Cannonball death raises concerns over relics hunting (CNN)

I saw this on CNNs website. It serves as a potent reminder when dealing with some items.

CHESTER, Virginia (AP) – Like many boys in the South, Sam White got hooked on the Civil War early, digging up rusting bullets and military buttons in the battle-scarred earth of his hometown.

Sam White, 53, died in February when a cannonball exploded in his driveway while he was restoring it.

1 of 3 As an adult, he crisscrossed the Virginia countryside in search of wartime relics – weapons, battle flags, even artillery shells buried in the red clay. He sometimes put on diving gear to feel for treasures hidden in the black muck of river bottoms.

But in February, White’s hobby cost him his life: A cannonball he was restoring exploded, killing him in his driveway.

More than 140 years after Lee surrendered to Grant, the cannonball was still powerful enough to send a chunk of shrapnel through the front porch of a house a quarter-mile from White’s home in this leafy Richmond suburb.

White’s death shook the close-knit fraternity of relic collectors and raised concerns about the dangers of other Civil War munitions that lie buried beneath old battlefields. Explosives experts said the fatal blast defied extraordinary odds.

“You can’t drop these things on the ground and make them go off,” said retired Col. John F. Biemeck, formerly of the Army Ordnance Corps.

White, 53, was one of thousands of hobbyists who comb former battlegrounds for artifacts using metal detectors, pickaxes, shovels and trowels.

“There just aren’t many areas in the South in which battlefields aren’t located. They’re literally under your feet,” said Harry Ridgeway, a former relic hunter who has amassed a vast collection. “It’s just a huge thrill to pull even a mundane relic out of the ground.”

After growing up in Petersburg, White went to college, served on his local police force, then worked for 25 years as a deliveryman for UPS. He retired in 1998 and devoted most of his time to relic hunting.

He was an avid reader, a Civil War raconteur and an amateur historian who watched History Channel programs over and over, to the mild annoyance of his wife.

“I used to laugh at him and say, 'Why do you watch this? You know how it turned out. It’s not going to be any different,”’ Brenda White said.

She didn’t share her husband’s devotion, but she was understanding of his interest.

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"True relic hunters who have this passion, they don’t live that way vicariously, like if you were a sports fanatic," she said. “Finding a treasure is their touchdown, even if it’s two, three bullets.”

Union and Confederate troops lobbed an estimated 1.5 million artillery shells and cannonballs at each other from 1861 to 1865. As many as one in five were duds.

Some of the weapons remain buried in the ground or river bottoms. In late March, a 44-pound, 8-inch mortar shell was uncovered at Petersburg National Battlefield, the site of an epic 292-day battle. The shell was taken to the city landfill and detonated.

Black powder provided the destructive force for cannonballs and artillery shells. The combination of sulfur, potassium nitrate and finely ground charcoal requires a high temperature – 572 degrees Fahrenheit – and friction to ignite.

White estimated he had worked on about 1,600 shells for collectors and museums. On the day he died, he had 18 cannonballs lined up in his driveway to restore.

White’s efforts seldom raised safety concerns. His wife and son Travis sometimes stood in the driveway as he worked.

“Sam knew his stuff, no doubt about it,” said Jimmy Blankenship, historian-curator at the Petersburg battleground. “He did know Civil War ordnance.”

An investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will not be complete until the end of May, but police who responded to the blast and examined shrapnel concluded that it came from a Civil War explosive.

Experts suspect White was killed while trying to disarm a 9-inch, 75-pound naval cannonball, a particularly potent explosive with a more complex fuse and many times the destructive power of those used by infantry artillery.

Biemeck and Peter George, co-author of a book on Civil War ordnance, believe White was using either a drill or a grinder attached to a drill to remove grit from the cannonball, causing a shower of sparks.

Because of the fuse design, it may have appeared as though the weapon’s powder had been removed, leading even a veteran like White to conclude mistakenly that the ball was inert.

The weapon also had to be waterproof because it was designed to skip over the water at 600 mph to strike at the waterline of an enemy ship. The protection against moisture meant the ball could have remained potent longer than an infantry shell.

Brenda White is convinced her husband was working on a flawed cannonball, and no amount of caution could have prevented his death.

“He had already disarmed the shell,” she said. “From what I was told, there was absolutely nothing he had done wrong, that there was a manufacturing defect that no one would have known was there.”

After White’s death, about two dozen homes were evacuated for two days while explosives experts collected pieces from his collection and detonated them.

Today, there is little evidence of the February 18 blast. The garage where White did most of his work is still crammed with his discoveries, many painstakingly restored and mounted. Rusted horseshoes are piled high in the crook of a small tree.

White’s digging partner, Fred Lange, hasn’t had the heart to return to his relic hunting.

“I truly miss him,” Lange said. “Not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.”


This story is 3 months old but, for some reason, is starting to make the rounds again, as a bigger story than it was originally.

People die every day. This guy is but one of the many. The fact that he was messing with something related to guns/shooting/ammunition is probably driving the story well beyond its importance. In the Phoenix paper it made front page news while the beating and death of a 2 year old by his mother’s boyfriend was relegated to a single paragraph on page B-5.

I would not be surprised to see it mentioned by the candidates for President with a promise to make sure it never happens again.



To me, this is the scariest part…the thought that the local Po-po’s “explosives experts” can come in and collect your collection and “detonate” them…destroying a collection that could be worth 1000’s of dollars if not more, with no recompensation…

Why do I think that these “explosives experts” expertise when it comes to ordnance went as far as them maybe having seen a picture of a piece of ordnance once?

IIRC in the origional artical, the “experts” were the nearest military bases EOD men. IOW while they may not have been real familier with CW ordenance, it’s probably safe to say they’d seen things that go boom before.

IIRC in the origional artical, the “experts” were the nearest military bases EOD men. IOW while they may not have been real familier with CW ordenance, it’s probably safe to say they’d seen things that go boom before.[/quote]

Well, I was speaking more in a general sense, not this particular case…

Although, even in this case, it is a typical reaction or should I say over reaction in these cases.

How big was this gentlemans collection, and what was it worth, all gone because its easier to declare it all dangerous and blow it. IIRC his entire ordnance collection consisting of a lot of historically significant pieces was destroyed…

I have read more than once about a collectors collection being confiscated and destroyed in the name of “public safety”. It is a scary thought that a lifes passion, and significant investment can be taken without recourse…

Technically it is legal for any law enforcement to come and search and to do this as long as they have just cause (In this case they seem to have had such cause), and as long as the ordnance in question has more than 1/4 ounce of explosive per piece. If more than 1/4 ounce per piece, then possession of this sort is illegal without a destructive devices license.


I don’t want to turn this into a pi$$ing match because I think we all basically agree.

I hope that you meant that LEO can come and search only after obtaining a warrant, not simply because they felt there was just cause.

And 1/4 oz is only 108 grains, much less than many black powder cartridges. That cannonball was obviously filled with BP, not an explosive so I’m not sure if anyone could consider it to be a destructive device, requiring a license or permit. Unless it is a local ordinance or unless I am mistaken.


Right, except that in certain cases, when there is “imminent danger” they can just go in and handle things, and remove explosives. Like if they think there might be potentially more of a similar object nearby like which just exploded and killed a guy. For all we know the surviving relatives invited them in and asked them to take everything. But they might have got a warrant based on the explosion alone, and knowing the details from relatives. A more extreme example of this would be like say: A novice is sectioning a bullet, and it turns out it’s a spotter/observation bullet, and he gets a chunk of bullet in the head when the saw touches off the compound. Not life-threatening, but he goes to the hospital anyway, and since all bullet related treatments are technically required to be reported to the police, the police become aware, they might be bored, they might get a warrant based on the fact that they believe there might be a possibility of illegal explosives involved???, and they might end up finding an illegal shell or 2 in a collection of hundreds of shells, and presto, that collector is screwed.

And 1/4 oz is only 108 grains, much less than many black powder cartridges. That cannonball was obviously filled with BP, not an explosive so I’m not sure if anyone could consider it to be a destructive device, requiring a license or permit. Unless it is a local ordinance or unless I am mistaken. [/quote]

This is true, that BP and gunpowder is not included in the “high explosives” rule concerning 1/4 ounce, however, most all states have laws concerning explosive devices in general, which are geared towards the regulation and possession of anything which is an explosive substance contained in such a way that its primary purpose is to explode, burn or destroy, such as a molotov cocktail being illegal, or black powder in a pipe bomb configuration having a fuse is illegal whereas a container of the same quantity of powder in its original container is not. So in this sense, these items with otherwise legal contents become destructive devices, and it’s usually a good law; like when are pipe bombs a good thing? The whole collection being destroyed sounds pretty ridiculous though, so I agree with everybody on that, probably 99% of what that guy had was not live “H.E.” civil war material. It is important to know the 1/4 ounce rule though for ordnance collecting, and the fact that many states have regulations on “explosive materials” in certain contained configurations designed for exploding. I figure if owning live grenades, bombs, landmines, torpedos, missles, military rockets, and depth charges is all illegal, then this would also apply to even civil war exploding shells, they’re potentially far worse than a hand grenade, even though just black powder. My feelings towards laws restricting ammo collecting are, however, relaxed… Honest law-abiding collectors have virtually nothing to fear in so far as being caught or prosecuted (as long as they do nothing stupid), and should only worry about their own safety, which is their own responsibility.

Just found this info concerning this case on the UXO web site. … n-Ordnance


I would say that DK is right on, for most states anyway, when it comes to what is a destructive device, but more importantly, when a sworn peace officer needs a warrant and when he doesn’t. Based on whim, if a police officer pulls you over for a simple traffic stop, he cannot search your vehicle without your permission or a warrant. You don’t even have to open a trunk for him. But, say, if he sees a marijuana cigarette in the ash tray, or the magazine for a pistol sitting on a sit, he would have probable cause to search your car for more marijuana in the first instance, or a concealed weapon in the second. I cannot see where a peace officer would need a warrant to further search a residence where he is investigating a death caused by the detonation of an explosive device. The “probable cause,” it would seem to me, is overwhelming and presents a picture of a clear and present danger to the public at large. I could be wrong - I am not an attorney or a peace officer.

From there, it would be up to the courts at your trial to decide on whether the evidence taken as a result of such a search was legally obtained, unless the DA felt it was not and declined to prosecute.

In California, of course, possession of more than one pound of black powder at a time in your home is illegal. Amounts beyond that have to be stored in an improved explosives bunker in a remote area (rural), and requires a license. It doesn’t matter that the black powder is in its original factory container. You can have one pound at a time. That is why black powder substitutes are especially popular in California, since they come under the “possession” laws of smokeless powder. Some dealers will not even stock black powder. Legally, they can only stock, in their stores, five pounds, I believe. I am starting to forget some of the regulations here the longer I am retired. Think of that. That is only, basically, one pound of each type. When we were in business we stocked only FFFG, and even flintlock customers used it for priming and our musket customers generally used it for the main charge, instead of FFG.

There is even a limit on possession in a home of smokeless powder, which I recall is twenty pounds. That would seem a lot to a hunter with one or two calibers, I suppose, but I used to load in 15 calibers, and I bought Bullseye in eight pound cans because of the amount of .45 and .38 target loads I shot. Nobody here is running around with search warrants checking homes, but Lord forbid you have some sort of accident - a fire or such in your home - and excesses of powder are found - you can be in big trouble.

By the way, not so many years before the store closed, we were processing our annual renewals of our various powder licenses, and our licenses were approved by San Francisco Police Department. We got to the Fire Department, who had also approved the licenses for years, and as the fellow was about to stamp the approval on the form, another fireman informed him that it was illegal to sell black powder in San Francisco, and had been since the days following the 1906 earthquake and fire, where many rescue personnel were killed in explosions of black powder held in various businesses. In those days, even hardware stores stocked it, and sometimes in 50 pound kegs. Almost no one knew of that ordinance, even the firemen. That ended our sales of black powder, and all be ended our sales of black powder rifles, until the smokeless substitutes came out.

I will admit I think the laws are a bit of “overkill” but BP is not something to screw around with in quantity. It is an explosive.

In general I agree, I had just assumed that the cause came from investigators asking questions of the family, and the family giving responses like: “We never thought they could blow up, he’s got a basement full of them”. And then imagining the investigators eyebrow raising as he replies: “A basement full of them you say…?”. Of course neither the family nor the cops could’ve, or probably would’ve known or been able to discern between de-milled and/or live ordnance in some cases, which seems to be the crux of the problem. So if any of us have any such ordnance as this, it would behoove us to clearly label it somehow with tags or cases as “Inert”, to avoid such problems.

In most states I believe that “probable cause” means that there is a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime. In the case of the Civil War cannonball it would be hard for the LEO to make that determination and he/she would most likely obtain a search warrant first. At least I would like to think that a search warrant would be obtained.

The two situations that John mentioned, a marijuana cigarette and a pistol magazine, could present problems for the LEO. He/she would have to convince a judge that there was good reason for concluding that the cigarette was indeed illegal. That would probably be easy. As to the magazine, the possession of a handgun in an automobile is not necessarily illegal in most states. I have an AZ concealed weapons permit and can carry concealed on my person in my car and can carry concealed in my glove box even without the CCW.

But, I’m neither a lawyer nor a LEO. But as part of the CCW training we were advised that most lawyers and LEOs are ignorant of most laws concerning weapons and the best thing to say in every situation is NOTHING. I agree with DK. Family members talking is probably what led to the search and seizure of the Civil War collection.

Another thing taught in Arizona CCW class is that, once you cross the border into Kalifornia, all bets are off!



There is also probable cause to make a further investigation. No responsible police officer investigating a death by explosive device would walk away without insuring that there was not further danger to the community at large at the scene.

I don’t agrtee with the advice in the Arizona CCW program. By remaining silent when you have a LEGAL concealed weapon in your car. You invite arrest or detention over nothing. Of course, it is just as important to know what to say as what not to say, and when to say it. We are told to declare our permit in any confrontation with police and tell exactly where the gun is located, ending with the line to the police officer “for my own safety and yours, tell me how you would like me to proceed.”

Remember, too, that California is not Arizona. CCWs are relatively rare. In my county, which has several million people, I would doubt from the clipboard of copies I see when I renew mine that there are more than a couple of hundred permits to carry. If an officer sees something that suggests a concealed weapon in the car (an unloaded firearm locked in the trunk of the car or in the rear-most portion of the vehicle is not a concealed weapon if no other crime is being committed (stolen gun, fleeing the scene of a felony crime, etc.) A customer of mine was stopped for speeding and the fact he had a gun magazine (reading material - not a part of a firearm. My example above was about a magazine as a part of the gun) on his seat was used as probable cause for the police officer, after asking him if he had a concealed weapon in the car and receiving a negative response, to make him exit the automobile and leave the door open while the officer shined his flashlight around inside the car and under the front seat, where he saw a handgun. He then had total probable cause to search the entire vehicle. Of course, my customer was stupid to lie to the man. Had he told the truth, he might have been let off, but he was arrested and convicted of CCW although he got a short probation as a sentence. He did spend one night in jail though, and the impound of his car cost him plenty to boot.

By and large, we live in a pretty good situation and laws regarding warrants are obeyed by Police and other authorities, but I wouldn’t underestimate the number of situations where warrants are not immediately sought, and which stand the test of court.

Again, I am not a lawyer, but having a CCW in a tough state, and having worked in the firearms retail industry for 36 years, as well as having friendly association with police from all levels (Federal, State, County and Local), including my son who is a 19-year veteran of the CHP, I have learned, to some degree, how the system really works.


To obtain a CCW in Arizona you go through 2 days of classroom training. I’d say that 2/3 to 3/4 of that time is spent in discussing laws, rights, and resposibilities. The remainder is spent on firearms safety. Actually qualifying on the range takes an additional 1/2 day.

The class that I took was conducted by an ex Marine MP, Retired Arizona State Trooper, and NRA Firearms Instructor all rolled into one. It was he who advised about offering no volunteer information. We were taught to answer, respectfully, any legitimate questions that were asked if we were stopped in a vehicle. But unlike California, volunteering your CCW license without being asked is not required by law. He teaches from a prepared and approved text so it’s not just his personal opinion.

But at home - a different matter entirely. There was one question on a pop-quiz that went something like this:

You are in your bed at 3am and you hear a window being broken. You get your Smith and Wesson and step out into the hallway. You are confronted by a stranger who is approaching you. You plug him between the eyes. The police arrive and you are standing over the body with your revolver in your hand. The police ask, “What happened?” Your response is:

a. “This guy was breaking into my house and I shot him”

b. “I don’t know”

c. You say nothing.

The answer is “C”. If you feel inclined to say something then “B” is your only response. Under no circumstance is “A” the correct answer.

I am fortunate to live in Arizona where our self defense laws are based on the “Castle Doctrine”. Briefly, NO ONE has a right to threaten or harm you or a member of your family. You have a right to take whatever action that you think is appropriate to the situation, including deadly force. Your “Castle” is not just your home or vehicle but includes a reasonable space around you, even if you are outside, in the woods, wherever. You are not obligated to retreat from any threatening situation. And maybe most important, there is no burden on you to prove that you took the correct action. If the family of the deceased, or the DA decides to sue or prosecute you, the burden is on them to prove that your action was improper.

Good and proper laws, IMHO.

I have nothing personal against California or Californians. I shoot there several times a year and some of my best friends are life-long Californians. But when you live there a long time I believe that a lot of CA CA is bound to rub off on you and you begin to think crazy. One of my best friends lives near Sacramento and he shoots 50BMG. There are times when he will say, “You know, I can understand why some people would want to ban the 50 BMG.” I have to whack him on the side of the head with a 2x4 whereupon he will blink once or twice and come to his senses. I can’t be there to watch over him every day and I hope he never starts to really believe what the likes of Feinstein, Boxer, Schumer, Kennedy, et al. are telling the citizens of this country.



Hey Ray,

I am perplexed when I read you.
You act not like most of the US people, even in Arizona!
And what I have seen many times is closer than John said.

Here is a short story that happened to me one day close to Phoenix.

We take the car to go into the desert making some shooting.
8 SMG and 2 MG in the trunk and about 10 handguns in the car on the back seat. All the firearms with licenses of course, even for the hand guns !
I was driving the car, an american friend on the right seat and a french friend on the rear seat.

The road was in the desert, I suddently saw a police car on the other side of the road. Going a little be too fast I was not surprised when I saw in the rear view mirror the police car make a U turn and coming.

Despite what you can imagine, I think the US people are very very nice.
Including police officers !
In 30 years of driving in the states, I was stopped many and many times for over speed and never got a ticket.
(try to do that in France and you will be broke because you have to pay right now when you are a foreigner. No pity for the poor tourits !)

Therefore no need to be anxious. Just a few minutes problem.
I said to my US friend : "Pretend to sleep and let me talk."
And to my friend : "Hide the hand guns under the seats and the blanket."
He did that and all was clean in the car.

I stopped. And before I could say anything to the policeman, the us friend put his two hands out of his window and said : “we have guns!”

My friend and me were hallucinating !
Instead of spending 5 minutes with the policeman, we spent 15 minutes.

And when all the papers for the guns were finished to check, and ready to go, the US guy said :
" We have machine guns in the trunk!"

Big hallucination again !!! lol!
And again 20 minutes checking the papers.

The cop was as nice as the other cops, he told me to go slower and we left.

I asked to my friend why he did such a crazy thing !!!

He told us it is better to say to a policeman you have a firearm when you are stopped, because if this last one discovers you have one, you are in big troubles.
Lengthened on the ground, feet and legs in cross, a handgun on the nape of the neck, this is what happened to him once.

This guy is not what I call a standard citizen, but a Machine Gun dealer.
And even if the law says that or that, it is better to prevent than to cure !

This is the way the US people act, Ray, even in Arizona.


(I had a lot of speed waernings because it happens to me very often in twas going a little be too fast and I saw a polce car

Ray - no one dislikes the California laws more than I do. However, not everything, such as the use of probable cause, should be viewed as a problem with legitimate shooters. Remember, the police officer doesn’t always know where you are coming from, and it is his life on the line, or in some cases, perhaps the lives of other innocent people.

In California, by the way, there is no requirement that you identify yourself as a CCW holder to a police officer in any routine situation. It is sometimes advisable though, regardless of what whoever wrote the Arizona program thinks. It can save you from having a .40 pistol shoved in your face if the police officer detects the presence of a gun on you or in your auto during something like a routine traffic stop.

Regarding your example about shooting a burglar in your home, forced entry of a domicile in California, by law, presumes reasonable fear for your life. However, in that type of situation, no prudent person says a word more than he has to until he gets an attorney, because when a homocide occurs, regardless of when and where you are (I don’t care what state) the person pulling the trigger is probably going to be taken into custody until the whole mess is sorted out, unless the conditions are so extraordinary as to leave no question in anyone’s mind what happened. This doesn’t occur much in the real world, where gray areas are more common than black and white.

By the way, I shake my head too when someone who is a shooter says that a certain type or caliber of gun (short of explosive ordnance) perhaps should be illegal. We got that all the time in our store because among the hundreds of sporting arms we had were a short row of “Assault rifles” (before they became illegal, and we also had some registered DEWAT SMG’s on our wall just as a museum display. One of the chaps most vehement and abusive about it was from Idaho, and he was a bird hunter and a trap shooter. It is NOT limited to people in California. If you don’t believe that, look what is being elected to Congress from some states where guns are common and popular. Very anti-gun representatives. Am not too happy with the guy from Arizona running for President, for that matter - he is anti gun from way back. Not as bad as our two Senators, of course.

Well, never-ending argument I suppose. I wish I could live in a freer state myself, but few of them are perfect on the gun issue. (By the way, we have to take a class, pass a written test, and qualify with any of the guns on our permits in California also, and not just for the initial permit, but for every renewal you have to take the same class, test and qualification firing. I have no problem at all with that, myself. There are a lot of people carrying guns that shouldn’t, because they don’t know which end of the gun the bullet comes out of, haven’t a clue about laws pertaining to the use of deadly force, and can’t hit their hats in a rain barrel under a no-stress situation, much less with bullets coming their way too. Thankfully, the real shooters usually aren’t in that category. Its too hard to get a permit in California, because it is at the pleasure of the head law enforcement agent of your jurisdiction, usually country sheriffs, as most PDs won’t issue them at all. In some states, though, its too easy to get them. I think Arizona has it it pretty right, myself. A will-issue state, if you prove you can handle the responsibility of carrying a gun. Good show and one of the reasons I am fond of the state (wish it were cooler and in deference to my dear friend Bill W., I can live without all the deadly vipers, but still wouldn’t mind living there).

Not sure if it made the papers outside of Florida, but apparently a large housing community in Orlando was recently built on top of a old WW2 bomb target practice range. No one has been hurt yet, but they have found hundreds of live explosives in peoples yards and even on the school grounds. From rockets to big bombs, UXO is all over the place. The Army is working on cleaning the area up but admits that their is no way ever to come close to guaranteeing they found them all. People are freaking and the lawyers are gathering in masses.

Found a CNN link to the ORLANDO article :-) Pretty scary!

Jason … index.html

In my opinion regarding the Orlando bomb range, neither the Army nor the Federal government has any obligation to clean up or make things right for the homeowners. The developers who initially purchased the property should have been required to make it safe prior to developing, and the county should have ensured that it was done before issuing the permits. I suspect it will be found that money passed hands to speed up the process. The cleanup needs to be the financial responsibility of the developers and the county government.