From theatrics to tactics, smoke has many uses other than perfecting roasted meat and getting in our eyes around a campfire. Whether to obscure movement or to signal allies, the use of smoke long predates firearms, harkening back to the days of large-scale maneuver warfare. In the 21st century, as both technology and industry have permanently changed the appearance of war and conflict, so too have combat units in the military adapted to smaller unit structures. While the concept of a whole army in conflict once dominated the scope of war, we now live in the age of small unit tactics.
And that both translates to — and is enabled by — the increased abilities of the individual. Infrastructure has adapted to accommodate small teams of highly capable individuals, providing vast resources to a smaller and smaller roster of combatants, further augmented by more extensive training as well as technology such as drones, global positioning systems, and night vision. Yet at the same time, operators are still deploying age-old tools like knives, axes, and hammers to accomplish their missions. As long as fire has been in the hands of man, smoke has had its place in war, be it the symbol of danger on the horizon or a sacrifice rising up to please the gods.
The modern military has two primary purposes for smoke: as a signal for medical support, supply drops, or target identification, and as a way to obscure troop movements. Video games frequently capitalize on both of these by imitating the use of smoke to call for reinforcements, or the completion of a task or mission. While not too far off from reality in this aspect, the use of smoke in high-paced first-person shooters leans toward the fictional, evoking the illusive disappearing act of a ninja. Outside of an organized team, smoke grenades belong more in fiction and film than reality.
That being the case, they add a certain panache to any range day, theatrical event, or training operation. And while the military supplies their operators with those iconic canisters, making a smoking compound really isn’t as difficult as safety-worshipping fearmongers would imagine. The trick is matching the tool to the job and stoking the fires of one’s imagination to make it work.
Legally speaking, smoke grenades, or smoke bombs, should fall under the category of pyrotechnics, not destructive devices, unlike other home-made improvisations such as Molotov cocktails. That being the case, it falls on each individual to know their state and local laws. Playing too much with fire will likely get you burned once or twice, and playing too much with smoke will certainly catch the attention of neighbors, if not law enforcement. A friendly word of advice: Courtesy and situational awareness will go a long way.
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