Wetted Nitrocellulose and the ATF

Recently there has been a large uproar around the internet regarding an ATF “reclassification” of wetted nitrocellulose.

In the June 2016 issue of the ATF Explosives Industry Newsletter the ATF included a short paragraph on wetted nitrocellulose. While the ATF dates the release as “June”, it appears the newsletter was likely released in late August. The ATF, in attempt to be helpful, shared an answer to a recent question. That answer included the characterization of wetted nitrocellulose as an “explosive.” On the 29th of August the industry noticed that wetted nitrocellulose had been considered an explosive. This is contrary to previous characterizations of the material and against many private letters the ATF had issued in answer to this very question.

So why the hoopla?

Nitrocellulose is the key ingredient in smokeless gunpowder. Every manufacturer of smokeless gunpowder goes through this stuff by the tons. To keep it from exploding the nitrocellulose is wetted. But upon drying out, ATF argues, nitrocellulose regains its explosive properties. The question becomes one of storage. Can the material be stored wetted and without further precautions, or must the nitrocellulose be stored like a high explosive (i.e. in bunkers, limited by amount, and secured in the event of a blast).

Currently, the industry wets nitrocellulose and stores it safely, but without the precautions typically used for explosives. If reclassified, manufacturers would be forced to invest in significant storage facilities and take precautions that have to date proved unnecessary. Such measurements would be costly and take significant time to implement. Much more time than the instantaneous announcement gave. Essentially, compliance would significantly increase costs and stop production for an unknown amount of time.

Industry was rightly concerned and contact the ATF. The ATF on the other hand seemed to have lost track of what they were doing. Rather than doubling down or holding the line they quickly admitted they goofed. In an August 31st announcement, only a day or two after the story broke, the ATF rescinded the characterization and stated they would re-examine the situation with industry. The retraction came so quick that the only email notice from the ATF includes the retraction before the newsletter!

Is it all over?

Not by a long shot. However, the ATF, faced with the significance of this change, will have to follow rule making procedures before reclassifying wetted nitrocellulose as an explosive. That will take time, and the ATF is very likely to wait on the upcoming elections to see which way the wind blows.