The 60mm mortar is a weapon that traditionally requires three to four Marines to operate, but it's common during training for others to observe nearby. The firing tube is supported in a tripod-like design and fires roughly a 3-pound shell, some 14 inches in length and a bit larger than 2 inches in diameter.
The mortar has changed little since World War II and remains one of the simplest weapons to operate, which is why it is found at the lowest level of infantry units, said Joseph Trevithick, a mortar expert with GlobalSecurity.org.
"Basically, it's still a pipe and it's got a firing pin at the bottom," Trevithick said. Still, a number of things could go wrong from a fuse malfunctioning, a problem with the barrel's assembly to a round prematurely detonating inside the tube, he said.
The Marine Corps official said an explosion at the point of firing in a training exercise could kill or maim anyone inside or nearby the protective mortar pit and could concussively detonate any mortars stored nearby in a phenomenon known as "sympathetic detonation."
The official said a worldwide moratorium after such an accident is not unusual and would persist until the investigation determines that the weapon did not malfunction in ways that would hurt other Marines or that mortars manufactured at the same time as the one involved in the accident were safe.
The official said it would be normal to warn other U.S. military branches that use 60mm mortars, such as the Army, about the Marines warning. The moratorium could last for weeks or months.
The investigation will focus on whether the Marines followed procedures to properly fire the weapon, whether there was a malfunction in the firing device or in the explosive mortar itself, the official said.
The Hawthorne Army Depot stores and disposes of ammunition. The facility is made up of hundreds of buildings spread over more than 230 square miles, and bunkers dot the sagebrush-covered hills visible from the highway. Hawthorne is in the shadow of Mt. Baker, which reaches an elevation of 11,239 feet.