Obstructed Barrels

Dear Technoid,

I’m a scientist myself so should know this, but as a new shooter I’d like to hear the definitive answer.

It is often said that firing a shotgun which has the barrel plugged at the end with dirt or snow will cause it to burst, “resulting in personal injury or death”.

Now snow, or even loose-packed dirt, is much softer than the metal from which the barrel is made. So why should a small column of this stuff be even noticed by a shotgun charge blasting through it.

Perhaps is it because the tiny fraction of “reflected” shock wave is enough to blow the barrel/receiver assembly? Has anyone ever performed this experiment, on purpose or unwittingly?

A related question: if the barrel DOES burst, and this is due to the gas discharge, would the same catastrophe occur even with a blank ammo (no shot charge)?

Please reply to my e-mail address and post the Q/A if you think them worthy of public consumption.

Your mini-articles were very helpful in getting me interested and informed about shotguns and I now have a brand new Remington 870 which I can’t wait to try on the range.

Best wishes,

Dear Phil,

I was thinking of this just the other day as we were hunting pheasants in the first snow of the season. I frequently broke the gun, pulled the shells and checked the barrels for snow blockage.

Barrels that are plugged with snow, dirt or any other obstruction will definitely, positively bulge or burst some of the time. I am sure that there are some shotgun barrels which are so thick that they can withstand a mishap, but I don’t know of them. Shotgun barrels are not built like sewer pipes because they have to be of a handy weight.

I have seen quite a number of “blown” barrels. Sometimes they blow at the breech and receiver when something goes wrong with the shell on ignition. This can be surprisingly violent. I have seen the side blown out of a Winchester 101 and the forend parts hurled many feet. The shooter’s forehand arm was badly injured, but he suffered no face or eye damage. We never found out what made it blow, but he was never a careful reloader.

When there is a barrel obstruction, the barrel usually bulges or bursts just behind the obstruction. A stuck wad from a blooper reload is the most common culprit, but dirt and snow will also do it. The obstruction doesn’t have to be all that hard. Water is “soft” until you belly flop into it from the Brooklyn Bridge.

I am sure that barrel blowing experiments are conducted constantly. Every lawsuit involving injury, a burst gun and factory ammunition will need such information. The gun companies have an interesting technique to protect themselves in just such a situation. They ask that you send them the shell and damaged shotgun for “testing”. Unfortunately, the “testing” is destructive in itself. Never, ever send the defendant your evidence. If you have an accident, you send the pieces to your own testing lab.

Best regards,

Bruce Buck
Shotgun Report’s Technoid
(Often in error, never in doubt.)

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