Showing posts with label Explosives. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Explosives. Show all posts

25 February 2019

The Uses of Mystery


by Janice Law

Some time ago, Thomas Pluck devoted his last SleuthSayers blog to the proposition that the novel of social realism is alive and well in certain gritty segments of the mystery genre. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Jim Gauer’s wildly ambitious, overly long but brilliantly written Novel Explosives.  

Gauer uses mystery and thriller conventions to depict the unholy nexus of crime, finance, corporate exploitation and weaponry that have devastated Mexico, especially Ciudad Juarez and the unfortunate young women who labor in its maquiladoras.

He presents familiar elements – though often with a surreal twist. Thus we have the cold and cynical Shakespeare quoting crime boss. Plus his two minions, Ray and Eugene, who are on a mission to kill the man we know first as The Poet and later as Douchebag, the erstwhile unsuspecting financial manipulator for the drug ring.

We have a possibly helpful, possibly complicit beauty in Guanajuato, Mexico, and her opposite number, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, up in El Paso. We have enough heavy weaponry to outfit any number of military thrillers and a vet with very serious PTS – but only on odd numbered days. We have police overkill and atrocities on every side and more than this reader could understand about financial chicanery.

The Poet's map was less helpful 
All this is immensely plausible, since Gauer, who is a poet, also worked for the military before making his fortune as a hedge fund executive and a venture capitalist. He is also clearly a man with a big interest in modern philosophy, human physiology, Aztec poetry and many other more abstruse topics. Your enjoyment of the novel probably depends on your own similar tastes.

But from the point of view of mystery/ thriller writers, Novel Explosives – and I should mention the ‘novel’ of the title refers to innovative weapons – is a striking example of the uses of our favorite conventions and an illustration of the fact that every generation only has so many stories.

The 18th century loved tales of female virtue imperiled but defended. The 19th enjoyed the pursuit of love and marriage then switched to the dangers of want and misery. Our side of the Atlantic loved Horatio Alger stories and then the still-popular immigrant experience. In mysteries, we, like Mr. Gauer, are fond of flawed heroes struggling to do right in a corrupt world.  Ray, his hitman, is the most morally alert of his characters, and it will not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book to reveal that he has nearly superhuman endurance as well as  exceptional military skills.

The creepy Mr. Big, a staple of popular fiction in print and on screen, also makes an appearance in the predatory drug lord Mr. Gomez, who represents the criminal component of  what the author sees as a corrupting and disastrous web. Drug use (and the War it) on feed profits to the violent Mexican cartels, which in turn corrupt the Mexican police and military. Criminal financiers launder drug profits and outright criminals funnel south the military grade weapons both cops and crooks need.

Exploited on every side are the unfortunate workers of the maquiladoras, often peasants forced off their land by the changes wrought by NAFTA. The workers are heavily female, very young, low paid, exploited, and at risk of rape, torture and murder. Their male counterparts, less desirable to the corporate types running the factories, opt for risky but lucrative work in the drug trade. Altogether crime, corruption and violence make Ciudad Juarez one of the anterooms of Hell.

Over all looms Saint Death 
Where Gauer departs from the mystery/thriller format is in his treatment. The pages’ long paragraphs, the dissertations on everything from Native American medical techniques to 20th century Portuguese poetry, and enough digressions to rival Tristram Shandy take Novel Explosives into more literary territory. Add a strong strain of surreal fantasy and you are in Thomas Pynchon’s neighborhood not Michael Connolly’s.

But despite the literary fireworks, the bones of the thing will be familiar to Sleuthsayers fans: a amnesiac hero pursued by professional hitmen, both of whom have a conscience. A brutal crime lord who never dirties his hands, corrupt financial men behaving like Masters of the Universe, police and military overkill, and the deaths of innocents.

The treatment in Novel Explosives is surreal, fanciful and philosophical, but the structure owes much to popular, even pulp, fiction, illustrating once again the almost endless flexibility of the genre.

For an interesting interview with Jim Gauer – and details of doing research in Juarez –listen in to Eye 94 out of Chicago at Jim Gauer on Eye 94 .

13 June 2014

How We Infuriated Two Generals and a Town Mayor


by Dixon Hill

(For those wondering why my comments disappeared for a while this week, all I can say is that I was recovering from horrifying flash-backs brought on by Leigh’s kidney stone post. LOL)

Two weeks ago, I posted here asking what readers thought of mixing romance and mystery genres.

I wondered: When do the two genres make a good fit, why does this happen (or not), and how can a writer mix the two genres to best effect? I received many excellent comments, which I’ll talk about in my post on June 27th.

I’ve also thought a lot about those comments, as well as other ideas associated with genre mixing, and have formulated an idea I’d like to submit here. That, too, will have to wait until my next post, however, if you don’t want to read something seven pages long.

So, in the interest of brevity (he said, a bit deceptively), I will first tell you a humorous story that is very important to the idea I plan to submit for your comments on the 27th. It’s about how explosions create sine waves, and ways in which the amplitude of these sine waves may be manipulated—which probably sounds as entertaining as doing the laundry. But, please: bear with me. I think you’ll like this.

A Quick but Important Explanation 

Harmony and resonance are two terms most people probably identify with music. Being more comfortable with explosives than music, however—as my grade school band leader could undoubtedly attest!—I’m probably more inclined to think of harmony and resonance in relation to shockwaves created by the carefully synchronized detonations of properly located charges.

These shock waves, created when explosives are detonated, manifest themselves as sine waves that travel through those items targeted for demolition. In fact, according to explosive theory, they are largely the force that does the dirty work: tearing steel girders apart, punching holes through reinforced concrete, or throwing dirt high into the air while creating large holes in the ground.

They don’t just travel through the demolition target however. These explosion-created sine waves travel through the surrounding earth and air (or, in some cases, water), and can sometimes be felt miles away from the blast site, usually manifesting themselves as a rumbling roar and causing plates or windows to rattle, walls to crack, or glass to shatter. 

How I Learned to Play With Sine Waves 

Using sine waves to proper effect is an important part of explosives theory, of course, which I learned in the demolitions portion of the Special Forces Qualification Course.

Years after I graduated the Q Course, however, and was on an A-Team, we had a fellow from a civilian blasting company come out to share information about how he used explosives to break up rock at a nearby quarry. Around twenty of us (SF Demo Sgts.) went down to one of the demolition ranges at Ft. Bragg, where we met a nice young man. His boss had sent him down there, saying the young guy might learn something, too, if he kept his eyes and ears open while working with a bunch of SF guys. He proudly showed us the sausage charges and “nonel” ignition system he used, as well as his computer.

Then, we monkeyed around with them in a manner that really freaked this guy out, and got us in trouble.

What We Played With

The “sausage charges” he brought were well named. These low-order explosive charges really did look like oversize Jimmy Dean sausages—the kind that come stuffed in plastic tubes at the grocery store. Each tubular plastic-wrapped charge was probably about two feet long by four inches in diameter.


nonel fuse
The nonel fuse ignition system, which he commonly used to set off his charges, came with a blasting cap factory-installed on one end of each short fuse section. This fuse was tiny, compared to standard time fuse, probably about a sixteenth-inch in diameter and bright orange. It was also a bit stiffer than time fuse.

“Nonel” is considered an instantaneous non-electric firing system because that thin, orange plastic-tubed “fuse” carries a powder train designed to ignite at the rate of around 2000 meters per second. Thus, the person doing the blasting (called “the blaster”) connects a firing machine to one end of the nonel, then pulls a trigger, or pushes a button, which creates a spark that ignites the powder train. The flame shoots down the length of the fuse at around 2000 meters/second, finally shooting a brief spit of flame into the blasting cap at the far end and—BOOM!

Nonel is not really instantaneous, of course. It takes a little while—maybe half-a-second, or a second or two—from the time the blaster hits the button, to the instant of explosion, depending on distance from blaster to initial charge. But, nonel ignition is fast enough; it’s generally considered instantaneous.

Nonel clipped together for firing.
Nonel fuse is available in large rolls, so the blaster can get some ‘standoff distance’ before detonating his/her charges. As I mentioned earlier, however, it also comes in short sections. These sections can be rapidly and easily clipped together, and the ones we were using had 25-millisecond delays built into them.

The photo above, right, shows a short segment of nonel with a blasting cap at one end and the clip at the other. The photo at left shows multiple nonel fuses linked together.


How It’s Supposed to Work

Our visiting quarry blaster normally used his computer to create a model, which told him where to place his charges and how many milliseconds to delay each detonation by, in order to reduce the impact on people or structures in the local area.

By placing his charges where the computer told him to and using the computer-suggested time delay between detonations, he was able to cause the explosive sine wave created by one detonation to be cancelled out, when it collided with the sine wave created by the next detonation, and vice-versa.

You may recall, from my earlier posts about explosives, that ‘low order’ explosives may be thought of similarly to ‘low gear’ in a truck—they push and heave heavy things, like dirt and rock. This means their sine waves are very powerful. So, using distance and time-delay to cancel-out the sine waves created by these explosions strongly muted what, otherwise, would have been a series of long, deep sine wave vibrations created by low order explosives, from shaking up people in the surrounding areas or potentially damaging buildings hit by the deep sine wave’s rumbling THUMP!

Roots of an Idea

The first time we took the explosives down-range and set them off, we did it the way the guy suggested. We wanted to see how well the technique worked. And, it worked pretty well. In fact, the result was rather boring.

Each man set up two charges, for a total of around forty charges. Since the blaster had only brought a limited amount of ‘standoff’ nonel fuse along, that day, we used time fuse to detonate the initial charge, daisy chaining the rest of our charges with those nonel sections that incorporated the 25-millisecond delays.

Forty charges went off, each about 25-milliseconds apart. Nothing to write home about. There wasn’t even a satisfactory big THUMP! in the ground beneath our feet, because the charges had canceled out each other’s sine waves.

While walking down to plant those charges, however, a few of us, who’d been talking it over, asked the visiting quarry blaster if he thought adjusting the calculations for charge location and timing, in ‘thus and so’ manner might result in something a bit more exciting.

“Oh, you wouldn't want to do that,” he said. “That might increase the amplitude of the sine wave instead of canceling it out.”

“Exactly!” we responded, smiling. At this point, we reached the location where we had to fan out and start planting our charges.

We couldn't ask him more questions on the way up the range to the bunker, before firing that first shot, however, because he wasn't with us. Evidently, he’d used nonel all his life, and never dealt with time fuse before.

When we ignited the time fuse, to set off the initial charge, his eyes went wide and he said, “What are you doing?”

“Igniting the time fuse.”

“While we’re still here? Standing beside the charges!?!”

“Well, we’ve got four and a half feet of time fuse. That’s enough to let us get back to the bunker.” 

“But … we aren’t leaving!”

“Right. We have to make sure the time fuse is burning, first. Then, we’ll remove the mechanical matches from the fuse, so we can reload them.”

“WHAT!?! The fuse is burning? NOW?

“Yeah, see how it’s melting here? That’s good. In just a minute we’ll be able to remove—”

But that guy was gone, buddy! He looked like a character on Scooby Doo, legs churning wildly as he smoked-it back up the hill to the bunker.

The rest of us followed at a leisurely pace, a few of us discussing our idea of increasing the sine wave’s amplitude. We figured the idea made sense, but we had to decide how to calculate for it.

How We Pissed-off A Lot of People

When something happens that changes the size of a sine wave, it’s called Amplitude Modulation. When the quarry blaster used his charges to cancel out his explosions’ sine waves, that was just another example of amplitude modulation. And the small group of us, who’d been discussing how to increase the amplitude of the sine wave, were really discussing just that—amplitude modulation.

By now, we’d formulated a few ideas about how to accomplish what we wanted. So, while standing in the bunker, waiting for the time fuse to burn down, we quizzed our visiting blaster about what he thought.

He professed not to know, saying there was no way to tell what the result would be. He even kept claiming he didn’t know what formulas his computer used to arrive at its conclusions. Naturally, a bunch of guys who walked around, on a daily basis, with umpteen charge formulas, relative effectiveness factors, and other arcane explosives details in their heads, found this claim a little suspect. Besides, he kept interspersing this claim with the statement: “You guys are scary. You’re really, REALLY scary!”

Unfortunately for this fellow, he’d chosen the wrong words.

His repeated “You’re scary” encouraged us to believe we were on the right path, so we continued with our discussion. And, other guys heard this repeated phrase and came over to find out what he was talking about. After all, they wanted to be scary too.

By the time our first set of charges had disappointingly gone off, everyone was discussing the idea. In the end, about fifteen of us decided to experiment with a rudimentary formula on the next shot, while the rest decided to just adhere to the original plan.

We ran our calcs, then took our charges (two per man, again) down-range and planted them. This time, our visiting blaster decided not to accompany us, staying at the bunker and trusting the sergeant in charge to connect his standoff line to the daisy-chained line segments.

With everyone back up in the bunker, the visiting blaster hooked up his blast machine and fired.

The charges of the first five guys—ten charges total—went off, cancelling each other’s sine waves.

Then, one by one, the next thirty charges went off …
… the sine waves building on each other as they went along.

Each time another charge went off, the blast got louder, deeper and more satisfying. Soon, though we wore earplugs, we had our hands over our ears, and the ground beneath our feet was dancing a nice jig. Finally, it all came to an end. The final shot was not visually exciting, but the roaring cacophony and deep thump in our feet were truly GLORIOUS!

Amid an extended round of whistles, yells and cat calls, I turned to look at the young quarry blaster. I can still see him in my mind’s eye: blonde hair sticking up on one side, where he’d yanked on it with his hand, face ashen, eyes wild. He looked as if he’d just survived a strafing run by an A-10.

I was still laughing when the field phone in the bunker went off. People were making a lot of excited noise, but the instant the sergeant in charge, who’d answered the phone, popped to rigid attention, all noise cut off abruptly. We knew what his behavior meant. It was Pavlovian, and we’d all responded in similar manner in the past. Every man in the bunker knew: somebody BIG was tearing into the sergeant on the phone.

In the sudden silence, we could hear the angry voice bellowing on the other end, but not what he was yelling. On his end, the sergeant just kept answering with things like: “Yes, Sir!” “Only twenty charges, sir!” “I’m sorry, sir. That wasn’t planned.” “No, sir. It wasn’t intentional.” “I understand, Sir!” “It won’t happen again, sir!” “Yes, sir! Yes, sir!”  He concluded with the phrase: “Crystal, sir!”

After he hung up, the sergeant turned his back to us, asking: “So, I know most of it’s missing, because it just got royally chewed off, but . . . have I got ANY ass left?”

He explained that the caller had been the General commanding the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg. In other words, this was the guy who issued the commanding generals of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions, and several other major units, their marching orders. He had none-too-gently informed the sergeant that his staff was receiving reports concerning our little science experiment from across Ft. Bragg and the gate town of Fayetteville, as well as personal phone calls from the commander of Pope Air Force Base next door, and the Fayetteville mayor who was upset that shop owners were complaining of damaged merchandise.

To top it off, the 18th Airborne Corps Commander’s wife had called him directly, to complain of a house that rocked from the blasts and windows that had threatened to shatter—as well as an expensive antique China tea set that had been bounced around, and which she was currently inspecting for potential damage.

“Pray the tea set has no cracks,” said the sergeant. “The general said he’d call me back, if it was damaged.”

Thus, our little science experiment ended— at the direct orders of the 18th ABN Corps Commander.

Thankfully, the sergeant in charge never got a call about the tea set. But, I never forgot what I learned about amplitude modulation that day, and the way it can depend on location and timing.

And, that’s the take-away I want you to remember for my next post, on June 27th.

See ya’ then!
—Dixon

29 November 2013

Deus Ex Librarica?


By Dixon Hill


On the 16th of November, Elizabeth Zelvin posted an article here, concerning the literary longevity of contemporary writers. Her post inferred the question:

 Will any contemporary authors be remembered one hundred years from now? 

 In the comments section of that post, Eve Fisher mentioned the possibility of a natural or man-made disaster disrupting the national power grid between now and that future time, making the printed word a precious commodity once more.

 Eve’s comment interested me because, as a Special Forces Engineer Sergeant, part of my training included an in-depth examination of Target Analysis.

 Put simply, Target Analysis is the study of national supply networks (electrical distribution systems, transportation systems, fuel distribution systems, etc.) and how to disrupt them at different levels.

 On this post-Thanksgiving day, when we’re all probably still sleepy from the aftermath, I’m not going to explain details about Target Complexes, Target Components, or the decision matrices used to determine which Target Components to destroy in order to disrupt a Target Complex for a desired time period.  (Besides:  It's one thing to post very basic general explosives information, and quite another to explain how and where to plant explosives in order to disrupt national supply networks.)

 Instead, I’d like to present a sort of game, proposing a theoretical scenario and asking you to answer a question.

Reading the post, and the comments by Elizabeth and Eve, I began to consider:  What would happen if I were given the choice of which authors might be read 100 years from now?  Which authors would I choose?  And, if I knew books were about to become a rare commodity, which books would I try to preserve for humanity?

The Scenario: 

 An advanced alien race intercepted one of our Voyager probes and interpreted it in a hostile manner. Now, they are afraid that violent humans might soon begin exploring space.

 After long deliberation, they made a weighty decision. They recently took over all airwaves on our planet, to broadcast a very apologetic message, in which they explained their intentions to bombard Earth with atomic turkey legs, in an attempt to set us back to a time of medieval technological capabilities.

An Atomic Turkey Leg
.005 seconds after explosion
 Immediately following this announcement, the attack began. The atomic turkey leg explosions did great blast damage, leveling all large cities and killing millions, but—due to advanced alien technology—the explosions released virtually no deadly radiation.

 They did, however, wreak havoc through Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) generation, knocking out the world’s electrical systems and turning most contemporary automobiles into little more than oversized paper weights.


Because you are such a kind person, however, you have recently come into custody of a running vehicle.

 You were lucky enough to flee built-up areas of civilization, before the attack commenced, and wound up in a rural zone where you met an old man trying to get to his dying wife’s bedside.

He owned a well-maintained 1974 Ford Pinto hatchback, but couldn’t see well enough to drive. Because you were kind enough to drive him to his wife’s care home, he gave you the car—which is old enough that the EMP didn’t effect it. He also gave you a map and key to a blast/fallout shelter, stocked with years of food and other supplies, which he owns a few miles away.

 While you’re driving to the shelter, an alien ship flies overhead, large loudspeakers blaring: “People of Earth, we remind you that we really feel bad about this. But, we’re doing it because we think you wouldn’t feel bad about doing this to us, so we’re trying to protect ourselves. In the interests of killing as few of you as possible—now that most of you are dead—we’d like to let you know that we will shortly begin Phase II of our plan.

 "In thirty minutes, we will target the remaining centers of knowledge or industry on your planet with laser weapons that will destroy anything within a 100-yard radius. These secondary targets include all still-existing factories, refineries, libraries and research facilities.

 "Please remember: There’s nothing personal in this attack. We just want to bomb you back to a technological base which will keep us safe for a bit longer. Thank you! And have a nice day.”

 As the announcement concludes, you drive over the top of a rise and see that a tiny town on your route has incongruously built a large 4-story library. An alien ship hovers nearby, waiting to destroy the library in thirty minutes.

 The shelter you’re driving toward is about five minutes beyond this town. Brave soul that you are, however, you floor it and drive straight to the library to begin loading books into your car, intent on preserving some of humanity’s hard-won knowledge.

 The Question: 

 You have just under 30 minutes to gather books within a large library, and store them in a ’74 Pinto. The pic on the right should give you some idea how much room you have inside the hatchback.

 Though the power is out, preventing you from using the computer to locate any books, you’re excited to discover that this particular library has maintained their card catalogue for some reason. Thus, there is a way to find the call number of non-fiction books.

 Which books would you take?

 Maybe you’d take particular types of books. Or, perhaps there is a book that you feel has greater importance than any other, so maybe you’d grab that one, then try to find others.

 You’re losing time, if you stand there thinking. You’ve got to act quickly. So, what do you do?

 Maybe, you’d like to list the first five or ten books you’d try to save.

 Perhaps you’ve thought this out before, and would like to share your plan with us.

 Your answer(s) and how you approach your decision is up to you, and you alone. But please let us know, in the comments section, what you would do.

 You’ll find my answer in the comments section, too. 

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

06 April 2012

Explosives 103: Non-Electric Blasting Caps & Fuse


by Dixon Hill

A Quick Recap

1.The Explosive Train is a chain of explosions used to detonate a large, stable charge though what’s known as “Sympathetic Detonation” (one explosion causing another).
2.The first explosion in the chain is usually quite tiny; the next a little larger … and so on … until you manage to generate a walloping BANG!
3. The little explosive gadget most often used to initiate the Explosive Train is a Blasting Cap.
4. Blasting Caps come in two primary types: Electric and Non-Electric.
5. Last time, we covered general practices for using an Electric Blasting Cap.

So, this time we’ll be turning our eyes toward:

Non-Electric Blasting Caps
Note: Should anyone be familiar with a product or firing system known as NONEL, please be forewarned: NONEL is not what we’re going to look at today; it’s a completely different kettle of fish, which permits a blaster to fire a charge almost instantaneously (in fact it’s so nearly instantaneous, that’s it’s often referred to as being “an instantaneous firing system”). Standard non-electric blasting caps work differently, using Time Fuse, which is NOT an instantaneous ignition source, so it’s important not to confuse the two.
The picture on the left shows a bundle of non-electric caps rubber-banded together.

I’m sure we’ve all seen action heroes light a fuse that’s connected to a bundle of explosives, in a movie. When a character lights a fuse to set off an explosion, that person is — generally speaking — using a Non-Electric Blasting Cap to set off the charge. Technically, the first non-electric blasting cap was patented in 1867 by Alfred Nobel (because he needed something that would set off the dynamite he’d also invented).

Below are a couple of “cutaway” drawings that should give you a serviceable idea of what’s inside a non-electric blasting cap. One picture is a little more detailed than the other, but both clearly reveal how a non-electric cap is contained within a metal tube, which holds a primary explosive (also sometimes called a “booster”), and a secondary or output explosive — just as an electric blasting cap has. But, they also have an initiating charge that starts the explosive ball rolling.




The diameter of the blasting cap’s metal tube usually runs about a quarter-inch wide by two to three inches in length. (A quarter-inch equals 0.25 inches, versus the 0.241-inch measurement at the base of the cap [right side] in the lower drawing, and the 0.260-inch dimension at the open [left] end in the same drawing.) In both cases, the area to the left of the ignition charge (the charge labeled Pyrotechnic Ignition Mix in the color drawing) is hollow. This hollow section of tube is there so you can slide your Time Fuse into it, butting the end of the Time Fuse up against the initiator, and crimping the fuse in place so it won’t slip out.

The idea, of course, is that one lights the far end of the Time Fuse, then the powder train inside the fuse burns slowly along its length, until that flame spurts out at the other end — right into the initiator (or Pyrotechnic Ignition Mix), which is highly volatile and explodes because that tiny little spurt of white-hot flame is enough to set it off.

The initiator’s small explosion sets off the Primary Explosive (AKA: intermediate charge, or “booster”), which makes a greater explosion, which in turn sets off the Secondary Explosive ( AKA: base charge; AKA: output explosive), which is large enough to (hopefully) detonate the dynamite, TNT or C-4 (or whatever) that the blasting cap is snuggled up inside of. And . . . WHAMMO!

Fuse

Generally speaking, one sets off a non-electric blasting cap by lighting a fuse. That fuse runs into the blasting cap, so the fire from the lit end of the fuse can find the place where it can set off the explosive chain.

Fuses come in many different types, depending on what you want to classify as a fuse. A fuse is essentially anything with black powder (or other well-burning substance) running through the middle of it. If you’re like me, you may have disassembled the fuse of a Black Cat fire cracker in your youth, and discovered that it was primarily a black powder train running through (wrapped in a tube of) something similar to newsprint. That’s a pretty simple fuse.

But, what makes a fuse, a fuse?

When Richard Sharpe (of the Sharpe’s Rifles series, set during the Napoleonic era) pours a line of black powder along the ground, from an ammunition dump, then lights the far end of that powder line in order to blow up the ammo dump — is this a fuse? Well, maybe. But, the word “fuse” usually connotes the idea that the “burning agent” (such as black powder) is combined with some sort of fibrous material to make it more reliable.

In that Sharpe’s Rifles example, for instance, the powder train could easily be disrupted by kicking apart the loose powder on the ground. If that were to happen, the flame would burn along the black powder train right up to the point where it ran out of any more flammable material, at which point the flame would fizzle — and that ammo dump wouldn’t blow up.

If you soaked a string in kerosene or gasoline, you’d have a rudimentary sort of fuse that couldn’t be so easily disrupted. Nobody could just kick it apart, for instance; they’d have to take additional time to cut it apart. However, it wouldn’t have a long life (because things like kerosene or gasoline evaporate fairly quickly), and it wouldn’t necessarily burn at a steady rate. Black powder, however, doesn’t lose its efficacy as quickly, and it does tend to burn in a fairly uniform manner. As noted earlier, though, a black powder train — in and of itself — can easily be disrupted.

One obvious solution is to weave a line of black powder into a line (string or rope) as the line is being braided. (In case you’re not familiar with the term, “braiding” a rope means making a rope by twining several lengths of twine or string together. If anyone is interested in the details, let me know and maybe I can do a post about Pioneering [the use of rope, for lashing poles in the construction of towers, derricks, or cranes, for instance].)

When a black powder train is woven into a line (string, rope), in a manner that insures the powder train runs all the way through without interruption, the result is a strong, flexible fuse that has a fairly consistent burn rate and is not easily disrupted. It’s also easy to carry (coiled in a backpack, for instance) and can be cut to any desired length. And this is basically all that a fuse really is.

Non-electric caps can be set off in other ways, but this post will deal primarily with the use of Time Fuse, when it comes to setting off blasting caps.

Time Fuse

The fuse used to set off a contemporary blasting cap is normally called either Time Fuse, or Safety Fuse. It comes in spools similar to the one seen above.

I’m used to calling it Time Fuse, since that’s what the Army calls the stuff it uses. However I’ve worked with Safety Fuse in other countries, as well as when dealing with civilian blasters here in The States. The two fuses are really interchangeable, and are composed of a black powder core that’s protected by a fiber wrapping (or wadding) encased in a water-proof plastic or waxed coat.

Imagine you took a brown paper lunch bag and fed it through a cheap paper shredder (one strong enough to shred a paper bag, that is). You know the sort of shredder I mean: it cuts the paper into long, skinny strips — almost as if making thin ribbon, or paper fettuccini. Now, imagine you waxed the interior and exterior of the brown paper bag before feeding it into the shredder; the strips of waxy brown paper that came out would be very similar — in both appearance and feel — to the braided wadding inside of Time Fuse.

The black powder is sort of “woven” into the braided twists of waxy brown paper strips to make a long braided cord. In some types of fuse, this cord is then encased inside something very much like a thick, hollow cotton shoestring for added durability when bending the fuse. Then, this cord is covered with a plastic coating. In civilian versions, this plastic coating may be day-glow green, or pink – even orange. With military Time Fuse, this coating will be olive drab (OD) green, with twin yellow hash marks every foot-and-a-half or so.

(You may be interested to know: When movie actors handle bombs with powder-blue Time Fuse, that powder-blue color is actually a telltale indicating the fuse being used is inert. Nearly all military training explosives — fake TNT blocks, Time Fuse, Det Cord, etc. — are this powder-blue color, making it easy to differentiate the real stuff from the practice materials. Blue, training materials show up in a lot of movies. You might find it fun to watch for them.)

Lighting Time Fuse

Time Fuse just needs heat, to be ignited. But, it needs quite a bit of heat.

You can light it with a match, if you hold the match to the fuse long enough. Or, with a Zippo or Bic lighter. You can also use a cigar, because cigars burn in excess of 700° f. You can’t light Time Fuse with a cigarette or pipe, because they don’t burn hot enough.

But, the surest way to light Time Fuse is by using a Mechanical Match.

The Mechanical Match in the picture on the left is lying on a plastic sheet of some kind. The device, itself, is a plastic tube with screw-on lids at both ends. If you look at the picture, you can see that the device is thinner in the middle, than it is on both ends. This is because those thicker ends are actually screw-on caps. The thin, middle part is the plastic tube they screw onto.
One end of the Mechanical Match has a pull-ring, similar in appearance to the pin on a hand grenade. This end contains a trigger, that’s hooked to the pull-ring pin (The pin is that short-looking shiny metal rod that runs out of the top of the screw-on cap and has a hole that the pull-ring goes through.). The trigger and a spring-loaded firing pin assembly are inside the tube. When the pull-ring is yanked out, it lifts the pull-ring pin, which fires the spring-loaded firing pin. The firing pin shoots across the inside of the plastic tube, to ram its pointy end into a shotgun primer that’s loaded into the other end. That shotgun primer detonates from the impact, igniting the Time Fuse.

Looking at the picture, you’ll also see an olive-drab (OD) green string or cord that comes out of the screw cap near the pull-ring, on the upper right side, then is laid across the front to the left side. If you look at the Mechanical Match, on the other side from where the string comes out (i.e.: the string comes out on the right, so looking on the left side of the device . . .), you’ll see a thin, straight line sticking out of the screw cap. This thing is actually the end of a cotter pin, which locks the pull-ring pin in place, acting as a kind of “safety.” To use the Mechanical Match, you first have to grab that OD green string (which is attached to the other end of the cotter pin) and use it to pull the cotter pin out. Only then can you pull the pull-ring.

The shotgun primer is actually held in one end of the thinner “tube part” of the device. And, the screw cap just below it has a hole in the end. In the picture, to the left of the Mechanical Match, you’ll see some small plastic doodads. Those are shipping plugs that normally block the hole in the end of the screw cap, so dirt doesn’t get in the hole and foul the shotgun primer.

To attach the Mechanical Match to Time Fuse, simply unscrew that screw cap a little bit (this loosens up two C-shaped plastic pieces inside the cap), then pull the shipping plug out. Then slide your Time Fuse up inside the hole until it bumps into an obstacle. That obstacle your Time Fuse just bumped up against is the shotgun primer. So, all you need to do is hold the Time Fuse in place – so it doesn’t slip back out – and screw the cap back tight. When you screw that cap tight, it causes those two C-shaped plastic pieces inside to tighten together, clamping your Time Fuse in place. Now you can let go, and your fuse isn’t going anywhere; it’s held fast against the shotgun primer. When you yank on the pull-ring, the firing pin will strike the primer, which will explode, and the Time Fuse will be ignited by the bang.

On the right is a picture showing a Mechanical Match hooked to Time Fuse. The pull-ring is folded back behind the device, near the top of the man’s hand. His other hand grasps the cotter pin string, preparing to remove the cotter pin "safety."

Cutting Time Fuse for Proper Burn Time

Time Fuse usually burns at about twenty to forty seconds per foot. In other words, it takes about half a minute for the flame inside to travel one foot along the powder train inside the fuse. However, it’s important to understand that Time Fuse has certain properties that cause it to burn at different rates under various circumstances.

For instance, if you compress Time Fuse while it is burning, it will burn faster. Essentially, by compressing it, you’re sort of squeezing the fire down the powder train at a faster rate. It’s similar in mechanics to what happens if you squeeze a garden hose. If you squeeze that hose, the water at the end shoots out with a lot more force, and it shoots much farther through the air. Doesn’t it? Well, this is roughly the same thing that happens when you squeeze Time Fuse; it really amps up the burn rate — the speed at which the flame travels along the powder train. In fact, you can even make the flame shoot out farther when it reaches the end. (I once used this idea to lend greater probability of success to a charge, when I had blasting caps that didn’t seem to have been made very well. The caps kept malfunctioning when I tested them out. Consequently, I covered the last couple of feet of Time Fuse with rocks, in order to amp up the power just before it hit the blasting caps used to set of my charge. My hope was that this would help boost the probability that the caps would get a bigger jolt from the fuse. It worked like a charm.)

There are a lot of ways to compress Time Fuse. You can bury it under dirt, or lay a line of rocks or bricks over the top. You can even squeeze it with your hands. But, watch out! That stuff’s hot! The plastic coating on the outside will bubble up and melt or burst as the fuse burns inside it. But, if you suddenly decide to abort your explosion, you’d better cut your Time Fuse about two or three feet beyond the point where that bubbling and melting is going on, because the fuse is actually burning about 18 inches ahead of that point.

The well-trained blaster takes this compression factor into account when camouflaging his/her Time Fuse, knowing that it will burn faster if it passes through a constriction such as a tight wall join, or mound of earth. Or if it’s hidden under layers of sticks or branches.

The compression factor also means that Time Fuse burns more slowly at higher altitudes (where there’s less air pressure) than it does at sea level. And it burns much more rapidly under water! (Remember: it’s water proof, and has it’s own oxygen source on-board, so it burns very well under water. In fact, you can even light it under water using a Mechanical Match!)
Ambient temperature can also effect Time Fuse’s burn rate. It tends to burn a little faster in a hot climate, and slower in a cold one. Other factors that influence burn rate include: its age, how well it was made, and how well it’s been cared for.

Because of all these variables, the good blaster doesn’t worry about the idea that this stuff is supposed to burn at around 30-seconds a foot. Instead, s/he knows this ratio is very mushy, and therefore conducts a test burn.

A test burn is (usually) a fairly easy thing to do, and can aid a blaster in getting his/her charge to go off within one second of when that explosion is desired. To begin with, s/he cuts 3 feet of fuse from the roll s/he plans to use when setting off the charge. Then, s/he carries this fuse (along with a mechanical match) to a setting that’s as similar to the location where the charge will be placed, as possible. If the charge is going to be used to blow down a train trestle that runs across a mountain pass high in the sky, then the blaster needs to take that test fuse up a mountain to the same elevation. If the charge is going to be set 300 feet below the ocean, the blaster needs to don a wet suit and air tanks, and take it down beneath the waves – preferably to 300 feet of depth.

Once the blaster has gotten as close as possible to the expected conditions, s/he then pulls out a stop watch, hooks up the Mechanical Match, and sets off the Time Fuse. The blaster times how long it takes, from the moment the Mechanical Match is fired, until that little spurt of flame shoots out the other end of the fuse.

Now, the blaster takes that number (the length of time it took to burn three feet) and divides it by 3 (the number of feet it burned in that time). The answer tells the blaster what this specific Time Fuse’s burn rate will be under those conditions.

If, for example, it somehow took 3 minutes to burn three feet, the blaster would divide the 3 minutes (time it took to burn) by the 3 feet (the length of the fuse tested) and arrive at a burn rate of 1 minute per foot. Since s/he now knows that this fuse will burn at the rate of 1 min./ft, if the blaster wants a 6-minute fuse, s/he will divide those 6 minutes by the burn rate. 6 mins. ÷ 1 min./ ft. = 6 feet of Time Fuse. In other words, s/he now knows to cut off six feet of Time Fuse, if s/he wants the fuse to burn for six minutes before the explosion occurs.

In reality, our blaster is much more likely to get a number like “1 minute and 18 seconds”, or “1 minute and 42 seconds” when s/he does the three-foot test burn. The easy way to handle this is to convert minutes to seconds and add it to the seconds left over. (For example, if our time was 1 minute and 42 seconds, we’d convert our 1 minute to 60 seconds, then add that to 42 seconds. 60 + 42 = 102. So, now we know it takes 102 seconds for the fuse to burn 3 feet. Dividing 102 seconds [the time] by 3 feet [the distance burned] gives us a burn rate of 34 seconds per foot.)

In the example above, if we wanted a 6-minute fuse on our charge, we’d divide 6 minutes (which is the same as 6 x 60 = 360 seconds) by 34 seconds/foot.

360 seconds ÷ 34 seconds/foot = 10.5882 feet. But, what about the .5882 feet?

Well, now we multiply 0.5882 x 12 to get inches. 0.5882 x 12 = 7.0584 inches. So, now we have a fuse that’s 10 feet and 7.0584 inches long.

But … what about the .0584 inches?

Simply multiply 0.0584 x 16 to get sixteenths of an inch. 0.0584 x 16 = 0.9344

0.9 can be rounded up to 1, so … we’re going to measure out 10 feet and 7 & 1/16 inches of Time Fuse, then we’re going to cut off that hunk that’s 10 feet and 7 & 1/16 inches long.

That may seem complicated, but I guarantee that if you spell it all out, a reader will be convinced you know how to cut Time Fuse! And that will lend a sense of verisimilitude to your story — which is what I’m aiming for by writing this little reference guide.

If you don’t quite get how it works, feel free to use my numbers. Or, contact me and I’ll be happy to run whatever numbers you want. Either way, no one will doubt that your character knows what s/he is doing. And that’s what counts!

Cutting and Crimping (or “Romper, Stomper, Bomper, Boo!)
Do you remember an old kiddy show called Romper Room? I don’t know if it showed all over the country, but I’ve spoken to a lot of guys (particularly Special Forces Demolitions Sergeants) who remember that the lady who ran the show used to sit in her chair, holding a thing that (I think) was supposed to be a hand mirror (but had no glass, so that you could see right through it) in front of her face as she looked out at the audience (Okay! Actually, she looked straight into the camera lens. But, hey, I was just a kid!). She’d hold that thing up and look out through it, while mumbling something about the “magic mirror” and intoning: “Romper, Stomper, Bomper, Boo! I see Mary and Jacky and Mark and Lisa …” and she’d go on and name all these kids whom she could supposedly see watching the show, by looking through her magic mirror.

You remember that?

You don’t!?!

Well . . . Damn it, Jim! I’m a demo man, not a child psychologist! So . . . on with the penultimate phase of today’s post.

You can cut Time Fuse with a knife, but it takes a little finesse — and a lot of sawing to work through that plastic and cordage. The result is often a frayed mess that doesn’t bolster a blaster’s confidence in his/her charge going off right.

Consequently, one of the best ways to cut Time Fuse is to use Crimpers. The crimpers in the photo on the right (above) are military crimpers similar to the ones I had in the army. On the left, you’ll see an older set of civilian crimpers.

Crimpers are a little like wire cutters in a way. You know how wire cutters often have two functions: you can use one section to strip the plastic coating off of wire, and you can use another section to actually cut the wire? Well, crimpers are sort of similar. That hole near the end can be used to crimp a blasting cap onto Time Fuse (we’ll get to that in a minute), but the scissors jaws just below that hole can be used to cut the fuse. And this cut will be very clean, quick and efficient.

The scissors jaws — as the name implies — cut Time Fuse in the same way scissors would. However, because most scissors tend to be straight, the cutting action would shove the round, smooth-sided time fuse down their length, reducing their cutting effectiveness. Hence the term “scissors jaws”. The jaws part comes in, because the scissors jaws are curved. Sort of like the letter C and its mirror image, where the inner line on the C would be very sharp. This curved C-shape helps hold the Time Fuse in place while you’re cutting it. And the sharp edges slice cleanly through the tough fuse material.

To attach your Time Fuse to your blasting cap, you need to slide the fuse into the cap until the fuse bumps up against the initiator (pyrotechnic ignition mix) inside. Then, you have pinch the metal cap into the fuse, in order to anchor the fuse in place. This pinching process is called “crimping” the cap.

There are a lot of ways to crimp a cap, including the bite-down method, in which you squeeze the cap into the fuse by biting it between your teeth. I don’t suggest you try this.

The preferred method for crimping a blasting cap onto Time Fuse is to slide your fuse inside the cap as described above. Then pull a set of crimpers out of your pocket and hold them up in front of your place. As a mnemonic device, an aid to keep you from cutting the cap instead of crimping it, you then look through the open hole of the crimper, while intoning the words, “Romper, Stomper, Bomper, Boo!” just like that lady on Romper Room. (This may sound silly, but it’s very important: cutting the cap could lead to an explosion.)

Once your sure you know which part is the crimper, you slip that part of the crimpers around the cap, about 1/8th to ¼ of an inch below the top of the hollow end of the blasting cap. After the crimpers are firmly seated, but before you crimp down, you rotate your arms to bring the cap-fuse-crimper assembly out to your side, down low, but as far away from your body as possible, while turning your face in the opposite direction. Then you squeeze the crimpers, crimping the cap onto the fuse. You do all the turning away, etc. to protect your eyes and upper organs from possible shrapnel, should the blasting cap explode when you crimp it. (Now you see why I don’t recommend crimping with your teeth. Right?)

A Final Note of Caution For Writers, Concerning Primer Cord Confusion

In some films you watch, you may hear characters refer to the fuse they’re going to light as: “primer cord” or “Prima Cord.” Please DO NOT make the same mistake in your writing!

“Primer cord” is Detonating Cord, which is NOT a fuse. And, “Prima Cord” is just a manufacturer’s brand name for a type of detonating cord. Detonating cord (often called Det Cord) is filled with PETN or RDX, which burns at 22,000 feet per second if you’re using military grade stuff.

With that burn rate, Det Cord doesn’t really just burn. It EXPLODES!

I mean it. It really does explode. For example: I have personally used Det Cord to cut down small trees in order to create emergency helicopter landing zones (LZ’s). I have also used it to cut through wooden doors (Use it on the hinge side, and it cuts the door off its hinges, for instance.), and to make fairly clean, linear cuts in thin metal.

For those wondering how to use it to open an area for an LZ here’s how it works: If you have a fairly large field with a few too many small trees growing in it to make a good LZ, you just run a line of Det Cord over to the base of a small tree and wrap it three to six times around the trunk (depending on diameter), then keep running the Det Cord over to another tree and wrap it around that one three to six times, etc., until you’ve got the bases of all the trees that are in your way wrapped with Det Cord. After that, you hook up a couple of blasting caps and tape them to one end of the Det Cord. Then, just back off and fire the caps. When the caps go off, the whole line of Det Cord goes BANG! and the trees all fall down. Then you and your buddies move in and drag off the trees, so they won’t get blown up by the rotor wash and knock down the chopper with flying branches when it tries to come in for a landing.

To illustrate the difference between Det Cord and Time Fuse, let me explain that if you run Time Fuse through trees in a similar manner, all you’ll wind up with is Time Fuse that’s melted to the base of the trees and all along the ground. Time Fuse absolutely does NOT explode. That’s why it makes such a good fuse.

Now, let me also warn you that you may run into somebody, someday, who says: “I once lit Det Cord (or Primer Cord) with my trusty Bic lighter, and all it did was burn. It doesn’t explode!” My suggestion is that you simply nod and remain silent, and hopefully that idiot will go away. Because, he’s probably telling you the truth.

If you set Det Cord on fire with a match or lighter (For God’s sake DON’T EVER use a mechanical match, or you might kill yourself!) the stuff will burn and smoke, and stink to high heaven (I know because I’ve done it). But, it won’t explode — because RDX and PETN (Det Cord is usually filled with one or the other) doesn’t go off from heat alone. It requires heat AND shock or compression. (That’s why you don’t want to set it off with a mechanical match; that shotgun primer will give it both heat and shock/compression — and the result will be an explosion.)

In this context, Det Cord is a little like C-4, because — as I’m sure R.T. and most of our other Viet Nam vets will attest — if you light C-4 with a lighter, it also burns without blowing up. In fact, you can even use C-4, that way, as a sort of heat tab, to cook on it. But . . . if a person tries to put out the flame by stomping it with a boot heel, that person is likely to be called “Stumpy” for the rest of his/her life. Because stomping on the burning C-4 usually provides all the shock/compression it needs to explode. And the resulting explosion is probably going to blow that stomping boot (along with the foot inside it) right off the end of the stomper’s leg.

And, just so we’re clear: slowly pushing down with that boot heel, to sort of grind out the flame without stomping it, can also sometimes provide just enough compression to accomplish the same thing (i.e.: earning a new, undesirable, nickname).

Det Cord works the same way. If that idiot who set it on fire had then hit it with a hammer, you’d probably have been spared his odious visit!

So, as I’ve hopefully convinced you, no matter what you’ve seen or heard on TV or in the movies, Primer Cord (or Prima Cord – remember, that’s just a brand name) is not a fuse; it’s an explosive.

23 March 2012

Explosives 102


by Dixon Hill

Welcome back to my series on writing about explosives in your stories. I was hoping to make this last only through three installments, however I now think it will take 4 to 5. If you guys get bored and want me to change topic, let me know.

Additionally, while it’s true that I once held a Top Secret clearance and access, I was granted said clearance and access because certain people thought I could reasonably be expected to keep important secrets. I work diligently to avoid disappointing those people. Consequently, you don’t need to worry: nothing here is classified. And, my pics are all from open source material.

My goal in this series is not to make you an explosives expert; it’s to give you enough information that someone reading your work — assuming you write a passage in which a character employs explosives — thinks it sounds as if you know what you’re writing about. In other words, I want you help make your writing technically convincing.

What do you really do to make it go BANG?
A guy slips a metal tube with fuse on it into a block of something that looks like clay and then smooshes that clay into a crevice in a wall. Then he pours a line of gasoline from the fuse along the floor (evidently to give him greater get-away time). Finally, tossing the empty gas can aside, he lights a match, holds it to the gasoline — and runs like a chased rabbit!

Is that the way explosives work?

What about James Bond? He stabs a pencil into a similar clay-like block, twists the end of the pencil and runs down the hall to avoid the explosion. Does this work?

Well . . . maybe.

Time Pencils — ala James Bond — are quite real. As for the first scenario, however: I can’t see myself using gasoline like that unless I was woefully short of fuse. Even then, it would probably necessitate a decision about which was more important: the explosive going off correctly? Or my staying alive?

The answer to that one would probably be: the explosive going off correctly. If you’re using explosives, there isn’t usually a better way to do the job. And, in situations where I’ve employed them, if they didn’t go off many of my friends might have been in serious trouble. That being the case, I’d probably wind up wishing the explosion had taken me out anyway.

Down to Brass Tacks

One thing you need to understand, if you don’t already, is that explosives are set off by a chain of events usually thought of as the “explosive train.” A very small explosion sets off a larger explosive force through what’s known as “sympathetic detonation.”

Most explosives in common use today, are stable enough to require both heat and shock (or compression) to set them off. But, there are some explosives that require only heat, or only shock, or can easily be set off by either one (such as nitroglycerine, for instance—heat or drop it at your peril!)

So, to set off a very stable charge, such as C-4, you need to first set off a relatively unstable charge that’s snuggled up next to your C-4. This initiating charge doesn’t necessarily have to be large. But, it does need to be volatile enough to create enough heat and shock to set off the C-4. Otherwise, your charge fizzles and the bad guys laugh at you. So . . . what can you use to set off a stable charge like this?

Blasting Caps

There are primarily two types of Blasting Caps: Electric and (wait for it … wait for it …) Non-Electric (Surprised you, huh?).

A non-electric blasting cap can mean different things to different people, but there’s no question about what an electric blasting cap is, in most blasters’ minds, so we’ll start with that one first.

An electric blasting cap (similar to the one labeled “Solid Pack Electric Type Blasting Cap” in the picture below) is encased in a small, thin metal tube—closed at one end. You might think of this tube-like container as being sort of similar to a very tiny, extremely thin soda can that has the top cut off.



Most electric caps I’ve dealt with were probably about an 1/8-of-an-inch to 3/8’s-of-an-inch across, and 3 to 7 inches long. This metal tube is filled with an initiator (labeled “primary explosive” in the drawing), a detonator (labeled “output explosive”) and has two wire leads that run in through the top and down into the initiator.

Viewed from the outside, these two wire leads disappear into a plastic-looking (or sometimes sort of clayish-looking) substance in the top of the cap, which acts as an insulator, and as a “lid” for the blasting cap. Sometimes, these wires are completely bare. On other caps, they may be plastic-coated with only a few inches of bare wire at the far end from the cap.


Either way, there will be a “shunt” on the wire. The shunt is often a thin metal ring; it connects the two wires, completing the circuit, helping to ensure that a stray electronic impulse doesn’t excite the initiator inside the cap until the blaster wants it to. Military electric blasting caps often come in a small cardboard tube that has the cap’s firing wire wrapped around it (pic on right). Civilian electric caps often look like the picture below.

Now remember: a blasting cap has an initiator and detonator inside it — and those two wires sticking out of the cap, run down into the initiator. When an electric current is passed through the wires, quite a bit of heat is generated down inside the initiator (primary explosive). The initiator is a relatively unstable explosive that is extremely sensitive to heat. So, when the electric current heats it up, the initiator explodes. This explosion sets off the detonator (output explosive), which is a bit more stable, but creates a larger explosion through its superior size and/or higher RE Factor. When the detonator goes off, this nearly always creates enough heat and shock to set off the larger, more stable charge that’s going to do the real work for you — such as that C-4 we were looking at earlier. [Yes, I wrote “nearly always.” This is the reason that a good blaster always “dual primes” his/her charges, by using two blasting caps. If the first cap fails to do the trick, hopefully the second will get the job done.]

So, now you see the explosive train in action: a small unstable explosion initiates a slightly larger, more powerful explosion — which in turn sets off a whopper! But, what sets off the blasting cap?

The Blast Machine

We’ve all seen cartoons with a plunger, similar to the one on the right. But, would you be likely to run into one? Are they even real — outside of movies and cartoons, that is?

To answer the second question first: Yes. They’re real. The one to the right is an older model 50-cap blast machine. A Blast Machine is just what the name implies: a machine that creates a big blast or explosion when you use it correctly.

To explain in very general terms: a blast machine has a flywheel inside it, attached to a dynamo that generates electricity. In this case, when someone pushes down on that handle, the long vertical rod connected to it is driven into the case and starts that flywheel spinning. The flywheel spins the dynamo, and an electric current is generated. (You’ll hear a high-pitched metallic whirring when this is going on.) If the two loose ends of an electric blasting cap are connected to the metal terminals (the two screws with wing nuts toward the left side of the frame in our photograph), enough electricity is going to pass through there to set off that blasting cap.

Naturally, it’s not usually a good idea to be sitting right on top of your explosives when they go off. Consequently, blasters run “firing wire” — a thin, plastic-coated wire that looks similar to the cord you might find on a cheap table lamp — from the blasting cap wires back to the blast machine. (You don’t run it the other way, because — and, R.T., I think you will like this — you don’t want to hook up the firing wire to the blasting cap just as somebody trips and falls on the plunger of the blast machine you’ve already hooked your firing wire to. KABLOOEY!!)

Firing Wire

Firing wire comes in big spools, often with hundreds of feet of wire so you can be sure you’re far enough from the blast to avoid getting badly hurt. I’m used to spools of about 500 feet of wire — though the more you use the wire, the shorter it gets. Because, of course, the end closest to the explosion keeps getting blown off.

Firing wire has two ends, of course: one that’s attached to the spool, and one that’s on the end of the wire that is wrapped around the spool. The latter end is going to be attached to the blasting cap, so you can unroll your firing wire on the way back to the blast machine. This end, which gets attached to the cap wires, is called the “running end.” The other end — the one attached to the spool, which you’ll later attach to the blast machine — is called the “standing end.” And, please don’t forget, though we call it “Firing Wire” (singular noun), there are actually two separate wires inside it.

To hook the firing wire to the blasting cap wires, and then to the blast machine, the following steps are taken:

1. If the “standing end” wires, on the firing wire, are still covered in plastic, cut the plastic with a knife and peel the plastic back (trimming off any excess plastic) until you have bared at least two inches of both of the wires at this end. If your story character setting the charge is either smart or lucky, s/he will have wire cutters that have a wire stripper on them, and s/he can use this to more easily strip the wire.

2. Twist the two newly-bared wires, on the standing end of the firing wire, together.

3. Be sure you have at least two to three inches of bare wires at the “running end” of the firing wire.

4. Lightly twist the ends of the blasting cap wires together. (This is called “shunting the wires” and serves the same purpose as the factory installed shunt, which you are about to remove.)

5. Remove the shunt from the blasting cap wire.

6. Untwist the cap wire ends and twist-tie one of them to one of the two bared wires at the running end of the firing wire. (Your character, if s/he’s been well-trained will use a “Western Union Pigtail Splice” [WUPTS] to tie each cap wire to its respective firing wire.)

7. Quickly attach the other cap wire to the other firing wire end, again using a WUPTS.

8. Pound a stake into the ground about three feet back from where you’ve tied-in, pay out several feet of firing wire, then tie the firing wire around this stake so that the wire is slack between the stake and the cap wires. This will prevent you from accidentally dragging your charge back to the blast machine with you, when you unroll your firing wire. If you don’t have a stake, tie your firing wire to the trunk of a tree. Or, maybe wrap it around a heavy rock.

9. Pay out the wire by hand, carefully, walking backward so you can watch your charge and be sure nothing comes loose. If you want your explosion to surprise the bad guys, be sure to camouflage the wire as you go. Do this until you reach the blast machine.

10. Now hook the standing end of your firing wire to the metal terminals on your blast machine. If you’re using the plunger-type blast machine, be sure the plunger is in the “down” position before you hook-up. Otherwise, if somebody trips . . .

Common Blast Machine Types
Plunger-type blast machines are fairly rare in the U.S. these days. You’re far more likely to run into something like the 20 or 30-cap machine on the right. (That handle comes off incidentally, so you can carry it in your pocket and nobody can use the machine but you – unless they have another handle.) Or, you may encounter one like the 50-cap machine (below left), which I’m very used to.

And, just as their names imply, a 30-cap machine generates enough electricity to set off 30 electric blasting caps all at once, if they’re hooked in series, while the 50-cap machine generates enough to set off 50 caps at once. Some plunger-style machines are rated for 100 or even 150 caps, and these machines are still widely in use throughout the world, particularly in less-developed countries. I suspect that machine on the right is a 20-cap machine, but I'm going to call it a 30-cap machine because they look nearly identicle.

The 30-cap machine is operated by twisting the handle. It may take more than one twist to generate enough power to do the job, but don’t worry: Just keep twisting until a loud BANG! tells you it’s time to stop.

Though the handle can be removed and pocketed, there is also usually a chain attachment. This permits soldiers who’ve hooked up FUGAS, or some other anti-personnel devices around their perimeter, to keep the firing wires hooked to the blast machine, while providing a “safety” of sorts, by keeping the handle disconnected but attached to the machine by the chain. That way there’s less fumbling around if the bad guys try to overrun your base camp at night. And, you don’t have to worry that the guy guarding the blast machine might sneeze and accidentally knock the blast machine over, thus unintentionally twisting the handle.

The 50-cap machine is operated by rapidly squeezing the handle on the right side 3 to 5 times. This is because it takes a few pumps to get the flywheel up to speed. Along with the high-pitched metallic whirring that’s endemic to most blast machines, this one also tends to go “zing, zing, zing, ZING!” getting louder with each “zing,” until the explosion drowns out the sound.

The D-ring on the bottom right is the safety clip. Prior to hooking your firing wire to the terminals on top, compress the handle up against the machine, then use the D-ring to lock the handle in place. When you’re ready to fire, simply pop the D-ring down, freeing the handle, which will push out on its own.

The terminals have rubber coverings, and a spring-loaded top. To insert your firing wire, simply push down on the top of the terminal. This will open the hole in the terminal side, and you can slide your wire through. Release the terminal top, and the hole will close back up, trapping the firing wire between the metal terminal jaws.

Remember: you have two separate wires in the Firing Wire. You’ve hooked one of those wires to a terminal (doesn’t matter which one), so you now have to repeat this process with the other wire, connecting it to the other terminal. Then you’re all hooked up to fire.

The last blast machine we’ll look at is the one on the left, below. This is a Claymore Clacker, which is used to set off a Claymore Mine.

A Claymore is a very handy anti-personnel mine shaped sort of like a large soap dish. It contains a strip of C-4 inside the back, and a strip of metal that’s perforated into nearly-separated ball bearings inside the front. There is “wadding” between the C-4 and the metal strip. This wadding acts as a sort of shock absorber, preventing the C-4 from completely destroying the metal plate when it detonates.

The plastic casing of the mine has two sets of metal “scissors legs” attached. It is employed by driving the legs into the ground, then aiming the mine at head height at about 50 meters distance. Thus, the Claymore fires sideways.

When the C-4 goes off, the wadding is obliterated (along with the plastic casing of the mine itself) and the metal strip is shattered into a bunch of ball bearings that act as BB’s or shotgun pellets (the wadding helps keep those BB’s from being vaporized). The result is that the enemy is shredded by a sort of GIANT shotgun blast.

The Claymore comes self-contained, in a kit containing: the mine, 50 feet of firing wire (w/ electric cap factory-attached), the clacker (blast machine), and a small tool that may be used to test the clacker and cap-circuit (kit components in photo on right are missing the tester).

The Claymore Clacker, itself (close up on left), is basically a 2-cap blast machine. In the photo, the clacker is standing on it’s hind end. The handle on the right is the lever you depress in order to detonate the blasting cap. That black rubber bump between the handle and body of the clacker is the switch that closes the circuit so the electronic pulse can be sent through the firing wire. That black thing at the top of the clacker, in this photo, is a rubber cover. It protects the male end of what is essentially an electrical socket.

If you look closely, you may see a small notch cut into the clacker handle near the end. Near the bottom, right hand corner of the clacker body in this photo there is a small square-shaped D-ring. To set the clacker on “safe” simply flip the D-ring up, so that it clicks into the notch on the handle. This will keep the handle from being inadvertently depressed. To fire, just pop the D-ring back down, and squeeze the handle against the clacker body. It almost always works with just one pull, but occasionally likes to be pulled a second time before it fires the cap.

The firing wire for the Claymore (photo on right) has a female end with holes for two round (as apposed to rectangular, as you’re probably used to at home) metal prongs be inserted. This female end is also protected by a rubber cover, which doubles as a shunt. To hook the firing wire to the clacker, simply open both rubber covers (the one on the clacker and the one on the end of the firing wire) and plug the male end into the female end. Once that’s done, you can fire the cap by simply squeezing the clacker. In this case, there is no zing, zing — or even a metallic whine. Instead, there’s a just a dull “clunk” or “clack.” Hence the name “clacker.”

Claymore Clackers can be modified by cutting off the male-connector end of the firing wire along with 6 to 18 inches of the attached firing wire, and plugging it into the clacker. Often, this connector is then taped to the clacker body to keep it from easily working loose. Then the wires on the other end of the firing wire are bared, so that they may be attached to normal firing wire and hence the blasting caps.

A clacker isn’t a super-terrific blast machine; it’s just not powerful enough to set off caps at a great distance. However, it is often employed when you want to set off a nearby explosion very quickly and easily, with near-instant effect. If, for instance, your characters are cops using electric blasting caps to set off a charge that will blow open a door, give them a modified Claymore Clacker to do this job. It works very well.

Priming a Block of Explosives

You recall, hopefully, what I wrote above about “snuggling” that small (but relatively unstable) charge up to your larger (more stable) charge in order to set off the big bang.

The way you do this with a blasting cap is pretty simple: you make a hole in your larger charge and shove the blasting cap down inside it. Seems kind of stupidly simple, doesn’t it? The specific method used, however, depends on the explosive you’re trying to set off. And, since we’ll need to take them one-by-one, we’ll have to cover that in a subsequent installment.

In Explosives 103 (in two weeks) I plan to cover Military Non-Electric Blasting Caps, and civilian NON-EL blasting caps. Then we’ll touch lightly on unclassified Time Pencil info, and begin (if there’s time) looking at how to prime different explosive charges — probably beginning with dynamite.

After we examine how to prime a few kinds of common explosives, I’ll provide a short wrap-up and toss in a few extra tips that should lend a little “icing” of extra verisimilitude to any passage you invent about somebody using explosives.

If you guys don’t like this, let me know. I can always drop this subject and write about something else. I thought, however, that you might enjoy having a little “primer” you could refer to when (or if) it comes time for somebody in one of your stories to blow something up.

See you in two weeks,
Dixon

07 October 2011

The Smoking Gun -- Sort of . . .


by Dixon Hill


First: A Little Confession . . .

I suppose there's something I ought to get off my chest -- before you find out from somebody else, and feel I betrayed your trust by not disclosing it up-front.

You see: I smoke cigars.

Five to ten a day, actually.

And, if you happen to be one of those very kind souls who thinks: "Well, maybe he only smokes little ones, with that flavored tobacco that doesn't smell so bad," I'm afraid I have to disabuse you of that notion.

The cigars I smoke aren't small at all; they're usually six to eight inches long, by a fifty-four to sixty ring gauge. Sometimes larger. (Maybe this is a good time to ask Rob if congress can confirm that Freud really said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.") Additionally, my cigars are never made from sweet smelling flavored tobacco; they're malodorous and strong. Very strong. Fidel Castro Cigar strong (which means they're rough--and absolutely evil-smelling ... if you don't like cigars, that is.)

I acquired this "classy" habit for the same reason most Special Forces Engineer Sergeants do. You see, an SF Engineer is the "Demo Man," or explosives expert on an A-Team. We're taught to construct field-expedient demolitions and/or incendiary devices out of common household products, so that we can fabricate and employ explosives even when working in a denied environment (a place ruled by the other side during war time) when we haven't received a resupply in a while.

And, like every other SF Engineer who's served time on Smoke Bomb Hill back at Ft. Bragg, I was taught that a cigar can be used as a "punk" to light military time-fuse during high wind conditions. (You can't do this with a pipe or cigarette, because they don't burn hot enough to ignite the powder train inside the fuse.) Consequently, I taught myself to smoke cigars. And, if you ever wind up meeting a dozen men who work on an A-Team for some reason, it's a good bet that the two guys smoking cigars are the Team's Engineers.

Naturally, over time I came to learn a few tricks of the trade concerning how to light time-fuse this way. First: it helps to tap the ash off the end of your cigar before you hold it to the fuse. Otherwise the ash can act as an insulator, and you might wind up melting the plastic casing around the fuse without igniting the powder train within. This means you have to hack off a length of melted fuse, and try all over again. Likewise, it helps if you give the cigar a few strong puffs, to stoke the heat, just before touching it to the fuse. And, finally: Try not to draw (inhale) through the cigar, once you've touched it to a fuse, because some of the plastic usually melts into the end of the cigar -- and dragging those noxious fumes into your oral cavity is a rather unfortunate experience.

I picked up that last tip, as a very new engineer, when lighting a series of four charges my A-Team had emplaced during a training raid. The charges were roughly fifty meters apart, and I had to sprint between them in order to minimize our time on target. By the time I was finished puffing the fuse on the fourth charge to life, my head was spinning. When we pulled off the target, I was doing my impression of "Julie" in the opening credits of that old television show The Mod Squad -- my feet barely touching the ground as two guys ran alongside, carrying me between them.

What does all this have to do with sleuthing, you ask?

Well, since I enjoy cigars, I sometimes have my story characters stop by my favorite cigar store here in Scottsdale. I thought this was an original idea of mine -- until Leigh pointed out that this idea was so old, it had been used in Martin Kane, Private Eye, which is billed as the very first television detective show. Martin Kane (played by William Gargan --seen in the photo, left. Gargan was the first of three actors to play the roll).

In the show, Kane smoked a pipe, and each episode featured a trip to the detective's tobacconist, where Kane would review the case -- and discuss tobacco with the store's proprietor -- because the show was sponsored by the U.S. Tobacco company. These tobacco shop trips were actually an early form of product-placement advertisement.

I'm disappointed to add another entry to my "nothing new under the sun" file, but wasn't really too surprised. I've noticed that (particularly in the past) an inordinate number of fictional detectives seem to smoke.

I suspect part of the reason is that smoking makes what actors call "good stage business." In other words, it gives characters something to do with their hands. Additionally, a writer can use details concerning someone's smoking to highlight character traits. What is the difference, for instance, between a man who uses a set of gold snippers to clip the end off his cigar, then lights it with a solid gold lighter -- compared with -- a man who bites the end off his cigar, spits it out, then lights up with a battered Zippo. What if he lights it with a match that he strikes on his thumbnail? Or, on the heel of his work boot?

Would a woman's character change, in your mind, if instead of smoking a cigarette, she smoked a cigar? What if she were the one biting the end off, and striking the match on her work boot?

I suspect that the nature of the characters described above shifts subtly as you go through the two paragraphs. Did you wonder, for instance, if the cigar smoking woman in work boots was a contemporary feminist, or did you perhaps jump to the idea that she inhabits a WWII setting and works as a "Rosie the Riveter?"

It may interest you to know, incidentally, that in my part-time occupation as a fill-in body at the cigar store near my house, I've become acquainted with several women who smoke cigars, and one or two who smoke pipes.

I freely admit that:
(A) Other props used by characters can reveal the same or similar character traits.
(B) Smoking is bad for you.

On the other hand, when someone smokes in a novel or film, particularly a contemporary one, I think that reveals an aspect of his/her character.

Smoking and detectives have traveled around in the same circles since long before the old pulp days. In fact, if you think about it,: Sherlock Holmes smoked pipes -- and cigars, if I recall correctly.

Can you imagine Marlowe without at least an occasional smoke in his hand? Would it change how you perceived his character, or even subtly alter the tone of the enttire work? I think it would, but you're free to disagree with me. In fact, that's what we've got the comments section below for. So -- feel free to blast away! (Assuming we've worked out the bugs.) You won't hurt my feelings; I've been called reams of unprintable names by army sergeants screaming at the tops of their lungs, and learned to let it roll off my back a long time ago.

What about Peter Falk's character in the TV show Columbo? Can you envision Lt. Columbo without his trademark cigar stump (it seemed almost never to be lit)? Admittedly, he would still have that car and trench coat, the ruffled hair, and sometimes that basset hound. But, can you see him holding up a gnarled hand to say, "Just one more question, sir," without a cigar stump parked between two of his fingers?

And, as long as we're covering television detectives, we might as well cover the other side of the balance sheet too.


Telly Savalas smoked cigarettes through much of the first season of Kojak. But, the writers changed that -- supposedly in response to non-smoking pressure from the public -- by creating a scene in which a meter maid chewed him out for smoking all the time. She handed him a Tootsie Pop to chew on, instead. And, the rest (as they say) is TV history.

The trend of connecting tobacco to fictional detectives has been changing for a long time, and continues to be in flux today. I'm not the kind of guy who advocates that anyone take up smoking anything (unless we're talking about somebody who walks into the cigar store while I'm working). But, it seems to me that smoking has its uses, when it comes to detective fiction -- if for no other reason than to demonstrate who the bad guy is.

What do you think?