspect most crime scenes have more over-powering odors than cordite would be were it still in use. It always amazes me when characters don’t find the body – someone who’s been lying dead for days – until they stumble over it or see it. It’s gross, but dying people often lose bowel/bladder control, blood has a distinctive odor, and rotting flesh smells bad. Maybe if you remind authors of that, they’ll no longer feel a need for someone to smell cordite.

  4. Jaden Terrell
    Jaden Terrell says:

    Thanks for keeping us educated, Lee. I do love the word “cordite,” though, so it’s tempting to write a historical just so I can use it and all this lovely information about the cords and how they were used.

    I also like the smell of gunpowder.

  5. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Jenn – NOPE! Good for you!

    Marcy – Tell your critique group members that smokeless powder is what’s found in modern ammunition. Never cordite.

    Laura – Too funny! 🙂

  6. Laura Brennan
    Laura Brennan says:

    I learn something from you all the time. I mean, yes, sometimes you stomp on my cherished beliefs, but that’s okay. I usually get over it. And the times I faint dead away from the shock, you can always use the smell of cordite to revive me…

    Or not. 😉

  7. Marcy
    Marcy says:

    I must say, I believed someone in a crit group who chastised me about “gunpowder” saying it wasn’t used anymore. They said “cordite” is the modern version…. Until one of your earlier posts about cordite. Thank you for educating us!

  8. Jean
    Jean says:

    Too funny! Not really…sigh. But…I heard “the smell of cordite” line last week on one of the law and order shows and I’m like…nope.

  9. John
    John says:

    Just by their pro-lazy, smart-ass answers alone, I’ll never read anything “Joyce” or “D. Swords” publish. They remind me of the idiotic and unfunny jocks in high school who mocked the smart kids because they couldn’t grasp why intellectual accuracy was important.

  10. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Thanks for the detailed comments, Mark. And your statements further reinforce the fact that cordite is not used in modern ammunition, therefore, barring a really unusual circumstance that would need to be written into a story, cops will not be smelling the odor of cordite in a present-day murder scene. Great information!

  11. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Janessa – I’m dying to know…who are the “we writers” you’re speaking of? There are many, many more writers who don’t use the term than those who do. Why be a part of the inaccurate minority?

    If “you writers” didn’t include things like that in your work editors and agents would never miss it. My agent certainly knows better. I know better. And so do scores of readers who toss books after they’ve seen cordite used in the story. It shows the author hasn’t done their homework, and that sometimes lessens their credibility.

    These readers are also the readers who’ll hesitate before picking up another book written by that particular author. Is it worth it to the author to write something into their story knowing they’re driving readers away, even if it’s only one or two, just because the author thinks it sounds interesting to them? I’d certainly hope not. After all, who are we writing for?

    Actually, I have to disagree about using cordite and other outdated material just because the author likes the sound of it. I’ve heard about the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch all my life, but I certainly wouldn’t write them into a novel as fact.

    By the way, I write this blog based on the thousands of questions, comments, and statements I receive each year from writers and readers alike. I receive these comments at the many events I attend as a speaker, and through emails and this blog. Most of my blog posts are simply responses to those questions and statements because the readers are far too polite and/or shy to tell the writer how they feel. I’m neither of those, and I certainly don’t write these things just to hear myself talk. Many of my posts are here to help writers based on comments from their fans. Who knows, some of those comments may have come from your readers, or former readers. You never know.

    This is exactly the reason we host the Writers’ Police Academy. We do it to educate writers about the real world of cops and robbers, forensics, and fire and rescue. We still have spots available… 🙂

  12. janessa
    janessa says:

    We writers use it because it ‘sounds’ interesting. I was recently working on a story with a heavy military presence and found myself trying to describe the smell of the haze of smoke that lingers after firing a weapon. Now I shoot regularly and know the facts on cordite like any other decent researcher but I found myself not wanting to say “gunpowder”. It sounds pedestrian. But for the sake of accuracy that is exactly what the smell is: gunpowder. That is also why the firing of guns produces a smell much like fireworks. Fireworks contain a large portion of gunpowder.

    I am quite certain many other writers have read of the “smell of cordite” in the air after gunfire and remembered it – not knowing the perpetuated inaccuracy of the use of the word. I would have simply assumed this was a component in modern ammunition like many other writers if it weren’t for the fact that I’m fanatical about getting certain details right. A quick Google taught me the facts on the manufacture and usage of cordite through the second world war. Still – as an author – there lingers the desire to use descriptive language that is interesting and sometimes unexpected. If it didn’t make me cringe to throw in such a highly inaccurate substance I would probably be happy to use the word if only to enhance the reader’s experience.

    Editors and writers alike are misinformed because it is allowed to pass through without notice. Thus works published with the phrase used inappropriately continue to appear in our modern novels. As long as other writers read it and don’t know better it will probably continue to be used. As long as editors don’t inform themselves and correct the mistake writers will continue to misuse it. I for one wish it WERE accurate. It sounds infinitely more interesting than mere ‘gunpowder’.

    (Yes I know I use -‘s instead of commas. Don’t give me grief about it – I simply have no comma key)

  13. Les Edgerton
    Les Edgerton says:

    Hey Lee,
    Thanks for alerting readers to cordite. I just began reading “The Girl Who Played With Fire” by Swedish sensation, Stieg Larsson (his novels, including his first “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” were published posthumously),and sure enough, on page 172 of the hardcover edition, the “ace” researcher/journalist Michael Blomkvist, enters an apartment where shots have just been heard, and this is his reaction: “Suddenly he felt an icy shiver run down his back. He recognized the smell: cordite.” (I also have a problem with the cliche in the preceding sentence… I’m really tired of characters getting “icy shivers” down their spines/backs…)

    What’s really amusing is that Blomkvist’s personna is that he’s this dilligent researcher who always makes sure that everything he publishes is 100% accurate. Indeed, when he enters the apartment, it’s to pick up the book he’s vetting for accuracy…

    A friend and I were trying to figure out how Larsson’s first book achieved best-sellerdom and couldn’t. It breaks about every rule of good writing that exist. Both of us figured out the “mystery” less than a third of the way in. My friend thought it was the “creepiness” factor and I’m not sure what he meant by that.

    The thing is, both of the books by him I’ve read are about Blomkvist and how anal he is about accuracy in reporting. Guess he should have had someone vet his own book…

    Blue skies,
    Les

  14. Laura Elvebak
    Laura Elvebak says:

    I, too, just read a mystery by a big name writer who used Cordite. So what I want to know is, what does a just fired gun smell like? I’ve fired guns before, but don’t recall the smell.

  15. Pat Patterson
    Pat Patterson says:

    Cordite was manufactured through the end of WWII in Britain though at that time it was used in naval weapomns and small anti-aircraft shells. It was used in their .303 caliber rifle rounds in WWI. I don’t know about their pistol rounds.

  16. Pat Marinelli
    Pat Marinelli says:

    Oh, Lee, I just had the same problem. That C word showed up at the most thrilling part of the a modern day LEO thriller and stopped me cold. Again another best-selling author with an uninformed editor.

    I would never make that mistake. But then I alos know the courts are guarded by US Marshals, not state marshalls. Still laughing over that one.

  17. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hooray for Elena! You know, now that you mention it, I’d love to see some editors and agents getting their hands dirty at the Writers Police Academy. I’ve heard many horror stories from writers who say their editors insist they change good information to bad based on what the editor has seen on TV.

    Why shouldn’t editors and agents make the same effort to educate themselves as their hardworking authors? We all work hard at this stuff. Why shouldn’t they?

    What say you folks who hide behind the rejection letters and slush piles? Why don’t you show up at the WPA? No need to be frightened. We’re not having pitch sessions. No agent/editor appointments. No manuscript critiques. In fact, that sort of behavior is discouraged. It’s not allowed. This is not a writers conference. Everyone is on equal ground at this event. And we’re going to have a blast. Oh, and we’re going to learn some cool stuff, too.

    How about it Kristen Weber? Janet Reid? I’m calling you guys out! 🙂 What about Harper, Little Brown, St. Martins? This would be a great way for you guys to see and appreciate what your authors do to earn their meager advances. You might even have a good time. Where else can you go to shoot people, solve a murder, and put out a fire?

    Authors, send a note to your editors and agents about attending the Writers Police Academy. If you’re scared, send me their contact information. I’m not shy. 🙂

  18. Elena
    Elena says:

    I protest! I’m tired of us poor writers being blamed for things like Cordite. When do the editors take a bow for poor editing? Those same editors that nitpick us to death over whether or not a hyphen is in the right place or have peculiar fancies about prepositional usage, and don’t talk to me about gerunds.
    Why don’t the editors who work in the mystery field have some basic knowledge about that world?

  19. Liberty
    Liberty says:

    Hi, Lee,

    I’ve probably read the cordite thing, but it never dawned on me that it was wrong. Thankfully, it’s one of those things I’m not familiar enough with to use in my own writing. 🙂

    Despite being a big pro-2nd Amendment person, I’ve only been shooting a handful of times. To tell you the truth, whenever I’ve smelled the after-effects of shooting, it smells like fireworks. If I ever have to write a scene with a recent shooting (which, come to think of, I already have and you helped me with other details on that scene!), I’ll probably equate it to fireworks.

  20. Joe Prentis
    Joe Prentis says:

    Glad you posted this. I just finished a bestseller by one of my favorite authors, also. It had the big ‘C’ word there right at the top of the page. There are far too many writers who write books on subjects they know absolutely nothing about. I recently had a manuscript rejected by an editor who told me, “A police officer would never do anything wrong. They take an oath.” Evidently they never hear of IA. Thanks for the great job you do in setting the record straight on a number of subjects.

  21. Terry Odell
    Terry Odell says:

    I think I read that same book. I snickered, but then I enjoy feeling ‘superior’ to big name published authors sometimes. Heaven knows my book sales sure can’t compete with theirs, even if I don’t refer to APBs or cordite, and my characters NEVER thumb the safeties off their Glocks.