What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

 

As the son of a gun enthusiast, I learned how to shoot early in life, and part of that process was to have the rules of gun safety drilled into me. Later on, I learned to reload my own ammunition, which gives big savings in the cost of ammo for a moderate investment of time. I got the rules of safety in that drilled into me too. One of the rules is never using a powder load that doesn’t almost fill up the case with powder. In other words, use a combination of powder type and bullet mass that will almost fill up the case with powder when correctly measured. That way there’s no way to mistakenly double the powder load or to fill the case so much that the round will turn your rifle into a pipe bomb.

Black powder burns at about the same rate regardless of how much you put in a gun. You can fill the barrel all the way to the muzzle with black powder and it won’t cause the gun to burst. You just get more smoke. You get into trouble if you use the wrong black powder particle size since the smaller the powder is ground the faster it burns, but using too much powder is mostly just a waste of powder, not something that will kill you, the shooter. Nitro powder, modern smokeless powder, is completely different. The chamber pressure produced by nitro powder increases exponentially with the amount of powder in the case. Doubling the load might cause the chamber pressure to increase tenfold, enough to burst the gun barrel. Even as little as 10 percent too much powder can be dangerous, so the powder going in each cartridge is weighed with a fine balance.

So it was with this knowledge that I matriculated to college, joined a fraternity (or “social club” as we called them at that school) and set about the task of harassing the other social clubs. One of the other clubs had the tradition of requiring their pledges to sit up in a tree on the campus all night, and as pledges, our tradition was to prank them. My pledge class got the bright idea of firing on them with a cannon. Not with real ammo but with harmless wadding.

One of the members found an old drive shaft from a truck, sawed it in half, and drilled a touch hole. Another member went to buy powder and came back with a can of nitro powder. I tried to warn them off of this, but as a freshman, my word held little weight. My credibility fell further when they tested the cannon and all they got was a small, dull thump. Doubling the powder got them a slightly louder thump. They didn’t have enough powder for another test, so they dumped all the remaining powder in the cannon, tied it to the back of a pickup, and went hunting. As a pledge, I was required to participate, and so I cowered in the fetal position on the floor of the cab of the truck. We drove up to the tree populated with pledges and positioned ourselves for a broadside. After directing the flame from a propane torch at the touch hole for a few seconds there was a terrific bang that rocked the truck. The night was filled with a yellow flash, and the cannon broke loose from it’s mounting and swung about to hit the cannoneers. We made our escape into the night, all of us shaken up.

“Man, you were sure right about that powder,” one of my fellow pledges said. I was just glad we hadn’t blown ourselves up and become early winners of the Darwin Award.

To find out what you don’t know you don’t know in any context requires a systematic approach but is well worth the effort. Getting advice from someone with the relevant experience and then listening to them is one of the best ways of doing that.

I worked in an auto service place when I was young. I learned all of the minor repairs one can do on a car. Much of that knowledge is no longer useful since cars no longer have points to set or carburetors to adjust. Thirty years later, it came time for me to change the battery in my car, a task I usually leave for the dealer to do. Since I was pressed for time, I decided to do the job myself. After all, I used to do this all the time! I know this!

I could have just done it like I used to do it, but, I thought, maybe there’s something about this job I don’t know. So I got advice from someone. Turns out it’s different now, and I could have damaged the computers in my car if I’d done it the old fashioned way.

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There are 10 comments.

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  1. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Sounds like Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” that he caught so much grief for.

    • #1
  2. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Roderic: In other words, use a combination of powder type and bullet mass that will almost fill up the case with powder when correctly measured. That way there’s no way to mistakenly double the powder load or to fill the case so much that the round will turn your rifle into a pipe bomb. 

    I always measure carefully and check all the cases.  It’s easy to spot an overfilled case when you look at a bunch simultaneously.  Also, I measure each powder load with a scale; I don’t use an automatic powder feeder.

    I like Unique powder for my pistol loads (don’t reload rifle).

    • #2
  3. MichaelKennedy Inactive
    MichaelKennedy
    @MichaelKennedy

    A sort of analogy is when laparoscopic surgery arrived.  Lots of older surgeons (I was about 50) had been taking out gallbladders for years.  The medical schools missed the boat because they were not that into patient comfort.  The big difference was less pain and short hospital stays, which were not a big deal to medical schools and teaching hospitals. As a result this all occurred in the private practice setting.  I learned about it at a meeting in 1988 and immediately signed up for a couple of courses on how to do this operation.  Some patients had heard about it and decided to wait for me to learn how to do it.

    I went down to Marietta GA where a very clever OB GYN had set up a course.  He was a friend of Eddie Joe Reddick who began the whole thing. Reddick was a surgeon in Tennessee who took his wife on a vacation to Paris.  He was quickly bored with museums so he arranged to watch some surgery.  He saw French surgeons taking gallbladders out through a hole the size of a fountain pen.  He got his buddy in Georgia to teach him how to use a laparoscope.  The GYNers had been using them for years for things like tying tubes. In 1988 the thing hit the surgical conferences and people began to want to learn how to do it.

    The problem with this technique is that the surgeon has no touch and sees the operation on a TV with no depth perception.  Not everybody can do it safely.  Lack of depth perception for surgeons is like for pilots. Usually you have to give up surgery.  But now, you had to learn to do it with a TV screen your only view.  For a while, I taught a couple of classes at the local medical school.  I saw guys who could not do the procedure safely yet they were going to do so.  The was huge demand from patients because you could go home in the morning.

    Anyway, technology is not always benign.  The hazard with the gallbladder is that a major bile duct is right next to it and, if injured, is a huge deal to fix.  Losing touch is a major risk factor,. All you have is that TV scene.

    • #3
  4. Locke On Member
    Locke On
    @LockeOn

    Another reloader here, and it’s just about that season:  No snow = shoot, snow = reload.

    For those interested in a little more detail on the first example above:  Black powder is an explosive, albeit a low explosive.  There’s a given velocity at which the flame front will move through the charge, and therefore a limit on the velocity you can get out of a projectile it’s pushing.

    Modern smokeless powder is a deflagrant, not an explosive. When it burns, it gives off a tremendous volume of gas for the volume of powder consumed, and it’s the pressure of that gas through the barrel that pushes the bullet along.  More gas, with fixed chamber volume and projectile resistance, equals more pressure and therefore more velocity.  A reloader designing a load is usually working in a narrow range of weights which give adequate velocity, but not too much pressure for the gun.  As an example, I’ve been perfecting a load for a new AR, and I worked in a range of 25.5 minimum to 27.5 maximum grains of powder in the charge.  That’s about a 7.5% range.  Inside that range, relation of weight of powder to velocity is fairly linear.  Much above that range and things can get rapidly non-linear as too much gas tries to go down that little hole (barrel).  At 100% overweight you can count on some ka-boom action, what the rocket people call a RUD – rapid unscheduled disassembly.

    • #4
  5. Ammo.com Member
    Ammo.com
    @ammodotcom

    Humility is worth the investment. I think you’ll really like this…

    From Farnam Street: “The map of reality is not reality. Even the best maps are imperfect. That’s because they are reductions of what they represent. If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us. A map can also be a snapshot of a point in time, representing something that no longer exists. This is important to keep in mind as we think through problems and make better decisions.”

    https://fs.blog/2015/11/map-and-territory/

     

    • #5
  6. Joe Boyle Member
    Joe Boyle
    @JoeBoyle

    @michaelkennedy Good general surgeons make lapcholes look so easy, you almost think you could do it yourself. Everybody in the room has an easier time. I had no idea it could be tough to learn.I saw some struggles, not a pretty sight. Open GB surgery is also not a pretty sight.

    • #6
  7. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Sounds like Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” that he caught so much grief for.

    That comment revealed a strange dividing line in American mental acuity. 

    • #7
  8. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Roderic: Getting advice from someone with the relevant experience and then listening to them is one of the best ways of doing that.

    I was just talking to someone at work:  “Imagine how for the human race would be today if kids would just listen to their parents once in a while.”  

    • #8
  9. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Sounds like Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” that he caught so much grief for.

    And now we have Black Swan theory . . .

    • #9
  10. MichaelKennedy Inactive
    MichaelKennedy
    @MichaelKennedy

    Joe Boyle (View Comment):
     

    @michaelkennedy Good general surgeons make lapcholes look so easy, you almost think you could do it yourself.

    There are a couple of subtleties about it. One is that to avoid the risk of a bile duct injury, you should do a cholangiogram, injecting x-ray dye into the bile duct to be sure you know the anatomy.  Doing the cholangiogram is technically harder than the cholecystectomy itself.  Therefore, many surgeons did not do the gram.  They had a higher risk of duct injury.  The more cholangiograms you did, the easier it was.  Before I retired after back surgery, I had done about a thousand lapcholes.  I did about 6 where I could not get the little tube into the bile duct to do the ‘gram.  After a year or so, my time was about 20 minutes on routine cases.

    • #10
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