Created By: spacemarine50 on December 24, 2012 Last Edited By: spacemarine50 on March 11, 2014
Troped

Hair-Trigger Explosive

Explosives + any impact = boom

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
Indexes: Tropes That Go BOOM!, Stuff Blowing Up, Tropes Examined by the MythBusters

(Formerly Hair Trigger Nitro. Expanded to include all explosives)

There are powerful explosives, and can blow up almost everything. But Hollywood gives it a nasty drawback: anything can make it explode. And I do mean anything. You have to be super-careful or it will blow up. Or maybe it blows w/out any apparent reason.

Some Real Life explosives really have a hair trigger, some...don't. Usually in fiction, a plunger or a similar device is used to safely blow up explosives. But also in fiction, they get the volatility of explosives wrong, especially TNT and dynamite.

Subtrope of Stuff Blowing Up and Wafer Thin Mint. Supertrope of Nitro Express. Also see Explosive Stupidity when someone doesn't know this. This applied to a car intentionally is Molotov Truck, and unintentionally is Every Car Is a Pinto. Compare/contrast Made of Explodium, in which something that should not be explosive explodes anyway.

Examples

Film
  • Double subverted in Rooster Cogburn from 1975 starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn. Marshall Cogburn and Eula Goodnight travel downriver by raft, carrying firearms and explosives, including boxes of nitro glycerin. The raft takes a wild ride through some whitewater rapids, but none of the nitro detonates. Once the raft reaches calmer waters, Hawk and his outlaws wait in ambush to recapture the munitions. Cogburn and Goodnight gently float the boxes of nitro in the river, where they drift downstream toward the outlaws. Cogburn then uses a rifle to trigger the nitro to blow the outlaws to smithereens.
  • In The Legend of Zorro the villains' plan involves a train full of nitroglycerine. To demonstrate one tosses a small drop onto the floor causing a huge explosion.

Literature
  • Subverted in The Guns of Navarone. While Corporal Miller is explaining how his gear has been sabotaged he holds up his time pencils and says "75 grains of fulminate of mercury in each of them, enough to blow my hand off. And very unstable, very delicate." He then ruthlessly crushes them. Instead of exploding, they do nothing - the traitor removed the fulminate of mercury.
  • Briefly discussed in the children's novel Ghost Town Adventure. Abe Winters, mayor of the eponymous ghost town, tells the children about a time one of his burros had fallen down a cliff while packing a load of dynamite. Chuck (the youngest) asks if the burro blew up and Abe says no, all that happened was the burro got a bruise on its tailbone.

Live-Action TV
  • Subverted on MythBusters. They were testing out the myth that a defibrillator could cause a nitroglycerin patch to explode. It was soundly busted.
    • Another one is if C4 can blow up if put into a microwave. It can, but only if it has a blasting cap in it.
    • Another subversion is that burning C4 doesn't make it go off. Also, dropping an anvil, stomping it, and shooting it with any bullet they tried didn't make it blow. For the final try, they ignited thermite right on top of C4. that didn't work.
    • Busted the Breaking Bad scene (below). The mercury of fulminate didn't explode when thrown. Then the actors (who were guest-starring) tried to Handwave by saying Walt had a bit of fulminate of silver with the mercury.
    • Another MythBusters example would be the claim that a binary explosive used in special effects work can be set off in a car wreck. (Busted, it's far too stable to be set off that way ... and that's assuming anyone's dumb enough to transport the stuff mixed.)
  • Arzt from Lost dies when he waves a stick of TNT too roughly and it detonates in his hand. Ironically enough, he was in the middle of a lecture on how to handle dynamite safely.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Whom Gods Destroy". The madman Garth of Izar has developed an explosive so powerful that a single flask of it could vaporize a planet. It will go off if dropped to the floor.
  • In Breaking Bad, Walt throws a handful of mercury of fulminate on the ground and it explodes, causing major damage to the room.

Truth in Television
  • Pure nitroglycerin is extremely unstable and prone to exploding if roughly handled. The reason dynamite was invented was make nitroglycerin safer to transport and use.
    • However, by freezing nitro, it becomes very hard to blow up.
  • Another hair-trigger explosive is fulminate of mercury, which is used in blasting caps in order to set off other explosives and percussion caps for muskets in the mid 1800s.
    • And if you think fulminate of mercury is bad, then look at fulminate of silver. It can explode under its own weight.
  • There are "contact explosives" (see The Other Wiki) that are almost ridiculously sensitive. Nitrogen triiodide is so sensitive that being exposed to alpha radiation is enough to detonate it.
  • Anyone who has seen the lab demonstration concerning how quickly and simply nitro can be made (if you have the correct chemicals) will remember the inevitable sequel for life. The test-tube, in which a very small quantity of nitro has been made, is held at arms-length by the demonstrator and then dropped. The impact imparted simply by dropping the damn thing causes a large bang and sends glass shards flying everywhere. (This was in the context of an Army lecture about improvised explosive devices and how simple explosives can be made from scratch. The instructors are usually experienced NCO's and officers who know how far they can go. I don't think this is taught in schools!)
  • C4 is famous for it's stability and inability to go off w/out a blasting cap.
  • A website of Real Life stories involving this trope: stories

Video Games
  • Crash Bandicoot has Nitro boxes that go off like this. They also bounce randomly.
    • TNT is less sensitive than nitro, as in you can touch the side w/out dying. Hitting the top triggers the timer, but you can still kill yourself like it's nitro.
  • The Incredible Machine has a vial of nitro as an item. Any impact even a fan blowing air against it can set it off, except one. That's important in one level.
  • The two Castlevania games on the Nintendo 64 have the item "Magical Nitro" which is used in conjunction with "Mandragora" to make an explosive that destroys cracked walls. However, the game cautions that the Nitro is extremely volatile; the player must avoid jumping or being hit by enemy attacks or else the Nitro explodes and instantly kills the character.
  • TNT blocks in Spelunky's HD remake will explode violently when hit by anything, even by flying blood drops and shrapnel that are generally harmless.

Western Animation
  • During the ending of the Spongebob Squarepants episode Dying for Pie, Spongebob shows Squidward that he never ate the bomb pie, he was saving it in his pocket the whole time. He then trips, dropping the pie and causing an explosion (a live-action nuclear one to be specific), and then it cuts back to Spongebob and Squidward, completely covered in ash from the explosion.
    Squidward: Ow.
    • Before that, a bite of that pie is enough to blow up Mr. Krab's office when that hits the ground.
  • Zigzagged in "The PTA Disbands", a tour guide in Fort Springfield is giving a lecture on a "fully restored and in ready to fire condition" Civil War cannon aimed directly at the base of a manned lookout tower. She mentions that these cannons are "very sensitive and that the "slightest jolt" can set them off as the Springfield Elementary bus starts swerving towards the cannon. The bus hits it and... one of the cannon's wheels falls off.
    Tour Guide: Of course for safety reasons, we don't keep the cannon loaded. That's just common sense.
Community Feedback Replies: 51
  • December 24, 2012
    Arivne
    Note that this is Truth In Television - pure nitroglycerin is extremely unstable and prone to exploding if roughly handled. The reason dynamite was invented was make nitroglycerin safer to transport and use.
  • December 24, 2012
    randomsurfer
    See also Nitro Express.
  • December 25, 2012
    reub2000
    • Subverted on Myth Busters. They where testing out the myth that a defibrillator could cause a nitroglycerin patch to explode. It was soundly busted.
  • December 25, 2012
    Chabal2
    • The Lucky Luke album Nitroglycerine is about Luke escorting a single large crate of the stuff on a train, as it's headed for a Union Pacific site and the Central Pacific is trying to sabotage it. This is not helped by the fact that the Daltons see such a heavily guarded crate and figure it must contain a fortune in gold being sent to a place called "Nitro". The nitro's reputation reaches Memetic Badass levels: an entire cavalry regiment runs like hell as soon as the train gets underway, the engineer recalls that he wasn't this scared the time he had Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Calamity Jane on his train, Luke almost has a heart attack when he sees the Daltons about to Shoot Out The Lock, and when Joe Dalton finally learns what the crate he's been chasing and occasionally taking cover behind contains, he faints.
  • December 25, 2012
    Lumpenprole
    If this trope isn't limited to actual nitroglycerin, then in Real Life there are "contact explosives" (see The Other Wiki) that are almost ridiculously sensitive. Nitrogen triiodide is so sensitive that being exposed to alpha radiation is enough to detonate it.

  • March 19, 2013
    spacemarine50
    There also this: nitro is also a medication, and some confuse the 2.
  • March 19, 2013
    DRCEQ
    The description could use a slight mending. Yes, it does say how Nitro can explode from anything, but you should define just how subtle "anything" can be and point out that most of the time, Hollywood implies that merely slightly jostling the container is enough to set it off. Shaking it is outright.
  • March 19, 2013
    KTera
    • Arzt from Lost dies when he waves a stick of TNT too roughly and it detonates in his hand. Ironically enough, he was in the middle of a lecture on how to handle dynamite safely.
  • March 19, 2013
    spacemarine50
    ^^Might give a couple examples in the description. Rough draft:

    • Tapping it with a finger is enough. So is merely waving it around. Even a puff of air can blow yourself up.
  • March 20, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    Film
    • Averted in Rooster Cogburn from 1975 starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn. Marshall Cogburn and Eula Goodnight travel downriver by raft, carrying firearms and explosives, including boxes of nitro glycerin. The raft takes a wild ride through some whitewater rapids, but none of the nitro detonates. Once the raft reaches calmer waters, Hawk and his outlaws wait in ambush to recapture the munitions. Cogburn and Goodnight gently float the boxes of nitro in the river, where they drift downstream toward the outlaws. Cogburn then uses a rifle to trigger the nitro to blow the outlaws to smithereens.
  • March 20, 2013
    StarSword
    Link fix.
  • March 25, 2013
    AgProv
    Real Life

    Anyone who has seen the lab demonstration concerning how quickly and simply nitro can be made (if you have the correct chemicals) will remember the inevitable sequel for life. The test-tube, in which a very small quantity of nitro has been made, is held at arms-length by the demonstrator and then dropped. The impact imparted simply by dropping the damn thing causes a large bang and sends glass shards flying everywhere. (This was in the context of an Army lecture about improvised explosive devices and how simple explosives can be made from scratch. The instructors are usually experienced NCO's and officers who know how far they can go. I don't think this is taught in schools!)
  • April 8, 2013
    spacemarine50
  • July 2, 2013
    DennisDunjinman
    I once heard that a factory that made dynamite was so dangerous due to the handling of nitroglycerin that authorities moved it onto a barge in the middle of a lake. But I don't have a proper source for that, so it probably can't be used as an example.

    Scientifically, nitrogen-carbon bonds have a lot of chemical energy between them. This is also why Trinitrotoluene (the ever-so-popular TNT used in Looney Tunes) is also so very explosive.
  • July 3, 2013
    m8e
    ^That was actually Alfred Nobels lab. They banned his experiments within Stockholm city limits after an series of explosion (one of them killed his brother and 13 other people). After that he moved the lab (not any of the factories) to an barge anchored in lake Mälaren.
  • July 3, 2013
    Melkior
    Corrected the spelling for the Mythbusters example. Why do people seem to think that "where" and "were" are the same word when they have such obviously different meanings?

    Dew knot trussed yore spiel chequer two fined awl eras!!! (Yes, every word in that sentence is spelled correctly, they're just all the wrong words for the context).
  • July 3, 2013
    aurora369
    Medical nitro is usually made in a safe form factor (pills, patches, etc). However, pure liquid nitro in a bottle is ridiculously sensitive.

    TNT, on the other hand, is safe and sane. You can burn the stuff in a stove, and it won't explode. You need a detonator to explode TNT.

    Dynamite is in between these extremes. Newly made dynamite is as safe as TNT, but old dynamite is as unstable as nitro, because it sweats nitro from itself.
  • July 5, 2013
    spacemarine50
    Should I expand this to all explosives? Even then, not sure to add TNT as said ^.
  • July 6, 2013
    Arivne
    ^ I would alter this to cover all explosives that are shown as being "hair trigger", i.e. going off when jostled, dropped, etc., not just nitroglycerin.

    Note that most explosives in fiction are not depicted this way - they are usually shown as detonating only when properly prepared (e.g. with a blasting cap, fuse, Plunger Detonator, etc.).
  • July 6, 2013
    UltramarineAlizarin
    Video Games
    • The two Castlevania games on the Nintendo 64 have the item "Magical Nitro" which is used in conjunction with "Mandragora" to make an explosive that destroys cracked walls. However, the game cautions that the Nitro is extremely volatile; the player must avoid jumping or being hit by enemy attacks or else the Nitro explodes and instantly kills the character.
  • July 7, 2013
    MattStriker
    The Wages Of Fear is built around this. The main characters need to transport a cargo of nitroglycerin to a burning oil well, over a bumpy, curvy, badly-maintained mountain road. Bad things happen along the way.
  • July 7, 2013
    PaulA
    ^ That's already listed under the existing subtrope, Nitro Express.
  • July 7, 2013
    spacemarine50
    @Arivne: I might do that, but nitro is still the Trope Maker or Trope Codifier to this. Probably include some notable adversions.
  • July 13, 2013
    Arivne
    Another hair-trigger explosive is fulminate of mercury, which is used in blasting caps in order to set off other explosives.
  • August 15, 2013
    Arivne
    Namespaced and italicized work titles, arranged examples by media.

    Film
    • Subverted in The Guns Of Navarone. While Corporal Miller is explaining how his gear has been sabotaged he holds up his time pencils and says "75 grains of fulminate of mercury in each of them, enough to blow my hand off. And very unstable, very delicate." He then ruthlessly crushes them. Instead of exploding, they do nothing - the traitor removed the fulminate of mercury.
  • August 16, 2013
    spacemarine50
    • Should I edit/rename this to include all explosives, not just nitro?
    • Nitroglycerin is used as a medicine too. Should I make a subtrope of that or a sub-category of examples?
  • August 16, 2013
    DAN004
    ^ First point: Yes, you should. Second point: No, you shouldn't.
  • August 17, 2013
    spacemarine50
    ^2nd point: It was a A or B on what to do w/ that aspect of this trope, not a yes/no on the whole thing.
  • August 17, 2013
    kjnoren
    I'd say using nitroglycerine as a medicine isn't tropable. But if someone starts going off on feeding them explosives or where medical nitroglycerine is explosive, then it's this trope.
  • August 17, 2013
    kjnoren
    Also, I think the Lucky Luke and Rooster Cogburn examples fall squarely under Nitro Express - no need to list them here.
  • August 22, 2013
    Arivne
    Live Action TV
    • Star Trek The Original Series episode "Whom Gods Destroy". The madman Garth of Izar has developed an explosive so powerful that a single flask of it could vaporize a planet. It will go off if dropped to the floor.
  • August 22, 2013
    zarpaulus
    Film
    • In The Legend of Zorro the villains' plan involves a train full of nitroglycerine. To demonstrate one tosses a small drop onto the floor causing a huge explosion.
  • August 31, 2013
    spacemarine50
    What should I do with the Nitro Express examples listed here?
  • September 1, 2013
    kjnoren
    Cut them from here. Both of them are already in Nitro Express.

    You can probably go through Nitro Express and look for examples there. (I did a quick check, but didn't find anything noteworthy. Sure, things go off, but usually it seems to be treated as unsafe handling.)
  • September 15, 2013
    DAN004
    You may add to the description on how (particularly) nitroglycerin are unstable so as to invoke this trope.
  • October 14, 2013
    MonaNaito
    Compare/contrast Made Of Explodium, in which something that should not be explosive explodes anyway.
  • October 27, 2013
    kjnoren
    I think I prefer the original trope name here, ie Hair Trigger Nitro. Nitroglycerine is the most famous example of the trope, and it simply sounds better to me.

    And if you think fulminate of mercury is bad, then look at fulminate of silver. It can explode under its own weight.
  • November 2, 2013
    spacemarine50
    ^ was the old name when it only applied to nitro. Since I expanded the trope, a more appropriate name is needed.
  • November 2, 2013
    DAN004
    ^ You can at least mention how nitroglycerin was like this in the description.
  • November 3, 2013
    kjnoren
    ^^ In this case, I think using a Trope Namer is acceptable. Or we go for something even more evocative, like Hair Trigger Boom.

    Or if we want to go in the ridiculous direction: Fulminate Of Nitroglycerine.
  • November 3, 2013
    kjnoren
    As for Truth In Television, I found the following set of great stories.
  • November 29, 2013
    spacemarine50
    Thinking about setting up a crowner to determine the name.
  • November 29, 2013
    kjnoren
    If you want to. The currently proposed one (Hair Trigger Explosive) is easily good enough.

    I think it's more important to curate the examples and improve the description.
  • February 27, 2014
    spacemarine50
  • February 27, 2014
    DAN004
    Hats plz.
  • February 27, 2014
    randomsurfer
    Briefly discussed in the children's novel Ghost Town Adventure. Abe Winters, mayor of the eponymous ghost town, tells the children about a time one of his burros had fallen down a cliff while packing a load of dynamite. Chuck (the youngest) asks if the burro blew up and Abe says no, all that happened was the burro got a bruise on its tailbone.
  • March 10, 2014
    Diask
    • TNT blocks in Spelunky's HD remake will explode violently when hit by anything, even by flying blood drops and shrapnel that are generally harmless.
  • March 10, 2014
    Antigone3
    Another Myth Busters example would be the claim that a binary explosive used in special effects work can be set off in a car wreck. (Busted, it's far too stable to be set off that way ... and that's assuming anyone's dumb enough to transport the stuff mixed.)
  • March 10, 2014
    Larkmarn
    If a nuclear weapon is treated like this, it's Artistic License Nuclear Physics.

    • In Angry Birds, if a bird, rock, piece of wood (anything, really) hits a box of TNT, it will blow up (even if there's no source of fire).
  • March 10, 2014
    GeneralLuigi
    Real Life

  • March 11, 2014
    Korodzik
    In video games in general, Exploding Barrels can be usually detonated even by punching or striking them with any melee weapon.

    Deus Ex: Tossing a crate of TNT any significant distance will cause it to explode.
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