The Truth Behind the Action Movie Myth of Blowing Up a Car by Shooting Its Gas Tank

Audiences get plenty of car safety tips from Hollywood. One of them is how to blow up a car by shooting at its gas tank. It’s practically guaranteed the vehicle will explode, and the bad guy will go bye-bye. But does that actually happen in real life, or is this another example of Hollywood stunts and special effects?

Automakers don’t build cars that blow up easily

car explosion Hollywood Law & Order
A car explosion on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ | Will Hart/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

It’s hard enough to find consumers to buy vehicles given the chip shortage and skyrocketing car prices. So if an automaker’s vehicle exploded after one fender-bender or an object hit the gas tank, that would put a damper on sales.

With that in mind, automakers design their vehicles with safety as a top priority. That’s especially true for gasoline-powered vehicles, which could catch fire if they were haphazardly slapped together.

According to Science ABC, gas tanks are heavily reinforced to prevent that from happening. That isn’t because people usually shoot gas tanks, although it has probably happened. The truth is car accidents are common, and the impact could do significant damage to the fuel tank. Hence, regulations state how strong a gas tank must be.

3 requirements to blow up a car’s gas tank

There is a second reason why cars don’t explode in a hail of gunfire, according to Science ABC. For that to happen, there are three elements needed to cause an explosion. They’re oxygen, fuel, and heat. 

Let’s assume the car is fueled up. And if it’s been driving around, it might even have heat. However, the fuel tank contains little to no oxygen, so one of the key ingredients to blow up the car is missing. The vehicle would likely not heat up enough to cause a fire because that would be another huge safety risk that automakers aren’t willing to take.

Bullets aren’t designed to cause explosions

A user on the Stack Exchange Skeptics board posed the question, “Can you make an explosion by shooting at fuel or fuel tank?” and commenters had some great points. One that came up repeatedly was that bullets aren’t designed to make cars blow up. First, you’d need a bullet that could punch through the reinforced gas tank. and second, if you managed to do that, the bullet would have to be incendiary to ignite the fuel.

Even that isn’t likely because you’d have to fire more than one bullet into the gas tank.

TV Tropes took the explanation further: “An ordinary passenger car’s gas tank with unleaded gasoline will produce a ‘pop’ and a quick (and anticlimactic) flash of flames underneath the vehicle with all four tires remaining firmly planted on the ground, though the resulting fire may consume the vehicle pretty quickly. Diesel pretty much won’t blow at all unless you light a fire under it and keep it burning until it causes a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion), which will take a while to accomplish.”

A debate on Quora about whether you could “shoot a gun at a line of petrol/gasoline” and have it ignite had five-out-of-five answers agree that it would not for the same reasons you can’t shoot a gas tank to make it explode.

The folks at MythBusters also took a shot at this debate and determined it’s just a Hollywood fable. They tried shooting out gas tanks using three different guns and tracer rounds. That didn’t work, so they turned to a Gatling minigun with incendiary rounds, which they shot at a propane tank. The Gatling gun blew it up, but most people’s chances of facing gunfire from this type of weapon outside of a Hollywood movie are slim to none.

RELATED: True or False?: Synthetic Oil Improves Gas Mileage