Orgone Research

Friday, September 15, 2006

Home made gunpowder

With liquid "binary" explosives in the news recently, I thought it might be fun to write about making explosives in a more "simple" era.

When I was a child, I was fascinated with science. I was also a huge Star Trek fan, and obviously I could relate to Mr. Spock, for better or for worse. My favorite episode of Star Trek was "Arena", where Kirk defeats the Gorn using a cannon powered by improvised black powder.
One day in the fourth grade these various fascinations began to come together. Steve Haddon had brought to class an interesting "science" project. It consisted of an empty steel food can attached to a block of wood for a base. Inside was a charcoal briquette, set alight with the obligatory Ronson lighter fluid. That a 4th grade kid would be allowed to perform such an "experiment" today, boggles the mind, but as I say that was a simpler time. This would have been 1971 in Miss Hansen's class at Paxson grade school in Missoula MT.

Indeed, Steve's experiment performed admirably, and the briquette did burn. But since I was a "science guy" I felt the need to interject and brag that "I knew how to make gunpowder". You see, before Wikipedia, there was a thing called the "Encyclopedia Britannica", and our family had one. I don't know specifically where I got the recipe for black powder but it was commonly available in books, even those written for young people. Amazingly, the local drug store, Skaggs, sold potassium nitrate right off the shelf. Better yet, it was right next to the sulfur... Yeah, I know this sounds like a bullshit story, but I have witnesses...

When it came time for Steve to extinguish his "experiment", he did what most people would do and tried to blow it out. But the displaced air has to go somewhere, and of course it blew back in his face and singed his eyebrows. I never witnessed a similar such "science experiment" thereafter.

Anyway, Steve and I got on our bikes and rode out to Skaggs drugstore and got our ingredients. Steve already had the charcoal briquettes, as previously mentioned. We used my mother's glass mortar and pestle to grind up and mix our powders. By the way, this is perhaps the most dangerous thing we did, as the separate fuel and oxidizer powders should always be mixed together, never ground together.

Thankfully I'm writing this with 2 eyes, 10 fingers, and functional hearing. We never contained our black powder, and only burned it off. I seem to remember Steve added the element of a road flare at some point, which was pretty cool. Steve Haddon later went on to become a lawyer in Montana.

Years later I discovered the "underground literature" of Loompanics, Paladin Press, and the infamous "Poor Man's James Bond" by Kurt Saxon. I think it was in one of the famous "revenge" books that we learned that you could substitute sugar for sulfur and charcoal. By this time I was 18, and was now running with my friend Mike, who was much more cunning than Steve but more volatile and wild. We decided it was time to make a pipe bomb.

We made some of the crudest "black powder" that would burn, using sugar instead of sulfur and charcoal. We had obtained waterproof fuse, I think by mail order. We bought a 6" iron pipe and two caps at a hardware store. We filled the pipe with the substance, and inserted the fuse through a hole previously drilled in one cap. We hiked into Hellgate canyon a ways, and up the side of the Mt. Sentinel. We placed the IED deep in the corner of a rock shelf and buried it under about 300 pounds of loose rock. We weren't stupid, and our fuse was about 3 feet long, giving us about a minute of burn time before detonation. Because of where we had placed the device we had a large chunk of solid mountain between us and the device, so no shrapnel would hit us. It would all be directed away from us, toward Mt. Jumbo. We lit the fuse and ran. We waited for what seemed like forever. Finally it detonated. I can only describe the sound like this; a firecracker is like a snare drum. This was like John Bonham's bass drum. The echo bounced off Mt. Jumbo several seconds later. No car alarms went off, as there were no such things back then...

We inspected where our bomb had been. Several of the big rocks had been displaced 20 or 30 feet down the mountainside, so we knew it was at least that powerful. Amazingly, we found both the original pipe, and one of the caps. The second pipe cap was still screwed on, but with a silver dollar sized piece blown out. Here is the weird part, and if you think I'm bullshiting you, I understand. The threads on both the pipe and the intact pipe cap were virtually undamaged! We could almost screw the cap back on. It was as if the cap had been enlarged then lifted off. Eventually we tired of marveling at our vaguely Fortean find as we walked home, and we chucked the evidence into the Clark Fork River. It's probably still there!

At this point, I realized that if I continued doing what I was doing that I would need a "bigger bang" each time, and that I would likely end up dead or disfigured if I continued. Mike and I both stopped making improvised explosive devices.

Mike, too, eventually became a lawyer and practices in Montana...


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