Warning Statement – The current exercise of control over explosives manufacture precludes today’s Americans from practicing the kind of backyard munitions and explosives production described below. The FBI will lock you up if you attempt the stuff that used to be done by backyard Edisons all over the formerly Land of the Free. photog
Me and my brother had our own space. Right next to dad’s shed where his machine tools lived, we had our own shed. In there we made our own gunpowder, other explosives (it was the 60s) fireworks, rocket motors, and made the stocks for our handmade, muzzle loading, cap-and-ball rifles and shotguns. We used dad’s tools to cut down, bore, and rifle the barrels and make the locks. Everything else was made in our shop. The powder, the balls, then the mini balls. All we had to buy commercial was the caps themselves. We found out that fulminate of mercury was ticklish and fussy so we bought our caps. We took a lot of deer and other game with the rifles and the shotguns we made, too. Today, we’d likely be in federal prison for making those things as juveniles. We did our chemistry experiments in there, too. To keep thieves out we rigged up an explosive and flash device. Open the door without reaching in to find the disarming wire and you got the sound of a 12 gauge shotgun shell with a large flash from flash powder. Sort of like police flahs0-bangs. About once a summer someone would try to sneak in an set it off. They ran like red-arsed baboons with lions after them. Since practically everyone knew we had gunpowder in there they may have thought they had set some off and worse was to come.
We loved “playing” with thermite. We used it to weld old railroad rail pieces and steel bar stock together to make things. We found that if you added small amounts (powdered/filings) of magnesium or aluminum to the mix you could do even more. When a piece broke on papaw’s farm implements, me and my brother would weld it back together with thermite.
People complain about the internet teaching people to make bad things. When I was sixteen, papaw (my grandfather) had some stumps that a pipeline company had left on his farm when they put the pipeline through. They needed to come out. As they were quite large, we could not shift them with the regular tractors (middle 1960s) and renting, having delivered and picked up heavy equipment was cost prohibitive. I blew a few stumps with dynamite, but they wouldn’t sell papaw any more when the rumor got out, I was doing the blasting. So, I went to the county Carnegie library and did a little research. I had not yet taken high school chemistry, you understand. Our black powder might have done it but it would take me and my brother a long time to make that much. We needed an explosive that was easy to make and cheap, and would raise no suspicions.
I settled on fuel/fertilizer. There were no charts of equivalent explosive power between fuel/fertilizer and TNT so I guessed. We used the tractor’s auger to bore under the edge of a big stump, put in 3 sacks of fertilizer and 5 gallons of diesel and let it soak for a while. I had inserted one of the blasting caps we had left over and we backed off a couple hundred yards and used the tractor battery to light it off. We had tamped the borehole with the dirt we’d dug out.
The explosion was tremendous. The stump shot about 100 feet into the air and seemed to dissolve into toothpicks-sized shreds.
Papaw said; “I think we used a bit too much.” I replied; “Oh, ya think?!”
The crater it left was impressive, but papaw said he’d wanted a small pond about there, anyway, for the hogs to wallow.
Eventually I got to where I could lift a stump out of the ground and set it five feet away with no damage to the stump or the ground. All from readily available books in a public library in the middle 60s. Eventually we had to use fuses as we ran out of blasting caps. A neighbor asked to borrow me to get rid of a few stumps of their own. It went well until one day when I was not there, the sheriff came and said he’d hate to make a fuss about a teenager without a license doing blasting. That ended my teenage career of explosive demolitions. I still did minor blasting at papaw’s farm but not enough to raise concerns.
Today, me, my parents and my grandparents would all be wearing orange prison jumpers. The 50s and 60s and early 70s were a lot more fun than today.