Exploding targets are popular at gun ranges, but not with federal law enforcement authorities who say the unregulated product not only has caused devastating forest fires but can also be a cheap source of bomb-making materials for extremists.
Selling for as little as $5 and packaged under names such as Shockwave, Sureshot, White Lightning, Zombie Boom, Blue Thunder and the original brand, Tannerite, the targets, or ETs, include an oxidizer -- usually ammonium nitrate, and a fuel, typically aluminum flakes. The compounds are sold separated and remain inert until they are mixed. Once made volatile, they create an explosion that the U.S. Forest Service says can ignite vegetation.
"In the past year alone, at least 16 wildfires on national forests have been associated with exploding targets, causing millions of dollars in suppression costs while threatening the safety and well-being of surrounding communities," said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
An order issued Monday by the agency bans the targets in forests and grasslands in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Violators could face a fine of up to $5,000 and be sent prison for up to six months. But perhaps just as worrisome as the potential for starting fires is the targets' potential for yielding bomb-making ingredients.
“…the FBI has identified multiple incidents where criminals and extremists have explored the possibility of employing the binary explosive mixture obtained from ETs as a means to commit criminal and terrorist acts,” stated a report released earlier this year by the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center.
“The FBI considers its review of multiple incidents involving ETs is sufficient to make high confidence judgments about the potential risk posed by ETs in the United States.”
- FBI report released earlier this year
Because the active ingredients of the products, technically called binary exploding targets, come in pre-measured, separate jars, they are not classified as an explosive by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and can be sold without restriction. Once mixed, someone must have a federal explosives permit to transport them, but sportsmen generally mix them onsite before using them as targets.
The FBI report went on to state that the product “can be combined with other materials to manufacture explosives for use in improvised explosive devices [IEDs].” Although IEDs have been used to kill troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, the report focused on the potential danger exploding targets pose in the U.S.
“The FBI considers its review of multiple incidents involving ETs is sufficient to make high confidence judgments about the potential risk posed by ETs in the United States,” the report stated.
Military officials told FoxNews.com it is unlikely extremists in Afghanistan use these products for IEDs.
“Our Technical Support Center has found no reports of IEDs specifically identifying "Tannerite" in Iraq or Afghanistan,” according to Gideon Rogers, spokesman for the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
However, a civilian police bomb technician contractor who was responsible for evaluating and reassembling IEDs from Afghanistan in 2007 tells FoxNews.com he came across a bottle of Tannerite in a box of IED components from the war zone.
"I was confused as to why it was in a box with IED components and how people got hold of it to use against our troops," said the contractor, who declined to be identified because of the classified nature of the project he was involved in. "I know what I saw because I took the Tannerite out of the box myself."
Rogers acknowledged that tens of thousands of IEDs have been detonated in the two war zones over the last decade, and that only about 3 percent of the reports filed on them identify particular substances. The rest simply list “unknown bulk explosives.”
Daniel Tanner, inventor and CEO of Tannerite, vehemently denied the possibility of his product being used for enemy IEDs
"If this is the case, it is the first I have heard of it," Tanner said, questioning the accuracy of the actual discovery. “There are so many people who copy our product who knows what he saw.”
Tanner’s product is so well-known that the company name is often used to describe imitators’ products. He tells FoxNews.com he has been fighting constant court battles for patent infringement and advocating his product’s safety for years.
Tanner said when used in the recommended quantity of 8 ounces, Tannerite is not dangerous and merely emits a flash and a puff of vapor, signaling to the shooter that the target was struck. Tanner has even stood near a target as it was hit to demonstrate the safety of his product.
But exploding targets are not always used in recommended quantities. Dozens of YouTube videos show shooters hitting washing machines and even cars packed with as much as 50 pounds of the material, causing violent explosions that send shrapnel hurtling outward.
This explosive potential has already drawn some in the U.S. to use it for criminal or domestic terrorist purposes. The FBI report cites cases such as a Missouri man who threatened to blow himself up in his mayor’s driveway using an IED containing 20 pounds of material harvested from exploding targets in December 2011.
In 2007, in preparation for a standoff with federal officials pending an arrest on outstanding charges, individuals associated with an alleged militia group in New Hampshire hung containers of exploding targets around the perimeter of their property, which could be detonated via impact from a high-caliber rifle. Two .50 caliber rifles, numerous other firearms, and 30 pipe bombs were discovered in the compound.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., proposed the Explosive Materials Background Check to address the sale of black and smokeless gunpowder.
Currently, an individual can purchase up to 50 pounds of black powder without a background check and unlimited quantities of smokeless and black powder substitutes, which binary targets essentially become after being mixed.
Supporters of binary exploding targets contend Lautenberg’s proposal specifically targets them.
“It’s no big deal. I don’t think it needs to be regulated,” said Pete McConnell, manager of the Stuckenhoff Shooters Complex in Casper, Wyo. “All it does is make a pop.”
But while Austin Benning, manager of the Sharpshooters Indoor Shooting Range and Gun Store in Corpus Christi, Texas, enjoys shooting at binary exploding targets, he said he is not averse to regulation.
“It’s awesome to take on the range, but there are definitely ways to make it unsafe,” said Benning. “When it comes to [exploding targets], I don’t think the background check and regulation by ATF is a bad idea.”