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Right now, on the shelves of almost every major sporting goods store in Arkansas, there is a product that goes by the brand name Tannerite. You've probably never heard of it. Most people haven't.
Tannerite is a binary high explosive, the best-selling brand of exploding rifle target in America. The legitimate use of the product is in small quantities as a shot indicator in long-range rifle shooting. A bang and a white puff of smoke shows that a bullet has hit the target, saving the shooter a walk to check. As seen in hundreds of videos online, however, exploding target compounds are being mixed in bulk quantities, used to create explosions that look more like IED blasts than target practice. A member of the Little Rock Fire Department bomb squad said exploding target compounds — some of which feature detonation energy that rivals TNT — are dangerous, and could easily be used to create a bomb.
As the name "binary explosive" suggests, exploding target kits consist of two components: ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder. Unmixed, both are inert and cannot explode. For that reason, as-purchased exploding targets aren't considered explosives in most states or by the federal government. Even when sold as a kit, they can be bought with few regulations, purchased online or shipped through the U.S. Mail.
Once the two components are mixed — an operation that's as easy as opening an envelope of dark powder and a canister of tiny white beads, then shaking them together in a supplied plastic jar — even a pound of Tannerite will explode with an amazing amount of force when subjected to a violent shock, such as a high-powered rifle shot or blasting cap. A minor impact such as a hammer blow, drop to concrete or even a lower-velocity round from a handgun will not set it off. A line in the warnings on the bright orange label of every Tannerite brand target notes that the moment you mix the two components, "you become the manufacturer of an explosive and assume any/all liabilities."
In bulk, Tannerite sells for around $8 a pound. It's available in bulk boxes of up to 10 pounds, though there's no restriction on how much you can buy at once. While not required by law to do so, most sporting goods stores require purchasers to be over 21 to purchase exploding targets. (When the reporter bought a Tannerite brand target at Gander Mountain in North Little Rock earlier this week, I was asked for a date of birth, but wasn't required to show a driver's license.)
A call to Tannerite Sports LLC, the Oregon company that makes Tannerite brand exploding rifle targets, was not returned at press time.
The evidence that exploding target compounds could be used for deadly purposes is incontrovertible. A search for the word "Tannerite" on YouTube returns 136,000 results, including videos of one massive detonation after another, footage of people demolishing trucks, mobile homes, old houses, barns and a herd of live feral pigs. Many are accomplished with less than $200 worth of the material. One video, called "30lbs of Tannerite vs 79 Ford Bronco" shows an explosion so powerful that it obliterates the SUV's steel body, throwing metal fragments hundreds of feet. In another video, called "FPS Russia almost dies," a young man shoots a pickup in which exploding target material has been placed and the resulting explosion bends the truck's frame into a U-shape, sending a huge piece of jagged steel — what appears to be the truck's mangled door — tumbling past the shooter with only inches to spare.
While imagining either of those trucks parked on a city street is enough to give any American nightmares, it's not all "What ifs." There have been several reported incidents involving detonations of large quantities of exploding target material, including a Minnesota man who was fined and sentenced to probation after detonating 100 pounds in a dump truck, creating an explosion so strong that it threw parts hundreds of feet in the air and triggered a lockdown at the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant almost five miles away. In May 2012 in Celina, Ohio, a woman's hand was severed after a friend shot a clothes dryer with exploding target material inside. In June 2013 a Minnesota man was killed at a bachelor party after shrapnel thrown by an exploding target placed in a steel container hit him in the abdomen.
The Federal Bureau of Land Management has banned exploding targets on its land, citing them as the cause of several wildfires that cost over $30 million to fight. The National Forest Service has since banned the targets on NFS land in the Rocky Mountain Region for the same reason. (A FAQ page on the Tannerite website says the product will not start fires and are "designed from conception to be non-incendiary.") In March 2013, the FBI sent out a bulletin to law enforcement agencies saying exploding target compounds "can be used as an explosive for illicit purposes by criminals and extremists," adding that as regulations on ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers increase, "motivated criminals and extremists seeking ammonium nitrate for illicit use will be more likely to seek alternative sources, such as [exploding targets]."
Pulaski County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Johnson said the prosecutor's office doesn't answer hypothetical questions, so he couldn't say on the record whether someone who set off a large-scale explosion using exploding target material in Pulaski County would be charged with a crime. He did, however, direct the reporter to the Arkansas state statute dealing with "Causing a Catastrophe," which says that both using explosives to cause a catastrophe and threatening to use explosives to cause a catastrophe are felonies.
Capt. Jason Weaver has been with the Little Rock Fire Department bomb squad for the past six years. He said exploding target materials like Tannerite are considered high explosives, and can easily be turned into a bomb.
"It's dangerous stuff," he said. "I look for the ATF to regulate it. I don't know why they haven't up to this point."
Weaver said that depending on the brand, an explosion can propagate through an exploding target compound at between 8,000 to 20,000 feet per second, meaning that shrapnel from any solid object immediately around the blast — what Weaver called "frag" — will also be moving at close to that speed initially. By contrast, Weaver said the blast from TNT moves at 22,000 to 24,000 feet per second, while most explosives used in earth moving clock in at 8,000 to 17,000 feet per second. Bullets fired by most high-powered rifles travel at around 3,000 feet per second. "It's up there with some military-grade explosives," Weaver said.
Asked if exploding target materials like Tannerite should be banned for sale to the general public, Weaver said that while the material does have a use in long-range target shooting, it should be regulated, and should include "taggants" that would allow investigators to learn when and where the material was manufactured if it was used in building a bomb.
"In my opinion," Weaver said, "it's susceptible to abuse. It most definitely could be easily transformed into an improvised explosive device, so I think it should be heavily regulated. I don't know if they should prohibit the sale, but I think it should be [sold] like they used to do old dynamite: You come in, show your I.D. and you have a certain quantity that you are allowed."
Weaver said that even if a person plans to use an exploding target compound as the manufacturer intended for legal target shooting, the easy availability can convince consumers that the product is much safer than it actually is.
"A lot of people think that because they sell it over the counter, that it's not that dangerous — that if they'll trust just a regular citizen, it can't be that stout," he said. "But everybody I've talked to who has used it is really impressed with the effects. They can't believe the power and the thump that it gives."