The Story Behind Ian’s Shrapnel Kaboom

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About 6 years ago, I had an accident at the range. We talked about it at the time, but didn’t say what the gun involved was, in order to keep the discussion focused on safety and first aid issues. Well, I think it’s been long enough now that there’s no reason to keep it obfuscated.

The rifle I was using was a reproduction 1860 Henry in .45 Colt. I loaded the magazine tube about half way to get a few shots on camera for b-roll, and just dropped the follower instead of gently lowering it down onto the top cartridge. When it hit the rounds in the tube, the top two detonated, spraying powder and some brass shrapnel out the open slot in the magazine tube. I got a bunch of powder sparkling up my face, but my shooting glasses protected me from any eye injury. One piece of cartridge case about a centimeter long hit me right about at the top of the sternum, and embedded itself in the flesh. We weren’t filming at the moment, so there is no video of this happening.

We had a first aid kit on hand, and knew how to use it. Fortunately, the injury was actually pretty minor, although we didn’t know that at the time. I was fully conscious and responsive, and I held pressure on a bandage over the injury while Karl drove us to the nearest hospital.

One hears unpleasant stories about hours-long waits in emergency rooms, but if you walk in with a trail of blood down your chest, someone tends to take a look at you right quick! After an x-ray and a CT scan, they determined that the shrapnel was not in a position to do any real damage, although it would cause more tissue damage to remove than to just leave it alone. So I got a couple stitches, and was sent on my way. It’s a small enough piece (and non-ferrous) that no, I don’t set off metal detectors. 🙂

While my experience here is simply a single anecdote, it does bring some significance to the periodic trials reports of tube-magazine detonations in trials or in service. The ammunition that exploded here on me had flush-seated primers, and flat-faced bullets. This was not a pointy bullet lined up with a proud primer. “Not only can malfunctions be stranger than we think, they can be stranger than we can think.” (Werner Heisenberg, probably)


  1. Detonation isn’t the correct term for what the two cartridges did. Detonation by definition means that there was a supersonic shock wave produced in the pyrotechnic material. I doubt that that happened here. A more correct wording would be that the propellant in the cartridges deflagrated causing a case case rupture in the magazine tube.

    • really? thats your response to him almost getting killed? what an ass you are. just a few inches up and he would be gone.
      thank god Ian

    • I have to agree with Semi-Smokeless.

      Detonation is a defined technical term in firearms propellants, to differentiate specific cases where the propellant does not deflagrate, but actually goes high-order and explodes vs. burning.

      Remember, the difference between a “propellant” and an “explosive” is solely down to the rate at which the conversion from solid to gas takes place; slow conversion, it’s a deflagration. If it’s fast? It’s an explosion.

      I think the more accurate way to describe this event would be to say that the follower hitting the cartridges actuated the primers, leading to the propellant doing its job.

      An actual “detonation” of propellant? Believe me, you’ll know. Seen it a couple of times, particularly with either over-aged or abused ammo that was left out in hot temperatures. When those things happen, the rate of transition from solid to gas rises sufficiently to spike pressure levels to comparatively insane heights, and you’ll actually see barrels and chambers torn apart by the pressure spikes.

      We speak of a primer “detonation”, but that’s not something we should extend out into the propellant when it properly burns at the prescribed rate. If a cartridge “detonates”, that means (in all my years of experience around ammunition and quality control of said ammunition) a specific malfunction related to propellant misbehaving in a specific way. Basically, instead of combusting or deflagrating, it’s bloody well exploded like TNT or any other high explosive.

      As a technical note: Explosives are categorized as “high” or “low” based on that rate of deflagration or “burn”. Propellants are considered “low explosives” and do not technically explode or detonate. They burn. Only high explosives burn or detonate fast enough to get the blastwave effects we make use of in things like shaped charges. As well, various types of explosives possess widely differing characteristics and capabilities; you can’t use ammonium nitrate by itself to cut steel, and RDX-based C4 is not your ideal cratering charge explosive; not enough gas volume produced at too high a rate of speed. Ammonium nitrate, on the other hand, is perfect when you’ve got a lot of soil you want to move.

      Low explosives only trip over the line into a high explosive rate of burn under unusual circumstances, and generally only if they’ve been rendered less than ideal for use as propellants…

    • semi smokeless is correct

      Deflagration and Detonation are both combustion reactions…

      but they’re very distinct in their natures.

      would it be pedantic or OCD to point out that whales and dolphins are not fish, even though all three live in water and look superficially similar?

      deflagration (what smokeless powder does) is combustion that proceeds by thermal conduction – a few centimetres/ inches per second.

      Detonation proceeds as a shock wave, at thousands of metres per second, infront of the detonation front, the material is undisturbed

      at and behind the front, is white hot plasma, at the same density as the solid that it replaces.

      The detonation front proceeds at the speed of sound of the original explosive materials/ or the speed of sound in the resulting plasma – whichever one is the faster…

      therefore something like PETN det cord which has a P wave (pressure wave) velocity of 400 to 1200 meters a second, can have a velocity of detonation of around 5,000 meters a second (about 3 miles a second)

      in the case of PETN, there’s probably a bit of addition to the velocity from infra red heating of material infront of the P wave front as well.

      that’s where nukes get really good. their velocity of detonation isn’t just thousands of metres a second, it’s approaching the speed of light.

      the “power” of an explosive (its rate of doing work) can be defined as its velocity of detonation

      in guns (and other internal combustion engines)

      deflagration provides a relatively smooth generation of hot gas

      by contrast, an actual detonation in contact with the steel wall of a gun barrel or magazine tube, would produce annular P waves, which would likely exceed the tensile strength of the barrel steel at its inner surface, and cause radial fractures

      when the p waves reach the outer surface of the barrel, they will reflect back as tensile waves

      if those tensile p waves are still above the tensile strength of the steel, they’ll cause annular fractures and spalling from the outside of the barrel.

  2. The quote comes from J.B.S. Haldane, “The universe may not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose!”.
    Haldane, J.B.S. (1932) [1927]. Possible Worlds, and Other Essays (reprint ed.). London, UK: Chatto and Windus. ex wikipedia. One of the polymaths of the 20th Centuary.

  3. Perfect example that one can never be careful enough about handling firearms, even while loading them. I’m glad you walked away, Ian.

  4. At some point in your life that fragment may migrate to the surface. My father was on the wrong end of some 20mm FlaK in WW2 (as a kid) and some grenade amusements in the Congo in 1961, and he occasionally sprouted metal. His worst was a piece in his cheek that came out inside his mouth and was scraping on his teeth. Shrapnel is a totally different concept, perhaps you could do a video on that….and the Sandy Hook accident where it was conclusively proven to be not as effective as once thought. Glad you survived this one….don’t do it again!

  5. I really would never have thought that a flat nosed, soft lead bullet could set off a primer in this way, and yet it did. A lesson for us all.

    • One should never rely on the primers for safety; they’re primed with shock-sensitive compounds, and due to the vagaries of how they’re made, it’s entirely possible that your specific primer at precisely the wrong place and time might be a little more sensitive than its fellow primers because there was a glitch in the mixing systems for said primers. It used to be a lot more common, but even today, you get duds and ones that are super-sensitive.

      Friend of mine reloads a lot, like in the range of tens of thousands of rounds a year. He’s had more than a few actuate just in handling while he’s reloading, and that’s something that’ll get your heart rate up. I went over to BS with him one night, and he’s sitting there in his darkened living room two-fisting Jack Daniels after nearly blowing the back of his garage off the house… All he’d done was pour out the primers into the sorting tray for his Dillon progressive loader, and a couple of them actuated on him. Later found out there was a recall out for that lot number.

  6. This is not unusual as you might think. If you will check the (SASS) cowboy action shooting; they also warn people! with 1860 Henry reproductions about this problem!
    The problem they encountered was that the loading table was the partial culprit!
    On the SASS required loading table; The rifle was loaded with (eight or 10 rounds?) and placed down on the bench in the safe direction.
    When the competitor was scheduled to go and shoot the Scenario he pulled the rifle back off the bench; The follower extension caught the back edge of the bench & pulled it fully forward and released it detonating some rounds!
    no one was hurt!

  7. I would like to see if it is repeatable. Obviously in some kind of controlled apparatus of some kind. Be very interesting to get that on slo-mo.

  8. Well Well Ian so it has happened to you! Me TOO, Many years Back the American NRA (is there any other!) Back when membership was a shining badge of honour, thems was th day. well they had a survey that asked members if they had an “accidental discharge”?.Turned out MOST HAD HAD 3 !! The actual incident was deliberately left up to the person! seems a skilled marksman judged it to be a shot slightly before they meant t. Others like me an actual “accidental discharge” (….22 short stuck in chamber of a .22 Browning short self loader) I had unloader the tube mag & was to strip to check extraction. Hey it was kero lamp days. BUT muzzle was pointing safley! ..My Daddy taught me right!… always know where the gun is pointing & NEVER point it at ANYTHING you don’t intend to KILL. Could be worth looking up the survey it was excellent.

  9. Well, nothing is idiot-proof these days. At least it wasn’t someone else attempting a trigger-hand flick reload with a break-action shotgun with a finger still on the trigger.

  10. Years ago in my club(in north Wales) a member had the same accident with the Henry in 45. Part of the magazine tube opened out like a gutted fish. I had always wondred how they machined the barrel and mag tube in one piece. It was at the local gunsmiths that I found out that the magszine and barrel proper were manufactured seperatly.

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