Speed Reads

Supply Chains

U.S. production of bullets, shells, and missiles sidelined by explosion at 1 Louisiana gunpowder mill

When a gunpowder mill in Minden, Louisiana, caught spark and blew up in June 2021, the Pentagon lost its sole domestic producer of black powder, the original gunpowder developed in China in the 9th century and a crucial ingredient for more than 300 types of munitions, The Wall Street Journal reports. "The product, for which there is no substitute, is used in small quantities in munitions to ignite more powerful explosives," from M16 bullets and 155mm howitzer shells to Tomahawk and other cruise missiles. The factory is still closed. 

The closure of the black powder mill in Minden, 30 miles from Shreveport, highlights the many "single source" producers in the Pentagon's supply chains, the Journal reports. Only one company makes the rocket motors for Javelin anti-tank missiles, or example, and one foundry forges all the titanium casings used in howitzers. These potential bottlenecks to U.S. industrial munitions production are tied to industry consolidation after the Cold War — the dozens of major Pentagon arms suppliers in the 1990s has shrunk to just five, while the overall defense industrial base has declined to 55,000 vendors, from 69,000 in 2016, the Journal reports. 

Estes Industries, the model-rocket maker, bought the Minden mill from Hodgdon last year and plans to have it back in service this summer, after the completion of $3.5 million in safety upgrades paid for by the Pentagon through the Defense Production Act. The Biden administration has used that law to start bringing critical elements of industrial production, from certain chemicals to factories, back to the U.S. In the meantime, defense contractors who rely on black powder have been using up reserves or importing it from abroad, the Journal reports. 

You can read more about the fallout from the Minden mill and other issues facing U.S. weapons production at The Wall Street Journal.