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July 26, 2006

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How Long Does Gunpowder Live?

For those of you who worry about the health and well-being of their smokeless powder, here’s a story.

Around 1980, I had a co-worker who was sunken-ship crazy, and since I was a Titanic and Edmund Fitzgerald nut, we found a lot to talk about. One day he came into my office with the grubbiest-looking .30/06 round I’d ever seen.

He explained that he’d bought the cartridge at an auction, and that it had been salvaged from the hulk of the U.S.S. San Diego, which had been sunk by a German submarine on July 19, 1918, off the coast of Fire Island, New York. (Or it may have hit a mine. No one knows for sure.)

“Do you think the powder’s any good?” my friend asked.

“Let’s find out,” said I, and punched a hole in the brass case with my thumbnail. Not that I have strong thumbnails, but the brass was corroded that badly. I poured some in a glass ashtray (yes, offices had ashtrays then) and, violating 25 building-safety codes, tossed a match (yes, people had matches in their desks then) into the powder.

Whoomp, it went, and burned with a brief, merry flame, just the way gunpowder is supposed to. And this after 62 years under the Atlantic Ocean. Amazing.


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JA Demko

Once upon a time, two boys_who should have known better_ were playing in a barn where they discovered a mason jar full of a black, granular substance. One said it was "blasting powder" that the old man who once owned the farm had used as a coal miner during The Depression. The other boy insisted it was not. After brief argument, they settled things by tossing a lit match in the jar. There was a bright flash, a muffled "woomph", and billowing clouds of malodorous smoke. Both boys were covered with soot and had minor burns. The jar, bless it, had not fragmented or the boys might have been in much worse shape.
After their fathers had given the boys whippings that hurt far more than the powder burns, discussion indicated that the "blasting powder" in question was roughly 40 years old at the time. It still worked just beautifully, despite being stored under conditions that were pretty far from climate controlled.
You know, my ass starts to hurt all over again just from telling that story.

Richard McBride

I love you Americans....you're just like us! What red-blooded boy could pass up the opportunity of testing to see if a tin of black granules was really gunpowder or not? More years ago than I care to remember, aged 12, a friend and I found such a tin hidden away in his father's shed. Having recently seen that great movie "The Dambusters" we decided to see if the powder was indeed explosive in a "meaningful" way. After spending most of the day building a turf and rock dam in a small creek on the back of their farm, we filled a large bottle with the powder, placed it in the bottom of the now filled dam, and lit the fuse.
I think it was our close proximity to the resulting explosion that saved us from being hurt by flying rocks...they all went over our heads. We did end up covered with mud, however, and with sore sides from the somewhat hysterical laughter that ineviably follows such an adventure at that age.
I was lucky enough to return home the next day as it took Jimmy's dad a couple of days to find out what had happened...Jimmy received a good paddling but has always reckoned it was worth it.
Richard McBride


You cannot really say you enjoyed your childhood unless you burned your eyebrows off at least once. Good times!


OH - the simple joys of being young, inquisitive and irresponsible. Not to mention - stupid.

Powder will remain viable for a very, very long time as long as it is kept relatively dry. Growing up in NH, an old WWII vet lived down the street in an old converted farmhouse that once had a working machine shop on its premises.

As a kid, I shoveled their driveway/steps in the winter and did other odd jobs for them. I also poked around the farmhouse and old machine shop on the property.

Well, my brother and I found an old artillery shell in their barn. A relic from the war. It was sitting on a workbench next to stacks of old news papers and an old funny looking pistol in a leather holster. (Luger that was picked up along the way in europe). A story for another time...Well...

So we took the shell home to show my parents - and before you knew it - the shell was in the trunk of the county sherriff's car.

Evidently - it was live. This was around 1982 - the shell was circa 1941...

We were lucky.

Guy Miller

A friend of mine's dad passed away a few years ago and left behind a half-full container of powder (30 inches square! with about 50 lbs. left). He bought it from Hodgden around 1947. It was WW2 surplus cannon shell powder. After careful checking I found out it's H4831. It was stored in a sealed aluminum container inside a thick pine box. It shoots like a house on fire with no signs of deterioration.

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