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05/30/2005 Archived Entry: "Range Report: Incendiary ammo and propane tanks"


Blogispondent Ian here again. A few years ago, I was poking around a cartridge collector's show and found a fair amount of 1943 dated .303 British incendiary ammounition. I bought up all I could, as I had an Enfield that I enjoyed shooting. Unfortunately, I never had an opportunity to try it out, as I was always worried about lighting a shooting range on fire. Even so, I wasn't entirely sure if the bullets would even still function as intended - they are 60+ years old, after all.

Anyway, I finally got the chance to try the stuff out the other day. To make things even better, I got a handful of small 1-liter propane tanks (intended for torches, heaters, and the like) to use as targets.

I wanted primarily to find out if the bullets would still ignite, so I started off with a control experiment. I used a normal .308 FMJ on one of the tanks, figuring that if that didn't ignite the propane but the incendiary did, it would confirm that my ammo was good. Well, the .308 didn't ignite the tank, though the pressure escaping when I shot it sent it flying quite a ways.

Next I pulled out the Enfield, and proceeded to blast two more tanks with the incendiary ammo. Neither of them produced the spectacular fireballs I was hoping to see, but the people shooting with me confirmed that both rounds produced definite visible flashes from the bullets igniting. Even having accomplished my initial goal (testing the ammo), I was still feeling let down by the lack of fireworks. So I decided to return to the range after dark with a photographer friend and play around a bit more.

This time, we took a couple full propane tanks, one empty propane tank, and some gasoline (hehehe...). First, I shot a full tank with another round of the indeniary ammo, to see if it produced a visible flash at night.

My first shot failed to ignite the tank because, well, I missed. I was 50 yards away (I wanted to see a fireball, not be part of one), and had a friend illuminating the tank with my Surefire. Anyway, the miss was useful, as we got a photo of the bullet detonating as it hit the backstop. Definitely no doubt that the ammo works as designed. By the way, all the photos shown here were very long exposures - the photographer got the camera focused, opened the shutter, told me "go," and left the shutter open until I fired (2-4 seconds).

Anyway, when I did hit the tank, it was a bit cooler than in the daylight. there was definitely some flash from the propane, but it appeared that the liquid state of the propane prevented it from really igniting. Here's a photo of the result - note the bullet hole in the tank, the small amount of burning propane, and the bullet impacting the berm after being deflected by going through the tank.

Next, I wanted to try igniting gasoline, to see if it would give me that elusive fireball. So, I shot a hole in the empty tank with my .45, sealed the exit hole with some duct tape, poured about 1/4 cup of gas into the tank, and then sealed the entry hole with more duct tape. The theory was that the bullet would be ignited by the impact with the metal tank, and then the gasoline vapor inside would ignite, releasing an earth-shattering kaboom.

Alas, I got no such result. The first step worked as planned - the bullet did ignite upon hitting the tank, but the only result was that the gas-soaked duct tape on the back side caught fire and burned for a short time. Take a look. Sigh.

With things remaining disappointingly unspectacular, my photographer friend suggested another plan. When inspecting the burning gasoline, we had noticed that some of the gas spilled on the ground burned for quite a while, but stayed in a small area. So...if we poured some gas in a puddle about 6 inches behind a full propane tank and lit it, the fire wouldn't affect the tank, but it would be in the right place to ignite the liquid or gaseous propane blasting out of the tank behind a bullet. Same principle as circus fire-breathers, or drunken frat boys.

So we set it up, lit the gas, and ran back to the rifle and camera. I hunkered down behind the sights, squeezed off a round, and...!

The blast of propane blew out the fire. Hrmph. It was supposed work the other way around, dammit.

We did got forward to inspect the results, and the gas puddle lit back up easy with a lighter. At that point we were out of ideas and it was getting late, so we threw in the towel.

Overall, I must say that the most impressive part of the whole experiment was the flight of the third tank (shot in the daylight). I hit near the top of it, and it proceeded to come whizzing up in the air and back towards me, landing only about 20 feet away (it was 50 yards away when I shot it). Yikes!

If anyone else shoots an Enfield, this ammo might be something to keep an eye out for. The headstamp is SR 43 BVIIZ (the B designates incendiary), and the bullet tips are painted blue. For a detailed listing of the types of .303 British ammo made throughout the world, I would suggest this Carpetbagger Aviation Museum page.

In practical terms, the ammo performed very well - as evidenced by the gasoline, it lit things on fire without much trouble, as long as the things in question were flammable. How much more effective it is than tracers, I can't say (I'll try those out sometime). My disappointment was due to overblown expectations (damn you, Hollywood!).

Posted by Ian @ 05:53 PM CST

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