I have a moderate curiosity about explosives. I understand the chemistry behind most of them, have worked with a few different types, and I give them the respect they deserve. Like fire and electricity, explosives have a purpose and are safe when used properly. Unlike fire or electricity, explosives have a much longer shelf-life.
I spent the last year of my active duty Army time at the joint-services EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) school, putting special weapons training devices back together after the students had torn them apart. I got to see a lot of bombs, mines, shells, grenades, etc. (henceforth ordnance) that were displayed in combination classroom-museums, and I was impressed by how ingenious humans are when it comes to finding ways to kill each other.
Several of the displays were of ordnance that had been found long after the battles were over. They were still deadly, even though they were decades old and covered in rust. When a piece of ordnance doesn't go “boom” when it should, it can hang around for decades just waiting for the right (or wrong) activity to set it off. Welcome to the world of the UXO (UneXploded Ordnance).
Most preppers make plans for extreme weather, zombies, accidents, and other natural or man-made disaster, but a random piece of UXO can ruin your day just as badly. The scary part is that UXO can be found just about anywhere; you'd expect to find old bombs and such around battlefields and war zones (Germany logs at least one UXO every week), but wartime plane crashes and various live-fire exercises over the years have scattered UXO all over the continental US. Tides and ocean currents bring them to our beaches, fishing vessels drag them up from the bottom of the sea quite often, and the many “souvenirs” brought back by military servicemen over the last two centuries means that UXO can be literally anywhere.
One of the odd links in my bookmarks file that has been there for about 20 years is UXOinfo.com. Sponsored by a private ordnance removal company, the webpage is a place for collecting and storing news about UXO around the world. I find it aggravating that they often don't provide links to their sources, forcing me to do my own research to get more information, but it is an eye-opening site. People run across old (and new) ordnance just about everywhere. Construction workers and hikers seem to find them quite often, but UXO have shown up at Goodwill stores and garage sales. Look through their picture galleries for some interesting (and scary) photos.
But besides military ordnance, it used to be legal (and simple) to purchase blasting caps and explosives for agricultural and personal use. Beavers damming up the stream again? A couple sticks of 60% dynamite will take care of the dam. Need to clear out a silted-in drainage ditch? A string of single sticks laid down the center will move the dirt quick. Boulder in the middle of a field too big to move and you're tired of farming around it? Blast it into manageable pieces.
As a result of this old, pre-terrorism era practice, boxes of blasting caps and dynamite are still sitting around in barns and sheds all over the country. I have seen, first-hand, a partial box of DuPont dynamite in a shed during an estate auction. The old man who owned it had passed away and nobody knew how old it was. Since this happened many years ago, the locals just called the Sheriff, who came and made sure it was disposed of safely. Today, the BATFE, FBI, and DHS would want to investigate everyone within 5 miles of the site for links to terrorism.
Dynamite is quirky: since it is made by absorbing liquid nitroglycerin into clay or some other absorbent material, it has to be rotated every month or two it is in storage because the liquid likes to settle to the bottom of the sticks and may seep or leak out (called “sweating”). Handling nitroglycerin with bare hands will have the same effect as a heart patient popping a “Nitro” tablet under his tongue- increased heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and a throbbing headache.
Last but not least are the intentionally placed explosives, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). that have become one of the favorite weapons of terrorists around the world. Usually constructed from artillery shells or home-made explosives, they are often disguised as common debris or objects to avoid detection. Booby traps are another form of placed UXO; if you notice wires coming out of that teddy bear by the side of the road, it would probably be best to give it a wide berth.
The Three Rs
What do you do if you run across a piece of UXO? Follow these three Rs (stolen from a .mil website):
Have a basic understanding of what explosives look like and realize when you might be looking at one; if you see a cylinder with the ends closed and fins (or the remains of fins) on the tail, it's probably a bomb.
The moron who found a M18A1 Claymore mine while clearing a field in Florida and took it to a veteran buddy is a good example of what not to do.
Don't touch it, move it or poke it, just get away from it! You may want to hang a piece of cloth in a nearby tree or mark the location so the EOD team can find it easier, but don't mess with the UXO itself. 500 yards is usually considered a safe distance, unless you run into a large pile; a mile or two is best if you find something like they did in Germany in 2014.
Call 911 as soon as possible and let the experts handle it. Small items may be carried away in a “bomb bucket”, but larger pieces will likely be blown up in place., which can be fun to watch... from a safe distance.
I realize that this is probably more nightmare fuel for some folks. There are enough bad things going on in the world that I hate to add to the list of reasons to worry, but this belongs on that list. Without specialized training and tools, there just isn't much you can do about UXO except get away from it.