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Blast Damage: Dealing with the Overpressure

As entertaining as a Hollywood theatrics may be on the big screen, the most dangerous part of an explosion is the part that you cannot see. Even as we watch heroes walk away from a fiery bloom, and what looks like a wave of wind and dust blows past them, we’re seeing a representation of the blast wave. Unlike in film, this wave is most often not visible, doesn’t throw people through walls, and carries with it the grave danger of leaving invisible wounds. 

As Scott Featherman of AirBoss Defense Group and a former US Army Captain, has noted, Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) are the signature war wound of the current era. As modern film and video games are starting to open a new door into realism with more accurate representations of explosions in movies like 13 Hours, they struggle to depict the damaging nature of overpressure and the type of shock things like rockets, breaching charges, and IED’s give off. 

airboss mortar blast wave blast pressure
Image provided by AirBoss Defense Group

Interface Astroglial Scarring (IAS) takes place when a blast wave passes through the brain, as the wave encounters the shift in densities of what it is passing through. When it travels from a lower density material to the higher density portion of the brain, it leaves scarring. 

Where the research on blast damage has predictably focused on the aftereffects of a IED explosion, recent studies found that those who had never encountered such an event were also showing signs and symptoms of scarring accrued during training. Where an Improvised Explosive Device with ability to lift an armored vehicle off the ground naturally draws attention, the rapid and repeated exposure that happens when practicing with mortars, artillery, and recoilless rifles like the M3 Carl Gustav uncover a different aspect of this type of trauma. 

rocket back blast wave
From USU Pulse (INVICTA News Article) Image Credit U.S. Army, Sgt. M. Austin Parker

Its not just the magnitude of the pressure experienced, but the frequency, which has been explored in research on Second Impact Syndrome (SIS). If the brain does not have time to recover between impacts, be they through sports, training, or combat, the results can be fatal. 

The trouble with TBI and related injuries is how often they go unnoticed, undocumented, and untreated. This can produce a sort of hesitancy within military units who are simultaneously concerned with unit readiness. However, it is not nearly as simple as a problem with bureaucracy, as the individual warfighter is often more concerned about what could happen if they’re benched for even a single mission. 

Both problems are at least partially solved by better documentation, which, with semi-automated blast-sensing technology, improves the long-term capabilities of both the individual and the unit with a third added benefit. The data from a blast sensor can then be imported to a soldier’s medical record, further improving their long-term care even after they’ve retired from the battleground. 

Pressure, measured in PSI, is used for setting the minimum safe distance for breaching explosives, as well as establishing safety protocols for firing rockets, mortars, and recoilless rifles. When firing a rocket, the shooter must pay attention to what’s behind him, as walls, trees, or vehicles can reflect a deadly amount of pressure back at them, and the backblast can be lethal to those within a certain angle of the rear of the launcher. 

night vision goggles NODS blast guage
The device attached to the shoulder strap detects and record the pressure levels of the wearer. Photo by Samantha Lauraina

In 2018, the Center for a New American Security published a report on the imperative implementation of measuring blast exposure to dismounted troops. It included within its finding that the integration of a blast sensor into the kit of the individual warfighter would be necessary for both preventing future injuries, and to better understand the types and frequency of exposure experienced in training and in combat. In addition to this, they advocated that the blast history of an Armed Servicemember should be included in their medical records. While Congress directed the DOD to begin the Blast Overpressure Study (BOS), the process is still ongoing. 

By monitoring blast exposure, the military can prioritize treatment, and prevent overexposure, enhancing the longevity of individual troops. Having a record of blast exposure also alleviates some of the speculation that takes place regarding the treatment of veterans. The long-term effects of being exposed to radiation and other hazardous environments is represented in the veterans of both the development of nuclear submarines, as well as the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. When that exposer was tracked, it resulted in more accurate and more capable care of the veterans with related injuries. 

Find out more about Airboss Defense Group, and their research at: adg.com


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One response to “Blast Damage: Dealing with the Overpressure”

  1. Bruce says:

    “Shell Shock” was big in WW1, both with those on the sending and receiving ends.

    The effect can be very like the classic “punch-drunk boxer.

    By the 1990s there were “safety instructions” starting to filter through the system about “muzzle blast” from .50 Cal weapons. Normal high-spec hearing protection does NOT protect against serious shockwaves hitting the old brain box.

    Extreme over-pressure from nearby explosions can kill from over-pressure alone. See also lung and eye damage with nary a shell fragment to be found.

    The folks at Mythbusters did a very nice demo of an over-pressure shockwave in the famous “disappearing cement truck” episode.

    Super slo-mo here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIbl_3g5FRA

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  • "Shell Shock" was big in WW1, both with those on the sending and receiving ends.

    The effect can be very like the classic "punch-drunk boxer.

    By the 1990s there were "safety instructions" starting to filter through the system about "muzzle blast" from .50 Cal weapons. Normal high-spec hearing protection does NOT protect against serious shockwaves hitting the old brain box.

    Extreme over-pressure from nearby explosions can kill from over-pressure alone. See also lung and eye damage with nary a shell fragment to be found.

    The folks at Mythbusters did a very nice demo of an over-pressure shockwave in the famous "disappearing cement truck" episode.

    Super slo-mo here:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIbl_3g5FRA

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