Our regular Friday morning breakfast meeting happened to fall on October 9th in the middle of Fire Prevention Week and the anniversary of the Great Chicago and Peshtigo Fires.Considering the occasion, I raised the question of what might happen if a shooter’s home suffers a fire to my old junior, and now shooting crony, George Planeta. He is eminently qualified to answer this question as he has a basement full of reloading components and was a fireman for many decades. 

Most competitive shooters have an ample store of powder, primers, bullets and loaded ammunition squirreled away in a cool, dry, and dark corner of the basement. The components and cartridges are most likely stored, neatly labeled and packed in original cardboard, MTM, or Plano plastic boxes inside of the ubiquitous military surplus M19A1 30 caliber or M2A1 50 caliber ammunition can favored by the handloading crowd. Was the loss of precious ammunition, a house, and possible injury to well-meaning first responders just a disaster waiting to happen? 

My brother Steve, the walking footnote, had just seated his hearing aids in time to hear the question. Before George was able to form an answer, Steve had dug into his reservoir of trivia and began a monologue about great ammunition disasters.

“The French” he disdainfully began as he is no Francophile, ”and ammunition disasters. “Who can forget Kirchberg!” It was suddenly reminiscent of the Pearl Harbor scene in the movie Animal House where Bluto declared the Germans had bombed Pearl Harbor. Ernie Mellor muttered, like Otter, “Kirchberg?” Channeling Boon I replied, “Forget it. He’s rolling.” 

Ernie knowingly shook his head, rolled his eyes, and signaled the waitress to warm his coffee. A veteran of countless of Steve’s spontaneous detailed wandering accurate lectures on esoteric subjects he resigned himself for a long haul.

“It was June 26, 1807” expounded Steve, “The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was occupied by Napoleon’sGrande Armée and the Corsican Tyrant had stockpiled barrels of black powder in Fortress Kirchberg. A lightning strike hit the fortress’ powder magazine and set off an explosion that leveled two city blocks and killed more than 300 innocent Luxembourgers.”

“Then there was Halifax.” He went on. “The French again!” he sneered contemptuously, “This time it was the munitions ship Mont Blancit must have been a French ship with a name like that! On December 6, 1917 she headed to the war zone loaded with  2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 35 tons of high-octane gasoline, and ten tons of gun cotton. At about 8:45 AM, while threading her way through The Narrows towards Bedford Basin, she collided with the SS Imo, sailing in ballast.”

“Fire broke out on the Mont Blanc and 9:05 AM she vaporized in a blinding white flash, the third  largest conventional explosion of all time. Every structure within a half mile was leveled and approximately 1,950 people were killed by flying debris, fire, or crushed under collapsed buildings. Over 9,000 additional people injured,The Mont Blanc crew pusillanimously abandoned ship and ,ironically, all survived, except for one sailor killed by debris. What else would you expect of the French.” Steve scornfully added,

“And what about the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Disaster?” Steve related that on the evening of July 17,1944 Navy stevedore crews had loaded 4,600 tons of bombs, depth charges, and ammunition aboard the Victory Ships Quinault Victoryand E.A. Bryan which were moored on opposite side of a pier. It was the Quinault Victory’s maiden voyage as she had been launched just 30 days earlierIn a matter of seconds, at 10:18 PM, both ships were wracked by explosions. The Bryan simply disappeared while the 12,000 ton Quinault Victory was lifted clear out of the water, tossed 500 feet, and ended upside down in the mud in what might be the shortest  career of a Victory Ship,. The explosion registered 3.4 on the Richter Scale, killed 320 sailors, and injured nearly 400 more.”

Steve stopped to draw a second breath and George wisely took advantage to break in and make his report. He described a video he had seen which had been produced by The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute and the International Fire Chiefs Association where they conducted a series of experiments to provide firefighters with fact-based information to help them address the realities of fighting fires in structures containing sporting ammunition. 

In  a controlled experiment 28,000 rounds of various caliber and types of small arms ammunition, up to 50 caliber and eight gauge, in factory packaging were piled on a platform reminiscent of a Hindu cremation ghat. Four by eight sheets of drywall were set on frames at intervals out to 30 feet. Baulks of wood were stacked underneath, doused with diesel fuel, and set alight.

During ensuing fire much of the ammunition cooked off tossing the bullets and particles of brass about, but with little force. Lots of tiny bits of cartridge cases and bullets stuck into the wallboard. Only three or four had enough force to even partially penetrate the gypsum.

The results led to the conclusion that ammunition will not propagate in a chain reaction from one cartridge to another, it does not mass explode, and may be safely controlled and contained by fire fighters using water and wearing standard fire fighter turn out gear. 

We were relieved to learn that if one of our homes caught fire there might be some sizzling, popping, and a bit of brass tossed about, but the firefighters would be relatively safe coming to our rescue.

About Hap Rocketto

Hap Rocketto is a Distinguished Rifleman with service and smallbore rifle, member of The Presidents Hundred, and the National Guard’s Chief’s 50. He is a National Smallbore Record holder, a member of the 1600 Club and the Connecticut Shooters’ Hall Of Fame. He was the 2002 Intermediate Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion, the 2012 Senior Three Position National Smallbore Rifle Champion a member of the 2007 and 2012 National Four Position Indoor Championship team, coach and captain of the US Drew Cup Team, and adjutant of the United States 2009 Roberts and 2013 Pershing Teams. Rocketto is very active in coaching juniors. He is, along with his brother Steve, a cofounder of the Corporal Digby Hand Schützenverein. A historian of the shooting sports, his work appears in Shooting Sports USA, the late Precision Shooting Magazine, The Outdoor Message, the American Rifleman, the Civilian Marksmanship Program’s website, and most recently, the apogee of his literary career, pronematch.com.
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