Sorry if this is long I am attempting to describe my entire thought process :

I am considering a situation for a barrel/cannon. There is a propellant (can be a cartridge filled with powder or what have you), and a projectile ( a bullet or cannonball), and they are encompassed in a barrel or tube. Left/back is the closed end of the tube and right/forward is the open end of the tube.

The powder will sit at the back of the tube in a closed end, it will explode, and after a complete ideal chemical reaction will turn into high energy gas that will begin to push on the projectile. The projectile will act as a moving wall and will obturate any gas behind it, allowing no leakage past it. As the cannonball moves down the tube, its gain in momentum due to the explosion in one direction, will cause the cannon to move backwards in the opposite direction due, to conservation of momentum. Picture for Referenceenter image description here

However it is my understanding that the expanding gas that is moving behind the cannon will not cause a backwards motion until the cannonball has left the tube and allowed the gas to leave the tube causing a kind of thrust/jet propulsion due to the gases finally being able to leave jet out. I am almost certain this is how it would function, because I can compare it to blowing up a balloon, while the balloon may expand while blowing it up, it does not fly away. The moment I let go of the balloon and allow gas to escape out the mouth hole, the balloon starts flying around the room due to the gas escaping from the balloon.

My question is why does the expanding gas not cause thrust while inside the tube? It would make sense that the gas is moving on average down the tube with the cannonball?

The way I've justified it on a molecular level is that the high pressure gas inside the tube experiences gas molecules constantly hitting it on the left closed wall and right on the cannonball that is blocking the tube. Thus it experiences no net forces when the cannonball is moving down the tube. However when the cannonball leaves, the tube only experiences gases pushing back on the closed end of the tube, and those gases which were equalizing this force by pushing oppositely on the cannonball, are instead simply leaving and no longer cancelling out leftwards forces. Thus the tube experiences a net force backwards when the gases are allowed to jet out of the tube. But this is in terms of molecular forces (and perhaps Newton's 2nd Law) but I want an explanation in terms of conservation of momentum.

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    $\begingroup$ "However it is my understanding that the expanding gas that is moving behind the cannon will not cause a backwards motion until the cannonball has left the tube". Where did you get that idea? $\endgroup$
    – John Doty
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 0:25
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDoty, I've seen the idea touted around forums, that there is no backwards motion of the tube due to the expanding gases. That combined with my expanding balloon analogy is where I got the idea. Is it incorrect? I suppose a thought experiment to confirm would be if we had a closed tube with powder lying on the left end, which then exploded and expanded to the right to fill the tube, would the tube experience a leftward motion? We could also replace the gases with a 2 piece explosive, one which stays on the left end and one which flies to the right. Intuitively this may cause left motion? $\endgroup$
    – one two
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ Why should the pressure of the hot gas on the closed back end of the barrel be any less than the pressure that it exerts on the shell? Also note, pressure is related to force, but whether or not (or how far) the barrel moves in response to that force depends on whether or not (or how far) its mount allows it to move. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 1:08
  • $\begingroup$ Momentum is conserved at each instant. Start momentum is $0$. If the projectile moves right, something else must move left. $\endgroup$
    – mmesser314
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ Most of your analysis is incorrect. The cannonball is assumed to move down the barrel with no friction, so it exerts no force on the barrel. The backward force of the gas can drive the barrel backwards (even before the cannonball exits) if the barrel is not anchored to the earth. In. your balloon example, your hand is exerting a force to prevent the balloon from moving before you let go. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 11:49

1 Answer 1


While your thinking has some mistakes in it, you are on the right track overall.

The expanding gas does press on all surfaces with the same pressure. The force on the back of the cannon is the same as the force on the projectile. The project accelerates right. The barrel accelerates left.

The acceleration of the barrel moves depends on its mass. If the barrel is rigidly attached to the earth, it depends on the mass of the barrel plus the mass of the Earth. A large mass might accelerate so little that the final speed is too low to see.

This is the case of the balloon. A balloon might have a mass of a 5 grams. You might have a mass of 50 kg. When you blow air into it, you are both pushed apart. But the balloon accelerates 10,000 times more than you do. That is why you see the balloon move away from you, and not the other way around.


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