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What Not to Do with an Old Cannonball

old cannonball

This old cannonball caused a bit of a stir. NPS photo.

On the morning of April 21, 2009, a local homeowner arrived at the visitor center at Fort Smith National Historic Site in Arkansas with the best of intentions but the worst of plans—he was carrying an old cannonball he'd dug up in his garden.

Ranger Jeremy Lynch, the park's historic weapons specialist, recognized the object as a six pound cased shot (fragmentation ball) with what appeared to be a rusted but still intact fuse.

Old unexploded ordnance of any age can be unstable and is potentially dangerous, so this was not a great way for the park staff to begin their day. The good news from a safety and incident management standpoint is there were no other visitors in the park buildings or on nearby grounds at the time.

Fort Smith police were called, park staff were evacuated and a perimeter was established to keep people at a safe distance until the situation was resolved. The city fire department bomb squad arrived shortly thereafter and confirmed that the cannon ball might be "live." The bomb squad removed the object from the park and will arrange to have it rendered safe.

According to a report from the park,

The shell was found on the east side of the city on a steep bluff that is now a residential area. The site is well outside the Civil War fortifications that surrounded the town in the 1860's, but there were a number of skirmishes near this area and the bluff would have made a good target for practice.

Since regular readers of the Traveler are a savvy bunch, I'll include the following reminder for the sake of anyone who just happened by this site on a whim: If you find what appears to be an unexploded bomb, cannonball or similar object of curiosity, just let it be, ask everyone to leave the area, and notify the proper authorities. This is a good time to apply the "better safe than sorry" rule.

The clincher in the story at Fort Smith confirms that not everyone is aware of the above advice. The homeowner told park employees that he had taken his five kids to school that morning with the old cannonball rolling around in his van.


The homeowner told park employees that he had taken his five kids to school that morning with the old cannonball rolling around in his van.
just shows how much the park staff had probably over-reacted... Did they bring in the bomb sniffing robot while everyone huddled in the distance? Meanwhile the homeowner went back home to play with the rest of his "unexploded ordinance" collection. Too funny.

Over-reacted? I don't think so. This stuff is far too dangerous to treat it casually. I know of one serious, big-time collector of Civil War stuff who got a little too careless with unexploded ordnance and is now singing with the angels.

Yes over reacted, I am a manufacture of explosives, and can tell you that a 150 + year old frag projectile would be loaded with black powder. Black powder is not very sensitive to shock friction or impact. Not much you are going to do to make it explode without a large input of energy. That is why you can shoot it out of a cannon without it exploding. Some black powder from that period was made with NaNO3 if this was the case it was long ago rendered useless sludge. If it was made with KNO3 it may well still be capable of deflagration(very rapid burning and expansion of gases) but not detonation (reaction rate faster than the speed of sound, this is required to be considered a high explosive) and then only with a very large input of energy. Then again better safe than sorry. You wouldn't expect a park ranger to be an explosives expert


"But in February, White's hobby cost him his life: A cannonball he was restoring exploded, killing him in his driveway.

More than 140 years after Lee surrendered to Grant, the cannonball was still powerful enough to send a chunk of shrapnel through the front porch of a house a quarter-mile from White's home in this leafy Richmond suburb."

Thanks for the comments.

Even though the risk of an explosion was small, this was good protocol for such situations. There was no reason to take any unnecessary risks, and given the park's location right in town, the response time for local authorities - and resulting inconvenience for people in the area - would have been short.

As Dan Hilton indicated, very few people have his level of expertise with explosives, so for everyone else, the best advice is to err on the side of caution.

This situation brings to mind a photo showing the following words in a large font on the back of a t-shirt: "I'm with the bomb squad. If you see me running, try to keep up!"

Telling people that these old cannonballs aren't dangerous just because you can't make them explode by jarring them is a questionable tactic. It's true that nearly everyone who has been injured or killed by the detonation of Civil War era ordnance was doing overtly dangerous things like trying to deactivate them. That said, no one should be needlessly careless with live ordnance of any kind. The explosive inside an old cannonball that hasn't been invaded by moisture is still extremely powerful and remains very sensitive to heat and friction. The smart thing to do is to be belt-rope-and suspenders careful.

Sounds like a good time to do an article on Fort Smith NHS ;-)

Semper Fi

I worked in visitor services, for a while, at a museum that topped the list for Washington D.C. terrorism targets. Our security protocols required us to treat every unattended package, camera-size or larger, as a potential threat. We would call out, and if nobody in earshot claimed the item, we immediately evacuated a discrete portion of the building, and called up the bomb dog. (We had our own, full-time.) This has been the practice since the museum opened, and each and every one of the thousands of times it's happened, the item was inspected and remanded to the lost & found. No camera has yet exploded.

It is an act of will and courage to actually follow a policy like that, especially after the third or fourth package in the same area in the same day. I am sure that the ranger's common-sense instinct was to stash the thing behind the VC and quietly call the bomb squad; that probably would have been fine. But let's honor Ranger Lynch for taking the appropriate precautions, and following procedures even when the danger was minimal.

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