Beyond the Pages of The Anarchist Cookbook

By Rocco Castoro

Photo Assistant: Marisa Abaza

OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: What follows contains details of how to create very bad things that are extremely dangerous and probably illegal wherever you live. DO NOT attempt to re-create anything you see or read here unless you want to go to jail or die. If you blow someone’s face off and try to blame it on “an article in Vice magazine,” we will be very disappointed. To be unmistakably clear: After you read the next few pages, this publication is not responsible for how and when you injure yourself or anyone else at any point in time from now until infinity. You fucking morons.

At the tender and impressionable age of 19, William Powell wrote the original print edition of The Anarchist Cookbook. It was 1971 and the young man felt compelled to create an instructional catalyst for civic unrest resulting from the Vietnam War. He researched military and Special Forces manuals at the New York Public Library and culled together a black-covered anthology of disobedience (and, honestly, fun). Initially, no publishing house had the stupidity or balls to print Powell’s work because it was basically a guide to making drugs and explosives, seriously hurting people, and flourishing in a riot. Then Lyle Stuart, nut-job publisher of controversial titles like Naked Came the Stranger and L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman?, stepped up to the plate and (metaphorically) said, “Why in the hell wouldn’t I want to put out a self-help book for struggling domestic terrorists?” Since then it’s been trickling through the scabby underbelly of the small press, and today you can even buy the thing on Amazon.

In the mid-80s, a text file titled “BHU’s Handbook” began spreading through the then-nascent bulletin board system (BBS) pirating scene like wildfire. It contained many similar recipes to Powell’s original Cookbook and was eventually expanded on by readers and BBS administrators, like a primitive, more sinister version of Wikipedia. Along the way, someone appropriated Powell’s title, and the text files became collectively known as the “electronic Anarchist Cookbook.” Additional volumes were compiled by authors who used pseudonyms and added entries on a whim—Exodus, the Jolly Roger, and RFlagg being the best known and most prolific.

Five or so canonical iterations later, the electronic Anarchist Cookbook became a dangerous, rabid mutt of half-baked chemical experiments and retarded morals. Through the internet, the Cookbook is still reaching fresh eyes and planting seeds of malcontent every day. On the flip side, William Powell is now a born-again Christian and works alongside his wife as a codirector for an educational NGO in Kuala Lumpur. He has renounced the book for years and wishes for it to be taken out of print. Authors who retain their copyrights have this luxury; however, William sold his to the original publisher. He has also made it clear that he has no affiliation with or involvement in the electronic versions that have usurped the title of his book.

Almost everyone who has even a passing interest in destruction has at least heard of the Cookbook. But most accounts of executing various projects are dubious at best. We wanted to try a few classics out for ourselves, so we prepared a batch of recipes and headed to a remote warehouse to risk serious bodily harm. For this article, we selected five projects from RFlagg’s Anarchist Cookbook V*, which was released in 1997. We chose this revision because it came out at a time when affordable access to the internet at home was quickly becoming a reality and eclipsing BBS culture. It is still widely available online. Being that the internet is full of shit and many people claim the Cookbook’s contents are bunk, we entered this experiment with the hypothesis that nothing would work. We followed the ingredients lists and instructions to a T, and it turns out the entries we picked held at least some credibility. We’re presenting this as a safety test so you never, ever have to try these things yourself.

*Just to reiterate: From here on out, any use of the word “Cookbook” refers to this version and not Powell’s original.

Ingredients: sugar, saltpeter (aka potassium nitrate), a regulative heat source, a pan you don’t mind ruining, a container for the solidified mixture, matches or fuses

This was both the easiest and nastiest undertaking of the day. Potassium nitrate is not something most drugstores carry offhand, but call around enough and someone will place a special order for you (the best bet is to go with nonchain pharmacies). The recipe calls for four parts sugar to six parts saltpeter. We based our concoction on six tablespoons of saltpeter. The Cookbook claims a pound of this stuff will smoke out an entire city block, and we’re inclined to believe it.

After pouring the two powders into a pan, we placed it on top of a burner at low heat and gradually increased the temperature, stirring slowly until the sugar began to caramelize. The fumes were pretty intense (the saltpeter bottle has a warning against inhalation), and wearing a respirator or gas mask is recommended. Three minutes later, it looked like liquid dogshit. We took that as a sign that it was done.

As soon as the heat source was switched off, we scooped the sludge into an old whiskey tumbler, filling it about a third of the way. Then we embedded a few matches and fuses in the brown goop. There was still snow on the ground outside, so we brought some in and stuck the glass in a pile of it. The brown mess was hard as a rock within five minutes.

Next we placed the bomb on the ground and lit the fuse. A five-foot flame immediately flared up, along with a mind-boggling amount of smoke that smelled like rotten fish wrapped in week-old dirty diapers that were fished out of a biohazard dumpster full of cadavers, cigarette butts, and burned chorizo. The landlord of the building just happened to be strolling through at the time and started to (politely) freak out, so we were forced to put out our handiwork with a fire extinguisher. The explosion created a mini-atmosphere within the warehouse, and clouds of smoke were still visible 24 hours later. We hope it didn’t scare away the prospective tenants who had come by to look at the efficiencies upstairs while we were making low-grade explosives.

Ingredients: tennis balls, strike-anywhere matches, a sharp knife or saw, duct or packing tape, sandpaper

The hardest part of constructing these is actually finding strike-anywhere matches, which are illegal in many states. The internet is the place to turn if you don’t mind waiting a few days for shipping, but we got lucky and found a leftover stash in a dusty corner of an old hardware store. If you can get your hands on a vintage supply, Ohio Blue Tips are ideal, but to the best of our knowledge they are no longer produced. The only company that still manufactures these things is Diamond. We got 100 boxes containing 32 matches apiece for about $10.

The next step was to invite a few buddies over for a tennis-ball-stuffing party. It’s quickest to assign tasks in an assembly-line style, with one person sawing half-inch cuts in each tennis ball and another pair cutting match heads off with scissors and pouring them into the holes (fun fact: The lids of the tennis-ball containers work perfectly for this). Someone surmised that cramming strips of industrial-grade sandpaper inside the balls would aid in ignition, so we threw a few of those in for good measure. The final step was to place a strip of duct tape over each hole and put the balls in a safe place where they wouldn’t be jostled around.

For our initial attempt at making a literal fireball, we decided to bounce a ball off the wall a few times. None of us thought it would detonate the first time around, so nobody, including our photographer, was prepared when the ball ricocheted off the wall and burst apart at our feet.

Now that we had a better grasp of the physics of our Penn grenade, we were ready for round 2. We hoisted the pitcher up in a bucket lift and painted a makeshift target on the floor. This seemed like a safer and more surefire method. However, something must have been off with our construction, and the ball bounced a few times before farting out a few sparks under an old couch.

There was only one more tennis ball left, and it was collectively decided that if it wouldn’t work on its own, we had to make it happen. Luckily, someone had the foresight to bring a bunch of bottle rockets, and 15 minutes later we had broken dozens of the fireworks apart and dumped a substantial amount of black powder on top of the matches and sandpaper. For good measure, we inserted a few fuses and made sure they jutted out from under the tape. The thrower then lit one of the fuses, waited about two seconds, and threw it to the ground, where it promptly erupted. It was more of a pain in the ass and slightly less successful than we had hoped, but flinging one of these at a mob of angry people would definitely cause some serious running the fuck away.

Ingredients: a can of hair spray or other flammable aerosol, Scotch tape, matches, a BB or pellet gun (BBs are preferable)

This was one of our more suspicious selections because it relies on the unlikely scenario of a BB sparking a match, not to mention precision marksmanship. No one expected it to work as written, and our doubts turned out to be correct.

We bought the shittiest-looking hair spray we could find, assuming that the cheaper varieties would be the most combustible and easiest to penetrate. The first step was to tape about 15 matches to the concave bottom of the can, fanning them out to widen the target area. The directions say nothing about placement, and the idea of just laying it on the ground or a table seemed like a potential shrapnel nightmare. So we duct-taped the can to a skateboard and set up barricades in an attempt to control its trajectory.

Our shooter sat down on a bar stool that was about ten feet behind the rocket and took aim. After a few misses, he nailed the can, and we watched as a 15-foot-long stream of compressed white foam rooster-tailed from the backside and propelled the skateboard forward a few feet. We were disappointed but not surprised.

We quickly taped a second target in place and affixed the matches. This time we lit them beforehand, hoping this would ensure an eyebrow-singeing firestorm. After his line of sight was clear, the gunman popped off a round and punctured the aluminum on the first try. But all that followed was a match-extinguishing geyser of sticky, clear liquid.

After some deliberation, we concluded that the key to success was waiting until all the matches were lit before opening fire. A third can was rigged and our hair-spray sniper took shelter behind a trash can, propping his elbows on top of it for stability. Once the matches were lit, he patiently stared down the sights for about three seconds and squeezed the trigger. A 15-foot blaze of glory shot out the back, slowly forcing the skateboard to lurch across the concrete and the shooter to duck behind the trash can as flames nearly engulfed his face. At last, we had ignition.

Ingredients: yarn, a pencil, a sewing needle, a two-to-three-foot PVC or aluminum pipe about half an inch in diameter

Assembling the blowgun was by far the least exciting venture of the day, but nevertheless the reasoning behind its selection was sound. What if there are a few stragglers after you’ve scattered most of the angry horde with the last of your incinerating tennis balls? Something pocket-size and diversionary might come in handy.

The Cookbook’s blowgun tutorial made it seem that the device was to be used as something with which to annoy your roommate rather than as a potentially lethal weapon. Still, we needed a break from the anxiety caused by futzing around with minor explosives and it seemed at least plausible.

Most hardware stores will cut a section of pipe to the length you need, and you can pick up the rest of the supplies at a dollar store. At first glance it seems like there’s no way to keep the needle from slipping out of the tube, but tying five or six two-inch strands of yarn through the eye will make it bunch up enough to keep things in place. You’re supposed to break off the metal part of a pencil without separating it from the eraser, but after inadvertently snapping a few #2s it seemed like more trouble than it was worth so we broke off a pink nub and slid the needle through it for stabilization.

All that was left was to cram the needle into the pipe so the attached yarn would bunch up enough to keep it from falling out. Then you just blow (duh). This was the biggest dud of the whole lot—it only flies about four feet and even a premature baby wouldn’t flinch if the “dart” hit him straight in the head. The only plus is that people get all ape-faced when they shoot it.

Ingredients: Styrofoam, gasoline, a bucket, something to stir it with

Over the course of the day it seemed that everyone was the most nervous about making napalm. No one could confirm that this method worked—it seemed far-fetched and too simple to make something that’s become synonymous with melting the skin off the Vietcong. Regardless, we were all very eager to give it a whirl.

At first we thought packing peanuts might be the most low-cost and efficient form of polystyrene, but this idea was abandoned after the discovery of a huge trash bag full of flat Styrofoam while en route to the location. The recipe does not list proportions for the ingredients, so we had to wing it.

We started out by pouring half a gallon of gasoline into a recycling bin. Next we began to add the Styrofoam, which immediately started dissolving and created a loud hissing noise that sounded like our lungs might be in for some serious trouble. After feeding the gas about a pound of foam and carefully stirring it with a plank of wood, it finally started to coagulate into a white viscous globule that looked like demon jizz. The end result was a wad of napalm about three inches in diameter.

Testing extremely volatile substances is always a good idea, so we stuck a small piece to our mixing stick and flicked a lighter underneath. It immediately produced a high-temperature flame and, shortly after, began to drip apart into tiny pools of fire that stayed lit for a good five minutes. Stepping on these puddles will just transfer the napalm to your shoe, so letting them burn out is really the only viable option.

The next step was to torch something for real. A kind soul donated a television under the condition that we write out the word “NAPALM” with the napalm on the screen. Using paint knives we meticulously stretched and cut each letter until the TV was covered with the name of its destruction. Upon ignition, the set immediately went up in an inferno and smoke billowed toward the roof. The landlord, who was inexplicably watching from the balcony, started to shout something about tripping the sprinklers and before long insisted that it be put out. The foamed nitrogen from the fire extinguisher combined with the smoke to create noxious plumes of gas that forced everyone from the building. It was a fitting ending to an anarchistic day, and we parted ways, hacking our lungs out in the sunset.

Watch videotaped proof that we did all of this foolish shit on our new From the Pages of Vice series at VBS.TV in April. Oh, and a thousand thankses to Bayard Studios for being nice and crazy enough to let us blow stuff up inside their space.