View Full Version : Explosive cannonball. Is it Class 3?

September 3, 2011, 05:56 PM
Saw an article today in the paper about a man in northern Indiana who had a civil war cannon ball in his barn. The shell was still set to go, everything was there. My question is: is this considered class 3? And if not, is it legal to own.

September 3, 2011, 06:26 PM
Hard to say; One thing is certain, however: If it isn't illegal, it's still pretty stupid.

September 3, 2011, 06:38 PM
Had an article in the Pensacola Daily News many years ago, when I lived there of someone finding a civil war or earlier cannon ball on the beach and bringing it home. For some reason, he decided to drill out the plug(fuse) and took out part of his house, shattered neighbors' windows and only parts of him were recovered.:(:eek::eek:

September 3, 2011, 07:25 PM
I don't think it's illegal to own a CW relic shell but fire it and it is.

James K
September 3, 2011, 08:18 PM
Playing with explosive shells is not swift. If the shell was fired and for some reason didn't go off, the fuze could be sitting there with the safety blocks out or the wire broken, just waiting for someone to drop it. Some folks rigged remotely controlled drills to drill out the fuze; IIRC, one guy underestimated how "remote" it needed to be.


September 3, 2011, 10:13 PM
No safety blocks or wires. Shells were either percussion fired or fused. A fuse consisted of a cardboard tube with molded powder like a bottle rocket. This was cut and installed just before firing and depended on the flame from the firing to light it. These are found more often than the percussion fired ones because many times the fuse wasn't ignited. Modern explosions of CW shells is usually from someone cutting into or drilling them causing too much heat or sparks.

David Hineline
September 3, 2011, 10:48 PM
Black powder is not regulated as a high explosive. One can buy it at WalMart.

September 4, 2011, 04:15 PM
The shell could be solid or explosive. He needs to determine which it is. If it is solid, it's 100% fine. It's just a round metal ball. If it is explosive, it would be considered a destructive device if it contains more than a quarter ounce of explosive material.

September 4, 2011, 06:06 PM
Black powder is not regulated as a high explosive. One can buy it at WalMart.

So then would it be legal to make a black powder grenade?

September 4, 2011, 06:36 PM
I would assume that you could soak the ball in some kind of non corrosive liquid and then extract the powder.

September 4, 2011, 07:03 PM
Any explosive projo is regulated as a DD under NFA '34/GCA '68, to the best of my knowledge.

September 4, 2011, 08:14 PM
Black powder is not regulated as a high explosive. One can buy it at WalMart.

It is an explosive. Walmart wont sell it.

September 4, 2011, 09:17 PM
[quote]Black powder is not regulated as a high explosive. One can buy it at WalMart.[/quuote]

Thats true, until you put it in a projectile. If I remember right, anything over a 1/4 oz in a a projectile is illegal. The largest you can have in your (none class #3 collection) is a 20 MM shell.

Having said that, black powder cannon balls are a different matter. Especially the older ones simple be cause they will go off just for the hell of it. Sometimes there is no rime or reason.

A civil war era cannon ball filled with explosives is about the most dangerous thing you can have in your house.

As a bomb tech, I was more scared of black powder bombs then just about anything. I wouldn't touch them unless it was with an MRI (robot). I wouldn't even fish them out of the bomb bucket. I'd counter charge them and let them blow in the bucket.

James K
September 4, 2011, 10:38 PM
Spherical shell and spherical case used plug or Bormann time fuzes*, but shells for rifled guns did indeed have safety mechanisms against going off if dropped. A common method was to have blocks between the firing pin and the primer that were spun out of the way when the shell took the riflilng; another was to have safety wires that were broken by the shock of firing, but wouldn't break just from being dropped. The trouble is that none of the fuzes of the day (or today for that matter) were absolutely reliable, so there still is a lot of unexploded ordnance out there, buried in the ground.

Here is an odd point about CW artillery that I hadn't thought of until I read something by Imboden. He said that rifled guns were less dangerous to the recipients of the favor than smoothbores. The reason was that explosive shells from rifled guns would bury themselves in the ground and go off with little or no damage. But round balls would hit the ground and roll or bounce before going off, so the damage was much greater. Of course, a timed fuze, if set right, would detonate the shell or case shot in the air over the target, causing serious damage.

As to telling solid round shot from shell or case, it is easy enough if the projectile is clean; shell or case will have a fuze hole, probably filled with either a fuze plug (which screws into the fuze hole and seals it for transporting) or the fuze itself. But if the ball is very dirty, rusted or seriously eroded, it may be hard to tell solid from a shell or case. The best practice is not to mess with any one of them unless someone has already made it safe.

*The shell or case shot was strapped to the sabot with the fuze facing forward; the "windage" or flash of the powder around the projectile ignited the fuze. Most folks think the fuze faced in toward the powder but if it did the explosion would just drive the fuze into the shell and set it off in the gun, blowing the gun up. Even today, I am told, a great fear of "red legs" is a "premature" in the bore.


September 4, 2011, 11:58 PM
There was a period of time when I was working a "cannon ball park" and did quite a bit or reading. One thing I recall was the unreliability of explosive balls, the flash of the propelling charge not igniting the fuse.

Percussion fuses from the rifled guns were supposedly much more reliable.

JamesK I'm not so sure about "burying in the ground". I would think velocity would be low, and a 3" shell, detonating on impact......how deep could it get? A big percussion shell, maybe that would be different.
I dunno, one man's guess is all.

I can recall at least one account commenting on 3" percussion fused shells being lobbed from " the Round Tops" onto Confederate forces forming and advancing on the 3rd day at Gettysburg and how effective the Confederate officer claimed they were.

Course there are lots of accounts of roundballs bouncing through and along formations too.

Back on track, we had the #'s for Ord Disposal from a nearby base and the std reply to anybody that called about a shell was leave it alone, clear out and wait for the Army.

David Hineline
September 5, 2011, 05:47 AM
Hawgg my WalMart sells it, maybe you should ask yours why they don't

September 5, 2011, 06:02 AM
Do they sell real black or just subs? Real black is classified as an explosive by the BATFE and has a whole bunch of regulations regarding it's sale and storage. Most places don't want to fool with it is why it's so hard to find.

Mike Irwin
September 5, 2011, 06:38 AM
Whether or not a shell or roundball would bury itself in the ground also depended a LOT on the condition of the ground. Wet or newly plowed fields, hardpan clay, dry, etc.

September 5, 2011, 08:23 AM
I have never seen black powder for sale at any WalMart. Pyrodex, Triple 7, Shockey's Gold, et al is not black powder but black powder substitutes.

If they stocked real black powder, they would have to keep it in a special powder magazine and a clerk would have to get a can of it for you when you bought it.

September 5, 2011, 09:13 AM
He should put the shell in a place of honor. Like the mantel above his fireplace.

44 AMP
September 5, 2011, 11:16 AM
You can own a cannonball, you can own a grenade, you can own an artillery shell, IF they do not contain explosive filler. If they do, they each one is a destructive device, and if not registered with the BATF(E), it is illegal.

Black powder is an explosive. It may not be a high explosive under today's definition, but it is an explosive, and is stored and shipped as such.

Do a search to see what happened to Ken Ballew because he had a can of black powder and some dummy grenades! And don't think the govt has changed their mind about this just because several decades have passed since!

David Hineline
September 6, 2011, 06:07 PM
I use substitues so probably WalMart does not sell black powder.

September 6, 2011, 07:10 PM
Saw an article today in the paper about a man in northern Indiana who had a civil war cannon ball in his barn. The shell was still set to go, everything was there.

People continue to dig CW explosive shells up and get killed by them.

I have an article from the 60's or 70's, a Gettsyburg Antique dealer was drilling one in the back of his shop. It took him out and a customer out front.

A local EOD guy told me a little old lady asked him to come over and inspect her cannon balls.

The little old lady had put these two cannon balls on the fireplace mantle, one on each side.

Both cannon balls had their original explosive charge and were fused. :eek:

I have wondered, over the years, just how many embers just missed going down the fuse hole.

September 11, 2011, 09:38 PM
Saw an article today in the paper about a man in northern Indiana who had a civil war cannon ball in his barn. The shell was still set to go, everything was there. My question is: is this considered class 3? And if not, is it legal to own.
The short answer to the original post is that the device is legal, but requires ATF authorization to possess as it is an NFA firearm (class 3 is a kind of dealer)

No type of firearm is illegal in the USA. While there are additional controls for some, a person can own any type of firearm they want as long as it is legal in their state.


For anything over a half inch bore, there has to be an ATF exemption (like those for 28 to 10 gauge shotguns) or ATF authorization is obtained by submitting an ATF form 1 or form 4. Submitting an ATF form 1 to make or the ATF form 4 to buy a cannon is a routine thing.

From THE GUN CONTROL ACT OF 1968 TITLE 18, UNITED STATE CODE, CHAPTER 44 section 921, a firearm is any weapon which will or is designed..... expel a projectile by the action of an explosive...a silencer.....detructive device. Does not include antiques.

Antiques include those using loose powder with ignitions systems like the flinklock, cap lock and matchlock. This includes replicas of guns made before 1898.

The term "destructive device" means— any explosive, indendiary or poison gas, bomb, grenade, rocket with >4 ounce propellent charge, missile having an explosive charge more than 1/4 ounce, a mine or any gun with a bore >1/2 inch other than a shotgun.

From page 189 of the above link; (M27) Are muzzleloading cannons classified as destructive devices?
Generally, no. Muzzleloading cannons not capable of firing fixed ammunition and manufactured in or before 1898 and replicas thereof are antiques and not subject to the provisions of either the GCA or the NFA.


Double Naught Spy
September 12, 2011, 06:48 AM
Collector killed by cannonball 2008

2006 Injury

He should put the shell in a place of honor. Like the mantel above his fireplace.

Not funny.

September 15, 2011, 01:31 PM
Kennesaw State University in Georgia had some Civil War cannon balls on display in the Social Science building last year. Apparently they had been there for a couple of years and one day someone said "hey, those cannon balls may be dangerous" They evacuated us from the building and had National Guard and the county police EOD took them and disposed of them somewhere