As a frequent reader of SurvivalBlog I saw your recent request for articles on the farm and ranch use of explosives.
My story may resonate with many of your readers in that I used dynamite for the projects mentioned here although I had no previous experience with explosives. These episodes occurred many years ago and though the legality issues (permitting, purchasing, etc.) may have changed the techniques of actually using dynamite are still applicable.
Before getting into the heart of the matter I offer the following summary points:
1. I am not offering advice on the use of explosives.. I am relating my experiences in the use of dynamite as an inexperienced user.
2. Dynamite is a useful tool.
3. Dynamite can be used by inexperienced persons who make the effort to learn how to safely do so.
I had no experience using dynamite when I chose a ditching project. There seemed to be no practical way to put the 100 yard ditch where I wanted it. In discussions with others about my problem someone suggested dynamite. The suggestion was partially in jest but on reflection I took it seriously. I bought a copy of the Dupont Blaster’s Handbook. I studied it and the more I did the more I became convinced that I could use dynamite for my ditching project.
After carefully studying the handbook I decided that I could blast the ditch through the low swamp where I needed it. Having made that decision the next step was to procure the dynamite. By looking up “Explosives” in the Yellow Pages” of a nearby large city (This was before an Internet), I found a vendor. This vendor was most helpful. Most importantly he told me that I would have to secure a permit for the purchase and use of the dynamite and furthermore he told me where to go to get the permit from the proper government agency. We discussed my inexperience and he took time to discuss the proper use and equipment I would need to complete my project. When I went to his facility to purchase the dynamite he also provided information on the accessories (blasting caps, fuse, crimping tool, etc.) I would need.
Once I had all the material accumulated I began practicing how to use it. First I practiced lighting the fuse. This is not nearly as simple as it appears in movies and TV. I must have lit a dozen or so pieces of short fuse before I developed a good technique as described in the handbook. I also burned and timed several various lengths of fuse to be sure that it’s burning rate was as specified. Next I learned how to crimp the fuse in the blasting cap. Again I followed the handbook instructions. The only way to know whether it has been done properly is to try it—light the fuse and see if the cap goes off.
Some Practice Capping
After I was satisfied that I could consistently fire blasting caps I began practicing inserting the cap into a stick of dynamite to make a primer charge. I used the non sparking alloy crimping tool and prepared the charge according to the handbook instructions. Up to this point I had not had a cap in close proximity of a stick of dynamite.
The next step was a big one, inserting a fused cap into a stick of dynamite and setting it off. I took a friend with me as a helper and we went to the area I intended to blast the ditch. I crimped a fuse in a cap, inserted it in the dynamite. With a pole I punched a hole about 12” deep in the soft ground. I placed the primed dynamite it the hole, covered it with dirt, tamping it lightly. I lit the fuse–I used a 90 second fuse–and ran.
I waited, 90 seconds is a long time when waiting for an explosion to go off, and—nothing. Three minutes—nothing. I had a misfire.
I reviewed what I should do from the handbook. I primed another stick and carefully carried it and placed it on top of the misfire. I lit the fuse and ran. 90 seconds later—BOOM! I had made my first dynamite explosion. The size and depth of the resulting hole indicated that both sticks had gone off. Now I could blast my ditch.
Regular dynamite is 40% nitroglycerin and 60% filler. It is stable and very safe. Ditching dynamite is 50% nitroglycerin. It is slightly less stable but is sensitive enough so that the explosion is propagated from one hole to another in the ditch by hydraulic shock. Therefore only one hole in the ditch needs to be primed.
From information in the handbook I had calculated that I would need two sticks of dynamite, one on top of the other, spaced every 18” apart. Since ditching dynamite in reasonable proximity will [sympathetically] propagate the explosion from one hole to the next by hydraulic shock I only needed to prime one hole in the string. This time I used a 120 second fuse. I lit it and ran for the high ground. Two minutes later there was an earth shaking BOOM and water, mud, debris sent flying 100’+ in the air. Before the smoke had cleared I ran back to see that I had blasted a beautiful ditch through a cypress swamp. In my excitement I violated a handbook rule. One hour later I had an excruciating headache from breathing the dynamite fumes.
I had otherwise followed the book. I had blasted a ditch just as I wanted in difficult terrain. I had done it safely except for the headache caused by not following the rules.
Some years later I was faced with the chore of removing a dozen or so stumps from a field. Again I determined that dynamite was the best tool for the job.
For the stumps I bought regular dynamite which is more stable and somewhat safer. I also bought electric blasting caps. These are less complicated and easier to use than fused caps.
Again on consulting the Dupont Blaster’s Handbook, I determined that the pine stumps would require two sticks of dynamite, one on opposite sides of the stump, buried at about the 2’ level below ground. I used an iron rod to probe around the stumps and find where I could push it down between roots. I would rod out a hole to the desired depth and then insert the primed stick in it. I would fill the hole with dirt, tamping it in. I repeated this on the other side of the stump. With the dynamite in place I wired the electric cap leads to a long extension wire which would safely reach my tractor battery. I would set off the charge by touching the wire to the battery terminals. The resulting explosion would usually cut the large pine tap root at the depth of the charge and lift the remaining upper portion of the stump out of the ground. Sometimes the stump would be thrown 12’-15’ in the air.
It was an easy job to then haul the stumps out of the field.
Burning Excess Dynamite
The last dynamite challenge I faced was the disposal of some which was left over from the stumping. I had about a case and half left over. I had overestimated how much I would need. I was not concerned thinking that I would find other use for it. Before I realized it a couple of years had gone by. And then a couple more. One day I looked at the old dynamite and was surprised at how much it had degenerated. The dynamite came packed in heavy plastic bags. The bag was inside a heavy corrugated box. I had stored the boxes in a wooden chest. On examination, the corrugated boxes were deteriorated. They looked wet as if with oil. The bottom of the chest looked the same way. I knew it was bad but I did not know what to do.
Not knowing where else to go, I called the Sheriff. He was reassuring and told me that he had used demolition experts from the nearby military instillation to dispose of explosives and that he could call them and ask them to get in touch with me. A couple of days later I got a call from an Officer. He said the Sheriff had asked him to call me. He said that although they had done so previously, their policy had changed and they could no longer dispose of explosives off base.
I was out of options. In desperation I asked him, “If you were going to dispose of the dynamite for me, how would you do it?” He knew what I needed. He didn’t tell me how to do it, he told me how he would do it. I followed his method.
I got the materials together. On a damp foggy morning, I put a bale of hay in the edge of the field. I wet down the rubber mat in the bed of my truck. I used these static electricity suppression measures in addition to the Officer’s description. Using gloves I carefully picked up the boxes containing the dynamite. They were so fragile that they would not have held up if the plastic bag had not been inside them. I put the boxes on the mat in the truck and drove them to the hay. I transferred the dynamite from the truck placing it on top of the hay. I poured almost 5 gallons of diesel fuel over the hay and dynamite and set it afire. I quickly got in my truck and drove away.
I was somewhat reassured in doing this as I had read in the handbook that dynamite could be disposed of by burning but I was concerned about the deteriorated state of these boxes. I did know what to expect.
From a safe distance I watched the fire. For a couple of minutes it burned as expected. Then the flames grew higher and began producing a heavy black smoke, not unlike rubber tires burning. This lasted for ten minutes or more and then the flames died down and went out.
I had burned 75 pounds of old rotten (leaking) dynamite.
I used dynamite to blast a ditch and remove stumps. I was able to safely dispose of old dynamite. My knowledge for doing so came from studying the Blaster’s Handbook and maybe 30 minutes discussion with the vendor and some 5 minutes with the demolition expert. The only part I consider risky was the disposal. I should not have let the dynamite get in that state before disposing of it.