'Dragon's Breath' ammo: a little fizzle, a lot of laughter

March 21, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Staff Writer

The "Dragon's Breath" turned out to be a lizard's whisper.

"Dragon's Breath," an exotic shotgun round that promises "to turn your shotgun into a 3-Second Flame Thrower," has been advertised in rhetoric so ferocious that legislation has been proposed to ban it in Maryland. But in a firing test, the ammunition proved more poop than pop, more fizzle than flash and more sound than fury.

Available only through a publication that caters to the firearms retail industry and addicted hobbyists, the shells are manufactured by a company in South Carolina.

The company's advertising was so hyperbolic that Baltimore County Sheriff Norman M. Pepersack Jr. asked the General Assembly to ban the shells. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee agreed, and the legislation now is awaiting a vote by the full Senate. If it passes, it will then go before a House committee.

The ad copy gives this account of the shell: "The history of the 'Dragon's Breath' comes from the military. Secret government experiments with the original rounds, which consisted of up to 1,000 lbs of this type of material, were fired from a Howitzer showing an unbelievable blast covering nearly two miles and burning all organic matter in its path.

"Now, a nearly identical version is available today. Just like the original 12-gauge military round, our 'Dragon's Breath' will blast the exotic, fast burning, high temperature metals more than 100 yards down range, totally engulfing your objective in a momentary fireball with absolutely no harm to your shotgun!"

The ad includes a black-and-white photo of a shooter who appears to hold a hose line directly from hell in his hands: a huge, searing gush of white flame blazes from his gun muzzle. The caption reads: "An actual BLAST caught on film . . . any questions?"

Yeah. What sort of person did P. T. Barnum say was born every day?

A Sun reporter ordered three rounds of the ammunition. The three rounds, shipped by UPS to the reporter's house, cost $16.95, plus $4.95 for shipping plus a $5 fee that UPS demands for transporting hazardous materials and some kind of 3.5 percent "service fee." The total came to $27.49.

The order arrived two days later. Along with the three black shells encased in a plastic bag, the company sent cheery literature on its other products. These included "Door Buster" -- "Blow a door off its hinges"; "The Swirling Bolo round -- if only weedeaters worked like this"; and several forms of non-lethal, rubber shotgun slugs.

The Sun arranged for permission from a farmer in western Howard County for the use of a vacant field to test the shell.

On a wet and windy day, The Sun's "shooting team" -- the reporter, a photographer and an artist who knew the farmer and arranged for the use of the field -- took up positions. For witnesses, the farmer and two friends watched the city boys. Some cows eventually moseyed over.

A little nervously the reporter threaded the shell into the chamber of the gun and slid the action closed. Not being a fool, he was wearing shooting glasses and earmuffs.

He took up a shooting position, aiming at a creek bank about 250 feet ahead. Dramatically, he counted down, then pressed the trigger.

The world did not end in fire. It did not end in ice. Instead, the gun jumped moderately in his grasp and 200 or so feet before him a skyrocket burst of pyrotechnics blossomed somewhat anticlimactically. It appeared to burn out before it touched the ground. So much for Armageddon.

The next sound he heard was the sound of laughter: The farmers thought all this was mighty funny.

From the shooter's perspective, there was no "3-Second Flame Thrower." The shell kicked about like a light buckshot round, but it contained no pellets and in the target area there was no strike pattern.

What he saw instead was sparks. It was like the Fourth of July, except that it was cold and wet and the farmers were laughing their butts off.

Perhaps, the reporter thought, that was a dud. Quickly he racked another shell into the chamber, repeated the blast-off/countdown ritual and fired.

The main difference was in the laughter. It was really loud this time.

The third shell produced much the same effect. The "Dragon's Breath" shell appears to be nothing more than a 12-gauge blank loaded with a mild pyrotechnic substance that creates the visual display.

Is it incendiary? If fired into highly combustible substance, possibly.

Is it lethal? The muzzle blast, at close range, probably is. But it's certainly not as lethal as a regular 12-gauge shell, which will separate you from your future in a split second, with no questions asked.

Is it loud? Very.

Is it funny?

Ask the farmers. They thought it was hilarious.

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