PSA: The Fire Dangers of Using Explosive Targets and Incendiary Ammo in the Summer

Rusty S.
by Rusty S.
image source: Wikimedia commons; USDA

Jump in the fire

Let me start by saying: I enjoy the use of explosive targets, APIT rounds, tracers, etc as part of range time when appropriate. Blowing stuff up, setting things on fire, and streaming tracers downrange are always highlights of big shoots like Knob Creek. These activities are “perfectly normal, perfectly healthy”, like one of the great radio hosts of old used to say. There is a proper time and a place for these activities, however. The problem arises when individuals decide to pursue these activities during the summer when the vegetation is dry as a bone and conditions for out-of-control fires exist.

In some states and on many federal lands, shooting explosive targets or rounds that can cause sparks (Steel core, AP, API, APIT, HE, Tracer) on public lands is illegal during the driest months of the year. This period typically covers 30-40% of the year, leaving the rest of the year open to explosive target use with minimal risk for fires. In just one state, six major fires have been started by explosive target use during the prohibited period so far this year. While this constitutes only a small percentage of total wildfires started, any preventable reduction in human-caused wildfires should be taken seriously.

burn it all down

These laws are made for a good reason! With one press of the trigger, one can ignite an inferno that can last for weeks, charring tens of thousands of acres It could be something as innocent as a steel core round hitting a rock and sparking. More careless acts are the deliberate use of explosive targets or incendiary rounds in areas with dry vegetation. If it’s August, 100 degrees and winds are gusting at 20 mph, it’s probably not a great idea to set off an explosive target in sagebrush and cheatgrass. Yet it happens, sadly with frequency.

It should be noted: Though many exploding targets do not cause fire if they are properly mixed and achieve complete detonation, this is not always the case. Incomplete detonation of even reputable brands of explosive targets can spread burning aluminum into the surrounding vegetation. There is an ongoing study into this phenomenon being conducted by the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Tallying the cost

The cost of these fires do not just include property damage, air pollution, and material costs of fighting the fires. They include real injury amongst firefighting staff, potential loss of human life, untold habitat loss, and health impacts on every creature that has to breathe the befouled air. Stress from the fire can also cause illnesses and mortality amongst livestock or wild animals that are impacted or moved by large fires. When an impatient jackass sets off a fire by being careless with firearms, it also paints the entire firearms community in a negative light.

Practice what you preach

One of the cardinal rules of firearm safety is “Always be sure of your target and what lies beyond it.” I would argue that the potential for starting a wildfire can be mitigated by following this simple and essential rule. Do you have snow or mud all around your impact area? Great! Do you have a fully contained berm with high walls and a range deck cleared of all scrub or grasses? Good to go. I also advise shooters to examine the impact area around their steel targets for fire danger. In addition, it is always a good idea to carry some fire suppression equipment like extinguishers and shovels to assist in limiting the spread of flames until the professionals arrive.

Don’t be that guy (or gal)

The bottom line is: If you live where it’s hot and dry, take great care to make sure you don’t set off any fires when enjoying range time. Take time to think about your targets, ammunition, and impact area. Be patient and wait for the ground to the thoroughly wet before using incendiary or explosive weapons or ammunition. Use some common sense, and your firing range won’t turn into a range fire.


Rusty S.
Rusty S.

Having always had a passion for firearms, Rusty S. has had experience in gunsmithing, firearms retail, hunting, competitive shooting, range construction, as an IDPA certified range safety officer and a certified instructor. He has received military, law enforcement, and private training in the use of firearms. Editor at

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