You can contact me at rogercdavies(atsquiggle)  If you have a comment and the system won't let you post it, ping me using the @ for (atsquiggle)

This blog has evolved into a review of historical and modern explosive devices, and responses to them. Links are drawn between historical activity and similar activity in the world today. Mostly I focus on what are now called IEDs but I have a loose personal definition of that and wilingly stray into discussions of more traditional munitions, the science and technology behind them, tactical employment and EOD responses. Sometimes it's just about interesting people in one form or another. Comment is welcome and encouraged but I do monitor it and reserve the right to delete inappropriate stuff. Guest posts are always welcome. Avoid any stuff that makes the enemy's job easier for them.

A note on moral perspectives. Throughout this blog there are descriptions of all sorts of people using IEDs, explosives, or suffering the consequences. Some of the people using IEDs are thought of as heroes by some and terrorists by others. One person's good guy fighting for a cause is another person's evil demon.  It's complicated, and history adds another series of filters too. All of us too live in a narrative made up around however we were brought up, what we were taught and what we learned along the way, rightly or wrongly. So if you sense moral ambivalence, one way or the other, well, I'm guilty and I'm not perfect.  By and large though, I have unapologetic sympathy for those dealing with the devices, whether they be soldiers, cops, or whatever, even those who are part of Nazi or other nasty regimes. That's the cool thing about EOD techs - we don't really care who the enemy is.


Entries in IED Design (38)


Command initiated explosive device from 1582

I'm steadily working my way through more military handbooks from the late 1500s when there appears to have been a lot of revolutionary thought going into military technology and explosive device development in particular. My previous post on a grenade was dated 1578, you may recall that Giambelli's ship explosive device was 1584, and I've written before about a postal device in the city of Pskov in 1581.  I've also written before how "gun-locks" were used as initiating devices for explosives over a 250 year period

On that latter point I've just found a gun lock (in this case a wheel-lock) drawn in a manuscript from Germany, dated 1582. The drawing is here and as you can see the design is very clear.

The wheel-lock was a progenitor of the flintlock which came in a few years later, in about 1600. In a wheel-lock a spring-loaded wheel spins against some pyrites held in the cock.  Here you can see how the gun lock has been removed from a firearm and fastened to a frame. A string is attached to the trigger, led around a pulley and away to the person initiating the device. When the target presents itself, the person pulls the string, which pulls the trigger. On pulling the trigger a spring mechanism spins the steel wheel against the pyrites held in the cock. This causes sparks which ignites the fuse. The fuse leads to a barrel of gunpowder hidden nearby.  In a post a few years ago I have an image showing a multiple IED attacks against a military convoy employing these exact devices, so it's good to corroborate the attack with a contempory IED design.

So, this is another example of how explosive device design appears to have developed rapidly at this peculiar point in history, across Europe. I think it is the publication of these handbooks and manuals of military science that seems to be helping - bu I'm afraid I'm not a good enough historian to identify other causes of this bubble of ideas. Comments from proper historians welcome!



The 55th device - 1578 - The force is mighty and commeth with such a terror

I have been hinting that I had found an early printed book containing interesting matters with regards to ordnance, military engineering and explosives. Having worked initially from second-hand reports of the publication and an original manuscript version (a digital copy) which I couldn't read at all, I finally tracked a printed copy down and literally got my hands on it, in the British Libary, last week and so it's time to start discussions of it.

The book is "Inventions or Devices" by William Bourne, or to give it it's full title as it appears in the British Library catalogue " Inuentions or Deuices, Very necessary for all Generalles and Captaines, or Leaders of men as wel by Sea as by Land", written and printed (I think)  in 1578.  Here's the cover page:

Bourne appears to have been a well-travelled Naval gunner and mathematician with experience in of wars in Europe. The book is an odd list and description of military ideas and  "inventions", mostly practical or pragmatic. Some are startlingly obvious but others are quite fascinating and a little bit obscure.  On one level he offers advice that a modern munitions specialist or ordnance officer would recognise in terms of "proofing" and inspection of ordnance. These ideas include safely unloading a fully loaded breech-fast projectile stuck in a cannon, methods of checking the barrel of cannons and a device for consistently assessing the power of a sample of gunpowder with a mechanical testing device. Other matters include various naval maters and the sapping and mining of castle walls, countermining and the design of assault ladders. 

I'll go through a number of these in future posts because the ideas are worth exploring and this is a very early publication, I think, for some of the technical ideas discussed. For now though, to start us off, here's his description of a large grenade-like device. I'm going to post a couple of images of the actual pages then attempt to translate some of the archaic language. This is the earliest decription I can find in a primary source about the design, manufacture and use of a metal cased grenade. The method describes using a mould for a 5" cannonball to make a hollow grenade by using a clay insert in the casting.  The case of the "grenade" is bell metal or brass, with iron nails providing the spacing to the void (and adding to fragmentation) which is filled with good quality gunpowder and a fuse.  

 Here's my attempt at a translation:

The 55th Device.

As diverse Gunners and other men devised sundry sorts of fireworks for the annoyance of their enemies, yet as far as ever I have seen or heard, I never knew nor heard of any good service done by it, neither by sea nor by land, but only by powder, and that hath done great service, for that the force of it is mighty and commeth with such a terror. But for their other fireworks, it is rather meetest to be used in the time of pleasure in the night then for any service. And for to make this kind of ball, do this: Prepare the mould of a double culvering shot (a sort of cannonball) that is five inches high, and then take clay, and make it round in a ball, as much as a minion shot (another smaller size of cannon ball) that is three inches, and let it be dried as the Founders (Those who work in a foundry) do use to dry their moulds, and then stick that clay round about with iron nails, leaving the nails an inch without the clay, and then put that mould of clay into the moulde of the culvering shot, and look that the nails do bear that the ball of clay do stand right in the middle of the mould of the culvering shot, and also make the mould of clay so that it may have a touchhole to come into the clay, and then take bell metal or other coarse pot brass, and then fill the mould of the culvering shot with that metal, and that being done, then it is finished and so make as many as them as you list, and then that being done pick out the clay again that is in the ball, that was cast in the culvering shot mould and then fill that with good corne powder (good quality gunpowder), and then that being filled near full, then take some receite (? fuze?) of soft firework that will not burne too hasyily and fill up the rest of the ball, and then it is perfectly finished.  And then in the time of service, either by sea or by land, it is very good to throw in amongst your enemies, where they do stand thick, as they be very good to defend a breach or such other like causes, as this, to take it in his hand and to fire it, and then throw it amongst your enemies, and as soon as the firework is burned into the powder, the ball will break in a thousand pieces and every piece in a manner will do as much as an Arquebus shot (a bullet) so that there is no kind of firework comparable to this kind of ball, for service in the time of need. 

This publication predates the adoption of such things (grenades) by armies several decades later in the 17th Century. 

More of Bournes "Devices and Inventions" will follow in later blog posts.


IEDs in Belfast - 1922

Ian Jones has passed me details of IEDs in Ulster in 1922. Ian is a real EOD history guru and I recommend his excellent books

In 1922 Ireland was still being fought over and Irish republican bomb attacks were still relatively frequent (see my earlier posts such as this

Belfast was no different and a range of IEDs were encountered. There are details below of some interesting devices.  But note that the military response to these was by the Royal Engineers, not the RAOC who later became responsible in the province for such activity.  In a report published in the Royal Engineer Journal, which I cannot reproduce here for copyright reasons,  Captain EW T Graham-Carter reports a series of incidents that his Unit responded to. 

1. An attempted bombing of a telephone junction box in Arthur Square in the centre of Belfast, two IRA men disguised and equipped as telephone repair men opened a manhole cover and left a times device behind. A Sapper Unit was requested to deal with the device. The manhole was filled with water by the Fire Brigade (!) and after three hours the package was removed. The device, wrapped in sacking, consisted of a wooden box with a slider switch on the outside. The timing device was an adapted alarm clock. (There are pictures in the journal). The device failed because the alarm clock had not been wound up. The main charge was an unidentifed home made explosive or incendiary material (possibly sodium chlorate and sulphur). The initiators were interesting - two glass tubes sealed with insulating tape with two copper electrodes immersed in magnesium flash powder. Subsequent experiments were able to cause the main charge mix to explode. 

2. A series of other devcies are interesting because like many modern devices in the Middle East they utilised artillery shells, in this case 18pdr, but filled with home-made explosive. These were left in a number of "picture-houses" (cinemas), but on a number of occasions failed to function and were recovered by the Royal Engineers.

3. Other devices were designed to be hidden by or in roads. One found near Armagh consisted of hollow concrete blocks, 9in X 9in X 9in, with the addition of scrap metal as improvised shrapnel. It held 5lbs of explsoive and was initiated electrically by a command wire of 300 yards in length. 

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Apart from the Sappers that is. 


Attacking Railway Lines with IEDs using Firearm Initiation Systems

I think I have a final piece of the jigsaw here, that links the IEDs used by Lawrence of Arabia, with IEDs used by Jack Hindon in the Boer War and now, the final piece, with a specific IED designed in the US Civil War.  

My intent here is to show how a specific IED design, improvised from commonly available battlefield materials, that used the weight of a target train on a gun lock trigger mechanism to explode a charge, seems to have begun in 1864, and that design, or very close approximations of it were then seen in the Boer War decades later, and again in WW1 more than ten years after that.  It is of course possible that the design was independently invented - but my supposition is that it was not, and the concept was known by those who deal with explosives in one form or another. The attack mode proved useful in what we would call today "guerilla warfare", often associated with a firearms firing on the resulting shocked and disorientated survivors.

In bringing these together in a historical sequence I am in part repeating earlier blog posts. In uncovering the details I worked backwards but now I'm laying this out in sequential historical sequence, covering a period from the early 1860s to WW1.  I'm specifically looking here at attacks on railways where the weight of the train causes a trigger on a gun "lock" to be initiated - components of firearms were of course used in other sorts of IEDs over many centuries and I have blogged about that here, but that's outside the scope of this post.

1. US Civil War. Union IEDs designed to attack Confederate trains.  As I have blogged before IEDs (then called "torpedoes") were used extensively by both sides in the US Civil War, with perhaps the Confederates making most application of them. After the end of hostilities the Chief Engineer of the US Army, Brigadier General Delafield collated numerous reports on various Torpedos used in the conflict and put them into a historical context, examining the efficacy and appropriateness of use.  I find it intruiging that Delafield, in the decade prior to the US Civil War was one of the US Army's observers in the Crimean War which saw extensive use by the Russians of IEDs.  In the collated reports is a letter written to Brigadier General Delafield by 1st Lieut Charles R Suter, Chief Engineer in the "Department of the South, Hilton Head, South Carolina, on 26 October, 1864. The letter reads as follows:

By direction of Major General Foster, I have this day forwarded by Adams Express, a box containing a railroad torpedo, tools and drawings showing its use.

This torpedo was devised by Charles F Smith, 3d U.S.C.T.

We have not yet been able to try them on the enemy's railroads, but they have been thoroughly tested in experiments. The magazine holds 20 to 30 pounds of powder, and this is sufficient to blow a car off the track besides utterly destroying it. Two magazines can be used with one lock and by regulating the length of the powder train, any car of the passing train may be blown up.  The accompanying tools are simple and light. The idea of the inventor was, to send small parties of men, 3 or 4 in each, with these torpedoes and return. Each magazine is a load for a man. Another man can carry the lock and another the tools.

The manner of laying these torpedoes is as follows: -

The spikes are drawn from three consecutive ties on one side.  A hole is then dug, and the lock placed as indicated in the drawing. The rail is then sprung up and iron wedges placed on the adjacent ties to keep the rail from springing the lock by its own weight. When thus secured, the lock is cocked and capped, and the box closed. The magazine is then buried in the proper place, and the connection made. By using a little care in excavating and carrying off the superfluous earth to some little distance, the existence of the torpedo would never be suspected. The bottom of the arched rail should just touch the lever. Any shock by the bending down the rail pulls the trigger and explodes the torpedo.

In our experiments, a torpedo of 18 pounds was exploded by giving a car sufficient impetus to run over it. The car was entirely destroyed, and rails, ties and fragments of the car were thrown in every direction. One rail was projected 40 feet. 

These torpedoes can probably be used with success in some of the larger armies. Their greatest efficiency lies in destroying the locomotive, which cannot be replaced, whereas a torn up track can easily be relaid.  the magazine should be tarred before being used.

I am, General,

very respectfully,

Your obd't serv't


1st Lieut, U S Engineers & Chief Eng'r D.S.

Here's the accompanying diagram:



The diagram shows a "lock" from a firearm, with a lever engaging the trigger system. This has been "pre-packaged" is a small box with the initiation mechanism causing a fuze to be lit. The fuze is then connected to two containers ("magazines") placed under adjacent sleeper ties.

Despite much research I cannot find a report of a "gun-lock" initiated railway IED in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, five years after the end of the US Civil War.  But railway IEDs were used, initiated by the weight of a train on the fuze removed from an artillery shell and was the subject of my last blog post here

2. The Boer War.  Gunlock initiated IEDs were used by the Boers against British Trains in the Boer war in 1901.  Here's a diagram of the adapated Martini-Henry gun lock. The similarities of the US Civil war design of 1865 are clear.

Pictures of actual gunlocks from these devices are at this page 

3. WW1 - Lawrence of Arabia and Bimbashi Garland's attacks on Turkish trains in ArabiaLawrence of Arabia's campaign against the Ottoman Turks in the Arabian peninsula in WW1 often attacked the railway lines running south. The IEDs that Lawrence used were pretty much identical to the Boer devices, but had been developed by his ordnance specialist "Bimbashi Garland" and former Ordnance Corps laboratory technician who had been co-opted in the Arab Bureau because of his interest in archaeology.  I have no doubt that Garland was aware of the Boer methodology and simply used the same technique. Details are here

In summary then I think it is clear that the use of a gunlock placed under a railway line to initiate an explosive charge began in 1865, with the invention by Charles Smith, for the Union Army.  This technique somehow found its way to ther Boers in 1901, and then was copied again by Garland and Lawrence of Arabia in 1917. 




Title of this magazine article is interesting...

My old friend Panjandrum saw a military history magazine in a newsagent's today and took this image of Page 35.

Given the title of the article in the magazine, this blog's title, and this piece from this blog in 2012, that's a fine coincidence!  

For what it is worth I'm pretty sure that Garland didn't serve in the Boer War as the magazine articles suggests, but I have no doubt the concept of initiation system came from there.