Are explosives really as unreliable as they appear in the media?
February 9, 2011 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I've been watching a lot of Mythbusters. Why are their explosives unreliable?

One of the most surprising things on Mythbusters is how unreliable their explosive devices are. Despite the best efforts of the police/FBI explosives experts, it seems that there's a pretty high frequency of detonation failures. I could always explain that away as its trail and error with the unique setups that they're forced to have to test out the myths.

Then this FPP linked to an Atlantic article about a grenade that didn't detonate in an assassination attempt. I understand that the setup on Mythbusters explosives is pretty unique, but isn't the military interested in quality control for their munitions?

I also read an article about professional demolitions companies and they talk about how absolutely crappy it is to have a demolition charge not go off correctly, because then you've got to hope that it doesn't explode while you're deactivating it.

I have absolutely no expertise in the matter beyond playing with bottle rockets as a kid, so I'm wondering if explosives in general are really that unreliable, their use is way more complex than I imagine, or if my perception is because of journalistic flourishes.
posted by burnfirewalls to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Two comments:

1) I don't recall that many Mythbusters explosives not working. Are there specific episodes that you're referring to?

2) They don't use military-grade explosives, as far as I'm aware (at least not as a matter of course). They more often use explosives accessible to normal consumers (again, for the most part).
posted by dfriedman at 2:45 PM on February 9, 2011

It adds drama to the show.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:49 PM on February 9, 2011

I imagine it's a little bit of confirmation bias - you're much more likely to hear about explosives that were supposed to go off, but didn't, than you are to hear about routine everyday explosives that did exactly what they were supposed to.

In half a decade working in proximity to TV/film special effects teams (though I haven't worked on a lot of huge explosion-filled action movies or anything), I haven't heard too many gripes about how explosives just NEVER work. And if there's one thing we film people love to bitch about, it's about how somebody else's department is holding up the works because their team didn't do X like they were supposed to. The one time I have had to do a pyro effect myself on set, everything went according to plan on the first try.
posted by Sara C. at 3:00 PM on February 9, 2011

With any luck, asavage himself will come along to provide and answer.

I'm also in the camp of not remembering *that* many that turned out to be duds - mostly I remember episodes where things go KABOOM.

In a lot of cases, I seem to recall that they make their explosives themselves, though with oversight from professionals (bomb squad guys etc.). Sometimes the explosions is not as large as expected, but I can't think of many where it failed to go off altogether.
posted by rtha at 3:36 PM on February 9, 2011

Also, iirc, for the Mythbusters it's the detonator that fails and not the actual explosive. The blackpowder or C4 itself has never failed to go boom ;)
posted by jpeacock at 3:39 PM on February 9, 2011

I would imagine that because the military (and other frequent users of explosives) use known, controlled and pre-packaged configurations such as bullets, mines, and bombs, the results are much more reliable. When they purchase these devices that contain explosives, the manufacturer has to meet certain reliability requirements. These reliability requirements can be met because the package or configuration is well defined and repeatable.

Mythbusters, on the other hand, depend on one-off setups where they have to figure out how to prepare the charge, detonator, quantity, etc. to get the desired result. Although they have experts helping, since it is not a controlled configuration (and is frequently prepared in less-than-ideal settings) it can't be as reliable as something the military buys and uses.
posted by Simon Barclay at 4:51 PM on February 9, 2011

The first thing that popped into my mind was "further disincentive for viewers to try it at home."
posted by germdisco at 11:20 PM on February 9, 2011

I don't think it's the explosives not exploding, or the detonators not detonating, so much as it is the command and control aspect -- the wires not connecting and transmitting the signal.

There are, if you look, a fair number of examples of professional demolition contractors failing to topple their structures in exactly the way planned -- occasionally catastrophically. It's art as much as science. You need to make all the connections, keep them working, and have them all go off in the order intended.

With Mythbusters, you're looking at basically a new demolition setup every time. It isn't that surprising that sometimes there are a few glitches. The key to this isn't getting it all to work exactly right every time, though, it's getting it to work safely, when people are not nearby.
posted by dhartung at 12:27 AM on February 10, 2011

Are you sure it's the explosives not working? There are a lot of duds along the way - because they're testing the myth that dog urine combines with some other chemical (the one where the guy's feet gets stuck in the overloaded washing machine). The other one that comes to mind is the cigarette dropped in the toilet; that didn't work according to the myth because it couldn't get ignition

Those duds prove the related myths false - not the best TV perhaps, but you're not talking about the explosives acquired or used by the professionals.
posted by chrisinseoul at 5:56 AM on February 10, 2011

I've watched pretty much every episode of this show and I have to agree with the others that I don't recall that many times where a prefab explosive device (i.e. PETN, blasting cap, det cord) failed, but numerous examples where improvised explosives (particularly anything involving stoichiometric gas combinations) or improvised detonators have gone wrong.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:23 AM on February 10, 2011

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