Rifle kaboom—let's discuss a serious topic!
In the benchrest shooting community there have been two back-to-back rifle kaboom events in the past two week-ends, one at a shoot I just attended.
Luckily nobody was seriously injured. But these were potentially life-threatening events.
The names and details aren't relevant; this could happen to any experienced shooter.
I wanted to post this today as a cautionary reminder for all of us, to stay focused when handloading ammunition, and when behind the trigger.
Two obvious and not-so obvious errors leading to catastrophic rifle kaboom events
There are numerous ways of accidentally blowing up your firearm; however today I'll highlight two common errors:
- too hot a load
- obstructed barrel
The TOO HOT rifle kaboom
Scenario: Jack has a pet load where he uses a particular brand of slow burning powder. A normal load fills the cartridge almost to the top of the case neck.
With all safety measures in place, it would be difficult for Jack to double-load the case.
BUT one day Jack mistakenly picks up a jug of a fast burning pistol powder from his loading bench, and fills his powder measure with the wrong powder. He loads his cartridges with the same volume of powder meant only for a slow burning rifle powder.
Never load pistol powder into a rifle case. The safest practice is to have separate areas for loading handgun and rifle cartridges.
Rifle powders also have different burning rates. Never assume the load used with a slow burning powder is safe for a faster burning powder.
Always consult the manufacturer's recommended powder load before handloading ammunition.
If Jack doesn't catch his mistake and fires that load of fast burning powder in his rifle, it would cause catastrophic over-pressure inside the chamber—rifle kaboom.
The OBSTRUCTED BARREL rifle kaboom
Scenario: Jill is talking with friends while handloading and forgets to fill some cases with powder, seating the bullets on empty, primed cases (I know it sounds dumb, but it happens to the best of us).
At the range Jill shoots a cartridge and hears the primer ignite with a soft ‘pffft'. She ejects the the empty cartridge.
BUT the primer ignition is enough to push the bullet partway down the barrel.
Always check the rifle bore for obstructions, before inserting your bolt on first firing, and especially following an ammunition misfire or unusual event.
Never leave anything in the muzzle of the barrel, such as a cleaning rod or a bore-sighting device.
If Jill forgets to check that the bore is clear and chambers another round before removing the stuck bullet, the barrel obstruction would lead to catastrophic over-pressure inside the chamber—rifle kaboom.
What is 65,000 psi?
It's not a trick question—that's the normal pressure inside a benchrest rifle chamber when firing competition loads.
The rifle action and cartridge are designed to withstand this pressure:
- Precision machined locking lugs hold the bolt securely in place.
- Reinforced webbing at the head of the cartridge prevents separation of the brass case.
BUT if you cause an over-pressure condition, then the bolt, action or barrel could be damaged or blow apart (the rifle kaboom).
The brass cartridge is even more susceptible to normal work hardening and pressures.
Small—and preventable—mistakes can domino into a series of events leading to a tragedy. Whenever you’re uncertain, distracted, or catch yourself making errors, pay attention—or stop what you’re doing until you can ensure safety for yourself and those around you
Five Principles of Firearms Safety
If a case ruptures, it may be a sign of a defective case or a truly lethal chamber pressure.
—VihtaVuori Reloading Guide
Following is an excerpt from my upcoming book on precision rifle shooting. I thought today was an opportune time to publish the information.
This is ultimately a book about precision shooting, not a hunter safety course; thus to begin with the ubiquitous ten rules of firearms safety is nearly offensive for responsible gun owners. But I would be remiss not to include it—and not to put it first.
Most gun owners believe there are more than ten rules. In this chapter, I will discuss firearms safety in the context of five principles: control the muzzle, action, pressures, barriers and your behaviors.
I do this to outline safety basics, rather than list rules that might not cover all situations.
Control the muzzle.
This simple concept surpasses all rules. If you point the firearm in a safe direction, intentional or accidental discharge will not harm anyone.
This holds true when you carry a firearm. Control the muzzle direction and angle by using a safe “field carry” method such as a cradle or shoulder carry.
When shooting always make sure you have a safe backstop. Never shoot at a hard, flat surface such as a rock, solid dirt, or water, where the bullet might ricochet or bounce.
And always be sure of your target before you pull the trigger.
Control the action.
Treat every firearm with the respect due a loaded gun. Learn how to make your firearm safe: how to unload the magazine, unload and check the chamber, engage the safety, clear jams, examine the barrel, and disassemble the firearm.
In September 2011 at a hunting store in Ontario, Canada, a customer placed a firearm—a disassembled Mauser rifle in a case—on the counter in the repair shop. The rifle discharged, striking one man in the stomach and grazing the arm of another.
The customer had assumed the disassembled gun was safe.
On the controversial topic of gun control, we all appreciate the need to keep firearms out of the hands of those capable of doing harm to themselves or others, either accidentally or intentionally.
Make a firearm safe before leaving it unattended, and store guns and ammunition separately under lock and key. Follow all federal and local laws regarding firearms storage and transportation.
Up until now I’ve focused on safety at the front of the muzzle; however the sport can also be hazardous for the shooter behind the action. Failing to control pressures can seriously injure or kill.
The wrong type of powder or an improperly loaded cartridge can damage or destroy a firearm. A rise in temperature will also increase pressure.
Warning signs of over-pressure conditions include excessive effort to lift the bolt, case separation, or flattened, cratered or blown primers.
Here’s how the VihtaVuori Reloading Guide emphasizes the point:
- If even a single round shows signs of excessive pressure discontinue the use of the load—do not fire even a single additional cartridge.
- Be certain your ammunition will not result in excessive pressure when fired. If unsure, first seek advice from a gunsmith or knowledgeable shooter.
An obstructed barrel will cause a dangerous over-pressure condition. You must keep the barrel free of obstructions such as dirt, a cleaning patch, a bullet stuck in the lands, a bore-sighter, or a cleaning rod (or other short rod) used to remove a stuck bullet.
In September 2001 an experienced benchrest shooter used a cleaning rod to clear his bore. He was checking seating depths and a bullet was stuck in the chamber.
Something distracted him, and he forgot about the cleaning rod.
When he fired the next round the excessive pressure launched pieces of brass and the extractor back into his eye and brain. The rod was found 80 yards downrange.
In August 2008 another experienced benchrest shooter used a short rod to dislodge a stuck bullet, then forgot to remove the rod from the barrel. When he fired the next round, most of the energy (about 130,000 psi) with exploded brass blew down the raceway.
He has lost the use of an eye. In his words, “Don’t use anything in your barrel except very long rods with large well-marked handles that will stick out the end of the barrel.”
Always look down the bore whenever you come to the firing line, and after extracting a misfired cartridge or a stuck bullet. Make it a habit—it could save your life.
Control protective barriers.
Wear hearing and eye protection. Maintain the integrity of the brass cartridge; the first line of defense between you and the pressure inside the action (normally 65,000 psi.)
A case may separate if improperly loaded, with the risk of gas and powder directed back through the action’s raceways. Over-loading or improperly loading a cartridge, or shooting a load that is excessive for the temperature, can cause the case to rupture.
Ensure your load can’t impair the integrity of the brass case.
Safety rules are only effective when a shooter follows them. Practice safety in all aspects of firearms use.
Keep your fingers outside the trigger guard unless you’re on target. If the gun has a safety, engage it until ready to fire.
Carry only empty guns, taken down or with the action open or bolt removed.
When you’re away from the firing line and wish to check brass re-sizing, strip the bolt by removing the firing pin and show others the action is safe, and chamber only unloaded brass.
Other safety behaviors involve not smoking in the loading area, and not consuming alcohol before or during reloading or shooting.
Let's play safe.
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