Without a doubt, the most talked about subject in hobby rocketry today is about the increase of regulatory scrutiny. And also without a doubt, the area that has caused the most misinformation to be disseminated is the very same regulatory quagmire. More questions have been asked, more incorrect answers have been given, more inappropriate scenarios have been posed about this one topic than any of the other items of interest to hobby rocketeers at any time in recent history.

Granted, regulatory concerns are something to be genuinely concerned about–the very smallest infractions could bear serious consequences for the offender. With terms like “felony” and “misdemeanor” being thrown around with penalties that include “fined not more than $10,000” and “imprisoned not more than 10 years,” it’s nothing to sneeze at. As a result of this, it’s time to look into the inner workings of exactly what is going on, see if we can make heads or tails of the situation, and get some common sense infused into the frenzy that has become know as the Regulatory Nightmare of 1999.

Misconception #1

One of the first misconceptions many people have about the current state of regulatory oversight, the impending enforcement of explosives laws, is that this is new. Wrong. These are not new regulations–they are existing regulations that have not been enforced since their inception with regard to the rocketry community. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have been charged with the responsibility of maintaining a list of explosive materials, published annually in the Federal Register. On this list are compounds and materials that are deemed to be explosive in nature and therefore pose a threat to the general public if not regulated in a secure manner.

The mainstay of the rocketry hobby for rocket propulsion, compressed black powder propellant and ammonium perchlorate composite propellant, have been on this list for years. However, certain volumes of these propellants have been exempted from regulatory oversight by the authorities because of their definition–toy propulsion devices for model rockets. Going back to 1970, model rocket motors were exempted from regulation by The Organized Crime Control Act, 18 U.S.C. Chapter 40, a piece of legislation that excluded model rocket engines utilizing small amounts of black powder as propellants. Since that time, the popularity of the hobby as well as the desire for more power led to the development of composite propellants, ammonium and potassium perchlorate composites, to be exact.

Enter 62.5 Grams

When the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reviewed these products, they utilized an arbitrary limit of propellant weight and power as the cutoff point for the definition of a toy propellant device. Defined in 16 CFR 1500.84(a)(8), those motors containing a propellant weight of 62.5 grams or less and which produce less than 80 newton-seconds of total impulse would be classified as a model rocket motor. The 62.5 grams number was arrived at in the mid-70’s by several motor manufacturers to create DOT-E-7887, a Department of Transportation shipping exemption. This limit resulted in the legalized shipping of all F-class motors and the then “new” G-class motors under what was known as Class C explosives, now known as Class 1.4.

Since then, hobby rocketry has continued to enjoy a successful period of growth, attracting more and more new entrants into the ranks, effectively raising the visibility of the hobby on the regulatory radar screen. Given the increased participation and the continued growth of more and more powerful motors, hobby rocketry today is a victim of its own success, painting the regulatory community into the proverbial corner, demanding that something be done to assure the safe pursuit of such endeavors. Combined with other unfortunate incidents of late involving explosives and terrorism, its only natural that the mass of the unknowing populace wants some kind of assurances.

Big Brother Is Watching

In February of 1997, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms sought to initiate discussion within their ranks about “high power rocketry,” as today’s high performance large model rockets have come to be known. They produced an internal memorandum bearing that name as the title (See sidebar). In this memo, they addressed the issues as they saw them, stating that it was their belief that the ATF needed to be proactive before any accidents involving high power rockets occurred, certainly a common sense deduction if there ever was one. The ATF considers any model rocket motor that contains a propellant weight greater than 62.5 grams and producing a total impulse of more than, or equal to, 80 newton-seconds, a high power rocket motor, placing it under the provisions of the Federal explosives laws, 18 U.S.C. Chapter 40. The memo went on to discuss the 62.5 grams limit and addresses single use as well as reloadable motors. It in so much as stated that propellant slugs that could not be used individually but were intended to be “used as a segment for installation into larger motors” to create a motor with greater than 62.5 grams of propellant would indeed be regulated. This, back in February of 1997!

Certainly the regulatory agency’s radar screen “blipped” earlier the previous year. ATF Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) Number 841 was filed on October 15, 1996, and hundreds of letters from concerned rocketry enthusiasts poured into Washington protesting the call for an increase in Low Explosive Users Permit fees from $20 for a one year permit to $100 for a three year permit. One thing it did was to let Washington know that there were more than just a handful of rocketeers out there that felt their actions deserved regulation. Logically the only people effected by a fee increase would be those who needed to apply for a permit in the first place, something only a user of low explosives would need to do. As such, we tipped our hand to the “other players.” In fact, in the June 1997 issue of the ATF Explosives Newsletter was the following statement:

“During the comment period, ATF received approximately 400 letters, primarily from the model rocket industry. Their comments suggested that ATF create a separate catagory for rocketry permits with lower fees. ATF is considering the relative merits of such a proposal and will issue a final rule in the near future.”

Where Do I Fit In?

The February 1997 ATF memorandum pretty much stated the issues as clearly as they could be stated. Hobby rocketry-related users of low explosives were defined as those people who were purchasing or transporting single-use or reloadable motors with greater than 62.5 grams of total propellant weight in interstate or foreign commerce.

They also clearly stated in the memo that users of these products making their purchases from dealers licensed in their own state of residence were not required to have a federal users permit. But, they also cover very clearly that ALL individuals who store explosives, whether they have a federal users permit or not MUST have storage facilities that comply with federal standards. They further go on, in this same memo, to touch upon a seemingly “hot potato” issue - the one about storage in an attached garage. The memo states that storage in attached garage will be allowed, as long as the magazine is separated from the living quarters by “a wall.” Read that again–it does not state a “1 hour firewall.” It says “a wall.”

The result of the NPRM 841 was a posting in the Federal Register of Treasury Decision ATF-400 on August 24, 1998, the official status of the rulemaking proposal. The increased fees that were proposed would become official on December 22, 1998. Upon closer scrutiny, it was determined that several UN-exempted products had been left off the regulation, meaning previously exempted model rocket motors would now become regulated, even those with less than 62.5 grams of propellant. Once this was discovered, and was brought to the attention of the ATF, a letter was issued (see sidebar) to Gary Rosenfield of AeroTech that stated:

“As noted in your letter, the final rule included a revision of 27 CFR 55.141(a)(7). The revision of 22 CFR 55.141(a)(7) did not include UN numbers for model rocket motors that were previously exempted from regulation under 27 CRF Part 55. Since it was not the intent of the final rule to regulate these items, please be advised we are in the process of amending the regulations to reflect this exemption.”

Can You Say Oops?

It also resulted in a field memo being released to all ATF agents requesting that no action being taken. The text of the memo is as follows:


JAN 5, 1999

MEMORANDUM TO: All Division Directors
THRU: Assistant Director (Field Operations)
FROM: Assistant Director (Firearms, Explosives and Arson)
SUBJECT: Exemptions under 27 CFR 55.141

On August 24, 1998, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) published a final rule. Treasury decision, T.D. ATF-400: Notice No. 841, in the Federal Register amending 27 CFR Part 55. The final rule, which becomes effective December 22, 1998, amended 27 CFR 55.141 (a) (7), which lists low explosives exempted from regulation. The final rule was not supposed to change which low explosives were exempted. However, ATF failed to list in the final rule all the low explosives that were meant to be exempted from regulation. Consequently, as of December 22, 1998, items such as toy plastic and paper caps, explosive auto alarms, and toy model rockets will be subject to regulation under Part 55. We are currently taking steps to correct the oversight by amending 27 CFR 55.141 (a) (7) to include all low explosives that were meant to be exempted from regulation under 27 CFR Part 55.

In the interim, no enforcement action is to be taken regarding the importation, distribution, and storage of the following explosives;

  1. Fireworks classified as UN0336, UN0337, UN0431, or UN0432 explosives by the U.S. Department of Transportation at 49 CFR 172.101 and generally known as “consumer fireworks” or “articles pyrotechnic. “
  2. Model rocket motors classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation at 49 CFR 172.101 as UN0349, UNO351, UN0471, NA0276, or NA0323; consisting of ammonium perchlorate composite propellant, black powder, or other similar low explosives; containing no more than 62.5 grams propellant weight; and designed as single use motors or as reload kits.
  3. Other low explosives classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation at 49 CFR 172.101 as NA0337, UN0336, and UN0337.

Please ensure that this information is disseminated to all field personnel.

If there are any questions about which explosives are to be treated as exempted under 27 CFR 55.141 (a) (7), please contact the Public Safety Branch at 202-927- 8690.

Jimmy Wooten

What Next?

After an unproductive regulatory “summit” in Washington DC on February 4th of this year, the director of the High Power Rocket Manufacturers and Dealers Association announced his retirement in a letter to the members of the rocketry trade, stating:

“I can not say that I am surprised by the outcome of the meeting. I can say that I’m not pleased by the outcome, nor the current direction that this matter is heading in. For the past few days I’ve contemplated just how the trade association should respond. All of the responses boil down to one of three options:

  1. Accept it. This would be the easiest and cheapest, at least in the short term. I can not recommend the option because of its large negative impact upon the trade and the hobby as a whole.
  2. Legislative change. This would involve an actual change to the federal law(s) that cover our industry/hobby. This option would require the convincing of a Congressman or a Senator to sponsor the required legislation.
  3. Judicial remedy. This option would involve entering into litigation with ATF, with the hope that a Judge will force the agency to change its current regulations and/or policies.”

It appears the national rocketry organizations favor a more proactive option than simply accepting it, however this would be a long-term solution, and one that will require a lot of effort, money and time. If you plan to wait it out, be prepared for a long, long sitting spell.

Misconception #2

Another misconception is that you must belong to a national rocketry organization or that you be certified by a national rocketry organization to a certain level in order to purchase federally regulated motors. Wrong. There is no mention in the federal law of any organizational requirements.

This misconception probably stems from the high power rocketry safety codes of the several national rocketry organizations, such as TRA’s verbatim adoption of NFPA 1127 as its safety code. As of this date, there are no states that have officially adopted NFPA 1127 into law, meaning the jurisdiction of NFPA 1127 lies solely within the organizations that have adopted it.

Taking It To The Streets

In March of this year, Rocketry Online polled ten known high power rocket motor dealers to find out where they stood on sales to in-state residents, both with and without low explosives users permits, as well as sales to individuals who were not certified by a national rocketry organization. They were asked how they currently operate and how they would operate in the future. Lastly, they were asked if they would be willing to store motors for individuals who lack sufficient storage facilities.

The ten motor dealers were: Red Arrow Hobbies, Starflight Industries, Trailing Edge Technologies, Countdown Hobbies, Rocket Science, Zeppelin Hobbies, Magnum Rockets, Commonwealth Displays, and California High Power Rocketry.

Of the ten who were contacted, only four chose to participate. Here’s how those four scored:

  1. “Do you currently sell restricted products to certified individuals who are residents of your state possessing a completed ATF 5400.4 form in lieu of a LEUP?”
    All four answered “yes.”
  2. “Will you in the future sell restricted products to certified individuals who are residents of your state possessing a completed ATF 5400.4 form in lieu of a LEUP?”
    All four answered “yes.”
  3. “Do you currently sell restricted products to uncertified individuals who are not members of a national organization but are in full compliance with federal requirements of possessing either a valid LEUP or a completed ATF 5400.4 form?”
    Two answered “yes” and two answered “no.”
  4. “Will you in the future sell restricted products to uncertified individuals who are not members of a national organization but are in full compliance with federal requirements of possessing either a valid LEUP or a completed ATF 5400.4 form?”
    Three answered “yes” and one answered “no.”
  5. “Based on the requirements for lawful storage of all restricted products, no matter if the users holds a low explosives users permit or a completed ATF form 5400.4, would you, or do you already, provide storage for a customer if they were/are unable to use their restricted product at the launch to which it was delivered?”
    All four answered “Yes.”

Of the ten contacted, only two confirmed companies were already operating exactly as the law allows: Countdown Hobbies and Starflight Industries. Zeppelin Hobbies was prepared to modify future operations based on a “revised understanding of the law.” The last “no” stated there were extenuating circumstances with California state law requiring additional registrations that hamper the ability to sell to uncertified individuals. With no clear understanding of how California law works, further comment is unavailable.

So, there are dealers who are willing to work with in-state residents, whether they are members of national rocketry organizations or not. Granted, if you purchase regulated products and show up at a sanctioned launch, you will have to abide by that organization’s rules–which means you must be certified to fly the level of motor you wish to use. The point of this being that it is not a regulatory condition that you must be a member to purchase a regulated product, but what good would it do you to purchase these products if you always fly at sanctioned events? Participation in the national organizations is a good thing, and one that is strongly encouraged. But by all means participate from an educated position, not one of ignorance.

Time To Decide

What does all this mean for you? It’s really very simple. How do you respond to these:

  1. I need to purchase single-use or reloadable motors with larger than 62.5 grams of propellant in states other than the one in which I reside, or
  2. I wish to transport single-use or reloadable motors with larger than 62.5 grams of propellant to states other than the one in which I reside, or
  3. My state is one in which there is no licensed dealer from which I could purchase single-use or reloadable motors with larger than 62.5 grams of propellant.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you should apply for a Low Explosives Users Permit.

If on the other hand, how do you respond to these:

  1. I have a dealer from whom I could purchase single-use or reloadable motors with larger than 62.5 grams of propellant that is licensed in my state of residence, or
  2. I have no desire to fly single-use or reloadable motors with larger than 62.5 grams of propellant in states other than the one in which I reside, or I fly only single-use or reloadable motors with less than 62.5 grams of propellant in states other than the one in which I reside.

If you answered yes to these questions, you probably do not need a Low Explosives Users Permit. Be aware that in doing so, you limit your flying specifically to the state of your residence or you restrict your flying in other states only to unregulated motors.

If you just need more information, check out the online Orange Book linked from the sidebar above. If you have questions, you can post them in Rocketry Online’s Regulatory Issues discussion forum, the place were all answers are a question away. Questions not readily answered are forwarded on to ATF in Washington for detailed answers from the Explosives Technologies area. The important thing is that information is available to be utilized.

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

If you have determined that you have a need for a user permit, you need to complete an application and submit it to the ATF with a check or money order for $100. You can get an application by mail from:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms
P.O. Box 2994 Atlanta, GA 30301-2994

Or you can call the ATF Atlanta Office at 404-679-5040. Applications are also available online at the ATF Web site at http://www.atf.treas.gov.

While there is no such thing as a “non-storage” Low Explosives Users Permit, ATF will grant you one without personal storage so long as you have a contingency plan should you not be able to use your motors. An information flyer from the ATF states:

“Careful consideration of your projected needs can help you avoid having excess explosives at the end of the day and being subject to the special requirements of proper storage. Avoiding any excess is usually the easiest option. Otherwise, you are left with the need to either destroy the explosives, arrange to return them to your supplier, or store them properly.”

Most business-savvy dealers will make arrangements to take back unflown regulated products. Those that don’t will find that their competition will be taking away all their customers. Businesses exist to serve one purpose: to fill a unique need. The needs of individuals change all the time, and those businesses that cater to existing and current needs are the ones getting the most business.

Today’s regulatory environment demands that motor dealers address this customer service issue–either they will provide a refund or storage service, or they will lose customers. Dave Popkin of Starflight Industries has such a policy, and will provide a letter to accompany your Low Explosives Users Permit application stating that he will take back unused motors for a full refund or credit. This is the action of a progressive, proactive businessman at work.

With storage solutions such as these, there is no reason not to get legal. Unless, of course, you are an old-school conspiratorial theorist who believes your activities are of interest to the Government. That, or you’re already breaking the law and don’t want to be detected. Please, don’t play games, get legal. It’s really not that hard. And it’s certainly not worth it to get caught.

FULL TEXT OF BATF HIGH POWER ROCKETRY BRIEF Briefing Paper Firearms and Explosives Regulatory Division February 25, 1997

SUBJECT: High Power Rocket Motors

PURPOSE: To establish a consistent and definitive policy for regulating high power model rocket motors.

The Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, 18 U.S.C. Chapter 40, exempts propellants used in model rocket kits from ATF regulation. This exemption was based on the definition of model rockets given by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) The CPSC definition covers model rockets utilizing small amounts of black powder as propellants. However, the manufacturers of propellant powders are required to be licensed as `Manufacturers of Low Explosives.” Over time, the propellants used in model rockets have advanced from black powder to composite propellants. These composite propellants are on the Explosives Materials List which is published annually by ATF in the Federal Register and require Federal licenses/permits for use in interstate or foreign commerce.

The increasing number of high power model rocket enthusiasts has brought about the development of rocket motors containing increased quantities of propellant charges. These propellants consist of ammonium or potassium perchlorate mixtures and are being used to propel model rockets to heights exceeding 37,000 feet. We have received numerous inquiries concerning the storage and licensing requirements of high power rocket motors, and have been responding to them on a case-by-case basis. We feel that a definitive, consistent policy is needed to avoid the inadvertent dissemination of conflicting information.

Firearms and Explosives Operations Branch and Explosives Technology personnel have agreed that the following proposed policy meets the requirements for the consistent administration of the provisions of the Federal explosives laws and regulations.


The Consumer Product Safety Commission has defined toy model rocket motors under 16 CFR 1500.85(a) (8.)1 as those motors containing a propellant weight of 62.5 grams or less and which produce less than 80 newton-seconds (17.92 pound seconds) of total impulse. ATF will consider any model rocket motor containing a propellant weight greater than 62.5 grams and producing a total impulse of more than, or equal to, 80 newton-seconds, a high power rocket motor, placing it under the provisions of the Federal explosives laws, 18 U.S.C. Chapter 40. Furthermore, motors containing a total propellant weight of 62.5 grams or less, intended to be used as a segment for installation into larger motors, and which cannot be used individually, will also be regulated.

High power rocket motors, as defined above, are considered low explosives, therefore the motors must be stored, and all applicable records of manufacture, receipt and disposition, must be maintained in accordance with 27 CFR Part 55.

Motors containing a propellant weight of 62.5 grams or less, producing a total impulse of less than 80 newton-seconds and reloadable motors with a maximum capacity of 62.5 grams, are not regulated as explosive materials and are therefore exempt from the regulations under 27 CFR Part 55.


High power rocket motors, as defined above, must be stored in a Type IV or equivalent magazine (See 27 CFR 55.210) These magazines may be located in an attached garage of a single family residence provided that the magazine is separated by a wall and is not part of the living quarters. Indoor storage will not be permitted in multi-family dwellings such as condominiums, apartments, duplexes, etc. Indoor storage of low explosives must not exceed a quantity of 50 pounds as required by 27 CFR.


A Federal explosives license or permit is required to purchase high power rocket motors falling under the scope of Federal explosives laws and regulations in interstate or foreign commerce. However, individuals purchasing explosives within their State of residence or from a contiguous State which has enacted legislation allowing for such transactions, do not need a federal explosives license. Each person intending to engage in the business as an importer, manufacturer, or dealer of the aforementioned rocket motors, must obtain the license or permit required by 27 CFR Subpart D. Federal storage requirements would apply to all storers of high power rocket motors.


We feel the need for a proactive approach to this situation is necessary. Waiting for an accidental explosion involving these high power rocket motors, having the potential of causing bodily harm or even death, before establishing consistent policy, would not be in the best interest of the Bureau. It is therefore recommended that this policy, which provides for a means of establishing a more consistent, and proactive approach to the administration of the Federal explosive laws and regulations applicable to the high power model rocket industry, be adopted and disseminated to all ATF field offices as soon as possible.

For additional information, please contact Southeast District Explosives Officer Jeanette Compton at 404-679-5001, or Firearms and Explosives Specialist Mark Waller at 202-927-8310.


ATF Orange Book - Explosives Law & Regulations in HTML
ATF Office Directory - Addresses & Phone Numbers
ATF Federal Explosives Storage Requirements
ATF Explosives Rulings and Procedures
ATF Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
ATF Low Explosives Users Permit Application
ATF Notice 841 - Filed October 15, 1996 Final Rule on ATF Notice 841 - December 22, 1998
ATF List of Explosive Materials
AeroTech’s ATF Letter on Omitted UN Numbers
Rocketry Online’s Help File on Completing a LEUP Form
Rocketry Online’s Regulatory Forum


Wisconsin - Chapters 7 & 9 deal with rocketry exemptions

Submit your state resource! Click here to submit your link.


Excerpts taken from ATF explosives flyer, date March, 1996.

Credit for the unmodified original HTML version of the ATF Orange Book goes to Doug Caskey of Tripoli New York.

Submitted by: Darrell Mobley