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A house fire in Gilbert, Arizona appears to be a rare case of an unfortunate reloading accident. The reloader suffered burns to his face and upper body. That’s likely why the fire got out of hand. It wouldn’t have taken much to get the three vehicles out of the garage. Their loss was a substantial percentage of the total loss of the house, which looks to be in the $200,000 range. I hope that smoking was not involved . . .

Smoking while reloading is, as you’d expect, incredibly dangerous. Fighting fires where ammunition is involved isn’t. From

“As the ammo was kicking off, one actually hit me right in the face mask,” Gilbert firefighter Mase Mattingly said. “It bounced up and landed right in my hand.”

Fire officials said the ammunition did not have enough velocity to penetrate their protective gear.

Even so, the fire truck Mattingly rode in to the fire had several bullet strikes in the paint.

Notice that the bullets didn’t have enough force to penetrate the fireman’s protective gear, or do more than chip paint on the fire trucks. Firefighters have known for years that burning small arms ammunition produces a very low level of danger. This is from the SAAMI paper Facts About Sporting Ammunition Fires:

 Ammunition fired in the open, not enclosed in a gun’s chamber, discharges with such inefficiency that the projectile will not even penetrate an ordinary fiberboard shipping container panel at very close range.

When not strongly and tightly confined, smokeless propellant powders burn relatively slowly and do not explode as we know they do when fired in a gun.

Pressure within a cartridge case must build up to several thousand pounds per square inch to cause the cartridge to discharge as it does in a gun.

Unless it is tightly confined, as in a gun chamber, no ammunition shell case will withstand the growing pressure of gases generated by burning propellant powder without bursting before the bullet or shot is expelled with violence or velocity.

Worst case scenario: casings propelled by this type of action would impact exposed eyes. Notice what appears to be a 12 gauge metal base and a 9 mm bullet lying together in the street. Of course, the photographer might have put them together for dramatic effect.

Gunpowder is somewhat less flammable than gasoline, and we don’t worry about people storing gasoline in their garage. Ten gallons of gasoline is equivalent to 70 pounds of gun powder, which is enough for 100,000 rounds of 9mm or .45 ammunition.
It’s sad that all that ammunition went to waste, not to mention the damage to vehicles and the house. But when you consider the millions of reloaders in the United States, this sort of accident is extremely rare. This is the first one I have heard of in 50 years. Yes, I have been reloading that long.
©2016 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.
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  1. Ouch. Not that I’ve been reloading anywhere near that long, but I’ve never even heard of “a guy that a cousin of a friend knows” having anything near that catastrophic happen. I would be very interested to know what happened that caused it.

    Some sort of fire/spark and the can of powder/powder measure might be a good guess. Having lit off a pound of questionable powder (for science, not while drinking), it does produce a very bright, intense, short-lived fireball.

    Interesting trivia: The older reloading manuals (60s) caution against smoking only while working with powder or primers. The modern ones caution against eating or smoking during all phases, so at some point they must have gotten as concerned about lead/nasty chemical exposure as explosions!

    While the data is suspect, I find those old manuals really interesting to read, and see how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same!

    • If you are still using the same components, those ‘old’ manuals are just as good now as they were when published. I’ve used the same AA load for 30 years, and that load was probably published 45 years ago

      • You’re absolutely correct. I’m not suggesting that all of those loads are ‘bad’ by any means, but there are some in there that make me cringe compared to modern data. Whenever I open my mouth about old manuals being cool, I always throw that disclaimer in out of habit. Because the last thing I want is for someone to break something by starting with the max load from 1960. I’m more interested in reading the article by Jack O’Conner in Speer #6 than using the data. (Just reading it for the articles, not the pictures. Honest, mom!)

        And, I’m speaking strictly from a pistol/rifle standpoint, and I know next to nothing about how/if shotgun reloading data has changed.

        I’ve read a lot about the differences in data being from the powder burn rates changing (just slightly) over time, but also the testing being more accurate. And lawyers.

        That being said, I loaded up some .45 ACPs and .45 Colts with some ~1965 vintage Red Dot (in the 8oz metal can, and so old that the red dots were barely red.) At least the .45 ACPs were dead on where the modern manuals said they should be, but that particular .45 Colt always seems to shoot fast.

      • “Because the last thing I want is for someone to break something by starting with the max load from 1960.”

        No one should be starting with any max load … from any manual from any era. That’s just extremely poor loading practice.

  2. Guess who’s wife will never let him reload again. Bummer deal. You have to have a high level of precaution. But yes, this is very rare and isolated. Five bucks says he was basically asking for it in some way. If it burned him directly he was playing with matches in the grain silo.

    • “If it burned him directly he was playing with matches in the grain silo.”

      Not necessarily. He may have gotten burned in an attempt to put the fire out.

    • ALL residential fires are human caused. And I can’t think of one I’ve been to where the caused by too much smart.

      Actually, storage of gasoline IS addressed in most Fire Codes (and don’t put your damn grill 6″ from your house).

  3. E X C E L L E N T article !!!

    Thank you! VERY much appreciate the SAMMI link. True TTAG to the core.

    Keep up the great work!
    no sarc

  4. Sounds like mortgage lightning!

    There goes the $200,000 bench with living quarters(and cars ouch!)

    I wonder about using ammo cans? would that cause a problem?

    • My friend Randall came over. ‘Randall the candle’…

      Ammo cans would only slow the burning/detonation of the ammo. As noted in the article, unless the primer is smacked, it just kinda gets warm and then burns. It’ll spit the projectile eventually, but with with the expanded gas going everywhere (including a very swollen case), it has very little energy to impart to an unguided bullet.

      The easiest analogy that comes to mind is a spitwad out of your mouth v. using a pen. You *might* make 10 feet with no energy out of your mouth. Out of an gutless BIC? Much different.

      • Sounds like a good one for mythbusters. Seems like the pressure trapped inside of a fairly strong metal can, kinda of like those things you screw together with powder inside that really go boom!

        I store ALL my ammo in .50 cal sealed cans and stack up the wall. Marked on the front/sides with what’s in it. Makes inventory much easier. Also if you have to leave, it’s very easy to grab cans with handles on them.

        • James69,

          It’s really not that complicated as it’s already happened thousands of times. Your ammo, being in a can, acts as an insulator. It will eventually do what uninsulated ammo will do- pop off. Just now it will do it inside a metal can. Still no danger. If anything, even less.

          Despite it all, in relative terms, fire just gradually warms a round till they burn off. It’s no danger unless you are holding the round in question directly to your head. And even then, it’s a pop-gun projectile.

        • “I store ALL my ammo in .50 cal sealed cans and stack up the wall.”

          As someone who has had a house fire, I strongly suggest *not* stacking it up, but kept as low as possible. In the sealed cans is a good idea.

          That goes for *anything* on the more flammable side.

          Trust me, you *really* don’t want to have to deal with the aftermath of a house fire…

        • “Sounds like a good one for mythbusters.”

          Why do we need mythbusters for known, settled matters? Of course, they DID make a whole show of doing just that, I guess.

        • By the time an ammo can is hot enough for rounds to be popping off inside it, I’d wager that the rubber seal will have burned or melted, or the can will be distorted from the heat, and wouldn’t hold any pressure.

        • Mythbusters already did an episode that included heating up live rounds. They used a oven, an unconfined round didn’t or barely dented the inside wall. A round in a gun that was heated functioned normaly and penetrated the back wall of the oven. Hatcher heated a round using a soldering iron with a cardboard box over it. When it cooked off it didn’t even penetrate the side of the box

        • James69,

          As Bob mentioned above, Mythbusters already devoted an episode to ammunition cooking off. Loose rounds are a total non-event: the relatively heavy bullet goes almost nowhere and the relatively light brass casing flies away at maybe 50 feet per second. Neither the bullet nor casing have enough oomph to cause any harm to a human … other than striking them directly in their eyes.

  5. I’ve been reloading since I was 11, and would very often go to my grandpa’s basement… Alone… And proceed to load a case or two of Win AAs trap loads. Hell, it wouldn’t be uncommon for us to have 15-16 lbs. of powder at any time, with usually an 8lb keg of red dot always available.

    I too have ‘disposed’ of unmarked powder in the back yard for safety sake (last thing you want near a loading bench is powder you don’t know the origins). Like the previous poster, gunpowder burned uncontained is a lot of flash, some heat, no bang. That’s why powder containers are either soft plastic or cardboard…. So the container will fail quickly.

    Given my experience and the extent of his injuries… I think there is more to this story than just a reloading accident.

  6. I’ve also been reloading for a few decades. I’ve never heard of this.

    And as far as getting rid of questionable powder? Try sprinkling it on needy parts of the lawn. It works pretty good as a fertilizer.

  7. “When not strongly and tightly confined, smokeless propellant powders burn relatively slowly and do not explode as we know they do when fired in a gun.”

    This is disappointing from the SAAMI manual, because it is completely wrong. And they should very well know better.

    Powder burns. It has a “burn rate”, and the different powders in different sizes are testament to that simple fact. It is not an explosive. It is a propellant, by virtue of it’s slow burn rate. (I know, C4 has a “burn rate” in FPS, but it’s a frakkin’ explosive…)

    In a book that is wholly defined by powder charges, the size of those grains, and how they burn, it’s actually rather embarrassing for them to use this kind of half-assed terminology.

  8. I wonder if a primer didn’t pop after the powder charge was added. I would think at least theoretically that could have caused the fire if hot burning powder hit carpeting or something else flamable?

    • I’m not a reloaded, but from what I’ve seen on just that, a cartridge with no bullet, the powder charge seems to just get pushed out and not ignite.

  9. I’m not a professional re loader…but i play one on TV and when I do i were safety glasses. i have a fire extinguisher on hand . and i sure as hell don’t drink or smoke when I’m reloading…on TV

  10. Don’t anneal your brass where you reload.

    Do your priming sessions with small batches of primers away from open powder.

    Keep your powder stored away from your annealing area.

    Don’t leave powder laying around. Seal it up and return it to storage the moment it is not needed.

  11. Did they use a vacuum cleaner to collect spilled powder?

    Many reloading manuals advise NOT to do this.

  12. While in the army, we had three guys that put a 308 round on an electric stove to watch it “melt.” When it reached the right temp the case exploded, sending a tiny piece of the case almost completely through one guy’s wrist. Of course they were standing within two feet with no protective clothing. Another person I knew dropped or threw a .22 in a campfire and was struck in the chest with a piece of the casing. It went just under the skin. While the projectile is not dangerous, the case can be like a mini hand grenade if you are close enough.

  13. Here’s a hint to consider. Check into a single sprinkler head above your reloading area. Not that expensive give the risk. NFPA 13R Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems in Low-Rise Residential Occupancies. Typically is connected to your normal potable water system often with CPVC flexible plastic pipe (similar to PEX).

    2nd best idea is to extend it to the kitchen. Pretty sure more women burn the house down with their kitchen malfeasance than anyone at the reloading bench.

    • neiowa,

      I really like your idea of a single sprinkler head above your reloading bench. It would cost next to nothing to install if your reloading bench is in an unfinished part of your home … and moderately more in a finished area depending on the particulars of your home.

      At the very least, reloaders should keep two fire extinguishers next to them on their reloading bench. Just note that those two fire extinguishers would be rather useless if your powder suddenly flashed and burned your eyes … which is why it would be really smart to wear laboratory goggles while working with powder/propellant.

      Note: I suggest two fire extinguishers for redundancy (in case one of your fire extinguishers fails) and for added fire suppression capacity.

    • ” Pretty sure more women burn the house down with their kitchen malfeasance than anyone at the reloading bench.”

      The #1 way for your house to burn is accumulated lint or other failure in your clothes dryer.

      That’s what caused mine.

      Free Fire Prevention Tip:

      Get rid of the plastic accordion dryer vent hose and replace it with a corrugated metal one…

  14. Here’s a video of cooking a .45ACP round in a cheap pot with the lid wired on. May pop the primer out, and rupture the case. I could see the primer having a bit of ZING to it.

  15. the aptly nicknamed “sparky” of buffalo rock shooting range infamy had two powder fires from reloading dust. the first killed one offspring, the second killed him and another child. his daughter still runs the place. ottawa illinois, near starved rock state park. has it been thirty years?

  16. I have never heard anyone talk about static electricity considerations with respect to reloading. This could be a huge danger to just about anyone just about anywhere during Winter when relative humidity levels in our homes can easily be less than 15%. Of course the relative humidity in Arizona could be less than 15% just about any month of the year (outside of monsoon season anyway).

    It wouldn’t take much more than wiggling around in a leather, vinyl, nylon, or plastic chair to develop a significant charge on the reloader’s body. Then they reach out for the metal handle of the press (especially if it is clamped to a metal workbench) and ZAP … which would immediately ignite powder.

    Do reloading manuals direct people to mitigate static electricity? Do reloaders use static electricity dissipating floor mats and bench top mats? Do reloaders use static electricity dissipating wrist bands? At the very least, I would use a static dissipation mat on the bench top and a static dissipation wrist band.

    Note: static electricity mitigation requires conductive and grounded shelves/cabinets and work surfaces … and a way to dissipate static electricity from the reloader (e.g. static dissipating wrist bands attached to ground).

    • Clarification:

      Reaching for a reloading press handle and having a static electricity spark jump from your hand to the handle should not cause a brass casing with powder somewhere on the press or bench to ignite. I am referring to any operation where you reach for an open metallic container (which contains powder and could be a measuring tray or brass casing) and have a spark jump from your hand to that open container near the powder.

      I don’t think this is easy to do … as evidenced by the fact that we never seem to hear about fires in connection with reloading. Nevertheless it is possible if conditions are right. Take appropriate precautions when handling powder.

  17. The lesson from this is that you shouldn’t reload and cook meth at the same time.

    Seriously, something is not adding up here.

  18. Store your powder in a fire-proof/resistant box (as in, old refrigerator if you can’t afford a fire-proof safety cabinet.)

    NEVER have more than one can of powder (the one you are using NOW) on your reloading bench at any one time.

    Always empty your powder dispenser back into the original can at the end of each reloading session, even if you intend to start again tomorrow.

    Return can to storage.

    Do not smoke while using any flammable substance, (Duh)

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