Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Speaking of Safety...

Black Powder
In regards to yesterday's safety bulletin and Juvat's appointment as Cooking Safety Officer, occasional reader RHT447 had this tale to relate:
RHT447April 17, 2018 at 1:39 PM
I recall a particular day in my youth during which the above mentioned safety gear would have been of some benefit. I was in college at the time (post Army hitch) and had packed all my gear and tools over to a friends house so we could cast some bullets. During the course of the day, one of my lead ingots got wet (which I knew). I set it aside, but then got distracted, and when the lead pot got low, sure enough in it went. The reaction is referred to as a steam explosion, and was instantaneous. It was over before I realized what had happened. It sounded like a short, muffled fart. 
Fortunately, I have worn glasses since the second grade. I was also deliberately wearing long sleeves and leather work gloves with gauntlets. There were several splotches of lead on my shirt and left sleeve, but the one that really got my attention was the one completely covering the right lens of my glasses. I got lucky that day. The only scar I still carry is on the inside of my left wrist where a small blob of molten metal went through the gap in the button cuff.

RHT447's tale of woe reminded me of a personal tale where things might have gone south in a real big hurry had luck and Divine Providence not taken a hand in matters.

There I was...*

Back in my days as a callow youth, civilian, handyman by trade, and itinerant Civil War reenactor, I was around that substance in the opening photo quite a bit. Wasn't all that rare to have a can of the stuff stowed at my abode for to go playing with fire sticks like these -

Civil War reenactors fire a volley during a musket firing demonstration.
Retired Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic Don Reimert, a historical interpreter, fires a flintlock musket during a demonstration.
I've had the pleasure of firing a Civil War rifle, a Civil War cannon, and various and sundry weapons of the flintlock variety.

RHT447's story reminded me of times when my brethren and I would cast lead bullets for our trusty rifled muskets and head on out to the farm belonging to the father of one of our merry band for to discharge said firearms out in the wilderness far from prying neighbors and the worried glances of the local constabulary.

Sometimes we'd make up cartridges before heading on down to the farm, sometimes we'd wait until we got there. Depended on our mood and the availability of a good place to melt lead and cast bullets. (For some reason I remember casting bullets from pewter as well as lead, sometimes pewter was easier to come by. And no, it's not because I'm so old that I was around when King George III placed on embargo on lead to keep it from us Colonials. Old NFO on the other hand? You'd have to ask him...)

Anyhoo, we decided on this one occasion to head on out to the farm, make bullets and cartridges out there on a rather fine day in summer in the Green Mountain State...

Wait, what? What do I mean by cartridge? Well, they weren't shiny and they weren't made of brass, they looked rather like this...

Minié ball on the right, powder on the left, and...

Wait, what? Minié ball? What the heck is a Minié ball Sarge? Well, it ain't a mini-ball (little ball), nope, it's named after the French fella who invented it, Claude-Étienne Minié, and it was a nasty little feller who left big holes in the folks it hit.

Assortment of Minié balls.
But yes, I digress.

We had our rifled muskets (my own weapon of choice was an original SN&WTC rifled musket in .58 caliber), a couple of cans of powder, and a sufficient quantity of lead (and paper) to fix up some cartridges for our fire sticks.

Lead was melted and molded into the shape shown above (no incidents of the type RHT447 describes above occurred), powder was measured into paper, Minié balls were added to the mix and we wrapped it all up into immediately usable form. That is, the cartridges weren't nearly as fancy as those shown above and would have fallen apart after a couple of miles on the march in a cartridge box. But we weren't marching anywhere and the cartridges just needed to stay in one piece long enough to load and fire.

Fun times ensued as we expended our on-hand ammunition stock. A decision was made to hang out until the wee hours and perhaps sit around a campfire and imbibe beverages made from hops and barley. No, no, dinna fash yersel', the weapons were put away, we knew better than to mix firearms and strong drink. We were young and pretty stupid, but we weren't that stupid. Mostly.

Anyhoo. The night wore on, the campfire was cozy, the beer was cold(ish) and we had much fun lying to each other about what fine Civil War soldiers we would have made. Almost made me long for a bit o' hard tack now that I think back on it.

Things were wonderful, things were fine, until someone posed the question, "How much powder do we have left? We can camp here tonight, make some more cartridges in the morning, shoot some more, and then go to breakfast. Wouldn't that be special?"

Why yes, yes it would we all agreed. So we turned to the one non-drinker in our tribe and said, "Say Johnny, have a peek and see how much powder we have left."

Now the two cans of powder, still in the manufacturer's authorized metal containers had been dumped into a big coffee can with a plastic lid for easy access while making cartridges (we had a wee spoon thingie for measuring the powder, easier to dip into a big can than pour from a small can). Our Johnny went to collect the can and hefted it to see how much was within, he spoke, "Doesn't feel like much, but I can't really see it. Hold on a minute."

Do you know what doesn't play nicely with black powder? This sort of thing...

Well, it was dark, Johnny thought that a short trip to the fireside would do no harm. When he arrived, some of us were no longer paying attention to him, engrossed in our beer drinking activities we were, so weren't really watching what Johnny was doing.

Now back then coffee cans were big tin cans, sort of, once you opened them, by opening one end completely, you sealed the can with the translucent lid which came with it from the store. Note what I said there, "translucent lid."

So Johnny popped the lid, couldn't really see through it, and tipped the can towards the light. You know, the fire light. From the campfire, which had a number of pine logs in it. Now pine logs, especially the fresh variety, have pitch in them, pine pitch. A sticky, gooey substance which makes delightful pops and sparks when burning.

Did you get that? Sparks.

So as Johnny tipped the can to the light, one of the logs decided that it would be simply wonderful to pop and shoot sparks aloft into the night sky.

Not all of the sparks went aloft, one found it's way someplace it should not have been.


Bright lights, loud noises, Johnny screaming, "I'm blind! I'm blind!" Which was true in a very temporary way. He quickly regained the use of his eyes and wondered immediately why the rest of us were laughing hysterically, like a group of loons, crazed, besotted loons.

Well, the powder was all gone, as were Johnny's eyebrows, eyelashes, and quite a bit of the hair in the area of his forehead. He looked rather like this...

Bit more hair on the sides though than this chap.

Gunpowder and fire, not a good mix outside of the chamber of a fire stick.

Johnny didn't find it all that amusing, like he said, "I could've been blinded for life, that could have blown my head off!"

Well, yes, he was right. But he did look funny and like I said, we were callow.

There are times I wonder how I survived long enough to join the Air Force.



  1. Hey Old AFSarge;

    Man that was some funny stuff, LOL. I have done things that I am glad that social media wasn't around back then, I might have been in trouble with any future employers

    1. You're right Mr. G, thank the Lord there were no cell phones back then!

  2. Gun powder needs pressure to work correctly. We used to pull 22 bullets apart and light the little flakes. They were kinda sickly yellow and burned pretty quick, but not too fast.

    Black powder is an explosive. It burns at the same rate under pressure or not. I've had a FOOOOOOM moment or two. I got a reproduction black powder rifle back in '84, but didn't have my possibles bag built yet. Couldn't find my powder measure. So, according to my readings.... put the ball in yer hand and cover it with powder, little cone shaped pile, good starting load. It looks so small, I put a few pinches more in there. Told my wife to come looking for me if I didn't come right back, stepped out in the night, and let her rip. The fire was fully 5 feet long out the end of a long barrel. Very satisfying BOOOOOOOOOM. Out in the flat land of west Texas, that sound carries for miles in the cold air.

    After I could see again, I came back in to my wide eyed wife. The dishes rattled, the windows lit up, and she was sure she was a widow. Neighbor's son was pretty worried, too. It's a wonder some of us made it to grey headed.

    1. Hahaha!

      Yup, it's a wonder we made it this far!

  3. When I was a kid we used to take some of dad's "black powder" (he reloaded ammo for his 1911) and pour it on ant hills then more ants for a while.
    Mostly those big red bitey ants...they needed killin.

    1. I wonder how it works on Fire Ants. Talk about "needed killin'"

    2. Don't know, but those are tough little bastards.

    3. When they start to fly, boil up 5 gallons of water and wash them down. Most of the colony is at the top of the nest, and they all love a hot water bath. Almost as satisfying as burning them, but the hot water rinse takes them out.

    4. Ah, someone experienced in anti-ant warfare (or as I like to say, the other AAW).

    5. AAW? Yeah, baby. Use this stuff--

      My recommendation--sprinkle a teaspoon or two on the mound. Then poke the mound so the ants come roaring out and scurry around in the powder. Come back in an hour and it will be wind and crickets.

      The active ingredient is Acephate. How it works--

      "Acephate can kill target insects when they touch it or eat it. When insects eat acephate, their bodies turn it into a chemical called methamidophos, which is another, stronger insecticide. Acephate is less toxic in mammals because mammal bodies do not turn it into methamidophos very well.

      Acephate and methamidophos affect the nervous system, causing over-activity in the nerves, muscles, or brain. Acephate is absorbed into plants, so insects that feed on treated plants may eat acephate."

    6. Whoa! Now we're a exterminator blog?

  4. Y'all remember me accidentally discovering the secrets of a pulse jet a few pages back? It was supposed to be the secondary of a black-powder bomb, so we (my idiot friends and I) could make heap-big boom on an island near an air base, for fun. (I did say idiots, didn't I? Big dumb idiots.)

    So, black powder not being sold to kids, we just went to the local drug store and got Potassium Nitrate and Sulfur, and made our own charcoal, and then made our own BP. Wasn't fancy corned stuff like in the top photo, but it made a respectable boom.

    Plans for blowing up island ended when I pulse jetted the barrel, I think our guardian angels started hitting us on the head with clue bats, big friggin clue bats.

    1. Hey, Gubmint stooges! That wasn't this Andrew, that was another completely different Andrew. Yeah, sure. And he's been using some episodes of my actual life to brighten his miserable existence. I've never made explosives or proved the theory behind pulse jets or...

      Not me. I'm innocent. Innocent I say. Used to be an Altar Boy. Good son of the Church. Voter. Taxpayer. Not cracked weapons maker, noooooooooo...

      (to understand this comment, go to yesterday's comments and behold sheer stupidity at play. Unless you're a gubmint stooge, don't go there.)

    2. I remember that comment and suspected something like that.

      This also reminds me of another story (or two). Which I may, or may not, relate. Youthful ee-jits and things that go boom. I knew a couple like that back in the day, more like a few, not quite a multitude.

      Again, I should be surprised that I am still alive. And have all of my fingers, toes, eyes, ears, etc.

    3. As to gubmint stooges...

      Yeah, what the Hell is Andrew thinking trying to make Andrew Wetzel look bad?


      (Even I am somewhat bemused, bedazzled, and bewildered at this point.)

    4. Ok, ok, I apologize. Give me a break, I'm an old guy, I get confused easily.

      Paul L. Quandt

    5. Don't feel bad Paul. I got confused a while ago, I liked it so much, I stayed there.


    6. The Real Andrew - Andrew, not one of the fake Andrews out there...April 18, 2018 at 12:56 PM

      Well, not everyone in my childhood escaped unscathed from stupid actions. Fishing with chlorine powder and brake fluid in a glass peanut butter jar for mullets was, um, explosively exciting, until one person held ex-peanut butter jar in his soon-to-be-partially ex-hand too long.

      Hey, don't judge, it takes far less coordination to dynamite mullet than it takes to catch them in a cast-net or on a snag hook. (But it does take some coordination, along with a strong realization that time is not your friend.)

    7. "...time is not your friend."

      Hahaha1 No, no, it isn't.

    8. Anonymous-Paul. Imagine how confused Mrs. Andrew is, since she lives with all of us Andrews. (I think there are at least a few more that haven't fully come out of the woodwork yet.)

      (Yes, "They're Coming to Take Me Away," by Napoleon XIV, does seem to be my theme-song most days. What? You don't have a theme song running through your head 24/7/365(366)?)

    9. Theme song? So that's what that is!

    10. Either it's your theme music or someone (or something) has implanted a receiver in your braiiiiiinnnnn.... woooooooOOOOOOOoooooooooo (spooky wooo noise)

  5. Hah! I've had my adventures with black powder as well. I still have my Thompson/Center Hawken sitting in my safe. As to my previous story, inquiring minds might inquire as to just how the lead ingot got wet in the first place. With apologies to Mr. Harvey, here is 'the rest of the story'.

    My buddy in the bullet casting story grew up in Tulelake, CA, where is also located Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge--aka waterfowl hunting nirvana. He and his younger brothers set up early on to re-load their own shotgun ammo, which they did for many years. Fast forward to bullet casting day. My buddy allows as how he has a few pounds of really old shotgun powder left over that he doesn't trust and wants to dispose of. "No problem" says I. "We can just burn it".

    I should point out here for those unfamiliar, all this bangy stuff is classified by burn rate. As STxAR points out, black powder is indeed an explosive (making it a real hassle for gun shops to carry). Modern smokeless power however, is classified as a flammable material. When confined, it does develop tremendous pressure, but when burned in the open, it is about as spectacular as the starter for your charcoal bbq. I should also point out that one can safely dispose of old powder by scattering it on your lawn. It makes for fairly decent (though expensive) fertilizer. But geeze, what's the fun in that?

    Back to bullet casting day. The weather was overcast and blustery, with an occasional spritz of light rain. We took the old shotgun powder and dumped it in a paper bag, took it outside, and lit the bag. The burn was un-remarkable as advertised. And what did we weight the bag down with so it didn't blow away? Drumroll please---that lead ingot, that then got wet in the rain, and blew up in the pot.

    1. Ah, a chain of unfortunate events. Every safety inspector's dream (or nightmare).

  6. I remember the days (pre-1968) of my father purchasing cases of dynamite at the hardware store and using it to blow tree stumps out of the ground out in the pasture (be sure to duck and cover when chunks are raining from the sky!). I was young but he ensured I knew how to safely test fuse lengths to determine burn time, safely crimp a blasting cap onto the fuse, insert the blasting cap, and then let me light the fuse. Besides blowing stumps out of the pasture, it was also his habit to celebrate New Year's Eve with sticks of dynamite...good times, good times. :-) One of the reasons I joined the Army is it provided the opportunity to make things go "bang!" - Barry

    1. Wow! You could buy dynamite at the hardware store? Awesome. (For some values of awesome.)

      Which reminds me of yet another safety story. Well, actually another not really safe story.

    2. a thousand bridges, am I known as Pierre the bridge Builder? No.... Burn one hand and I'm now generating safety there I was posts out the wazooo!

    3. Andrew - those others are fake.April 18, 2018 at 1:11 PM

      My father fondly remembered being drunk in college and having dynamite parties. It involves being 'lit' and sitting in a circle around a lit stick of dynamite. (Can't remember what the safety distance was.) Seems that a stick is relatively safe to blow all long as it isn't contained too much. He also cautioned not to put a piece of wood or a bucket over the stick of dynamite. I never did ask him how he knew about the second part, but, hey, he was certain.

      Oh, yeah, this all came from watching some idiot do dynamite-bucketing on Wide World of Sports (anyone else remember the good old show?) Seems it was a 'thing' amongst daredevils to put a stick of dynamite in a bucket on it's side, and then lean against the closed end of the bucket wearing heavy-duty stuntman gear. The force of the explosion will want to follow the path of least resistance, thus not killing the idiot leaning against the bucket (basic principle of shaped-charge explosives.) Some idiot was 'wanting' to sit on a bucket with a full stick underneath, but 'tests' of just upside-down bucket with dynamite 'showed' force of explosion too great for bucket (or future bucket rider) to continue to remain cohesively cohesive if you get my drift. (The suspicious nature of my mind says it was actually a big public-safety announcement to keep people from doing dumb stuff with dynamite.

    4. Juvat - Hhmm, maybe we need a callsign review board as well?

      Nah, just kidding, "Chef."

    5. Andrew - toaf: Dumb Stuff With Dynamite. Sounds like a good idea for a TV show.

  7. We bought dynamite at the feed store. During spring breakup, the ice would dam up on a nearby railroad bridge and cause flooding. My father taught me how to fuse dynamite. We taped two sticks to big rocks and used poles to push the rocks around to find holes. Summer time seemed to always have beaver dams to breach. Good times!

    The combat engineer cadre was impressed with my handling of explosive and barbed wire. Also stacking sandbags.

    1. Well, that was back in the days when Darwinian principles tended to weed out the stupid.

      Damn busting sounds fun.

  8. Best dynamite story I know of---

    This one is for the fine folks at CAL-OSHA. Logging in Yosemite. Loaded railcars lowered 3000 ft. to the valley floor on a 78% grade.

  9. Having seen the "rich Colombian roast" in the first picture, poured into a coffee can, it's probably a good thing it burned up, lest some hungover, early riser decided to make the worst tasting coffee on the planet.

    1. Hhmm, hadn't thought of that. Good thing Johnny blew it up!


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