Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Smell of Spent Powder

Normally, when a woman talks about the words "scent" and "powder",  she's talking about cosmetics - face powder, perfumed talcum, and all of the little things that recall the femininity of bygone days. There is still a particular floral concoction, that when I smell it, reminds me of my great-aunt from my childhood. This is a memory that is over 4 decades old - triggered by a scent - the scent of her talcum powder. But that isn't the kind of powder I'm discussing today.

We know that the sense of smell is both primal and hard-wired into memory. We also know that certain scents are more pleasing than others, and that it is sometimes an individual thing. For instance, the wet diaper of a new infant doesn't smell distasteful to me. (I suppose that's a good thing - otherwise I'd be in the wrong profession - LOL) Rather, that smell gives me brief memories of a cozy time when I was alone with my newborns and we were still getting to know eachother.  That particular smell - which logic dictates should elicit at least mild revulsion - doesn't.

I say all this to prepare you, so that when I profess that I love the smell of spent gunpowder in the morning, you don't think that I'm a weirdo. I can't be alone here, can I? I don't think it's an acquired taste, as I recall liking the smell from the very beginning. There was an instant attraction - from my first shots.

I should also explain that despite a chronically runny nose, I have a fairly acute sense of smell. All those years spent in the microbiology lab in my previous profession as a medical technologist, trained me to use my sense of smell more acutely than perhaps other people are used to. Certain microorganisms have specific scents when grown in the laboratory. Pseudomonas, Haemophilus, Staph (even different species of Staph smell different), Ecoli, Bacteriodes, Streptomyces, Candida - the list goes on - can all (at least as a preliminary screen) be identified by smell. To this day, if a patient has a really bad case of Strep Throat, I can often smell it on their breath.

So, when I say there is "something" about the smell of spent gunpowder - I absolutely mean it. I don't know what it is, but something about it is pleasing to me. I would put it roughly in the same category as fresh ground coffee brewing. It is somewhat acrid and somewhat smokey, but also "attention-getting", and comforting at the same time. I suppose if I were a researcher with grant money lying around looking for a purpose, I'd do chromatography studies on the components of that smell, and what areas of the brain they activate in different people. I'd like to know if this is just an inherently pleasing combination to my brain, or if like my great aunt's talcum, it is triggering visceral, yet unconscious memories of my father, or if it's something else entirely.

I've also discovered that it isn't "all" powder that does that for me. I've been at matches where guys used their own reloads and the smell was totally different - not at all pleasing to me. Since I don't reload, I asked a friend about this, and he said that it probably depends on the type of powder and the type of oil on the bullets used in the reloads. If the components are different, then the products of combustion will be different.

I really don't want to get into reloading right now, but maybe I'll have to read up on what the ingredients are, why they are different in different powders, and why they smell different when they're burned. Obviously my nose prefers factory powder, and I'd like to know why. Maybe somebody out there can enlighten me, because it intrigues the science geek in me.

This is what I mean when I say that there is Always. Something. New. To. Learn. in the shooting sports.
It all makes my inner Spock raise an eyebrow and say "Fascinating" :-)

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