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From theatrics to tactics, smoke has many uses other than perfecting roasted meat and getting in our eyes around a campfire. Whether to obscure movement or to signal allies, the use of smoke long predates firearms, harkening back to the days of large-scale maneuver warfare. In the 21st century, as both technology and industry have permanently changed the appearance of war and conflict, so too have combat units in the military adapted to smaller unit structures. While the concept of a whole army in conflict once dominated the scope of war, we now live in the age of small unit tactics. Across aeons, smoke has had its uses, here's how to make a smoke bomb.
And that both translates to — and is enabled by — the increased abilities of the individual. Infrastructure has adapted to accommodate small teams of highly capable individuals, providing vast resources to a smaller and smaller roster of combatants, further augmented by more extensive training as well as technology such as drones, global positioning systems, and night vision. Yet at the same time, operators are still deploying age-old tools like knives, axes, and hammers to accomplish their missions. As long as fire has been in the hands of man, smoke has had its place in war, be it the symbol of danger on the horizon or a sacrifice rising up to please the gods.
The modern military has two primary purposes for smoke: as a signal for medical support, supply drops, or target identification, and as a way to obscure troop movements. Video games frequently capitalize on both of these by imitating the use of smoke to call for reinforcements, or the completion of a task or mission. While not too far off from reality in this aspect, the use of smoke in high-paced first-person shooters leans toward the fictional, evoking the illusive disappearing act of a ninja. Outside of an organized team, smoke grenades belong more in fiction and film than reality.
That being the case, they add a certain panache to any range day, theatrical event, or training operation. And while the military supplies their operators with those iconic canisters, making a smoking compound really isn’t as difficult as safety-worshipping fearmongers would imagine. The trick is matching the tool to the job and stoking the fires of one’s imagination to make it work.
Legally speaking, smoke grenades, or smoke bombs, should fall under the category of pyrotechnics, not destructive devices, unlike other home-made improvisations such as Molotov cocktails. That being the case, it falls on each individual to know their state and local laws. Playing too much with fire will likely get you burned once or twice, and playing too much with smoke will certainly catch the attention of neighbors, if not law enforcement. A friendly word of advice: Courtesy and Situational awareness will go a long way.
The easiest part of making a smoke grenade is finding out what you need. Common table sugar and potassium nitrate, generally known as saltpeter, constitute the smoke-making compound. In rural areas, you can likely buy both in the same store, but for urban dwellers, there’s the internet. Potassium nitrate is cheap, used for various gardening tasks like removing stumps, but that doesn’t mean every form of stump remover is made of the right stuff. Check product labels before buying. As for kitchen tools that you use to create your concoction, assume that they’ll all be forfeited for future use. Thankfully, cooking utensils abound in most big-box stores. A medium-sized pan and a wooden spoon or spatula are all that you’ll need. If given options, choose a smaller spoon.
Once you’ve sourced the base ingredients, you must choose how to carry and deploy the smoke, and how to ignite it. Luckily, various forms of fuses can be purchased online, and with the popularity of fireworks for films and festivals, there’s plenty to be learned from those who spend their time imitating their idols instead of becoming them. If options are available, choose the slower-burning varieties in order to better ignite the compound. Our first attempt ended up comically resembling cartoon dynamite, with results that were much more show than bang. We used thick cardboard tubes designed for fireworks as the body, with cardboard plugs supported by heavy-duty tape to create a good seal. When constructing a smoke canister, limiting the airflow arrests the compound from burning too fast, producing more smoke along the way.
Most of your work will be done around a stove top. Throughout our trials, it became so apparent that an open flame should be avoided at all costs that we suggest purchasing a budget hot plate in the event that your home is equipped with gas burners. To spice things up, depending on the intended use, you can add oil-based pastels or capsaicin extract. More on these later.
Preparation is key to success here, so begin by pre-building the tubes. If you recycle, empty aluminum cans of the thicker soup and vegetable variety are most of the way there, the only challenge being the open end. If opting for fireworks cardboard tubes, insert the bottom plugs and wrap the whole canister in tape. Stage the tubes near the stove top or cooking surface, along with pre-cut fuses. Then, begin heating the sugar.
Our tests confirm that a 2-to-3 ratio of sugar to potassium nitrate makes the ideal smoke sauce. Making smaller batches takes more time, but they’re so much easier to control that we quickly stopped using a 10-inch pan in favor of a more wieldy 8-inch one. After dumping ½ cup of sugar into the pan and setting the burner to medium-high, we added ¾ cup of potassium nitrate and stirred it into the mixture. For about 4 minutes it felt like nothing was happening, but soon the sugar began to melt and clump together. With the first batch, we completely caramelized the mixture, but we got the hang of it after that. Go for a sticky, slightly grainy texture, like sandy dough.
Once the smoke compound is complete, spoon it into your tubes, filling them to about ¾ inch from the top. That space accommodates a top plug if you use one, as well as providing the oxygen needed for the mixture to start burning. Packing it down tightly, use a skewer or similar disposable pointy thing to stab a channel in the center for the wick. Then proceed to cap the newly created smoke bomb, keeping some of the wick exposed.
Let it cool and test them out, someplace that you know you won’t attract too much attention, especially considering 2020’s massive spike in arson.
Achieving different colors comes at the cost of buying the right materials. At a local art store, chonky pastels are sold for the artistic-minded. While the military may use different colors to mark different situations such as medical or troops in the open, for us, it’s all for appearances. Don’t expect to nail perfect color combinations the first time. To add a particular color to a smoke bomb, melt the pastel in the base of the pan before adding the dry ingredients and follow the same procedure described above.
While it’s technically not illegal to own pepper spray and the like, making an eye-watering, cough-inducing smoke grenade may attract the attention of those whose attention you don’t want to attract. To turn a smoke grenade into a dispenser of spicy air, add capsaicin extract to the smoke mixture. The extract is an oil, so it’s supposed to vaporize as the compound burns. Just a little flaring up in the pan was enough to clear out our kitchen, so this is a perfectly reasonable time to wear your damn mask.
The legality of tear gas, as it’s listed in various penal codes, is dubious at best, but we couldn’t find consistent prohibitions on making or possessing peppered smoke. In many cases, it appeared that difference between legal and illegal would come down to chemical compounds, primarily ones that belong in a lab. Since a smoke bomb self-identifies as a pyrotechnic apparatus, not a destructive device, and adding spice to one wouldn’t make it a biological weapon, you can give it a try. But double check your local laws, and don’t be surprised if it’s not looked on lightly if used for a prank, even by the law.
While our testing produced varied results, marking the tubes allowed us to narrow down the variables and make adjustments for our second batch. First and foremost, the consistency of the smoke mixture determined if the bomb would merely bloom or turn itself into a sugar rocket. The tubes filled with the more caramelized mixture tended to treat the smoking agent like a propellant, launching themselves in a cartoon-like random pattern. Conversely, the less melted and subsequently less bonded compound burnt itself out quickly to the tune of 30 to 40 seconds, producing less smoke along the way. One tube was more of a cannon, launching a glob of sticky, burning anger. Thankfully, nothing was lost but a 6-inch circle of lawn grass. Take this as a warning, though — home-made smokes shouldn’t be deployed without taking proper safety considerations. They’re not like Roman candles; you can’t hold onto them. Always have a fire extinguishing source on hand.
As to adding color, again we were met with mixed results. Blue color added minimal visible difference — easy to identify on a sunny day, but unnoticeable at dusk. Red added more optical flare, but as the bloom dissipated, the color blended into the expected gray of uncolored smoke. If you’re looking for vibrant colors, consider buying commercial options. Sadly — and also thankfully — the capsaicin tended to burn off in our tests, adding a little agitation to our spicy air cans but not nearly as much as expected.
Finally, regarding cost, making smokes is analogous to cooking food. Large batches are cost effective, but don’t justify making less than 10 servings. A medium-sized batch will easily produce upward of 20 small canisters, with the key limiting component being the throwable body. Soup cans make an excellent, albeit bulky option.
If you’ve ever wanted to pop smoke, this is a cool weekend project. Be safe and have fun.
Here is a list of ingredients that you can buy on Amazon:
For other Supplies, look to Cannonfuse.com
This article and more can be found in DIY Guns: RECOIL Magazine's Guide to Homebuilt Suppressors, 80% Lowers, and More.