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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Contact: Public Affairs Division

February 2013

Explosives in the United States

90% of Mt. Rushmore was carved using dynamite.

90% of Mt. Rushmore was carved using dynamite.

Black powder, a low explosive, is the oldest type of explosive material known. While used for gun powder centuries earlier, it began to be used in mining and rock blasting for road construction in the 1600s. Two centuries later, the development of nitroglycerin and dynamite led to advancements such as the construction of road tunnels and the invention of the seismometer to detect ground vibrations by earthquakes.

The 1900s saw a tremendous increase in the use of explosives in the United States. The U.S. consumed 287 million pounds of black powder in 1907; U.S. underground explosives consumption reached 100 million pounds in 1957, and 7.6 billion pounds of explosives were used in the U.S. in 2010 5.9 billion.

The explosives industry is currently made up of more than 10,000 ATF explosives licensees and permittees working in two major areas, commercial explosives and fireworks. Because of the potential misuse of these explosive materials to the detriment of public safety, ATF’s role in protecting the public from unsafe or unsecure storage or the misuse of explosives materials is vital. ATF’s jurisdiction over explosives extends to requiring licenses to engage in the business of importing, manufacturing and/or distributing explosives materials. An ATF permit is also required to ship, transport, or receive explosives. ATF inspects the explosives magazines and records of every explosives licensee and permittee on a regular basis to ensure compliance with federal explosives regulations.

ATF is also responsible for ensuring the safe and secure storage of explosives by any person, whether licensed or not, and also to ensure that proper records are prepared and maintained by licensees and permittees. Exemptions from the federal explosives laws are contained in 18 U.S.C. § 845. These exceptions include:

  • aspects of the transportation of explosive materials via rail, water, highway, or air that pertain to safety, including security, and are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation or the Department of Homeland Security;
  • the use of explosive materials in medicines and medicinal agents in the forms prescribed by the official U.S. Pharmacopeia, or the National Formulary;
  • the transportation, shipment, receipt, or importation of explosive materials for delivery to any agency of the United States or to any state or political subdivision thereof;
  • small arms ammunition and components thereof;
  • commercially manufactured black powder in quantities not to exceed fifty pounds, percussion caps, safety and pyrotechnic fuses, quills, quick and slow matches, and friction primers, intended to be used solely for sporting, recreational, or cultural purposes in antique firearms as defined in section 921(a)(16) of title 18 of the United States Code, or in antique devices as exempted from the term "destructive device" in section 921(a)(4) of title 18 of the United States Code; and
  • the manufacture, under the regulation of the military department of the United States, of explosive materials for, or their distribution to or storage or possession by the military or naval services or other agencies of the United States; or to arsenals, navy yards, depots, or other establishments owned by, or operated on behalf of, the United States.

In addition to ATF, other agencies within the U.S. government regulate explosives under specific conditions, to include the following:

  • U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) – DOT has jurisdiction over hazardous materials (including explosives) while they are in transit, whether by rail, water, motor carrier, air, or other conventional means.
  • U.S. Coast Guard (under DOT) –The Coast Guard has jurisdiction over explosives while they are in transit on any navigable waterways within the U.S. or within U.S. territorial limits on the high seas.
  • Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) – MSHA has jurisdiction over activities, including the use of explosives, at mining sites, both above and below ground, for coal and other metal/non-metal mining.
  • U.S. Department of Labor – Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) – OSHA is concerned with worker safety on the job, including the use of explosives at job sites, or while under manufacture or other processing of the explosive materials.
  • U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) – DOD has jurisdiction over explosives when they are in use by the military, or on behalf of the military, pursuant to a contract between an explosives supplier and any of the various military departments of the United States.
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) – CPSC regulates consumer fireworks, which are fireworks not subject to ATF control under 27 C.F.R. Part 555, the Federal Explosives Regulations. CPSC is also concerned with the distribution, possession and use of illegal fireworks.