In April 2017, in a field near Green Valley, Arizona, an off-duty Border Patrol agent and expectant father fired his rifle at a makeshift target with the words “boy” and “girl” spray-painted on it as part of a gender-reveal party. Upon impact, the target exploded, creating a huge blue cloud of smoke and igniting the surrounding brush. The blaze — what became known as the Sawmill Fire — would go on to burn almost 48,000 acres of land in Arizona and cause $8 million in damage.
The exploding target had been packed with Tannerite, a brand of binary explosive sold as two components — granules and a powder “catalyst” — that are combined to become activated. When the resultant mixture is shot with a rifle bullet traveling over 2,000 feet per second, the compound detonates.
Tannerite Sports, the company behind Tannerite, markets its explosives as “reactive rifle targets” and “shot indicators.” Several other competitors, such as Sonic Boom and Sure Shot, market their own exploding targets and sell them online, by the pound, all for exceptionally low prices. For example, Tannerite Sports offers its 1-pound “Extreme Range Target” for $9.99, or customers can buy a 100-pound case for $89.99. Sonic Boom and Sure Shot offer their products at similar prices.
But despite all the damage exploding targets have caused, as discussed below, exploding targets have been embraced by the gun industry. Tannerite Sports is a member of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry’s trade association.
Along with the 2017 Sawmill Fire, exploding targets are suspected of starting the 2012 Goat Fire in Washington, which burned over 7,300 acres of land, and 12 fires in Utah that scorched nearly 7,000 acres in 2019 and 2020. More incidents have been reported in Montana and New Hampshire, where a man detonated 80 pounds of Tannerite as part of another gender-reveal party and “rattled nearby towns.” In April 2020, a 10-acre fire in Florida was “caused by a gender reveal using Tannerite and a weapon.”
These explosions have also injured and killed people when such products have been misused. For example, in 2013, a man in New York was killed after being struck by shrapnel from a Tannerite target, and in 2015, an 8-year-old boy in Oklahoma was killed by shrapnel and a bystander injured after a man shot a metal pot packed with “an explosive along the lines of Tannerite.” A year later, a Georgia man lost his leg after shooting a lawnmower containing 3 pounds of Tannerite. (Tannerite Sports warns customers against standing too close to its exploding targets or placing them inside or near metal objects.)
criminals and terrorists
Violent extremists have turned to Tannerite and similar products in recent years as well. In May 2013, an Uzbek national was convicted of terrorism-related charges after federal agents discovered he was acquiring bomb-making materials, including “tannerite,” in support of a foreign terrorist organization. Months earlier, the FBI released a bulletin warning that “recreationally used exploding targets…commonly referred to as tannerite, or reactive targets can be used as an explosive for illicit purposes by criminals and extremists,” and that the “explosive precursor chemicals” in exploding targets “can be combined with other materials to manufacture explosives for use in improvised explosive devices (IEDs).”
In September 2016, a terrorist set off two bombs (and had placed several more that did not detonate) in Seaside Park, New Jersey, and Manhattan, injuring 29 people. Authorities later said that some of the improvised explosive devices contained a “a compound similar to a commercial explosive known as Tannerite served as the main charge in some devices.”
After the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017, which claimed the lives of 60 people and left over 400 injured, police officers discovered that the shooter had 50 pounds of “ammonium nitrate and a product commonly referred to as ‘Tannerite’” within his vehicle parked in the garage of the Mandalay Bay hotel. While unexploded, the shooter presumably intended to wreak further mayhem.
Before allegedly committing the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in November 2022, the suspect was arrested in 2021 after threatening to blow up his grandparents’ house. He had amassed 10 gallons of Tannerite and 113 pounds of ammonium nitrate. A witness at the time told investigators that the suspect claimed to be “building a bomb large enough to blow up a police department or federal building.”
Finally, in January 2022, two boogaloo supporters were indicted on federal charges for conspiring to attack law enforcement officers with explosives during protests. The men allegedly discussed loading a vehicle with Tannerite to turn it into a “rolling IED,” or improvised explosive device.
The owner of Tannerite Sports, Dan Tanner, has said that his products are “safe and nonflammable.” The company also claims that its products are only designed to explode when struck by a speeding bullet, contrary to the FBI bulletin and experts who say that other precursors can be used as a detonator to initiate the Tannerite.
too easy to obtain
Why is Tannerite so easy to purchase online? The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) states that these products don’t meet the federal definition of “explosive” until their basic components are mixed: “ATF does not generally regulate the sale and distribution of these component chemicals, even when sold together in binary ‘kits.’ However, when the binary components are combined, the resulting mixture is an explosive material subject to ATF regulatory requirements.”
Moreover, “Persons manufacturing explosives for their own personal, non-business use only (e.g., personal target practice) are not required to have a federal explosives license or permit.” Federal licenses are currently only required for those who manufacture or transport mixed explosives for business purposes, though regulations do prohibit some individuals, including convicted felons, from possessing explosives.
That said, the U.S. Forest Service prohibits exploding targets on federal land during dry conditions. Maryland has generally banned exploding targets outright, and some California counties require that their residents obtain a permit before they can possess them. Other states, like New York, have proposed banning or regulating exploding targets but have so far failed to enact new laws.