Civil War re-enactment enthusiast Bill Safford says a typical weekend battle can require up to 100 pounds of black powder. Cannons, rifles and the re-enactment's reallife quality all depend on its use.
But in Washington , the legal limit for storing and transporting black powder is five pounds.
“We have to use the real stuff. We’re trying to be historically accurate,” Safford said. “We want the maximum amount of smoke – in the Civil War, the smoke was so bad you couldn’t see 50 meters.”
Rep. Barbara Bailey, ROak Harbor, has introduced a bill that would significantly increase the limit for storing and transporting black powder to match federal regulations. Bailey is revisiting the bill, which she proposed in almost identical form last year, to help people like Safford continue their historical reenactments for educational purposes.
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But it’s not the re-enactment participants that cause concern, say emergency workers who oppose the bill for safety reasons.
“I understand the desire of the Civil War re-enactors,” said state fire marshal Chuck Duffy. “Unfortunately, what they’re asking for here would apply to all citizens in the state.”
The bill would increase the amount of black powder a private citizen can store from five to 20 pounds, and would increase the amount that can be transported from five to 50 pounds. Bailey said this is to avoid breaking up the powder from its original packaging, which comes in cases of 25 one-pound canisters, and to bring Washington state law in line with federal law.
Currently, she argues, state law doesn’t do enough to correlate the limitations on black powder with its uses, which are primarily recreational.
“I think if you buy black powder, you generally know what you do with it, because it has limited use otherwise,” Bailey said. “The whole idea is that black powder really has a much greater safety aspect about it than what a fivegallon can of gasoline does, or even transporting a propane tank for your barbecue grill.”
Duffy, who also serves as the Washington State Patrol director of fire protection, disagrees.
“It has to do with public safety and the safety of first responders,” he said, referring to the danger faced by firefighters or police when they go into a burning building where black powder is also present. “Black powder is an explosive.”
In a demonstration done at the fire academy, officials placed five pounds of powder in an open container in the back of a car. The explosion blew the trunk lid several yards away.
If that happens when a car is going down the road in traffic, Duffy said, it could cause significant damage to vehicles around it.
But for Safford, who has been doing Civil War re-enactments since 1995, the dangers involved in purchasing black powder are similar to the dangers inherent in gun control laws.
“There’s no way to regulate stupidity,” he said. “These guys are bringing up something that ‘might’ happen and paying no attention to the fact that nothing has happened in years and years and years.”
In Safford’s opinion, black powder is much safer than modern rifle powder, and current law allows possession of 50 pounds of modern powder. Modern rifle powder is about three times as explosive as black powder, he said. But they don’t allow themselves to use it in re-enactments, because it doesn’t generate the historically accurate level of smoke on the battlefield.
“Our primary purpose is education,” he said. When kids in school come to the reenactments and walk through the camps, “instead of reading about it, they get to put their hands on it and feel these things.”
The bill last year passed unanimously through the House and made it to the Senate floor before getting caught up in the end-of-session confusion, Bailey explained. This year, with a few changes to make it comply exactly with federal law, she’s even more eager to see it pass.
“It helps a segment of our citizens do some great things from the educational aspect of reenactments to help our kids actually learn more about history,” she said.
Sponsors of the bill are currently working to find a compromise between the fire marshal’s concerns and the needs of the re-enactment participants, and Bailey’s office hopes to reach consensus soon.