When Guns Blow Up
I read an article the other day about why guns blow up. It was an interesting read, especially the historical progression of metals as related to firearms. We blew up a lot guns trying to figure out what metals are best to withstand the pressure that develops in a chamber. The article got me to thinking of the many experiences I’ve seen regarding people who have blown up their firearms.
I have literally spent decades around firearms and studying ballistics, so I’ve seen my fair share of mishaps, most of them are the result of a shooter’s carelessness. My first experience came when I read the medical report and police report from an incident back in the early 1980s. A young man had purchased a late 1920 era Smith & Wesson Police 38 Special revolver. This young man decided, since the 38 Special was a “mild” round, he’d set about to “increase” it. It started with him increasing the maximum load by just over ten percent. Then he topped it off – so to speak – with a small pistol magnum primer. The gun came apart with his third shot. The type of damage the gun experienced is referred in ballistic circles as a “catastrophic failure” in other words the gun blew up. The young man used both hands to hold the gun when he fired it to try to control the recoil, and the emergency workers and law enforcement officers never found the two fingers missing from is mangled left hand. I have to admit I’m still a little haunted by the pictures of that young man’s left hand.
A few years ago my wife and I were at a local outdoor range and witnessed firsthand what happens when someone pulls the trigger on a rifle with an obstructed barrel. Two guys were at the range, a few stations down from us, sighting in a new rifle. They started by inserting a Site Lite in the muzzle of the rifle and checked the scope with the laser, and noting they were on paper, they loaded a round in the rifle. It was just then both myself and the range master saw the Site Lite in the barrel. I stepped back from my bench, grabbing my wife as the Range Master started to yell “cease fire.” All he got out was “ceas…” before the rifle went off. Fortunately no one was hurt, if you don’t count the rifle, which instantly was in need of a replacement barrel. Interestingly enough we never did find the Site Lite, and trust me it was not for lack of looking. The range master knew me and my background and I wanted to see what the pressure did to the Site Lite, but as stated earlier it was nowhere to be found. What happened to the barrel was a classic example of what is referred to as “…barrel going banana” – meaning it pealed back like someone pealing a banana.
Another time, I was witness to what happens when you put the wrong ammunition in a firearm. In this case it was a person who tried to fire a 300 Blackout in a 223 AR Platform. Again, the shooter wasn’t hurt, but the same can’t be said for the gun. I since learned there are a couple of videos of that happening on YouTube. As a matter of policy for my business, I will not reform and load ammunition with one head stamp to other caliber. I have this fear of someone miss reading the head stamp and trying to fire the ammunition in the wrong firearm. That is not going to happen on my watch, as I can tell you from personal experience it does not end well. The problem with the .300 Blackout is that so many people are reforming brass from .223 Remington cases to try and save a few dollars. The round will fit in a .223 magazine, and the forward assist on the AR can actually force the round into the chamber by pushing the bullet back into the case. A .308 bullet will not fit down a .224 barrel and that pressure has to go somewhere. To para phrase a friend of mine, “… the results ain’t pretty.” The person who pulled the trigger that day got off lucky, as the pressure blew the upper skyward and not back. Other than having to change is pants, he was relatively unscathed.
Of course not all failures are the result of operator error. Sometimes it is the gun. Some time back a friend of mine purchased a beautiful shotgun from a major manufacturer. What he did not know was that the gun was actually made in Russia. The first time he took it to the range the barrel failed on the third shot and split open. He sent it back and received a replacement firearm that did the same. I have since learned the manufacturer stop selling shotguns made over there: seems there was a potential liability issue if every shotgun you sell the barrel ruptures.
Speaking of liability issues, being what they are, in combination with the advancements in metallurgy, very few guns blow up today from manufacturer defects. That’s not to say you can’t purchase a “bad” gun, but it is extremely rare. The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufactures Institution (SAAMI) was formed by the major firearm and ammunition manufacturers back in the 1920s sets pressure standards for all the current production ammunition, and rifle manufacturers use it as a starting point for proofing the chambers in their rifles. There is not a rifle made today that is not tested before hitting the market. So, most mishaps today are the result of shooter error, with the most common mistakes being, either putting the wrong ammo in a firearm or an obstructed barrel. One other common factor in obstructed barrels is what is known as a squib load. That is a cartridge that for some reason has a much reduced load, and in most cases, the bullet ends up stuck in the barrel. I could not tell how many people I’ve seen that have experienced a squib load and, not paying attention have chambered another round and destroyed a firearm.
Another problem I have encountered several times is damage to a firearm and a person resulting from the operator overloading a cartridge or using the wrong power in a cartridge. There are a lot of shooters out there who feel that they have to push a bullet as fast as possible. I constantly hear people at the range stating “…I feel the need for speed.” That is until either (A) the gun comes apart from the pressure, or (B) they break their shoulder from the recoil. I know of one person that took the biggest of the Weatherby Cartridges – the 460 Weatherby – and pushed his hand loads ten percent over maximum load data listed as he wanted all the speed and energy possible for his African Safari. That ended up costing him over $150,000 in medical and emergency transportation costs when the recoil from the rifle dislocated his shoulder and shattered his collar bone.
I spoke with another gent one day who had the brilliant idea to increase the speed of his 300 Winchester Magnum load by starting with about 5 grains of a very fast pistol powder in the cartridge first, then set a compressed load of magnum rifle powder on top of it to hold the powder in place. The idea was to “bolster” the slower burning powder to increase the velocity of the round. I asked if had shot any of the rounds yet and replied, “no.” When I asked when and where he was going to test the rounds, he answered “why?” I explained I wanted to let emergency officials know so they could be on standby to treat his and anyone close to him wounds, and to make sure I wasn’t there – there are somethings I just don’t need to see.
One of the tenants of loading your own ammunition is to NEVER mix powders. And, second – make sure you are using the correct powder. I’ve seen what using pistol powder in a rifle cartridge can do to a rifle, not to mention the person holding the rifle. And, remember good accuracy doesn’t necessarily come from high velocity. It’s been my experience that I can gain some incredible groups by slowing the velocity down a little, not to mention how much my shoulder appreciates the lower recoil.
I love to shoot, and I own an ammunition business. I only do custom hand loaded ammunition and over the years have loaded thousands upon thousands of rounds with not one problem. That is the result of first and foremost the application of some common sense. If it doesn’t sound or look right – it’s probably not. If I can hear - and you can hear it – powder cracking when you try to seat a bullet on a compressed load, the cartridge is probably over loaded. I triple and quadruple my load data to make sure I am using the correct powder and amount for the cartridge. Make sure it is the right primer for a particular cartridge. As a rule you don’t use magnum primers with a standard cartridge. You may not enjoy the resulting pressure spike. As I stated earlier, firearms have become incredibly safe if used properly, and that includes making sure you don’t have an obstructed barrel, and the ammunition is properly and safely loaded…..