The Value of Playing with Explosives

One of the riskiest things my police SWAT team does is deploy explosives to defeat fortifications. The techniques lay at the intersection of science and art. As such, it's a hyper-specialized field requiring perpetual experimentation and learning.

Investigators have built a criminal case for a group of heavily armed bad guys. When the investigators attempt to arrest them at their hideout, the situation turns into a standoff. The SWAT team is called in to assist. Believing the offenders have barricaded the doors, and to avoid an up-close deadly confrontation, the tactical commander decides to use explosives to blast the door from a safe distance. The breacher team approaches, hangs the charge on the door, then retreats to a safe location. KA-BOOM! The door is open! Negotiation for surrender may continue for hours or days. But now there is a safe exit for the bad guys...or entry by the team.
Formally known as Explosive Breaching (ExB), these capabilities are reserved for only the most dangerous public safety emergencies. Even most hostage rescue missions, acts of terrorism, or armed standoffs don't meet the criteria for the use of explosive entry by tactical officers.

There is no rulebook or definitive manual on the topic. It's an odd blend of physics (science), creativity (art), construction (skill), and risk management (non-linear forecasting). Certain forces can be measured. The size of the charge can be quantified. But the mixture of materials used can be shaped into endless combinations. Many of the variables are unknown...and unknowable. In every situation, certain aspects will have to be estimated or assumed. What hidden fortifications? What lock, or deadbolt, or chain, or bars? Screws in the hinges? Construction materials?

No checklist or recipe can be followed. The only answer is continual, adaptive experimentation that breeds a deep understanding of concept and identifies patterns of successes and failures.

So how do explosive breachers experiment with something so dangerous? Imagine this scenario:
A steel industrial door is encased in a cinderblock wall, in a steel frame. It's secured by a doorknob latch and a heavy duty deadbolt. The door opens in - swinging away from you.
How much explosives are required to bend this door enough to open it?

That might seem like an unfair question. Most of you have absolutely NO idea on how controlled explosives are built or measured. But if you were tasked with figuring this out, let's take a journey of discovery; in lay terms....trial-and-error.

Assume you've been guided as to the preferred design, materials, and shape, but not the size. It'd make the most sense to start with a small, less powerful charge: 100 grains total (grainsis the unit of measurement). The door does not budge. It fails. 150 grains fails. 200 fails. 350 fails. 500 fails. 800 grains works! The door opens. Assuming all else in design remained constant, the mathmatical "solution" lays somewhere between 500 and 800 grains. If 650 grains also is successful, the range in which the correct solution lays is between 500-650 grains. In the ExB field, that's a tight, desirable range.

All of these trials are logged into official records. The records contain dates, times, conditions, measurements, sketches, results, photographs, videos...for each and everyexplosive breach training attempt. It's the beginning of establishing a pattern. And a legally, morally, and logically defensible ExB program.

Here's one of the problems: that's a lot of trials, a lot of data, a lot of materials, a lot of time, a lot of money....and a LOT of identical doors! The variables are endless. Explosive breaching isn't limited to doors; it extends to creating access through walls, floors, and roofs too. No team can possibly perform all these thousands of attempts. So what to do about the situation?

EXPERIENCE COUNTS. In the above trail-and-error scenario, if you had the benefit of a knowledgable partner, the answer would have come much quicker. You wouldn't begin at 100 grains. Nor would you have had to try 800 grains. A veteran ExB'er would have relied upon historical data to help narrow the range. He may have estimated the answer range to be 400-700 grains. This saves time, resources, and headache. Even when the variables change and a definite answer is impossible, experience helps filter the options and ideas that may or may not work. Focused experimentation reduces waste and maximizes quality feedback.

EMBRACE FAILURE. I question ExB programs with training records that show more than a 50% success rate for training attempts. When there is an inordinate percentage of successful attempts, that means one of two things:

Knowing what will not work is just as valuable as what will. And always have a backup plan for when what was a sure thing...well...just doesn't work. Learning organizations allow for mistakes, especially in training.

BALANCE RISK. In real life operations, ExB decisions must account for two diametrically opposed concerns: confidence of entry (defeating the barricade) and reduction of harm to human life (innocents and offenders). It makes zero sense to ensure a successful breach, only to hurt or kill the hostages on the inside. It's counter to the entire objective. 

Conversely, if you can't get might not be able to accomplish the mission. This is why it's so important to find a sweet spot - what's the smallest amount of explosives or safest materials that will still open the door? Absolute success on one side of the door can have disastrous effects on the other.

BE CREATIVE. Our ExB'ers learn their skills in breaching schools. In these courses, they are exposed to only a handful of explosive charge types, designs, and shapes. The standard gear includes: detonation cord, plastic sheet explosives, shock tubes, ignition systems, and blasting caps. But some of the more crafty materials our team uses are: rubber padding, old fire hoses, duct tape, medical/surgical adhesives, powder gelatins, 2-litre soda pop bottles, and medical IV saline bags. 

The formal schools have to limit themselves with a select number of designs, materials, and doors. It's up to our guys to build upon that foundation to see what else the safest and most reliable manner possible. This is only possible through imagination and artistic synthesis.

SHARE IDEAS. Fresh ideas and complete data sets are hard to come by. Our ExB unit relies upon its relationships with other ExB units across the globe. No tactical unit in the world is self-sufficient enough to provide for their own data and ideas. We need these relationships not only for more extensive trial information, but for cross-polination as well. Closed-minded teams that do not reach out to others will fall victim to incest or stagnation.

Explosive Breaching in tactical operations is a complicated and complex specialty field. It's a combination of problems and solutions. It's part science and part art. It's analysis and synthesis. It's construction and demolition. It's measurement and estimation...with a dash of "wild-ass guess." It's systems thinking and ad hoc ingenuity.

Working with my team's explosive breachers has taught me a tremendous amount - and more than just the technicalities of building things that go boom. The experiences challenge me to look at a wide variety of issues from perspectives of Why and How. I've learned how to interpret statistical data. Risk management has taken on a new meaning for me. I've witnessed the value in growing relationships and sharing imaginative brainpower. I've watched artists become scientists...and scientists become artists. Their environment is one of adaptability and crisis decision-making. All brought together through a shared vision and a united purpose.

Many business industries share the same issues, opportunities, and struggles as those facing SWAT officers tasked with understanding, designing, building, documenting, and testing explosive charges.

Talk to a breacher. Pick his brain. Stand back and listen. His perspectives come from a career - maybe a lifetime - of experimentation and learning.

The way he thinks might blow your doors off.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


  1. I learned a valuable lesson about the value of experimentation and experiential learning in my High School physics class. My class had a Lab one day to learn about wave propagation, and each student was given a Slinky to play with. We were encouraged to take out Slinky into the hallway and experiment. Most of my peers spent ten minutes or less playing with their Slinky, and the rest of the class they spent at their desk writing up their Lab reports. Five minutes before the end of class, the teacher noticed I wasn't at my desk...he came out to the hallway where I was still experimenting with my Slinky. I rushed in, spent four minutes jotting down my ideas, and turned in my paper. I was the only student to receive a 'A' on that assignment. 20 years later, I was still drawing on that experiential knowledge as I taught RF propagation to Intelligence Analysts at a certain 3-letter Agency. Building that experiential knowledge base is invaluable.

    1. Funny you say that. I am about to place an order for 100 plastic Slinkies for my workshop attendees - but for different application/theory!


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