The Explosive National Sport of Colombia

The Explosive National Sport of Colombia

Written by Harry Gilliam

Topics: Travel

By Harry Gilliam

Okay, I ran across this great game in the Washington Post (August 17, 2001). Click the link for a pdf of the article.

Without going into all the rules and gory details, the game is played by tossing a steel slug 60 feet towards a slanted mud bank in order to hit the center ring (the bull’s-eye). One of the ways you make points is by hitting a triangularly-shaped paper packet of so-called “gunpowder.” The packets are called “mechas.” More on those in a minute.

Who’d a thunk it?

It reminds me of horseshoes, kinda sorta. But mo-bettah, because something actually explodes when you hit it. And of course, as you will see in this video, because it is actually encouraged to play this wonderful sport while drinking.

(click the video to play)

Now, of course I will have to add Colombia to my short list of places to escape to once the laws and regulations start to finish their slow strangulation of our once-great country’s economy. Oops, there I go, ranting again. “Stop it, Harry!” Bad dog!

But let’s get right down to the nitty gritty, here.

First, some kindergarten pyro…

The “mechas,” the exploding Tejo targets, are said to contain “gunpowder.”

Now, gunpowder is just another name for our old fireworks friend, black powder. And black powder, my children, I can purty much guarantee you, will not explode when you lay a pack of it on a mud bank and sling a steel slug at it from 60 feet away.

Nosireebob. It will not.

The question, then, is what the hell IS inside a mecha? We all NEED to know that.

And that is what this contest is all about.

Fustest one to accurately determine two things about a mecha gets a free case of Sky Lanterns from Skylighter.

  1. Since it ain’t gunpowder, what is the explosive comp? Which chemicals?
  2. How are mechas made?

Just do your research, and answer both questions in the comments below.

The first person to answer both questions accurately wins the case of 36 Sky Lanterns.


You have to PROVE that your answer is correct. You can speculate and guess all you want. But guessing ain’t gonna land 36 Sky Lanterns on your humble doorstep. Nosireebob.

You will have to divulge your source for both the mecha pyro comp, and for the construction method. And show us all those sources.

The earliest comment/post on this blog who proves the answers, wins.

The judge for this contest will be Señor Harry Gilliam. All decisions by the judge are final.


When the mecha is hit, it often explodes and then burns.

It is not gunpowder (black powder). But calling them gunpowder would be a handy way to get around problems in shipping them… or in disguising their true composition.

The mecha’s explosive composition is a secret. That suggests to me that it may be really simple and/or that the mix may be illegal.

Check out other YouTube videos of Tejo and find close-ups of the mechas as they explode and burn. They don’t “act” like firecrackers.

Now, go get ‘em, and check back often to see what’s come up.

286 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Bet says:

    It is in fact black powder. the envelopes are placed on a a thin layer of clay placed OVER a long steel pipe (also propped at 45 degree angle)that extends to the ground. The box and center of the pipe are filled with clay. The Mechas are placed over the ring in 3 or 4 places.

    Because the ring AND the Tejo are made of carbon steel, when they hit hard a spark is made between them setting off the Mechas. Black powder burns relatively slow and has time to ignite or singe some of the paper in the envelope.

    In chemistry, it is not always about the chemical itself, but the chain of physical events surrounding the reaction that make things happen. This is one of those times!

  2. Harry Gilliam says:

    Received this from a friend. Most plausible composition I have read about yet–but still not certain:

    As a matter of fact, it was an educated guess as we call it, but I found some indirect evidence – as they say in CSI terminology.

    I am ‘in chemistry’ since boyhood, experimenting at home and later I studied chemistry.

    I tried to find news articles about the mechas, and found gruesome accident articles and pictures of mutilated bodies, as these mechas are frequently made by amateurs at home too, and these are dangerously sensitive, very powerful and mass explosive, so these should be classified as 1.3G. Probably the house-labour is quite large, maybe even predominantly, as you can make a nice profit.

    And I emailed some people in Colombia, who sell mechas on the internet.
    But they do not know or they do not tell, they only sell…

    All the information that was reporting about ‘gunpowder’ or even small amount of primary explosives, I discarded. But some people described the effects nicely, like: a direct hit produces a bang, but many times the mechas burned and smoked much.
    Some said the smell was like phosphorus, but they mean of course the oxidized form P2O5, the pentoxide. Some said the powder was brown in colour.

    But the mechas they used, smelled and opened, were these mechas made by professionals in a factory, or were they made illegally…? That is very difficult to find out. On the mechas there is no label or stamp.

    It is very difficult to get the right information, and even if you went to Colombia, there is a big chance that the mechas you get, are the illegal one. And you can bet that there is a wide spread in compositions used too, especially the illegal ones, which are most of the time made on a chlorate base to make them cheap and sensitive to shock and friction.

    There are not so many compositions that are sensitive but also safe to handle, use, transport or stock in such a light paper envelope like the mechas. So, no chlorate nor perchlorate, but a nitrate and a small amount of a sensitive fuel. A lot of them are forbidden or expensive like zirconium, but red phosphorus will do, maybe with some added sand to improve friction sensitivity.

    So, you have to go to a professional producer. And get these mechas analysed in the USA. But even between several producers, the composition may change, so buy from more producers. It probably will cost between $ 1500 and $ 4000 depending on what you want and how carefully measured and analysed to the decimal.”

  3. Kyle Harper says:

    Has a winner been chosen or is the topic somewhat dead?

  4. jeff says:

    Crack Ball Formula

    Ingredient Parts by Weight
    Potassium chlorate 60%
    Sulfur 35%
    Dextrin 2%
    Powdered glass 3%

  5. willydog says:


    Do you actually know the true and accurate answer to you little contest? Do you have sources to confirm? Or are you just trying to get that information from one of us so you can sell more chemicals and kits in the future? There have been a lot of clever entries here, and plenty of research with no winners. I will withdraw my participation and swear confidentiality to you if you will privately email me your answer. On second thought, keep it a secret. I can’t wait to hear the winner announced and the correct solution with references he found. – Bill

    • Richard says:

      Harry has already stated he does NOT know the answer. That’s why he wants us to supply the references to back up any formulas.

      The problems with this are numerous.
      * The internet is by its nature a notoriously unreliable source of “facts”.
      * The media (electronic or printed) is no better – they are either ignorant or in some cases deliberately trying to hide the actual chemistry.
      * Professional organizations may fear the potential legal problems inherent in revealing the formula(s).
      * And the legal manufacturers of the mechas are certainly not in any big hurry to reveal trade secrets or encourage competition. Seriously, imagine going to any modern fireworks manufacturer and asking them for the instructions for making their best compositions. I can hear the laughter from here. Or the sound of the phone slamming down…

      • But that’s the fun part about this. Somewhere, somebody here has a wife with a Colombian in-law. And he has a buddy back home, who knows a guy, and his brother runs a mecha factory, and he’ll snap some photos with his phone… That’s how this is going to resolve. Not guessing, not thru Wikipedia searches. And that’s what will make it a) finally accurate; and b) way fun. Old fashioned research. Or, as we say in Chicago, “I got a guy…” ;)
        (I still think it’s chorate and sulfur, by the way. But I’m refusing to guess anymore. Just waiting for that Columbian connection to show up.)

        • Stevo says:

          I gotta guy who knows a guy that works for his aunt that k ow a cousin who said that you will never ever ever find the secret formula fir his tejo’s….. Unless you know his au ts cousins sister in law by birth….

  6. Ronaldo says:

    I found a document about the tejo game with some technical details:

    As stated, the iron metal disc (tejo) of 2 kg weight is thrown to a box of clay where in the centre there is a metal tube (see drawings). On the rim of this steel cylinder called bocin the mechas are placed. So, when the tejo is thrown and makes contact with the paper triangular mecha and steel cylinder rim, the mecha explodes by the friction and impact. The powder has not to be that sensitive, as the impact between the steel cylinder and thrown iron disc is quite large. It is the same as the hard blow of a 2 kg steel hammer on an iron anvil. The mechas are normally not exploded by the impact of the iron tejo and soft clay contact.

  7. Chuck says:

    One thing I’ve noticed that has been overlooked in this discussion is the mechas are placed around and in contact with the bocin metal ring. Such that for the mecha to explode, it must be crushed between the bocin & the tejo. Contact between the tejo & just a mecha placed on the clay may be insufficient to cause detonation.

    While it’s a nobel cause to try & determine the “exact” formulation, chances are it would be difficult to reproduce here in the States especially so if it involves mercury fulminate.

    What would be far more useful would be for Skylighter to produce/contract a suitable facsimile for the mechas, import/fabricate the tejo’s, bocins and fabricate the boxes to both introduce the sport here in the States as well as support Columbian immigrants who wish to carry on their tradition.

    • Richard says:

      You obviously didn’t look at the many videos of the sport on YouTube. The mechas are NOT generally in direct contact with the metal ring, at least not to the point they would be pinched between the bocin and the disk. In fact, at the 45 degree angle of the board, the topmost mecha would never be pinched against the bocin unless it were laid on top of it.
      The clay is also apparently very soft, so the composition has to be something that reacts from relatively soft impact. Given the way the metal disks sink easily into the clay in the videos, I’m not convinced that even a chlorate/sulfur mixture would work reliably w/o the addition of phosphorus, perhaps as a second layer out of direct contact with the chlorate until “mixed” by the action of the disk.

  8. David Mapes says:

    Last week I never heard of a mecha, now I have mechas on the brain.

    Another possible clue:
    One of my employees is Argentinian. I told him about this task and learned a couple of things. Mecha means fuse, in argentina anyways. I know this ground has been covered. The most interesting however is matches are referred to as phosphorous. I asked him what kind of matches are most common and he said the wooden stick matches. Not the kind that are strike anywhere, the kind that you have to strike on the box.
    Got a phosphorous?

  9. Fred says:

    There are more formulae for the mecha powders, in particular the illegally homemade. Although the official size of the paper triangular is 6 cm, there are as small as 3 cm with different weights of powder charge.
    The formula is actually quite simple: the basic two compounds in the formula are red phosphorus and potassium nitrate. The weight ratio can differ between 1 : 1 and 1: 5, but the stoichiometric ratio is 1: 3 I believe. Some sand may have been added. But it is not the dangerous Armstrong’s mixture nor are high explosives involved. However, in the illegal ones they may have spiked the basic composition with a little chlorate to raise sensitivity and sound.

    Cheers, Fred

  10. David Mapes says:

    I made an email inquiry as to the contents of Mechas to this company:

    I asked this question: Mensaje:
    Dear Sir, I am interested to know what chemicals are in the Mechas used for Yew. Often referred to as containing gunpowder, but what makes them ignite from shock? Gunpowder does not do this alone. Thank You Very Much, David

    I received this response:
    Wicks if flammable chemicals continent as phosphorus.

    José Valbuena.

    • Richard says:

      And again we have evidence that there is more than one “correct” formula or technique…

      • Kyle Harper says:

        Excellent use of quotations. When I was looking the formula up I ran across an article roughly translated to: A many was carrying a bucket of mechas in-between his legs on his motorcycle. They exploded killing him and injuring 8 people. They were made by mixing red phosphorus with black-powder.

        I just thought a a fairly easy and safe way of making them. It would probably work to glue several tips to strike anywhere matches. These could then light some meal powder. However I take no liability on this or any ideas.

        • Andy H says:

          Kyle – You’ve stolen all of your references from David Mapes’ prior postings. Have a bit of class, friend.

          • Kyle Harper says:

            I didn’t actually read through all of the posts and see his. However, he should have provided the reference to prove his post about the composition.

  11. Kyle Harper says:

    This is from the congress of colombia:

    The paper is either re or white.

    The triangle has 6cm long edges.

    They are filled with either white or black powder
    -White powder is made of potassium chlorate, ammonium nitrate, sulfur, and powdered sugar.
    -black powder is the same as above, except the powdered sugar is replaced with charcoal.

    The oxidizers and fuels are mixed separately, then combined.

    It is illegal to add phosphorus.

    (found on page 1)

    • Chris says:

      I think we have a winner.

      • Chris says:

        I’m not really sure how this is supposed to ignite upon impact, though…

        • Richard says:

          Chlorate and sulfur?

        • Kyle Harper says:

          Hi Chris, how should I go about claiming my prize? I was planning on ordering some things from Skylighter soon; I’m fine with shipping everything altogether if it would be more economical.


          Long-winded musings & possible theory:

          The impact sensitivity comes from the k chlorate/sulfur and the k chlorate ammonium salt. Some of the (NH4 NO3) and (K ClO3) will disproportionate into (NH4 ClO3), which is very impact sensitive. That’s why when making ammonium perchlorate it’s VERY important to make sure there is no chlorate. Ammonium chlorate dissociates into ammonia and chloric acid. This is kind of why sulfur is incompatible with Chlorates. It oxidizes into a very small, but very dangerous amount of acid.

          At first when I was looking over it, it seemed like it would barely burn because you normally have to mill nitrates with charcoal/sulfur; but i think the low melting point of ammonium nitrate means it will melt and mix with the other parts.

          I would also like to note the paper said there was more sugar/charcoal compared to sulfur.

          Also, I suggest not trying to mix this composition with water. You will not be able to remove it from the ammonium nitrate and it will probably make the composition more dangerous. If you, some terrible unsafe reason want to store the triangles, wax paper would probably be needed to keep it useable/safe.

          I research organic chemistry at Ohio state, so if anyone has any questions on the multitude of organic topics mentioned above I can probably be of some assistance.


          • Chris says:

            haha, Sorry, it’s not my prize to give you, it’s Harry’s. Was just backing you up because your answer seems to be the most legitimate and carry the most “proof” that Harry seems to be desiring. Good luck!

            • Kyle Harper says:

              Harry is pretty smart in regards to requiring “proof”. Many of the compositions make it seem like a gratuitous number of people are angry about having all of their fingers. Haha, and thanks for the backup.

    • Richard says:

      You’re assuming they obey the law.

    • Richard says:

      There’s another really serious problem here. Did anyone else spot it? Don’t they have double decomposition reactions in Colombia? I don’t think you can legislate against them – and I sure wouldn’t want to be storing any of that “white gunpowder”.

  12. Robert Stelle says:

    By mixing picric acid with metal hydroxides, such as sodium or potassium hydroxide, and evaporating the water, metal picrates can be formed. Simply obtain picric acid, or produce it, and mix it with a solution of (preferably) potassium hydroxide, of a mid range molarity. (about 6-9 M) This material, potassium picrate, is impact-sensitive, and can be used as an initiator for any type of explosive.
    Any oxidizable material that is treated with perchloric acid will become a low order explosive. Metals, however, such as potassium or sodium, become excellent bases for flash-type powders. Some materials that can be perchlorated are cotton, paper, and sawdust. To produce potassium or sodium perchlorate, simply acquire the hydroxide of that metal, e.g. sodium or potassium hydroxide..
    The metchas contain a paste, made of potassium permanganate 67%sulfur 33% that will explode after struck by hard impact.. They may mix up the paste in a cotton base or just smear the paper,before folded.

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