Quiet Va. town rattled by explosive target practice

A company promotional image shows a Tannerite exploding target.

MIDDLEBROOK, Va. -- Over the past few weeks, residents of the quiet town of Middlebrook have been hearing loud explosions at random times.

"The big booms were rather scary," said resident Lynn Norley.

She started hearing them a week ago out at her farm on Dutch Hollow Road in the early afternoon and evening.

"The first one we heard we thought was like dynamite or something," she said. "On the other side of the farm we heard it. A little bit later we were walking up the steps of my house. We could actually feel in on our steps. It was really frightening."

She thought they were bombs, terrorist attacks or something unexplainable.

"The dogs were terrified, they were just running for cover," Norley said.

Shortly after hearing them the first time, she was at a friend's home for dinner, just down the road and the booms happened again. Her neighbors had heard the loud explosions one other time, she said.

"They said the same thing ... their horses were scared, we were all very concerned about this," Norley said. "It's one thing people for people to do target practice. Having things sound like bombs going off is not good."

Middlebrook Fire Department's Chief Operational Officer Jason Shultz says the cause of the racket is Tannerite, an exploding target.

Hunters and those doing target practice have turned to using the exploding targets for an added adrenaline rush.

According to Henley Gabeau, who writes a weekly Middlebrook newsletter sent out via email, many residents had been talking and reporting the loud explosions.

"It sounds like a very loud firework," said Kevin Harris of Dominion Outdoors in Fishersville. The sport shop, which specializes in guns and hunting gear, sells Tannerite and other exploding target brands.

According to Shultz, if someone hears an explosion and is concerned, they should call 911.

"The explosive targets, depending on how they are used, can emit a smoke or dust clouds and make a lot of noise," he said. "There are many different factors in the size of the explosion because the Tannerite is shipped in its separate components per federal shipping laws and then has to be mixed by the end user of the product."

Harris said there are various different target options that can be used for target practice.

There's a range in noises some will make, like a cowbell can be attached to a target. Some are made of iron and make a ping sound. The ones filled with the Tannerite mixture make the loudest noise, Harris said.

Tannerite is combination of ammonium nitrate, which acts as an oxidizer, and aluminum powder for the fuel, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

When the two separate powders are mixed and shaken it produces an explosive material.

The combination is relatively stable, nonflammable and is detonated with a high-velocity shot, which makes it explode and produces a loud sound.

Tannerite falls under the same laws as black powder and all other explosives that are exempt for sporting use, its website said.

Harris said it's not a huge seller at his store.

"It's just for fun," he said. "It gives something for people to aim at and the reward of hitting it is the loud sound."

As a way to avoid further confusion, Shultz offers a suggestion.

"I would also mention that if someone is going to be using the Tannerite or other similar explosive targets that they should call the Emergency Communications Center prior to their use at 540-245-5061," he said. "This will allow the dispatchers to be aware ahead of time of the use of the explosive targets and will allow them to notify any dispatched emergency responders of this information."