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