Is That Cordite I Smell?

Not unless your novel is based in a pre-WWI era. This is one of those terminology mistakes that seems to have kept a foot hold in modern crime and suspense thrillers. I’m listening to an audio book during my commute and the NYT best-selling author has referenced the smell of Cordite several times in the modern tale. Perhaps it’s a little thing that a lot of readers may not notice but it is a glaring error to knowledgeable readers. The fact that such a well regarded author (one with a reputation for doing good research) makes this mistake tells me that many other authors may make the same error. Truthfully, it’s a simple error to make but even easier to avoid.

Cordite was a type of smokeless propellant for firearm cartridges developed by the British from the early 1890’s to about the end of WWI when better smokeless powders were developed. It was still used in heavy guns (like tanks) to varying degrees but it is not produced anymore and certainly not for modern firearms. It produces an acrid smell like burnt acetone if you can imagine that. Modern smokeless powders produce a much less noticeable odor. The smell of modern powders don’t “hang in the air” unless you’ve discharged dozens or hundreds of rounds in a confined space. That’s not to say a seasoned CSI or detective couldn’t detect an odor after a few shots were fired but it just wouldn’t be as pungent or last very long (minutes) in most cases.

So if you’re writing a modern novel avoid descriptions like “After emptying his magazine at the knife wielding thug, Butch Big-guns nearly gagged on the curtain of cordite hanging in the air”. You are of course welcome to use the character name Butch Big-guns if so inclined :)

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About forensics4fiction

Hi there. Thank you for visiting my BLOG for crime writers. I hope you will find it interesting. I would love to hear your questions and thoughts regarding forensics and criminal investigations. I hope that the information here will help answer your questions or ignite your imagination. I am a retired senior criminalist with 15 years of forensic experience. I have served as the president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification. I am triple board certified in forensic related fields and one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts and 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide In addition to writing over 60 scientific papers, I have worked as the editor of the Journal of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, been interviewed by and consulted for television, books, magazines, and newspaper articles including documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Posted on September 25, 2011, in The Crime Scene and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. THANK YOU ! ! ! !

    You’ve saved me from making a glaring error in the next book I have planned (but not written yet).

  2. Thanks for the clarification. You will always be Butch Big-guns in my books!

  3. I am absolutely sure I smelled cordite some time last week ;)
    But I have already forgotten who the writer was.

  4. I can’t wait for that nickname to catch on! I remember an older criminalist who called me numbnuts the entire first year I started working in the lab. Not sure which is better!

  5. Great Post Tom,

    I have a question about smells. Say I have a crime scene that was a month old. No body, but blood is found on a mattress, blood from a miscarriage. Would there still be a decomposing smell? Does blood decompose? If it does, would it still smell, after a month in a locked up house with no ventilation?

    Probably a dumb question,

  6. There are never any dumb questions Kim! (just dumb lawyers who ask them…ba dum bum!) Apologies to my lawyer friends and family out there but she served it up! When you consider smells in a crime scene there are two considerations. First is the source of the smell you’re interested in. In your example it is blood and fluids discharged from a miscariage in a mattress. After a month the fluids would be dried and there will likely be no detectable odor in the room. If you were to put your nose to it you’d smell the dried blood or other fluids/stains on the mattress (which leads into the second consideration). All odors are competing against eachother in any environment. If there is animal excrement on the floor or the carpeting is stained with urine (this comes standard with some apartments in the cities I’ve worked) then you may be overwhelmed by those odors. There are dozens of examples I could give you but think about what, if anything, may be going on in your crime scene and try to imagine if that would create an odor.
    Blood does “decompose” but not in the way you might imagine (as in human decomposition). Cellular structures can break down under high heat, exposure to UV light (strong sun light coming through a window for example), or environmental conditions (water, animal activity, etc). The mattress will absorb blood so even if the blood cells on the surface are damaged or contaminated you will probably find useful blood (DNA) seeped to a lower position. This depends on the volume of blood however and if any other absorbant (like towels or sheets) were also used.
    Hope that helps. Tom

  7. Great site, Tom! Having worked in Hollywood for fifteen years, and being a novelist for twenty-five, I can attest to your observation that many writers just don’t do research. In fact, many rely on movies and books they’ve seen and read as their research. I’m overjoyed to have found your site.

    I do have a question. I’ve shot many types of gun in the past and (especially in a closed environment), smoke does hang in the air for a while. What causes that, and what am I smelling (and tasting)?

  8. Thank you for the nice comments Stuart, I’ll bet you’ve had a very interesting career. I don’t want this to sound too simple but there are basically two tyopes of modern gunpowder used in the marketplace. One is black powder that you would use with modern and traditional muzzleloaders. Those weapons produce a lot of smoke (think civil war re-enactment) and aside from the propellants there is a sulfur component as well. Most modern firearms using centerfire or rimfire cartridges use a smokeless powder. There are now synthetic powders on the market too but I don’t want to get too crazy here. When a gun is fired there is obviously an explosive release of gasses under pressure and it is the propellants (varies by manufacturer, age, type of cartridge, etc), the antimony, lead, barrium, taggants, even copper that can be imparted into the air. That is what you are smelling and tasting although I’m not aware of anyone doing scent research (the way that has become fashinable in decomposition studies) on what components are the most detectible to the average person. You’re still smelling the combustion, it is just that the specific compound Cordite is not one of them. Does that make sense?


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