Illegal Explosives

A bag full of M-80 explosivesATF actively regulates and investigates the illegal use of explosives as part of its core mission to protect the public from violent crime. Illegal explosives are often made by manufacturers without a legal license to operate, then sold without a legal permit.

Some of these illegal explosives are poorly built using highly volatile compounds. The explosive compositions in these devices are usually sensitive to heat, shock, electrostatic discharge and friction. When devices containing incorrect combinations of explosive materials are ignited, whether by accident or on purpose, it can result in injury or death.

Illegal explosive devices are not typically submitted for testing and have not been approved for transportation under the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Regulations. Consumer fireworks also fall under this category if their chemical makeup exceeds the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's explosive weight limits.

Under federal explosives law, it is illegal to manufacture, store, distribute, receive or transport explosive materials without a federal explosives license or permit (FEL/FEP).

Signs of Illegal Explosives

If you work with fireworks or explosives, it is important to know how to identify explosive devices that pose a safety hazard. Here are some signs that a device may be an illegal explosive device:

  • The casing resembles a roll of coins with a fuse. Some outer shells are made of cardboard tubes.
  • The device looks oddly shaped and wrapped in brown paper that may be filled with an explosive materials.
  • The outer covering is red, silver or brown in color.
  • The device is often 1-6 inches long and up to an inch or more in diameter.
  • The sale is occurring in a non-commercial location, such as out of a vehicle or residence.
  • The person in possession of the device has no evidence of a receipt or commercial packaging, or they cannot tell you where they originally purchased it.

If you encounter suspicious explosive devices that meet any of the above criteria, please contact the ATF tip line at 1-888-ATF-BOMB (283-2662).

Common Illegal Explosives

The following devices are illegal to possess if you do not have a FEL/FEP. These devices may also be illegal under similar state and local laws.

M-80

M-80

Average Size: Five-eighth inch diameter, 1.5 inches long
Average Load: 3 grams of explosives
Risk Factor: Improper use causes damage to fingers, hands, and eyes.

M-100, Silver Salute

Example of a M-100
Average Size: 1 inch diameter, 2.5 inches long
Average Load: 9 grams of explosives
Risk Factor: Injuries include severe damage to face, arms and body. Only illegal to possess if an individual doesn’t have a federal explosive license.

M-250

Example of M-250
Average Size: 1 inch diameter, 3 inches long
Average Load: 13 grams of explosives
Risk Factor: Injuries include severe crippling and disfiguring of body parts.

M-1000, Quarter Stick

Example of M-1000
Average Size: 1 inch diameter, 6 inches long
Average Load: 25-30 grams of explosives
Risk Factor: Improper use results in extremely severe injuries to body and may result in death.

Improvised Explosive Devices

Improvised explosive devices constructed from various objects are prohibited and extremely dangerous. These include pipe bombs, which are usually made from steel pipes that contain an explosive mixture with a fuse sticking out. These devices are used during criminal acts and can cause bodily harm and damage to property.

Destructive Devices

Destructive devices include explosive, incendiary or poison gas bombs, grenades, rockets, missiles, mines, and similar devices. Molotov cocktails, or glass bottles filled with gasoline that ignite their fuse when broken, are destructive devices and thus illegal to possess under federal law.

Combating Violent CrimeDebris from a house explosion caused by an illegal explosive.

Each year, ATF investigates explosives accidents involve the manufacture of illegal explosive devices. These accidents often result in serious injury or death and extensive damage to property. ATF’s National Response Teams and Certified Explosives Specialists, the agency’s experts in arson and explosives-related incidents, are often called upon to support state and local investigations.

Got a Tip? Contact Us

If you suspect someone is creating, distributing or selling illegal explosive devices, let us know by contacting the ATF tip line at 1-888-ATF-BOMB (283-2662).

Last Reviewed January 11, 2021