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Somethin's burnin'...

A month or so ago I answered some basic questions about artillery that were posed by a reader.  As the discussion wandered on in the comments, the statute of limitations for re-writing my Officer Efficiency Report or bringing charges for "failure to obey" (in this case, the rules set forth for disposing of excess powder increments) having passed, I related the following story...  this time with illustrations by a Marine gun crew (who are doing it correctly, mind you... so the illustrations are, a touch misleading in *that* regard).  Yeah, I know, I'm going to suffer the slings and arrows of snarkitude about that.  Original comment in italics.

Stupid Lieutenant Trick #98,785,401

Spend a day shooting Charge 5 White Bag. As in, over 100 rounds from that position. That leaves a *lot* of unused powder increments.  Like, over 200 of them.


U.S. Marines with Lima Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment load power into an M198 Medium Howitzer near Baghdaddi, Iraq, Dec. 21, 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Michael Q. Retana) (Released)
U.S. Marines with Lima Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment load power into an M198 Medium Howitzer near Baghdaddi, Iraq, Dec. 21, 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Michael Q. Retana) (Released) These charges have already been cut for the correct amount of powder for this mission, and the unused portions of the charge are in the "powder pit" behind the gun, with one crewman standing their holding up the unused powder bags.  This is what separate-loading bagged powder looks like.  When loading the gun, the guy putting in the powder is supposed to yell, "Charge 5 White Bag, I see Red!"  He could also yell "Charge 5 Green Bag, I see Red!"  The red patch is a special powder composition that serves to accelerate the burning process when the primer is fired to fire the gun. The reason the cannoneer yells what he does is so that the gun chief can verify that the proper charge has been fired and that it has been loaded into the gun properly. He verifies that against what the other crewman is holding up back at the powder pit. If you can't see red, you're probably going to shoot short, as your powder won't burn in such a way as to produce the expected pressure curve in the chamber.  Green bag powder is less powerful than white bag, having different burning properties.  You generally use green bag for shorter ranges, white bag for longer ranges, and there are other considerations driving their use, such as tube wear and what trajectory you want and how long you are willing to have the round in the air. 

Shooting done, get the "Prepare to March Order" warno.

Gun Dogs gather their unused increment bags and bring them to a central location, dumping them in a pile in the next firing point over.

Night approaches and a chill wind blows. The order to march order given, the battery departs under the watchful eye of the BC and 1SG. The XO and FDO are doing the powder burn.


November 27, 2008, U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Hendrix, Lance Cpl. Alex A. Parker and Lance Cpl. Stephen R. Pinegar with Kilo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment (3/12) arrange charges (M4A2) from the end of mission pit to be burned at Yausubetsu, located in Hokkaido, Japan. Marines with 3/12 are currently at the Yausubetsu training site firing the M777 Howitzer. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Claudia M. Palacios) (Released)
November 27, 2008, U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Hendrix, Lance Cpl. Alex A. Parker and Lance Cpl. Stephen R. Pinegar with Kilo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment (3/12) arrange charges (M4A2) from the end of mission pit to be burned at Yausubetsu, located in Hokkaido,(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Claudia M. Palacios) (Released)  Yep.  That's how it's *supposed* to be done.


There's a *lot* of powder. Grab about 30 bags and lay them out in a double line from the pile. Grab three more bags, and extend the powder trail. Light the powder, move back a smidge more.

Nice flare from the trail, and very entertaining activity from the double line of bags.


November 27, 2008, U.S. Marines with Kilo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment (3/12) burn M4A2 charge 7 and 6 white bags of powder used for the M777 Howitzer during the last day of firing at Yausubetsu, located in Hokkaido Japan. Marines with 3/12 participate in the annual artillery relocation training at the Yausubetsu training site. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Claudia M. Palacios) (Released)
November 27, 2008, U.S. Marines with Kilo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment (3/12) burn M4A2 charge 7 and 6 white bags of powder used for the M777 Howitzer during the last day of firing at Yausubetsu, located in Hokkaido Japan. Marines with 3/12 participate in the annual artillery relocation training at the Yausubetsu training site. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Claudia M. Palacios) (Released).  The took one of the bags of powder, ripped it open, and poured it out at the base of the last charge, and then poured  a trail of powder grains away, upwind from the line of bags, just like in an old movie.  It's much easier to light the grains than it is to light a bag.  Safer, too.  Heh.  If MEDCOM gets its way and bans smoking, the Army will have to add "firelighters" to the standard kit.

Then the fire hits the big pile. And it starts to get uncomfortably warm from many feet away. And the fire roars up, a living, breathing column of phlogiston that streaks into a rapidly darkening night as if we were standing on a hill watching Sodom and Gomorrah burn.

November 27, 2008, U.S. Marines with Kilo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment (3/12) burn M4A2 charge 7 and 6 white bags of powder used for the M777 Howitzer during the last day of firing at Yausubetsu, located in Hokkaido Japan. Marines with 3/12 participate in the annual artillery relocation training at the Yausubetsu training site. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Claudia M. Palacios) (Released)
November 27, 2008, U.S. Marines with Kilo Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment (3/12) burn M4A2 charge 7 and 6 white bags of powder used for the M777 Howitzer during the last day of firing at Yausubetsu, located in Hokkaido Japan. Marines with 3/12 participate in the annual artillery relocation training at the Yausubetsu training site. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Claudia M. Palacios) (Released).  Now you see the fire getting going.  You can get some idea of the heat from the fact this is still daylight, but the fire burns so hot that the camera reacts to the light.   That cameraman could feel that heat, believe me.

The flames climb higher and the heat is really kinda disturbing. The noise is a bit much, too.

The flames, in a last paroxysm of of Lucifer's-Realm-on-Earth, arch overhead, and lick the ground behind the XO and FDO.

Oxygen is becoming a rare commodity as the fire gives up the last of its energy, leaving some burning embers here and there.

After a quick look to ensure the forest wasn't burning, the Lieutenants beat a hasty retreat in the jeep, lest someone from Range Control show up asking who set off the nuke simulator...


Unused powder is burned by U.S. Marine .Corps Staff Sgt. D.M. Baters, with Lima Battery, 3rd Battalion 12th Marine Regiment, after firing an M198 Medium Howitzer near Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 21, 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Michael Q. Retana) (Released)

Unused powder is burned by U.S. Marine .Corps Staff Sgt. D.M. Baters, with Lima Battery, 3rd Battalion 12th Marine Regiment, after firing an M198 Medium Howitzer near Baghdaddi, Iraq, Dec. 21, 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Michael Q. Retana) (Released).  

Now, take that, oh, quadruple it at least, and then have it arch overhead to kiss the ground behind you.

Don't try this at home, boys and girls.  We were trained professionals behaving unprofessionally....
 

11 Comments

John - I suspect "most" Redlegs have abused the method.  I certainly did - right over the hill from Range Control.  Hard to believe how warm a 23 degrees below zero day can get; fast too!!  ML
 
Nice pics, but I kind of cringe at seeing 4 exposed charges on the trail plus one in hand.  We always kept our powder a little further away and in the shipping cans after they were cut.  I guess the Marines use a different procedure.  The pictures don't do justice to the amount of heat you feel even with a proper burn though...  :-)
 
Yeah, Mike - your story is also a good cautionary tale... 

Pogue - the post is long enough without a crew-drill critique!
 
OK, I'll bite.  Why is there so much powder left over?  Why isn't it saved for later use?
 

Each charge, either white bag or green, is intended to cover a long range of range/trajectory options.  You start with a full charge for full range and then remove powder and vary elevation to achieve lesser ranges.

Each charge comes packed in a sealed, weather-proof container.  Once you open that container, the moisture in the air immediately begins to attack the powder, essentially, degrading the performance of the powder.  The powder comes stacked on pallets, and the flow is essentially one-way from the factory to the gun.  The powder cans are reused/recycled or disposed of locally, depending on the situation, whether wartime or peacetime, in the US or elsewhere, etc.

The powder is precisely made and measured, so that it performs predictably.

To reuse unused increments, you'd have to repack them to protect them from moisture, and repalletize the containers and ship them back through the logisitics system as hazmat, until it got to a facility that would be able to reprocess it...  except.

Powder is packed and tracked by lot number - essentially batch numbers from specific production runs.  This is done so that all powder from a lot is from the same mix of ingredients and was processed in the same environmental conditions.

On the firing point, you hope to get all your powder from the same lot - if not, you then group your powder lots by gun.  You do this because the guns all have radar chronometers which measure muzzle velocity and determine the variation from standard - and different lots, in addition to gun-bore conditions, will produce different muzzle velocity variations, which have to be accounted for.

Now you're considering taking powder that has been exposed to environmental air and sent back to a facility, which is from potentially many different lots, to be blended together, repackaged, and resent.

Cheaper, safer, and simpler  to just burn the unused powder.

 
Whatever happened to the idea of feeding a gun liquid propellant? I haven't heard anything about that in a few years.
 

I do not advocate, condone, suggest or have any knowledge of the hilarity and possible 3rd degree burns that might result, IF, a wayward kernel of greenbag found its way into a bar ashtray on a late, Friday night......

TG for statuate of limitations eh?

 
Well, my answer was a little incomplete above, too.  Liquid propellant was under development for the Crusader system, but was not doing well, with problems revolving around accurate metering into the breech, system reliability, and safety concerns. 

The difficulties in dealing with liquid propellant did lead to the development of a new charge system, the Modular Artillery Charge System, or MACS.  The new modular charges should actually address the issue Tim raised, as there are no unused increments, and they've been optimized for mechanical handling by having semi-rigid combustible cases, which makes them far less likely to jam up an autoloader than the bagged charges.
 
Creative problem resolution? Hopefully. I guess you kinda worry about those  things that go *Boom* in the night. This is especially true if you are at the wrong place at the wrong time.
 
Jonesing for a whatsis here, boss.  Not that the splodey pics are a bad thing.

 
ah, Fred, you have asked the million memory question....

sorry i can't give ya the answer, but John's mention of metering, reliabilty, and safety safety safety pretty much covers the spectrum of the biggest categories of "why not"...

...for an interesting diversionary hour or week of internet browsing, start with WW II German torpedo liquid propellants, and run with it.  (then imagine doing same on project deadline for an info paper back in the mid-late 80's before these here fancy internets).