The Low-Down on a Member’s Childhood Rocket Propulsion Career

The feature below, written by SRC’s very own Cast Bullet Division Chairman, Don Barron, appeared in a recent issue of the “The Single Shot Exchange” magazine. There’s no question the article is worth sharing! On a recent camping trip with my family, I had the pleasure of reading aloud Mr. Barron’s article to 7 elementary and middle school age boys gathered around our campfire. The children and adults alike enjoyed the article. At a few points in the story, the laughter was so loud, I had to pause the reading so we could catch our breath. Although we all enjoyed Mr. Barron’s story, you’ll soon understand why the majority of the adults around the campfire that evening thought I was crazy for sharing such a story with 7 boys ages 7 years to 14 years. Kaery Dudenhofer, SRC Secretary

In regard to “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Range…”, in the December 2018 issue, it sometimes seems as though you are of the opinion that only country-raised Southerners had any fun as children.   Hopefully the following will do something to correct that notion.   Fooling with explosives was a favorite pastime of some of us city raised Yankees as well.   Don’t get me wrong, I was raised in the country until age eight, at which time (1955) we moved to the city, and I was a city boy for the next 23 years.   We now reside in—well near—well OK, somewhere in the general vicinity of–a town smaller than yours. reports that Worley Idaho has 0% of the U.S. population.  Hopefully, they’re rounding off (although I’ve not been there for a while….maybe the dog moved on).

My family was not “gunny”.   My father’s family had done the usual deer hunting, in which he had participated without, I suspect, much enthusiasm.   In the 1940’s, our government kindly offered him an all expenses paid walking tour of Europe, starting at Omaha Beach and continuing to Berlin.   For some reason, he had even less interest in guns after that.   

So, I never got to play with projectile launchers of any description.  Well, at least not that anyone knew about, and not of the “store bought” kind.

At about age ten, a few of us were examining a used CO-2 cartridge someone had found—the kind then used to power BB guns.  They were constructed of a fairly heavy-gauge ferrous metal of some kind, cylindrical, and smaller on the end which had the hole provided to let the gas out.  Maybe they’re the same now.   

In any case, I happened to mention (being the science geek in the bunch) that it looked amazingly similar to a rocket engine.   Conversation ensued.  I have NO idea which one of us suggested match heads as a possible fuel, but that idea snowballed.   Somehow, we got our hands on a quantity of wooden kitchen matches, cut the heads off (no fun, that) and managed to stuff them into the cartridge without igniting one, and subsequently the whole bunch (they were not safety matches). 

Once full, we propped the cartridge up—I don’t recall how—and lit it.  The results exceeded our wildest expectations.   It took off, quite literally, like a rocket.  Which was very cool, and more stimulating than we had hoped, because, with no guidance system, it described a trajectory about like our early Vanguard program rockets.   Our projectiles (yes, we tried it more than once) went straight up for an unpredictable distance–anywhere from a foot to a couple of yards—and then veered off in random directions at high speed.  Very stimulating indeed—and excellent exercise.  

Our experiments continued without much success in solving the guidance problem (much like Vanguard), until, one day, while pawing through a pile of rusty junk (I still love a good junk pile), a length of corroded galvanized pipe appeared in my hand.  Hmmm.   The inside diameter looked VERY close to the outside diameter of a CO 2 cylinder.   Good eye.  It would fall through the pipe with just light friction felt on all sides.   Guidance problem solved!

Well, talk about exceeded expectations!  Brace pipe on wooden structure at some imprecise angle.  Stuff cylinder with match heads (we eventually concluded that paper matches worked better—finer granulation?), place loaded cylinder carefully in pipe and apply lit match.  Wow.  Fired from a friend’s back yard, it easily cleared his 19th century 3 story home.   We had placed accomplices in front of the house to retrieve the cylinder (nose cone?) on the off chance it cleared the house.  They told us that it was STILL gaining altitude going over the roof of the two story Victorian across the street! 

For several weeks, the neighborhood was subjected to a bombardment of homemade rockets.   No adult in the neighborhood could find a match—of any type.  Our supply of empty cartridges was quickly exhausted, and we were actually reduced to buying perfectly good ones at the local drug store and letting the gas out.  A serious dent in a ten year old’s pocket change at the time, but well worth it.

Fortunately, no one was injured, and no serious damage was done (I hope).  The barrage ended shortly thereafter due to an apparently unrelated incident.   I was digging a recreational hole next to our garage (hey, I was ten—holes were almost as interesting as rockets) and hit something solid at about 6 feet (I clearly lacked neither energy nor focus).  Oddly, it turned out to be a couple of boxes of shotgun shells (paper, obviously, and so,  identifiable only by the remaining brass) and a couple of what I now know to be M-1 clips, both with the full complement of loaded and highly corroded .30-06 ammunition.   How they came to be there, I have no idea, but they were definitely worth keeping! In light of what happened next, thank heaven we knew nothing of primers.   

Close examination of the “ought six”, revealed that the bullets were loose in the cases and could be removed by hand with only a little effort.  Inside was gunpowder.   Hmmm.  If match heads worked, surely gunpowder would work better.  The Adults were not informed. To our credit (and in our defense) we were a bit wary of this substitution.   Just barely wary enough, as it turned out.   We painstakingly filled a cartridge with what I would now describe as a “compressed load” of whatever powder was in those things.  How many grains, you ask? Well, too many.   

For this experiment, we wisely stopped holding the pipe on our shoulder like a bazooka while a co-conspirator touched off the charge.  I say “wisely”, because “bazooka holder” was largely my position.  Again, a crude wooden gantry was constructed.   We also decided that lighting the charge with a match was probably a bad idea, so a candle stub was obtained and placed inside a tin can that just fit under the end of the “launch assembly”.   

The idea was to light the candle, place it under the ignition point and retreat to a “safe” distance.  After all, it took several seconds for the match heads to ignite and get going.   The gunpowder, as it turned out, was somewhat quicker.   Jim, the designated ignition specialist, moved in to set the can containing the lit candle in place.  I vaguely recall a very brief “pffffft” noise just before what was a very impressive detonation.  What would now be described as “swat team loud”.  

After a quick assessment of fingers and toes, and a determination that the number was indeed twenty times the number of kids, a post mortem was conducted.

The CO 2 cylinder had apparently ruptured catastrophically about 1/3 of the way up, as nearly as could be determined.  The upper portion was very firmly wedged in the barrel (OK, pipe).   The lower one third had exited the rear with significant speed and force.  It had punched an absolutely clean hole through the can (it would have taken production equipment to match the regular, smooth, perfectly round edges of that hole).  It was never found.  There was a suspicious bulge in the pipe, which we swore had not been there earlier.  Narrowly avoided, I really don’t know how, was a similar hole between the thumb and forefinger of Jim’s right hand.  It missed by much less than an inch, which pretty much explained the shaking, wide eyes and stammering, although there was a lot of that going around right about then.   

Well, school started the next week and put an end to our free time and experiments in rocketry.  Fathers were once again able to light their pipes.  Not that things were ever (well, hardly ever) dull.  There was only one other gun/ammunition related incident amidst our adventures, but M-80’s, Cherry Bombs, street hockey, bicycle-jumping and unauthorized exploration of a nearby abandoned factory that swayed in the wind and required crossing very large holes in the third story floor, kept us adequately entertained.    As far as I know, all the participants survived and developed into responsible adults (although one is an attorney, so….).   I hope they’re not TOO responsible.   I know I’m not. — Don Barron, Worley, Idaho

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