Explosives vs. the Human Body

Often in action movies you see the force of an explosion hurling people high into the air, but they fall to the ground intact and basically unhurt. This is fairly unrealistic, isn’t it? I suppose it could happen if you were a certain distance from the actual explosion-- but if you were in close proximity to, say, an exploding grenade or a mortar shell (or a mine), wouldn’t it be your dismembered body parts raining to the ground instead? Also, I seem to recall reading (in a book about World War 1) about soldiers being blown to so many pieces that they were basically obliterated (recalling Ice97531’s post from a couple pages back!)— but I cannot recall if this was from grenades or more powerful explosions. Does any one know what type of force is required to achieve total dismemberment (or even obliteration) of a human body? I am not sure what difference there is between grenades, bazookas, mines, mortar shells, etc. Hopefully someone can enlighten me!

Explosives deliver a shock wave through the air – think of watching a fireworks display and feeling the “whoomp” of the biggies down in your chest – now magnify that a few hundred times.

They also deliver shrapnel, and that’s the real killer. Take a handful of spare change, thumb tacks, staples, and paper clips – and hurl them at someone at several hundred feet per second.

Grenades: hand-thrown explosives, with a small charge and mucho shrapnel. The perfect thing to use against someone holed up in a small room.

Bazookas: tube-launched anti-tank weapon. Its direct descendants are still in use today. The Russian-made RPG-7 (Rocket Propelled Grenade) was swapped all over the world like baseball cards, and is still pulling down casualties today. It was first designed as an anti-tank weapon, but tanks are a lot harder to crack today, so it mostly gets used against people, cars, houses, and helicopters.

Mines: buried treasure.

Mortars: explosives lobbed high into the air, intended to come down on the other side of a ridge, treeline, block of buildings, etc.

The ideal of artillery is to hit the other guy while being immune from getting hit yourself…

Oh, also: watch any good American Civil War movie, and ignore the bits where explosives cause men to jump into the air. Substitute men getting turned into wads of ground meat instead, and don’t forget small rivers of blood running down the hill.

War 81-Q, anyone?


Well, for a grenade, I always thought that the shrapnel (really fragments of the grenade’s shell) was the primary cause of damage, not the explosion itself…

      • First off, real explosions generally don’t look like what you see in movies unless there’s a lot of gasoline or oil at the target. The only thing you see is a relatively small, white flash and then the area around that gets dust tossed up into the air a bit. There’s no great amount of smoke present, and you don’t normally get huge, orange fireballs ascending into the sky.
  • How much it takes to blow a body into pieces I don’t know, but that’s not the main cause of injuries. The three main causes of injuries of being near explosions are flying debris, collapsed lungs and concussion-type brain injuries (these severe enough to cause internal bleeding/death). The shock wave from the explosion causes the last two types of injuries at close range. So you can find a body that was near an detonation of high-powered explosives and even though it didn’t get burned or hit by flying debris, the person may well still be very dead, or so injured that they cannot be saved.
  • As far as flying debris goes, you also get transmission debris, which is when an explosion or impact directly strikes a wall of harder material (such as of steel or stone) and shatters the opposite face of it. The explosion/impact itself doesn’t blow through completely through the wall, but it strikes the wall so hard that pieces of the opposite side of the wall are thrown off at bullet-like velocities. So simply standing behind a thick steel or concrete wall when you know that there will be a big explosion on the other side is not any guarantee of safety. This is the reason that soldiers making military barriers pile up sandbags or dirt in front of walls they plan to hide behind–the softer sand/dirt absorbs the shockwave and helps the wall resist shattering.

More pedantically it’s one of the reasons. Infantry are taught to use sandbags because sand and concrete stops high powered rifle rounds whereas a standard concrete wall on its own will not, and even a very thick concrete wall will get chewed away by MG fire very fast without sandbags to take the punch out of the bullets.

If the primary purpose of sandbagging were to prevent transmission debris it would probably make more sense to pile the bags up behind the wall where they wouldn’t be destroyed and still just as effective at catching debris.


You’ve pretty much got it right. Any explosion powerful enough to hurl a human body high into the air would also blow that body apart.

The explosions you see in the movies are very misleading and nothing like the explosions of real high-explosive weapons on a battlefield.

Movie explosions are done with fairly low-velocity explosives and juiced up with gasoline and diesel fuel that makes an impressive fireball without actually packing much a punch.

As a rule, I can’t stand to watch Hollywood war movies because their explosions are so fake. You can’t really appreciate the shock in an actual high-explosive detonation until you’ve been near one.



So why are there so many accounts from soldiers and war correspondents, and even some photographs, of bodies hurled into trees, onto roofs and so forth by artillery shells?

Are all the accounts made up and the photographs all fakes?

My granddad told me a story about shooting at an old box of dynamite. He thought it wouldn’t detonate because there were no blasting caps. I don’t know exactly how far away he was (he was shooting with a rifle), but the force of the explosion did knock him back several feet, maybe into the tens. The explosion produced little, if any shrapnel, and he was unhurt except for a ringing in his ears for few days.

Was I the only person who saw this thread title, and thought of:

  1. flatulence?

  2. Dynamite as a constipation cure?

Too much 3 Stooges…gonna go lie down…

  1. Because they’re unusual? If each person who was killed by such an event, was as carefuly, individually, photographed - and each photo were equally shown in books and exhibits, you’d probably almost never see those miracuoulous survivor shots at all. After all most soldiers in active combat never see survivors like that. Truly gristly battle casualties are incredibly common, but you rarely see photos of those. You may think you do, but trust me, those are the relatively tidy shots. No one photographs the worst ones.

People walk away from being shot in the head at point black range, too. Luck and circumstance.

  1. A photo of a body in a tree (etc.) is almost certainly dead. A live soldier blown into a tree is a vital emergency, not a tourist postcard. You tend to view such things differently when the next body may be you. Also a deep foot-long gash ripping your internal organs apart (etc.) isn’t all that evident once all the blood drains from the body. Even missing limbs aren’t evident from all angles.

  2. Perhaps you are interpreting “blown apart” differently than some posters intended. The human body is more difficult to “blow to bits” vs. “kill instantly and brutally”. A good firework can take a few fingers, but the force of an explosion only lasts a few milliseconds. Usually some part(s) of the body “give(s) way” dissipating much of the accumulating mechanical stress of that moment.

Though I don’t agree with your example, I agree that the original remark was overstated. There’s a big difference between the force required to propell you a few meters in the air, and the mechanical threshold for bodily disruption. However, the gas volume released by the detonation a grenade or small artillery shell is relatively small, and shock waves are not very efficient propulsion. Basically, they are saying that if you were close enough to a small explosion to be propelled very far up, the shock wave will probably kill you.

Oddly, you’d have a better chance of being lofted in the air and not killed by a large explosion – provided you aere fairly well protected. Let’s say a 100lb (or larger) bomb buries itself deep in the ground 30 feet from you, so at the time of detonation, you’re shielded from the oblique shock wave by many feet (many tons) of dirt. Your chances of being thrown in the air relatively unscathed, along with tons of pulverized dirt, are probably higher than if you were armwrestling a much smaller land mine or grenade. I still wouldn’t try it. Your chances are still probably on the order of 1% or less. The thing is most past wars didn’t just settle for a single Cecil Demille take. They repeated the gristly shot thousands or millions of times.

I recall back when I was trying to learn to fly the IP told me to ignore all them Vietnam Stories.

You see, the guys who did that crazy stuff and LIVED got to tell the story, those who did the stuff and died aren’t in the area to tell you how dumb they felt.

Same is true with explosion stories. There are a huge number of variables in something as complex as an explosion (not the least of which is the story-teller lying or simply being knocked out and unable to report the truth).

Some people certainly are knocked into trees or onto roofs. Darn few though. They are the ones who live to tell the story.

I saw an episode of a show recently–i think it might have been one of the CSI shows–where i guy gets killed by a bomb. He has virtually no obvious external injuries (missing limbs, shrapnel, blood), but when they open him up to perform the autopsy, his inside have been turned to soup by the force of the blast.

These CSI-type shows generally seem to make an effort at accuracy. I wonder how likely such a scenario is?

I suspect it would depend on the type of explosive. If a high-velocity explosive with a high brisance, anything that would do damage to the inside would also damage the outside of a person.

If a low-velocity explosion such as from gunpowder or a fuel-air explosion, the atmospheric overpressure could damage the lungs and eardrums w/o otherwise externally damaging the body.

It certainly wouldn’t turn all of a person’s insides into soup w/o damaging the body. The heart, spleen, liver, etc. are already cushioned in a liquid bath, and any pressure that could turn a heart into pudding would also turn the heart’s container (i.e. body) into pudding.



I realise that. I never suggested that those bodies blown into trees were still alaive. What I was dubious about was the claim that “Any explosion powerful enough to hurl a human body high into the air would also blow that body apart”. But you have confirmed that that statement is incorrect. Explosions can be powerful enough to throw bodies into the air without tearing them apart.

Explosions can do odd things. We had a plane carrying 4-1000 lb. bombs crash on takeoff and catch fire. A fire crew started spraying water on one of the bombs to prevent an explosion. One of the firemen, who is still alive today, was on the hose nozzle about 30 ft from the bomb when it went off. His only injuries were ruptured eardrums and the 5 guys behind him were all killed.

No offense, but that really should have gotten the man a well earned Darwin Award.

“that really should have gotten the man a well earned Darwin Award.”

Grandfathers, almost by definition, have failed to meet the prime criterion for a Darwin award.


To qualify for the Darwin Award you have to either kill yourself or in some other way make yourself incapable of passing your genetic material on to future generations.



I’m sure he knows that. He was saying that the grandfather should have died, and that such a death would not have been undeserved for one who is shooting at dynamite for fun.

I didn’t know the current term for this. We always called it “backface deformation.” Times change, I reckon.