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Composition C-4 is a common variety of the plastic explosive family known as Composition C. C-4 is composed of explosives, plastic binder, plasticizer to make it malleable, and usually a marker or odorizing taggant chemical. C-4 has a texture similar to modelling clay and can be molded into any desired shape. C-4 is stable and an explosion can only be initiated by a shock wave from a detonator.
The Composition C-4 used by the United States Armed Forces contains 91% RDX ("Research Department Explosive"), 5.3% dioctyl sebacate (DOS) or dioctyl adipate (DOA) as the plasticizer (to increase the plasticity of the explosive), 2.1% polyisobutylene (PIB, a synthetic rubber) as the binder, and 1.6% of a mineral oil often called "process oil." Instead of "process oil," low-viscosity motor oil is used in the manufacture of C-4 for civilian use.
C-4 is manufactured by combining the above ingredients with binder dissolved in a solvent. Once the ingredients have been mixed, the solvent is extracted through drying and filtering. The final material is a solid with a dirty white to light brown color, a putty-like texture similar to modeling clay, and a distinct smell of motor oil. The manufacturing process for Composition C-4 specifies that wet RDX and plastic binder are added in a stainless steel mixing kettle. This is called the aqueous slurry-coating process. The kettle is tumbled to obtain a homogeneous mixture. This mixture is wet and must be dried after transfer to drying trays. Drying with forced air for 16 hours at 50 °C to 60 °C is recommended to eliminate excess moisture.
C-4 is very stable and insensitive to most physical shocks. C-4 cannot be detonated by a gunshot or by dropping it onto a hard surface. It does not explode when set on fire or exposed to microwave radiation. Detonation can only be initiated by a shockwave, such as when a detonator inserted into it is fired. When detonated, C-4 rapidly decomposes to release nitrogen and carbon oxides as well as other gases. The detonation proceeds at an explosive velocity of 8,092 m/s (26,550 ft/s). A major advantage of C-4 is that it can easily be moulded into any desired shape to change the direction of the resulting explosion.