Ordnance area collage header

Ordnance Testing Area

Ordnanceh Historic District Sign

The Ordnance Testing Area ("600 Area") lies on the slope beneath Picatinny Peak, on the north side of the Arsenal. Ordnance testing at the arsenal was consolidated and relocated here following the 1926 explosion at the Navy depot. The site was chosen for its relative isolation. Testing is a critical part of the weapons research and development work carried out at Picatinny, and is a service provided to the military branches, other installations, and private industry. The portion of the "600 Area" that makes up the historic district included a wide range of specialized structures, including fragmentation tub buildings, a drop tower, wind and fuze test tunnels, a "bull pen" for exploding ordnance, and an indoor firing range. Some of the components tested here historically were M1 and M3 flashless, non-hydroscopic cannon powders (testing for composition and for the 3-inch and 90mm weapons); bomb fuzes; artillery fuzes, boosters and grenades; and pyrotechnic devices (flares and signals). The composition and deterioration rate of powders in explosives, and the sensitivity, brisance (shattering capacity), stability, rapidity of reaction, energy content, and type of intensity of initial impulse of explosives were also tested in these buildings. Some of the facilities in the historic district remain in use today, but the indoor small and medium caliber test ranges are now located in a more modern state-of-the-art facility, shown at right.

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Ornance Overview Map

(click on the image for a separate close-up view)

Armament Technology Facility

The 1926 Disaster

  • At 5:15 in the evening on July 10, 1926, lightning struck a magazine containing over 600,000 pounds of explosives at the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot at Lake Denmark, which at that time was a separate installation adjacent to Picatinny Arsenal. "The line of fire of the testing guns was through the heart of the Arsenal and over both main north and south lines of road and railroad communications. The complete demolition of this Testing Area by the Lake Denmark explosion made it an opportune time to relocate this area and recentralize the testing activities. The new site selected…is far enough removed from other activities to permit firings at any time without interference and insure a maximum of safety at the lowest cost." – from a 1929 report on construction Enormous explosions were touched off, and ensuing fires and additional explosions nearly destroyed Picatinny. The massive destruction provided the opportunity for Picatinny to carry out changes that had already been recognized as necessary. Previously, testing areas had been located all over the arsenal, with a main testing ground in a small area just southeast of Picatinny Lake.

Ordnance area birdseye view

The location for the new Ordnance Test Area was chosen for safety

  • The 21 structures of the new test area (now the installation's "600 Area") were essentially complete by 1929.

1926 disaster damage

These photographs record the massive destruction of 1926

Ballistic Mortar House T-830

Building 613 under construction, 1929

1926 disaster damageBuilding T-821

Building 617 under construction, 1929 (now much enlarged)

Explosives Glossary

  • The Ordnance Testing Area was critical to Picatinny's mission to develop and ensure the safety of explosive charges used in weapons. Click here to open a brief introduction to explosives technology and terminology, excerpted from the 1984 Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) report on Picatinny Arsenal. [pdf file size: 106 kb]

Exploding Shells and Gunfire

  • "When the Cannons Roar – They Are Only Testing" – thus read the Picatinny News, July 31, 1942, explaining the salvos of gunfire that could be heard in the vicinity of Picatinny Peak. Tests are conducted at each step in the development and manufacturing of explosives, propellants, and ammunition. Picatinny's 600 Ordnance Testing Area handled tests involving detonation or ignition of explosives and flares, as well as the firing of small arms. Both components (such as primers and detonators) and devices themselves (such as grenades) were tested in a variety of ways in the specialized facilities. The area was put to constant use during World War II as the Arsenal responded to design and production demands, testing the accuracy and safety of arms and ammunition supplying the front.

  • Fragmentation test apparatus in Building 621

    Fragmentation test apparatus in Building 621 (HAER Photo)

    Fragmentation is one of the key types of test performed here, measuring the "brisance," or shattering capacity, of a shell. In Buildings 607 and 621, a shell is placed in a 20-foot diameter tub which is then filled with sand or sawdust. After detonation, the sand is sifted through a shaker screen to recover all of the shell particles, which are then analyzed. Other types of testing conducted historically in this district involved measuring the velocity and aerodynamics of projectiles fired from various guns, and determining the armor piercing qualities of shells by shooting them at steel plate targets. A drop tower (Building 604D) was used to test the function and safety of ammunition components, a friction pendulum (Building 620B) tested reactions of explosive samples to calibrated blows, and a ballistic mortar pendulum (Building 613) tested the strength of explosives by recording recoil. Conditioning chambers were used to bring ammunition to specific high or low temperatures for testing.

Fragmentation test apparatus in Building 621

Fragmentation test apparatus in Building 621 (HAER Photo)

photo from 1942 Life Magazine spread

Technicians analyze fragments from an explosive test. Photographer Andreas Feininger took this photo for a Life Magazine spread on Picatinny, October 18, 1942.

fragment nodes from army web article

Fragmentation analysis continues to be an important part of weapons research at Picatinny. See Lopez 2011.

Photography and Recording

setting up high speed camera

Setting up for high-speed photography of an outdoor test

Setting up large format camera

A photographer sets up large-format camera for recording shell section

  • Photographic chamber

    Photographic chamber

    Tests performed on weapons and pyrotechnic components require minute recordation. Historically this ranged from clipboard notes to the most technologically advanced instrumentation and photography of the time. Staff from Picatinny's Photographic Laboratory set up large-format cameras at the Ordnance Testing Area to record results of tests and cross-sectioned shells. Before the digital era they used flash equipment, rotating drum cameras and other high-speed photographic techniques to record ballistics in flight and the detonation of explosives. Chronographs and oscilloscopes to measure the velocity of projectiles and shock waves were some of the other instruments used routinely in the test facilities.

I Worked Here


Todd Mozes

Todd Mozes worked for over 20 years as a photographer for Picatinny.  Here he describes photographic services at the post and a typical high-speed setup at the Ordnance Testing Area.   

Slug Butts, Bull Pens, Towers and Tunnels

  • Slug Butt

    Slug Butt

  • Unique, purpose-built structures in the Ordnance Testing Area reflect the specialized work of weapons testing. A "slug butt" (also called a recovery butt) is the target end of an outdoor test firing range – this one was built into the hillside with a concrete lined entrance. A "bull pen" is a structure that contains a test explosion within thick reinforced concrete circular walls lined on the interior with heavy oak timbers - shrapnel embeds in the wood. The area's drop tower is actually two connected 60-foot and 40-foot tall structural steel towers with stairs. Ordnance could be dropped either freely or guided through a tube, or the sample could be set on an anvil below and impacted by a dropped weight. Another, smaller tower for impact testing is attached to Building 620B, and inside the building is a pendulum apparatus used to swing a "boot" over an anvil to test friction resistance of explosive compounds.

Bull pen

Bull pen

Bull pen

Bull pen

Drop tower

Drop tower

Friction pendulum

Friction pendulum

  • A fuze test tunnel (Building 611B - later much altered and fitted with a gas gun) was originally a 130-foot long tunnel off in the woods, with concrete walls and a series of 6-foot high cross walls, built with 12-inch timbers, spanning the side walls every 6 feet. It was used to test the time required for the functioning of fuzes.

Original Fuze Test Tunnel Original Fuze Test Tunnel

Original Fuze Test Tunnel

2011 Reconstructed Test TunnelOriginal Fuze Test Tunnel

The completely reconstructed test tunnel in 2011

Building 620B with tower

Building 620B with tower