Identifying & Evaluating Ordnance: A Seven-Step Practical Process
Written by Tom Gersbeck, MFS with researcher Daniel Evers   

FOR PRACTICAL APPLICATION, seven steps are used to define each aspect of the ordnance identification and evaluation process. When properly applied, this process greatly increases the probability of an accurate identification. This starts with the realization that ordnance is inherently dangerous. As such, approach constitutes a decision point. For safety, the overall mindset is that the unknown munition may contain the most hazardous features possible and is in a hazardous condition.

Although situations vary and the sequence of the seven steps may change (Figure 1), the systematic application of all seven steps is required to successfully identify and determine the safety requirements associated with a munition. Steps 1 and 7 are the only two remaining constants, as every identification starts with an initial inspection and ends with an identification or determination of “unknown.” From the moment step 1 begins, steps 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are simultaneously addressed and answered as soon as possible.

Figure 1—The Seven-Step process. (Author’s graphic)

Depending on the munition and environment, some characteristics may be more easily recognized, allowing some steps to be answered quickly. Those steps remaining unanswered warrant additional consideration during step 7.

Step 1: Approach and Initial Inspection

Figure 2 shows a basic Recon-Kit. The flexible measuring tapes are for round or awkwardly shaped items. The 550 cord is handy for long or large-diameter items. In addition to the tools photographed, consider adding small binoculars, a small mirror, a pen, paper, and a compact digital camera. If a portable x-ray is available, it is a valuable tool for inspecting internal components.

Figure 2—Basic Recon-Kit. Includes inner and outer calipers, magnifying or fingerprint inspection glass, small light, compass, flexible and rigid measuring scales in metric and standard for documentation and photography. (Author’s photograph)

Start by attempting to identify the munition from a safe distance with binoculars. If this is not possible and a closer look is required, attempt to determine the front and rear of the munition. Then approach at a 45° angle from the rear, avoiding venturis and fuze-sensing elements. Damaged or armed-active sensing elements may “see” or sense movement, consider it a valid target, and function as designed.

Approach the unknown item until it is in view, stop, and begin to address steps 2 through 5 while adhering to the relevant safety precautions outlined in step 6. Until a munition has been conclusively identified and deemed safe to move, do not manually move or touch it. Under no circumstances are plungers depressed, vanes rotated, pins removed or replaced, levers or any other external features moved, as these actions may arm or function a munition.

Safety Concern: Many tools used to assemble ordnance are not commonly available. If a wrench and other inappropriate toolmarks are noted during inspection, STOP! Military ordnance, especially practice hand-grenade bodies, are often illegally reconfigured and filled with energetic materials. With no legitimate reason for the presence of these unusual toolmarks, or means of immediately determining what was modified, it must be assumed the munition will not function as designed. If evidence of modification exists, the munition in question is classified as an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

Begin the inspection at one end of the munition and work to the other end, taking note of all identifying construction features. Make a rough sketch of the area, photograph the item, and document measurements and identifiable features. The single “absolute” associated with ordnance is that everything on a munition serves a purpose and also provides insight into its identity.

At a minimum, ensure the width and length of the fuze, individual sections, and the overall munition are documented. Then document other identifying features including fins, rotating bands, venturis, leaking material, color codes, stamped markings, distinct construction features, damage, signs of tampering or modification. If severely damaged, take the best measurements possible and document the damage, especially where components might be missing or crushed from high-speed impact.

Upon completing an inspection, exit the area via the route taken on approach and return to the safe area.

Step 2: Determine Fuze Group, Type, and Condition

The fuze constitutes the brains of a munition, and there may be two or more fuzes present. If maximum consideration is given to ensuring the fuze does not function, the threat of the munition causing harm is greatly reduced. A clearly visible, undamaged fuze is easy to identify. If the fuze is internal or severely damaged and cannot be seen, its “type” may still be determined due to the category and group to which the munition belongs (steps 3 and 4). If the munition has been deployed, the fuze is considered armed (step 5). If a fuze is damaged, or components such as pins or clips have been removed, the fuze is considered armed. If the munition shows signs of alteration or modification, consider the munition armed as the internal configuration is now unknown and may include an alternate fuzing system.

Measurements of the fuze are taken separately from the munition.

Step 3: Determine Ordnance Category

Ordnance is deployed by being thrown, dropped, fired, launched, or placed. In many cases, category can be determined by the presence or absence of specific external features.

Step 4: Determine Ordnance Group

Group further defines a munition’s designed effect. In many cases, group can be determined by the presence or absence of specific external features.

Step 5: Determine if Munition was Deployed

If an ordnance item has been deployed and failed to function, it is classified as unexploded ordnance (UXO). Terms such as “dud fired” or “dud” are also commonly used. A munition that was deployed and failed to function is in the most dangerous condition.

Step 6: Determine Safety Precautions that Apply

Every munition has a purpose; if that purpose can be ascertained, then most, or all, of the associated hazards can also be identified.

There are 16 fundamental safety precautions associated with military ordnance and additional safety precautions related to specialized munitions not included in this text. These precautions are designed to clearly and concisely state what actions are to be taken, or explicitly avoided. Every precaution resulted from lessons learned after an accident, mishap, or catastrophe.

When an unknown piece of ordnance is encountered, all 16 safety precautions are initially adhered to. Throughout the inspection process, safety precautions associated with categories and groups that can be ruled out are dropped. The remaining safeties are adhered to until the incident is resolved. The safety precautions are not provided in a specific order. Consider rearranging them to make a word or phrase to assist in easy memorization. They are high explosive, fragmentation, electromagnetic radiation, static, movement, jet, ejection, chemical, fire, white phosphorus, cockedstriker, wait-time, variable time/proximity, piezoelectric, booby-trap, and influence.

1. High Explosive (HE):

a. Hazard: Explosive blast and overpressure.

b. Actions:

i. Do not expose to heat, shock, or friction.

ii. Establish a 360Åã by 300-meter exclusion area around the munition.

iii. People within the exclusion area need adequate frontal protection.

iv. When the actual threat is realized, increase the exclusion area if necessary.

2. Fragmentation (Frag):

a. Hazard: Primary and secondary fragmentation.

b. Actions:

i. Establish a 360° by 300-meter exclusion area around the munition.

ii. People within the exclusion area need adequate frontal and overhead protection.

iii. When the actual threat is realized, increase the exclusion area if necessary.

3. Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR):

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation. EMR is electrical energy produced by radios, radars, cell-phones, and other electronic devices. EMR can initiate fuzing and other electronic components, especially if the munition is damaged.

b. Actions: Do not use radio, cell-phone, or other electronic devices near an unknown ordnance item.

4. Static:

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation. Static can initiate fuzing and other electronic components, especially if the munition is damaged.

b. Actions:

i. Do not wear wool or nylon clothing when working with ordnance.

ii. Discharge static by placing the back of the hand on dirt or grasp a grounded item.

5. Movement:

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation. Many fuzes, contain free-floating impact or inertia weights, cocked-strikers and other hazards that are extremely sensitive to movement.

b. Actions: Do not move. Positive identification and condition determination must be made prior to considering if a munition can be moved.

6. Jet:

a. Hazard: A shaped charge jet penetrates armor for short distances, but the remaining material from the cone is deformed into a teardrop shaped “slug” capable of traveling for miles past the target. An EFP also forms a slug that constitutes a similar enough hazard that both are covered under “jet.”

b. Actions:

i. Approach at a 45° angle from the rear.

ii. Do not orientate a munition toward populated areas.

iii. Due to the frequent use of piezoelectric (PE) fuzing in these munitions, also adhere to PE, EMR, and Static safeties until a PE fuze is ruled out.

7. Ejection:

a. Hazards:

i. Components forcibly ejected during deployment, such as explosively ejected submunitions, pyrotechnic candles, fin assemblies, and fuzing probes.

ii. For ordnance with motors, ejection applies to the areas in front of and behind the munition, as well as in front of venturis that may be on the base or side.

b. Actions:

i. Approach at a 45° angle from the rear.

ii. Work outside areas where fins, probes, payloads, and other hazards would deploy.

iii. Do not move in front of or behind a munition containing a motor.

iv. People in potential back-blast or flight path zones should move to a safe area.

8. Chemical:

a. Hazard: Contact contamination or inhalation of chemical weapons, riot control agents, smoke from burning pyrotechnics, heavy metals used in guidance systems, toxic propellants, some screening smoke mixtures, and explosive main charges, such as the chemicals used in fuel air explosive (FAE) munitions.

b. Actions:

i. Establish a 360Åã by 450-meter exclusion area around the munition and a 2,000-meter downwind hazard area.

ii. Wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

9. Fire:

a. Hazard: Intense fire. Applies to munitions containing pyrophoric, pyrotechnic, and incendiary components or payloads. Additionally, do not spray or dump water on burning flare compositions, incendiary compounds, and pyrophoric materials as the “thermal shock” can produce a significant mechanical explosion.

b. Actions: If a munition is burning,

i. Do not inhale the smoke and move away in an upwind direction.

ii. Establish an exclusion area in accordance with the “Chemical” safety precaution.

iii. Never approach a burning or smoking munition.

iv. Expect a higher-order detonation.

v. Do not look directly at burning pyrotechnics.

vi. Do not attempt to extinguish burning explosives, pyrophoric materials, or pyrotechnic mixtures as this can cause an explosion.

10. White Phosphorus (WP):

a. Hazard: Applies to munitions containing white phosphorus (WP).

i. WP immediately ignites upon contact with the environment producing dense white smoke.

ii. The smoke produced by WP is extremely toxic.

iii. If starved of oxygen, a crust forms over the material. When this crust is broken, WP will immediately reignite.

iv. If a WP munition is smoking or burning, expect a high-order detonation as WP burns at temperatures higher than the detonating temperature of bursting charge explosives.

b. Actions: Do not disturb crusted over WP. If WP or RP is burning:

i. Do not inhale the smoke and move away in an upwind direction.

ii. Establish an exclusion area in accordance with the “Chemical” safety precaution.

iii. Never approach a burning or smoking munition.

iv. Expect a higher-order detonation.

v. Do not attempt to extinguish burning WP.

11. Cocked Striker (C/S):

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation.

A C/S is a firing pin under spring tension, held in place by a positive block within the fuzing mechanism. During fuze arming and functioning, the positive block should have moved allowing the firing pin to function the fuze, but this process was somehow disrupted.

In some fuzes, the detonator versus the pin is the moving component and classified as a “cocked detonator.” C/S is applied to these configurations as the same functioning principles apply.

b. Actions: Do not move the munition.

12. Wait time (W/T):

a. Hazard: Unexpected initiation.

Applies to fuzes and components containing batteries, capacitors, pyrotechnic, or clockwork mechanisms that provide time delays ranging from milliseconds to years, before functioning.

b. Actions: When a fuze containing a pyrotechnic, clockwork

(C/W), or electronic self-destruct (S/D), or delay function feature is recognized, STOP. There are required wait times (W/T) that need to be researched before further actions are taken.

13. Proximity or Variable Time (VT):

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation.

VT refers to fuzes with electronic sensors allowing them to “see.” The sensing element determines distance or proximity to a target, then functions at the desired distance as an airburst. Applies to fuzing incorporating VT, infra-red (IR), old TV guidance systems, and other fuzes with similar sensing capabilities.

These fuzes usually sustain severe damage upon impact. But some missiles have VT fuzing elements on the side for highspeed aircraft.

b. Actions:

i. Approach at a 45° angle from the rear.

ii. Do not move in front of a VT element that may “sense” you as the intended target and function.

iii. Also adhere to W/T, EMR, and Static safeties.

14. Piezoelectric (PE):

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation.

PE fuzing uses quartz crystal to produce electric current when stressed that initiates an electric detonator in the fuze. PE crystals constitute a power source with an indefinite shelf life.

b. Actions:

i. Do not stress a PE element.

ii. PE fuzing systems are commonly used with HEAT munitions. Also adhere to EMR, static, and jet precautions.

15. Booby-Trap (B/T):

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation.

B/Ts can be internal or external, mechanically, or electrically functioned.

b. Actions: Assume all landmines are booby trapped and do not move a munition suspected of containing a booby-trap.

16. Influence:

Covers magnetic, acoustic, and seismic fuzing systems used with some landmines, bombs, and underwater ordnance.

(1) Magnetic:

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation.

Magnetic fuzing senses ferrous metal and functions when specific thresholds are met.

b. Actions: Attempt to identify the munition at distance with binoculars. If magnetic fuzing is identified, do not approach the munition.

(2) Acoustic:

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation.

Acoustic fuzing senses sounds and functions when specific thresholds are met.

b. Actions: Attempt to identify the munition at a distance with binoculars. If acoustic fuzing is identified, do not approach the munition.

(3) Seismic:

a. Hazard: Unintentional initiation.

Seismic fuzing senses vibrations in the ground, air, or water and functions when specific thresholds are met.

b. Actions: Attempt to identify the munition at a distance with binoculars. If seismic fuzing is identified, do not approach the munition.

Step 7: Identify the Munition:

Return to the safe area utilizing the same route taken upon approach. Using the information obtained during approach, inspection, and egress; consult military manuals, historical ordnance literature, and military EOD. Validate findings and attempt to conclusively identify the munition.

Given the number of variables associated with ordnance, it is impossible for any process to be infallible. Because of this, even the most experienced practitioner must be cautious when considering a conclusive identification.

Other considerations that may affect a conclusive identification include:

1. Damage from high-speed impact, fire, and other insult.

2. Deterioration, exposure to the elements.

3. Illegal modifications made after leaving military control.

4. If present, color codes and painted markings are helpful. But repainting after leaving military control, as well as an international history of unpublished or constantly changing color schemes, may render this information useless.

5. Cultural aspects of design are helpful and may include unique shapes, painted, or stamped symbols, or uncommon components.


Ordnance is inherently dangerous, more so when it has been deployed, damaged, deteriorated, or modified in any way. Adhering to these safety precautions throughout the seven-step identification process allows additional information to be obtained while working in the safest manner possible. Accurate identification of an unknown munition is the best way to avoid a disastrous outcome. Until proven otherwise, always consider a deployed, damaged, or modified munition to be armed, and in its most hazardous condition.

About the Author

Tom Gersbeck served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician in the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring in 2001 as a Chief Warrant Officer. He then served seven years with the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) as an explosives security specialist before deploying as an independent contractor. Deployments include two tours in Afghan CEXC facilities and one tour as project manager of Task Force Paladin’s C-IED mobile training teams operating throughout the country. Other deployments include supporting Department of State as an EOD team lead in Iraq, advising the Tanzanian Peoples Defense Force after the Gongo La Mboto disaster (Feb 2011) and training deminers with Golden West Humanitarian Foundation in Cambodia. Today, Gersbeck is a full-time member of the graduate faculty for Oklahoma State University’s School of Forensic Sciences, Arson-Eplosives, Firearms & Toolmark Investigation (AEFTI) program. He holds a master of forensic sciences degree, is an active member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators (IABTI), is a Fellow in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), and continues to work in the field.

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

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