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Hair Trigger Explosive
Sarah: Aha! This looks like it! (throws a box to the Doctor, who freezes in place) What's wrong; not enough?
Doctor: Sweaty-gelignite-is highly-unstable. One good sneeze could set it off. (carefully puts the box on the floor)
Sarah: Sorry.
Doctor: No sign of any detonators or fuses?
Sarah: No, no, nothing else. Perhaps he sneezed?
Doctor Who, "The Pyramids of Mars"

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 without any apparent reason.

Some Real Life explosives really have a hair trigger, some...don't. Note that most explosives in fiction are not depicted this way. Usually in fiction, a plunger or a similar device (e.g. with a blasting cap, fuse, Plunger Detonator, etc.) 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 The Last Straw. 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. If a nuclear weapon is treated like this, it's Artistic License - Nuclear Physics.


Examples:

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.
  • Played straight and later subverted in Die Hard with a Vengeance. The liquid/gelled binary explosive used in the movie, PLX, actually exists but neither looks like it does in the movie nor does it explode on impact (instead requiring at least a blasting cap). It's also certainly not energetic enough that the amount collected on the tip of a paper clip would be enough to flip a chair. Seen later on, the actual bombs made with it feature more realistic amounts of priming explosives.

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.
    • A series of tests was conducted on detonating C4, nearly all of which subverted this trope. The C4 did not detonate when it was burned, stepped on, shot with a variety of bullets, crushed by an anvil, or even when placed under an ignited thermite charge. The only test in which it did detonate was when it was microwaved, but then only when a blasting cap was in place.
    • The Breaking Bad scene listed below was busted. When the mercury fulminate didn't detonate when thrown, the guest stars from the show tried to handwave by saying Walt had also used a bit of silver fulminate.
    • Another MythBusters example would be the claim that a binary explosive used in special effects work can be set off in a car wreck. Even assuming somebody was reckless enough to transport the explosive pre-mixed, the chemical is too stable to be set off in a wreck.
  • 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 fulminate on the ground and it explodes, causing major damage to the room.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Pyramids of Mars", the Doctor and Sarah happen across a poacher's cache of old, unstable gelignite. Sarah casually tosses it to the Doctor, nearly giving him a hearts-attack, before he warns her of the danger. Because they can't find any fuses, Sarah has to shoot it with a rifle to detonate the explosive.

Video Games
  • In video games in general, Exploding Barrels can be usually detonated even by punching or striking them with any melee weapon.
  • 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 without 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.
  • 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).
  • Deus Ex: Tossing a crate of TNT any significant distance will cause it to explode.
  • In Cannon Fodder, shooting a box of grenades or a bundle of rockets with a single bullet will cause it to explode.

Web Comics
  • Unsuccessfully invoked in the Homestuck Midnight Crew intermission by Clubs Deuce, who once wears a lump of C4 on his head before charging with his cane (apparently made from bovine attribute skin) in hand:
    Stitch says drop the livestock knob and settle the hell down. He says you do realize C4 is a stable explosive and won't detonate with gunfire, right? You say oh.

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.
  • The Simpsons: 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.
  • In Futurama, Fry is carrying sticks of dynamite, and each time one fell off it exploded. Fry makes it to the storage shed, there's a big explosion inside, and Fry emerges singed. Of course, the whole point of dynamite is that it doesn't explode unless detonated, so this was strictly Rule of Funny.
  • A recurring Looney Tunes gag has a character drinking a bottle of nitroglycerin and then either exploding or acquiring explosive saliva.

Truth in Television
  • Pure nitroglycerin is extremely unstable and prone to exploding if roughly handled (the reason dynamite was invented was to make nitroglycerin safer to transport and use). However, by freezing nitro, it becomes very hard to blow up.
    • Medical nitro is usually made in a safe form factor (pills, patches, etc). However, pure liquid nitro in a bottle is ridiculously sensitive.
  • 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!)
  • 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, when dry, is so sensitive that being exposed to alpha radiation is enough to detonate it.
  • Averted with C4 (which is famous for it's stability and inability to go off w/out a blasting cap) and TNT (which 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.
  • A website of Real Life stories involving this trope: stories
  • Some of the "Things I Won't Work With" category on this chemistry blog are included for this reason.
  • In 2014, the British Army claimed that an entire group of insurgents in Afghanistan had been killed by a single bullet, when a British sniper unknowingly shot a suicide bomb vest that one of them was wearing.
Grenade TropesTropes That Go BOOM!Having a Blast
Grilling PyrotechnicsStuff Blowing UpHaving a Blast
Hair-Trigger AvalancheJustForFun/Tropes Examined by the Myth BustersBreaking Bad

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