Black and Smokeless Powders: Technologies for

Finding Bombs and the Bomb Maker

National Research Council

Public Briefing
October 8, 1998

Opening Statement

Edwin P. Przybylowicz

Senior Vice President and Director of Research (retired)
Eastman Kodak Co., Rochester, N.Y.
Chair, Committee on Smokeless and Black Powder

Good morning. I am pleased to be here to discuss the release of our new report.

Black and smokeless powders are widely used for sport and recreational purposes throughout the United States. In the retail market, the powders are sold primarily for reloading of ammunition and for use in muzzle-loading firearms. Large quantities are also used for military purposes, and smaller amounts for blasting during mining. In addition to these legitimate pursuits, black and smokeless powders can also be used to manufacture improvised explosive devices. These devices, often referred to as pipe bombs, are the type most commonly used in criminal bombings in the United States. Such devices were used in some of the Unabomber's mail bombs, at the Olympics in Atlanta, and in attacks against federal judges. 

Our committee was formed under a congressional mandate to study technologies for improving detection and identification of black and smokeless powders used in bombs. This committee followed another National Research Council committee that looked at strategies for limiting the threat due to bombs using high explosives, such as dynamite or plastic explosives. Unlike high explosives, black and smokeless powders are propellants and must be confined to create an explosion. The issues relating to high explosives are different from those of black and smokeless powders, and legislation mandated that the studies be conducted separately.

In the United States between 1992 and 1996, the number of reported actual and attempted bombings involving black and smokeless powders averaged about 650 per year. In these incidents, approximately 10 people were killed, 100 people were injured, and $1 million in property damage was reported annually. A significant number of those injured or killed were "perpetrators," people involved in building or transporting the bombs. 

Overall, these numbers are small when compared to the impact of bombings involving high explosives, such as the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Unlike high explosives, the materials used to make black and smokeless powder bombs are easily accessible. It is possible that the use of pipe bombs for criminal or terrorist activity could increase. The committee recommended establishing a single, national database on bombing statistics — one that is comprehensive, searchable, and up to date — to enable policy-makers to assess the threat from such bombings and to make informed decisions about potential responses to the threat.

A high priority for protecting the public from bombs made with black and smokeless powder is detection of these devices before they have a chance to explode. The committee examined a variety of techniques for enhancing current capabilities for detecting these devices. There are three basic scenarios under which law enforcement and security personnel are challenged to detect bombs before they explode: the portal scenario, the suspicious package scenario, and the bomb threat scenario. 

The portal scenario describes the situation at airports and federal buildings. All people or packages entering an area must pass through a few well-monitored checkpoints where equipment such as X-ray machines and metal detectors are set up. Because black or smokeless powder must be confined in a container (like a pipe) with strong, dense walls in order to produce an effective bomb, containers are likely to be visible on X-ray systems. Bombs that are made with metal pipes or containers also are readily detectable by metal detectors.

In the suspicious package scenario, portable X-ray systems can be used to reveal the type of explosive device within a package. Specially trained dogs can detect a wide range of smokeless powders, black powders, and black powder substitutes, and these dogs are known to be very effective at detecting explosives in this scenario.

In the bomb threat scenario, the only effective method for locating bombs in a large area is a search by dogs or bomb squads. Because dogs combine a strong sense of smell with the ability to search by themselves, they have a major advantage over mechanical detection systems in these situations.

The committee found that the currently available detection capabilities, such as X-ray machines, metal detectors, and bomb-sniffing dogs, have proven to be effective at finding pipe bombs. Certain steps could be taken to ensure more efficient use of the available detection techniques and development of new technologies. Further research is needed on canine detection of bombs made with black and smokeless powders enclosed in various containers. Better knowledge of how dogs detect these devices would allow law enforcement personnel to use dogs more efficiently when searching large areas and could assist in developing cheaper, more sensitive, and more portable detection equipment. 

Additives, such as vapor markers, which are designed to increase the detectability of black and smokeless powders, have been proposed. The committee concluded that more research was needed to determine whether these additives could be safely included in black and smokeless powders and whether these markers would indeed aid detection beyond the capabilities of dogs, X-ray machines, and other instrumentation. Specifically, the committee recommended research on marking systems that would assist in large-area searches or rapid screening of a large number of packages.

Before the addition of identification aids, or taggants, can be addressed, we must look at our ability to identify and convict bombers today. The committee looked at many current and proposed technologies that are intended to assist law enforcement personnel in identifying the source of black and smokeless powders used in bombs, in order to help catch and prosecute the bomb makers.

Much physical evidence can typically be recovered after a blast in which black or smokeless powder is used. These items may include unburned powder, chemical products of the reaction, and parts of the device such as the container used to enclose the powder, the triggering or delay mechanisms, and adhesive tape. Identifying and tracing the origin of these components, including determining the brand and product line of powder used in a bombing, may aid in identifying and eventually convicting the bomber.

Currently, residues found at a bomb scene are compared to data available on a variety of commercial black and smokeless powders in order to identify the manufacturer and product line. The committee found that this approach was useful to investigators and recommended that a comprehensive national database containing relevant information about black and smokeless powders should be developed and maintained. 

The purpose of adding taggants to black and smokeless powders would be:

 Taggants themselves are usually microscopic coded materials and can be made of manufactured materials, such as plastic or glass; biological materials, such as proteins or DNA; chemical materials, such as dyes; or can even be chemically altered versions of the powder itself. The committee examined information about the current state of many taggant technologies and about the present level of bombing threat and found that the use of taggants was not warranted at the present time.

The suspension of federally funded research on taggants in explosives in 1981 has left many unanswered questions about the compatibility of taggants with the wide variety of black and smokeless powder products currently available. Although taggants have been added to explosives, including black powder for blasting purposes, in Switzerland since 1981, the Swiss have never used taggants in black and smokeless powders for firearms. No tagging system has been fully tested to demonstrate its technical feasibility for use in all types of black and smokeless powders. The committee recommended that research be conducted to develop and test taggants that would be technically suitable for inclusion in black and smokeless powders, should the future threat level warrant their use.

In summary, our committee concluded that the threat level today does not warrant precipitous policy action to implement either detection markers or identification taggants at this time. However, if the threat level increases, technical countermeasures to reduce the threat of bombings should be available. Accordingly, our study recommends:

1. establishing an improved, single, national database on bombing statistics that is comprehensive, searchable, and up to date;
2. conducting further research on canine detection of bombs and on portable, instrumental sensors that mimic canine detection;
3. conducting research to develop detection markers that would be technically suitable for inclusion in black and smokeless powders;
4. developing and maintaining a comprehensive national database containing appropriate physical and chemical information on commercially available black and smokeless powders;
5. conducting research to develop identification taggants that would be technically suitable for inclusion in black and smokeless powders; and finally
6. making alternatives available to policy-makers if the threat level increases. These alternatives may include the use of taggants, the use of additional record keeping, or a combination of both, provided that the chosen taggant technology has satisfactorily met all of the appropriate technological criteria. Thus research on taggant technology, as recommended in this study is essential to develop viable options for the future.

My colleagues and I will now be glad to take questions. Please step to the aisle microphone and state your name and affiliation before asking a question.