Pyrotechnics

Pyrotechnics are energetic systems or components that provide light, sound, smoke, heat or other pyrotechnic effects by the release of their chemical energy during combustion.

When it entered World War I, the United States found all its pyrotechnic rockets, flares, and cartridges obsolete and had to use French items. The Army did not even issue its program of requirements for this area until August 1918, and only a small percentage of the items it produced reached Europe before fighting stopped. The War Department appointed a Pyrotechnics Board in 1919 to prevent a recurrence of the situation, and its report led to a Pyrotechnic Unit at Picatinny. In 1919, the unit had two buildings and a staff of three. By 1926, 15 people had charge of 20 buildings, including a small machine shop, two rows of mixing and charging buildings, store houses, and a photometric gallery plus spectrographic examination equipment.

The board’s recommendation to remove pyrotechnics from the category of fireworks and to develop more substantial items able to meet strict requirements for waterproofing, efficiency, and durability meant the unit “had to design and develop almost an entirely new system of pyrotechnics.” Picatinny began work on Air Service signals in 1919 and had green chain with parachute, white star, cluster, and yellow smoke with parachute signals approved for service use by 1926. It had completed development work on a white chain with parachute signal and was conducting experimental and development work on green signal star with parachute, green star cluster, and message signals. Progress on similar signals for ground forces was slower. Requirements for the signals to have a maximum weight of one pound and an illuminant or color component able to withstand setback without breaking up and the need to fire it from a projector weighing not more than three pounds made it difficult to achieve the minimum height requirement of 600 feet. In 1926, red single star with parachute, yellow smoke with parachute, white single star with parachute, red chain with parachute, red star cluster, and white smoke signals were ready for service testing.

Picatinny helped troops choose correct signals in the dark by devising a marking scheme in which the position of knurled bands on the signal indicated the color while the number of bands indicated cluster, chain, or single star. Another aid was raised letters on the closing caps.

In its other work, Picatinny developed only the munition, leaving weapon development to others. With pyrotechnics, it had to develop launchers, a demanding project because the Pyrotechnics Board had recommended scrapping all previous projectors, rockets, Very pistols, and rifle grenade dischargers. The Air Service had strong objections to the Very pistol because its frequent hang fires either started fires or required throwing the pistol overboard with the signal. A Picatinny developed grenade signal which did not require a projector was unsatisfactory, so it developed a signal which needed a projector and then developed the projector. This was small and light because its principal parts were aluminum. If a hang fire occurred, opening the projector caused the signal to drop away from the plane.

By 1926, this projector had received approval for service use but a projector for ground troops had not. Key to the delay was a requirement for the projector or discharger to fire rifle grenades as well as signals. Other requirements stressed simplicity of construction, durability, a weight no greater than a standard service rifle, the ability to send a signal to a minimum height of 600 feet, and the ability to accept signals as fixed rounds. Picatinny sent five different types of projectors to Camp Benning, Georgia, for evaluation, and the Infantry Service opted for a muzzle loading, bayonet tromblon type more suited to signals than grenades. Picatinny was manufacturing two for Cavalry and Infantry service testing in 1926 while planning to develop a breech loading projector able to handle rifle grenades as well as the newest signals.

The Pyrotechnic Board wanted two new flares for aircraft use. The first type was to give 700,000 candle power for three to four minutes, the other 300,000 candle power for seven to eight minutes. Picatinny had developed six experimental types and tested three of them when it had to shelve the effort to deal with an Air Service urgent requirement for a night landing flare. The arsenal developed several versions before its type III went into service. This flare, which functioned 100 feet below the plane and burned at 325,000 candle power for three minutes, had saved 15 Air Service and air mail pilots and planes by 1926. Despite this success, Picatinny was working to improve the item, especially to make it waterproof. The arsenal was also optimistic about a flare to illuminate bomb targets despite stringent requirements. Other lines of investigation active in 1926 included a pyrotechnic composition for illuminating projectiles, a tracer for 37mm antiaircraft guns, and test flares, signal cartridges, and a wind direction signal for the Air Mail Service. In addition, researchers were constantly looking for new materials for colors and lights to supplement the few which fit military needs. To overcome the disadvantages of black powder as a delay powder, Dr. George C. Hale at Picatinny Arsenal, began work in 1929 on the development of non-gaseous delay powders, making use of inorganic exothermic reactions similar to those used in thermite mixtures. The first non-gaseous delay powder was developed in 1931 for the M16-A1 primer detonator used in a bomb fuze. It contained red lead, silicon, and glycerin, the latter added as a binder. Even in small quantities, organic binding agents such as glycerin and linseed oil produce a significant amount of gas upon combustion.

Bombers flying into England’s foggy airfields landed by the light of flares Picatinny pyrotechnics engineers had developed in a 60-day crash program. Each flare equaled 800,000 candles, produced little or no smoke, and was easily ignitable under the most adverse weather conditions. They and the engineers who devised them prevented the crash of more than 100 bombers during the Battle of the Bulge. They could not have done this if the Manufacturing Division had not produced the flares 60 days earlier than anyone thought possible. Another effort by the pyrotechnics people improved photoflash bombs used in night photography and target marking, tripling the light produced by these items at the start of the war. This work continued postwar. In early 1944, Dr. David Hart at Picatinny Arsenal studied coating agents for magnesium and magnesium-aluminum alloys. During that period, it was customary to use linseed oil to protect magnesium from moisture and to act as a binder in tracer and other pyrotechnic compositions. In this instance, metal powder is coated by immersion in a 5 percent aqueous solution of sodium dichromate and sodium hydrogen sulfate at room temperature. The coated magnesium was tested in igniter compositions in 37mm tracer ammunition. The formation of hydrogen resulting from the reaction of moisture with magnesium powders plagued energetic compositions containing magnesium powder for a very long time. During 1944, Dr. Hart of Picatinny Arsenal reported the dichromating of magnesium powders in igniter compositions for 37 mm tracer ammunition in order to reduce the undesirable formation of hydrogen. He coated the magnesium by immersion in a 5 percent aqueous solution of sodium dichromate and sodium hydrogen sulfate at room temperature. He stated that he found no earlier work to coat powdered metals. Up to that time, magnesium and aluminum fuels had been coated with linseed oil to provide protection and to serve as a binder of the composition. Dr. Hart observed further that the finer the magnesium granulation the more reactive with moisture, that the presence of strontium nitrate improved the resistance of magnesium to the reaction with water, and that sodium oxalate accelerates the reaction of magnesium with water.

In 1943, the U. S. Army standardized a nickel-potassium perchlorate delay developed by Mr. Owen G. Bennett and Mr. Jack Dubin for use in M204, M205, and M206 hand grenade fuzes. Their U. S. Patent 2,457,860 for Delay Fuse Compositions issued on 4 January 1949. This gasless delay mix consisted of powdered zirconium, powdered nickel, barium chromate, and potassium perchlorate. The barium chromate was used to regulate the burning rate. The Bennett delay was later replaced by a dichromated zirconium-nickel alloy delay developed by Dr. Hart of Picatinny Arsenal. A new non-gaseous fuze powder for the M16-A1 delay elements for bombs containing barium chromate, manganese, and sulfur was developed about 1944 by Dr. Hart. It is better than the standard lead chromate-silicon delay. An improved barium chromate delay powder for the 8 to 11 second delay was developed a year later by Dr. Hart, which contains 70.9 parts barium chromate, 27.1 parts manganese, 2 parts sulphur, and 2 to 3 parts ethyl cellulose. It is more stable, affected less by moisture, and more readily pelleted than the standard powder. An igniter, which can readily be pelleted, was developed containing 85 parts red lead, 15 parts silicon, and 2 to 3 parts ethyl cellulose. In 1944, Dr. Hart developed an improved igniter “K” composition containing dichromated 50/50 Mg/Al alloy or 65/35 Mg/Al alloy instead of unalloyed magnesium.

Before WW II and after WW II in 1946, the state-of-the-art of pyrotechnics was not in good shape. Pyrotechnics was still an art and not a science. About 1947 at Picatinny Arsenal, there was a surge in armaments research and development caused by the technical and tactical shortcomings experienced on the battlefield. At that time, funding for pyrotechnics almost did not exist. This started to change in 1947-1948 when materiel development requirements by the newly established U. S. Air force, formerly the U. S. Army Air Corps, became a dominant factor. The U. S. Air Force was largely dependent for its ordnance upon U. S. Army Ordnance and in turn on the Army’s arsenals and laboratories. At Picatinny Arsenal, this created a requirement for pyrotechnic munitions such as aircraft illuminating flares, rescue and distress signals, and photoflash bombs and cartridges for night aerial photography. At Picatinny Arsenal, the pyrotechnics research, development, and engineering missions were executed within the Technical Group, subsequently renamed the Technical Division. Later, the Technical Division was renamed the Samuel Feltman Ammunition Laboratories and subsequently the Feltman Research and Engineering Laboratories. The latter continued to exist until the summer of 1960. Reorganization of the Technical Group into the Technical Division just prior to 1950 resulted in the elimination of major Branches and established Assistant Division Chiefs in four functional areas. In January - February 1950, the Technical Division was reorganized again. The result was that Mr. Abraham L. Dorfman became Chief of Development and Engineering, Dr. David Hart became the Chief of Chemical Research, and Mr. Henry Eppig became Chief of Physics, Instrumentation and Testing. In late 1950, Mr. Dorfman became Chief of the Technology Division and Mr. Henry Cohen replaced him as Chief of Development and Engineering. A major obstacle was the lack of sufficient funds for pyrotechnics research and technology. To overcome this obstacle, Mr. Dorfman chose to internally tax the well-funded hardware development and engineering projects and to use the accumulated funds for pyrotechnics research and technology. Without these research and technology funds, the U. S. Army’s materiel advances in military pyrotechnics would have been minimal. All through the 1950s and into the early 1960s the Pyrotechnics Laboratory at Picatinny Arsenal was the sole research center among the U. S. Armed Services. Mr. Dorfman writes that the presence of technical managers who perceived the absolute need for a sound technology base; the decision to start on the long road towards eventual realization; the conviction that hardware requirements could not be met without a substantial investment in technology; and the availability of heavily funded hardware development projects that could be judiciously used for this purpose made the 1950s the crucial formative years for military pyrotechnics in the United States. During 1949, Dr. Hart started to develop a gasless, non-hygroscopic fuze powder. He conducted a detailed study of the burning characteristics of binary mixture containing barium chromate with zirconium and titanium. The use of zirconium powder involves considerable hazard. Hence, he went to a less hazardous zirconium-nickel alloy. The metals were protected with a dichromate. Pyrotechnic developments during the 1950s included a photoflash bomb which resisted initiation by rifle bullets and high velocity metal fragments for use on aircraft carriers. When United States involvement in Vietnam became intense, the 18 members of the Propellants and Pyrotechnics Section had to support new production of M125A1 handheld signals and M112A1 photoflash cartridges and increased production of M37 aircraft signals while doing product improvement studies on the Mk24 flare and the M19A2 signal and correcting problems with in-house production of the AN/ALA-17 flare set. In addition, the section resolved production problems on the M142 atomic simulator, the M116A1 simulator, and the M49A1 trip flare and gave direct engineering support to 9 contractors handling 30 items. In February 1956, Dr. Hart reviewed development of delay compositions, the stoichiometry of fuels (metals and non-metals) and oxidants used in delay compositions. At the request of the Air Force, Mr. Stanley Resnick, Mr. Gary Weingarten, Mr. Knapp, Mr. Leo Frey and Mr. Jesse Tyroler of Picatinny Arsenal initiated development of a RITA flare in October 1954, which eventually became the ALA-17 Flare, which provided protection to the B-52 bombers.

During the 1960s, Picatinny Pyrotechnics continues its work on enhancing hand thrown and hand emplaced battlefield effects training simulators, such as the family of M117, M118 and M119 Booby Trap Simulators. Picatinny Arsenal conducted a project to protect EEDs from premature initiation due to RF energy by substituting a phosphatized powdered iron attenuating plug, an RF-absorbing material, in place of the usual plastic sealing plug. In 1964, Picatinny Arsenal improved the MK 2 Squib to make it HERO safe. During the early 1960s, Mr. Knapp and Mr. Arthur Graff of the Research Laboratories at Picatinny Arsenal continued forward launched decoy flare development efforts under sponsorship of Mr. Francis Linton of the Avionics Laboratory at WPAFB. The objective is to determine feasibility of using pyrotechnic flares to simulate the total radiation characteristics of various rockets such as the High Velocity Aircraft Rocket (HVAR) in the 2μm to 5μm spectral band pass region. They wanted a forward launched infrared decoy for supersonic vehicles such as the B-70 bomber. Rocket propelled flares appeared feasible using a magnesium-Teflon® composition. They needed very high radiant output from the flare for 20 seconds at 70,000-foot altitude. The Picatinny Arsenal team formulated an ignition composition FW-210 consisting of manganese dioxide and zirconium that is effective at high and low altitudes and they performed wind tunnel and altitude chamber tests to support their investigations. The perforated-can flare concept (related to the shielded flare concept) was also considered for incorporation into a forward launched decoy flare design.

During the 1970s, there was a push to enhance the performance of visible artillery and mortar illuminating cartridges. The need was to get more candle power-seconds of illumination out of the 105mm, 155mm artillery projectiles and the 60mm mortar. Other initiatives included the development of a Family of 40mm Cartridges and Hand Held Signals in a wide variety of signaling colors. Advancements were also developed for hot counter measure flares such as the M206 to defeat heat seeking missiles. Improvements were also made on the M49A1 Trip Flare. In 1970 Mr. Breymaier headed up a team at the Willow Run Laboratories of the University of Michigan to evaluate mini-flares for low speed aircraft against ground launched infrared seeking missiles, one of which is the Chaparral 1C missile. The team studied launch zones, flare trajectories, aircraft speeds and flare rise-times. Mr. Knapp was part of a team at Picatinny Arsenal that developed the mini-flares in several configurations. The flare is 1-inch in diameter by 2.75 inches long and weighs 0.16 pounds. By 1972, the Picatinny Arsenal team reported that a small, high-energy, rapid ignition flare had been developed to provide protection for the AH-1, UH-1, OH-58 and OH-6 rotary wing aircraft against ground-launched missiles such as the Redeye, Sidewinder and Chaparral missiles.

During the 1980s, there was a need to enhance the performance of the 81mm mortar system to significantly increase the visible light illumination and also double the output of the WP smoke obscuration cartridges. The M853A1 VL Illuminating Cartridge was developed and it maximized the candlepower-seconds/gram of illuminating formulation by putting out over 500,000 candle power for almost a minute. A single M819 Red Phosphorous Smoke cartridge doubled the obscuration performance of a single M375 WP Smoke Cartridge. Advancements were also made in the area of chaff counter measures which were fielded to defeat radar guided missiles. Additional work in the area of battlefield effects simulators resulted in the M22 Anti-Tank, M74A1 Air Burst Artillery, M110 Flash Artillery and M21 Main Gun Flash Simulators. Other initiatives included the development of a Family of 40mm Cartridges and Hand Held Signals in a variety of smoke colors.

During the 1990s, there was a need to field the new 120mm Battalion Mortar System. The 120mm M930 Visible Light Illuminating Cartridge had a requirement of 1 million candle power for 50 seconds minimum. This pushed the Picatinny Pyrotechnic designers to the limits in terms of chemistry technology at the time to successfully achieve and field this requirement. A new technology area of Infrared (IR) Illumination was developed that allowed soldiers wearing night vision equipment to enhance the visibility of the battlefield while not offering any useful visible illumination to the enemy. This was eventually fielded in the 2.75” Rocket, 40mm Cartridge, 60mm, 81mm and 120mm Mortars and 105mm and 155mm Artillery Projectiles. Based upon the increasing threats due to enhancements weapon seeker and sensor technologies, Picatinny Pyrotechnic engineers and scientists developed and eventually fielded the second generation of counter measure flares called the Advanced Infrared Counter Measure Munition (IRCMM) M212 and M211 Counter Measures. Additional work in the area of battlefield effects simulators resulted in the M25 Target Hit, M26 Target Kill, M27 ATGM Missile and the M79 Electric Match. The need to reduce the cost of mortar training resulted in work to develop 60mm, 81mm and 120mm families of short and full range training cartridges. Picatinny Pyrotechnics helped develop the spotting cartridge formulations used in the fuzes to show location of impact. This cut the cost of mortar training in some cases by over 90%. A new technology area called Non- Lethal Munitions resulted in technology to be developed in the way of the M84 Stun Grenade.

During the late 1990s and through the early 2000s, requirements for improved Force on Force Training Realism at the National Training Centers resulted in the development and fielding of the Main Gun Simulation System (MGSS), the Direct/Indirect Fore Queue Simulator and their associated munitions, M30 Main Gun and M31A1 Target Hit. Work continued in the area of Non- Lethal Munitions resulted in the M104 Sting Ball Grenade. Work was also done on a “Dim” tracer formulation that allowed for tracer ammunition to be less visible for the enemy to locate friendly firing positions.

With the initiation of combat activities during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003 and 2001 respectfully, the need for Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Training resulted in many training systems being safety certified and fielded by the ARDEC Pyrotechnics personnel to include the Fire Marker Unit, SCOPIS, MPT-30, Suicide Vest, Under Vehicle IED (UVIED), Fox and Mil-Sim-FX systems. Due to blending of combatants and non-combatants in urban and surrounding areas, non-lethal devices were needed to warn threats before lethal means were employed. This tactic of escalating effects resulted in the fielding on small hand held pen flare launchers and pyrotechnic signals to warn personnel not to follow convoys too close or to stop at check points before lethal means were taken. A 40mm and 12 Gauge Shot Gun Cartridge, called the “Flash Bang” was also developed and fielded to the USMC for this same purpose. Requirements for improved Force on Target Training Realism at the National Training Centers resulted in the development and fielding of the Omega 60B and Omega M30 Dispensers along with the M34 Main Gun and M35 Target Hit Simulator Cartridges.

During the period of 2000-2010 the Picatinny Pyrotechnics Team grew from a staff of 19 personnel and 6 buildings with a $2M budget to the Picatinny Pyrotechnics Division with a staff of over 60 employees and 14 buildings with a $16M budget. This explosion of the Pyrotechnics Competency was the perfect storm of an organization that would now support the newly stood up PEO for Ammunition and the demands of two on-going wars. Several PhD scientists were hired to do research and development on novel materials such as Nano materials and carbides as a pyrotechnic composition, along with environmentally friendly pyrotechnic compositions and constituents, such as perchlorate free formulations, heavy metal free formulations and improved delay formulations. Work was done to improve the systems safety of legacy training simulators such as the M21, M115A2, M116A1, M74A1, M117, M118 and M119 cartridges that had a higher than normal training injury incidence rate. Many of the legacy fielded pyrotechnic munitions underwent Insensitive Munitions Baseline Testing to assess where their risk levels were. The M255A1 2.75 inch Flechette Rocket was improved to have a pyrotechnic material added to the warhead to indicate to the pilots where the flechettes were hitting. Improvements were also made to incendiary devices and cartridges such as the AN-M14 Incendiary Grenade and .50 caliber API formulation and performance. During this period many single point failure (SPF) constituents and manufacturers were identified and addressed to include VAAR, Black Powder, Gum Arabic, Calcium Silicide, Magnesium Carbonate, Laminac 4116, M211 Special Materials, Atomized and Finely Ground Magnesium Powders to name a few. This work continues to the current day and will be an on-going initiative as the commercial industrial base shrinks and changes due to political, economic and regulatory forces. In 2010 Picatinny cut the ribbon on a new state of the art 27,000 SF Pyrotechnics Laboratory and Pilot Plant Manufacturing Facility. This $21M facility (structure and equipment) was the major piece in the re-investment of the Pyrotechnic Competency at Picatinny. Picatinny now has the staff, equipment and facilities in place to address the pyrotechnic technology needs of the war fighter and Homeland Defense for the foreseeable future. Since 2002, the Picatinny Pyrotechnics Division has been awarded 22 patents, 2007 Secretary of the Army Award for Environmental Excellence in Weapons System Engineering, 2006 US Army Packard Award for the IR Counter Measure, Thomas Edison Patent Award in 2014 for Green Light Emitters and 8 U.S. Army R&D Achievement Awards. In 2015 the M176 Surface to Air Missile Simulator was fielded to improve the realism of aviator training against surface to air missiles.

Since 2010 up to the present, the technology areas that the Pyrotechnics Division has been focused on are addressing the next generation of counter measure flares and dispensing systems to defeat the next three generations of threat missiles and to support the Future Vertical Lift Helicopter Program. Work is also expanding on the use of digital Modeling and Simulation codes, such as FactSage to predict the value and utility of combustion properties of candidate pyrotechnic formulations before committing the resources to synthesizing and manufacturing them. Work on improving the Environmental, Occupational Safety and Health (EOSH) factors for pyrotechnic formulations and munitions continue to address such matters as lead free primers and a cost effective way to produce them, biodegradable munitions, safer non-toxic smoke formulations and an improved AH-64 canopy ejection system that will safely work during water submerged ejections. Addressing SPF needs will continue. Work will continue to be done to update material specifications to bring them more up to date with current manufacturing and inspection technologies. Another focus area will be the safety certification of off the shelf battlefield effects simulators that have made their way into many installations through a non-standard ammunition acquisition approach. New battlefield effects training simulators are being developed and will focus in on Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) such as Micro and Macro Pyro. These can be safely initiated in close in quarters without adverse effects to the soldiers training. Work will continue to support Mega City and Underground Terrain operations to include improved breaching devices. Work will also continue to develop improved tracer compositions that can only be seen by the shooter in day and nighttime conditions. Lastly a major on-going initiative is the continued resourcing of the digital modeling and simulation pyrotechnics counter measure lab to design, test and improve upon counter measure flare design effectiveness against varying threats in a threat hardware in the loop environment.