Got Powder?

Steven was kind enough to send me a questioning email ….

“After the bombing in Boston, reports are that the bombs were probably
based on gunpowder. Some speculation was that the bomber tore open
cartridges to get the powder, and that’s not impossible. (Expensive
and slow, though.)

“But it occurred to me that it must be possible to buy powder in
quantity, to be used in reloading your own brass. I know you do that,
don’t you?

“Where do you get your powder? How hard is it to come by? How big of
packages do they sell, and how much do they cost? Do they keep records
of who is buying powder, and how much?”

Lots of interesting questions!  But before we go any further, there is one I would like to ask.  Has there ever been anyone who used common firearm propellent to construct terrorist bombs here in the United States?  The answer to that one is Yes!

The name of the criminal was George P. Metesky, otherwise known as the New York Bomber.  His devices were lengths of common plumbing pipe, filled with gunpowder and capped at both ends in order to concentrate the explosion.  Detonation was achieved using flashlight batteries and cheap pocket watches.

Hmm.  That sounds very similar to the methods mentioned in this news article, except without the pocket watches.

But enough history.  Let us get back to the questions Steven wants answered.  Let us take them one at a time.  The first is; Did I ever reload?  The answer is Yes.


(Click pic for largest version, and Wikipedia is the original source.)

Buy components on bulk, and one can reduce the per-cartridge cost of target practice by 60% or more.  I saw reloading as necessary for my charity work, since I had a limited budget and wanted to help as many people as possible with the cash I could spare.  I’d clock out at my night job, spend most of the day conducting self defense classes or beefing up security around the home of my student, and then go home to reload as much as I could before exhaustion forced me to sleep.  After an hour or two, the alarm would wake me so I could go to work and start it all over again.

There are many, many people who reload because they are looking to get the most out of their guns.  They are experts in the effects that different powders have when pushing various weights of bullets down various lengths of barrels.  Their knowledge is vast, their dedication unwavering.  When it comes to reloading, they are the experts that have all the answers.

I’m not one of those people.  My only motivation for reloading was to reduce costs.  To this end, I experimented briefly until finding a satisfactory powder that was heavily stocked at my local gun store.

reloading powder one pound can

I adjusted my reloading equipment to use this particular powder in all the calibers I needed to reload, and then never changed any of the settings.  For close to 20 years, it was the same propellent used in every shot fired by all of my students.

This means that no one in their right mind could claim that I am an expert in reloading.  But, considering I have reloaded at least 500,000 rounds, I don’t think that I am too far out of bounds to claim some small level of experience.

Anyway, on to the next round of questions.

“Where do you get your powder? How hard is it to come by?

I purchased propellent at my local gun store, which at the time was about a five minute drive from my front door.  If memory serves, the particular brand of powder I used was out of stock only three times in the two decades that I was reloading.  This was hardly a problem, as I was wise enough to avoid waiting until my supply became dangerously depleted before trying to buy more.

It wasn’t really necessary for me to actually bother to drive to a brick-and-mortar store in order to purchase the propellent I needed.  Mail order businesses which specialized in providing shooting sports enthusiasts with whatever supplies they needed (short of actual firearms) have thrived for centuries.  A modern incarnation is Midway USA, where propellent in any quantity desired will be shipped to your door.

Provided, of course, that they have any in stock.  Since President Obama was first elected back in 2008, reloading supplies have been rather hard to come by.  Many gun stores nowadays will actually ration the amount anyone is allowed to purchase during a visit, as it is very possible that an entire supply could be bought up by the first dedicated reloading enthusiast to walk through the door.

This doesn’t mean it would be impossible for a terrorist to legally purchase the material needed for a horrific bombing attack.  It just means that they would have to plan their evil act far in advance, and visit a number of gun stores over a period of time in order to gather the necessary supplies.

“How big of packages do they sell, and how much do they cost?”

The picture a few paragraphs above this sentence is one pound of smokeless handgun propellent.  Density of propellent varies by brand and intended use, but the stuff I used came in a plastic jar about one-and-a-half times the size of a jar of peanut butter of the same weight.

peter pan peanut butter one pound jar

There are also eight pound jugs available, although I never purchased anything that large myself.

large reloading powder jug

I’ve even seen cans that hold 25 pounds, but never paid them any attention.  That was just too much powder for me to use in a reasonable amount of time.

Are the big jugs and cans still available if someone wants to buy in bulk?  I have no idea, but there seems to be a whole lot of OUT OF STOCK tags under the descriptions of the eight pound jugs at the Midway USA site.  Maybe some of my readers who are better informed about the state of reloading could lend us some insight.

So far as cost is concerned, a one pound jar of my favorite reloading propellent is less than $20 USD as of this writing.  An eight pound jug, if one can be found, is about $120 USD.

Don’t ask me about the big cans ’cause I have not a clue.  I also have no info concerning the costs of different brands other than the stuff I regularly used.  Once again I find myself relying on my faithful and excellent readers to help fill the gaps in my knowledge!

Do they keep records of who is buying powder, and how much?”

They might when it comes to mail order, I dunno.  But I would acquire the propellent I needed by simply picking a jar off the shelf, paying for it at the register, and then I would leave.  No records were kept, no ID cards were examined.  Cash and carry!

So could a terrorist have constructed the bombs used in the Boston Marathon attack using common reloading supplies?  Sure, just as they used batteries available at any convenience store to make the bombs explode.  But they could also have made black powder in the comfort and privacy of their own home, and used that.  It would have just smelled so bad that the neighbors might have realized something was going on.

18 Responses to “Got Powder?”

  1. Bram says:

    Don’t tell any politicians – the formula for black powder is on Wikipedia. Even worse, propane and gasoline are extremely explosive. And we got to see exactly how powerful a fertilizer vapor explosion can be.

  2. I’m surprised that there are no records kept. Things like cyanide, for instance, if you buy you have to have a good reason, and show ID, and they keep a log. That’s even if you only need a little bit.

    Something like black powder, or cordite, which are potentially life threatening, I would have expected those to be tracked as well.

    • JSW says:

      And where do we stop with keeping records? I’m certain that 100% of manufactured items can be ‘potentially life threatening’ in one way or another. The only reason to keep a record of who buys something is to control them. (This excludes keeping records of company purchases to allow for inventory control.)
      Shall we keep records of who buys bicycle spokes? Or whiskey purchases- more are killed by drunken drivers than all the guns we own. For one, I know more people who were killed due to alcohol than guns, as I’m sure many of us do, so mayhap we should regulate it better?

    • jamezb says:

      Potassium Cyanide can be purchased as an algicide for aquriums at pet stores with no records required or kept, and yes, it has been used in several murders.

  3. James Rummel says:

    “Something like black powder, or cordite, which are potentially life threatening, I would have expected those to be tracked as well.”

    I’m far from convinced that conflating cyanide and reloading propellent is a reasonable act.

    So far as your main point is concerned, Bram points out that there are other explosive substances readily available that the government does not track. Why? Mainly because they are used every day in this country, by hundreds of millions of people, who need the stuff for peaceful and legitimate purposes.

    That pretty much describes firearm propellent, except that there are only a few tens of millions of people using the substance instead of hundreds of millions.

  4. Sam L. says:

    I remember making my own black powder with stuff from my chemistry set.

  5. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Considering the state of security in utility networks, I could probably kill more people than Boston bomber by using my home computer. Heck I could probably kill more people with my bare hands before they stopped me. All I need is to find a gun-free zone like a mall or airport. And historically in my previous country martial arts were heavily regulated, their teaching prohibited to anyone but security and police officers. All this is manifestrly possible and I am concerned that regulating universal computers and martial arts is going to come just as soon as guns are prohibited.

  6. James Rummel says:

    “I remember making my own black powder with stuff from my chemistry set.”

    I think every kid with chemistry set did that. Fizzle, fizzle, pop!

  7. […] Zaitcev makes an interesting observation in this comment […]

  8. NMM1AFan says:

    In Massachusetts, a Firearms Identification Card at minimum is required to purchase reloading components, including powder.

    Best regards,

  9. jed says:

    Den Beste asks, Lautenberg delivers.

    Yet another senseless waste of time. Reloading components are already hard enough to come by. And consider that smokeless powder is mainly nitro-cellulose. You think meth labs are bad? Wait until there’s a bunch of idiots trying to make gun cotton in motel rooms.

  10. jed says:

    Oh, and I just remembered taggants. This came up in 1996, in response to I don’t recall what. Maybe there was also talk of taggants in fertiziler — that would’ve be in response to the Murrah bombing.

    I won’t be surprised if this comes up again.

  11. muon says:

    Taggants havw already come up. Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC is blaming the NRA for police not being able to trace the bombers:

  12. Sam L. says:

    MSNBC blames the NRA for most everything. They’re raaaaacists, they know.

  13. Mycroft says:

    Smokeless powders and Pyrodex (modern black powder substitute) are not explosives. They just burn very quickly.
    Black powder is explosive which is why we have Pyrodex and other modern substitutes.
    Steven is old enough that he should remember the grain elevator explosions back in the 70’s. You can also check out youtube for Cremora (non-dairy creamer) explosions.
    Should we require ID and start tracking the sale of flour?

    • jic says:

      “Smokeless powders and Pyrodex (modern black powder substitute) are not explosives. They just burn very quickly.
      Black powder is explosive which is why we have Pyrodex and other modern substitutes.”

      All the substances you mentioned are explosives, but they are Low Explosives (which burn very quickly producing a large volume of gas in a short period of time, i.e. deflagrate), not High Explosives (which undergo a chain reaction involving an internal shock wave, i.e. detonate). Smokeless powder replaced black powder because it gave higher pressures and caused less fouling, not because it wasn’t an explosive.

      • Kevin D. Williams says:

        Sorry, but BAFTE have classified black powder as an “Explosive” and NOT the other powders mentioned. So do the FED’s have it wrong? They are after all, the ones that make the rules concerning use and possession of same? The difference is that smokeless powder needs confinement to make it into something that by itself it is not “an explosive”. Whereas with black powder, if you had say one of the commercial amounts of blasting powder or any other grain of black powder (yes even FFFF priming powder can be bought this way) of 25 pounds in a large plastic bag usually then boxed in a cardboard box and put a fuse into it and lit the match to light the fuse (hopefully many yards away): The black powder will explode on its own. No confinement necessary. That’s why ammo stores in the Revolutionary and Civil wars were such the great target. If you could steal it, your enemy wouldn’t have it and you would. If you could not, but could send an incendiary device (flaming arrow, etc.) you could sink ships, destroy artillery crews, and generally make your enemy have a very bad day. Smithy.

  14. Semper Why says:

    I realize that I’m late to the party, but I just came over here from Ace of Spades.

    To answer a couple questions in the original post, the availability of reloading powder is both yes and no. Yes, there is powder available. Green Top in Richmond, VA had several 8 lbs jugs available last Saturday. And No, the powder you probably want is not available. Thanks to the Obama administration talking about banning “assault weapons” again, everyone is stocking up on ammunition and the components to reload that ammunition. Most every type of powder used to reload centerfire rifle cartridges is in short supply.

    Because Biden and the rest of the gun grabbers keep talking about how “nobody is coming for your shotgun”, shotshells and the components to reload shotshells are mostly unaffected. You can buy 8 lbs of powder, sure. But it’s the type used to load up target loads for skeet & trap competition.

    Yours in cordite,

    Semper Why

Leave a Reply