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A catastrophic failure is a sudden and total failure from which recovery is impossible. Catastrophic failures often lead to cascading systems failure. The term is most commonly used for structural failures, but has often been extended to many other disciplines in which total and irrecoverable loss occurs, such as a head crash occurrence on a hard disk drive.

For example, catastrophic failure can be observed in steam turbine rotor failure, which can occur due to peak stress on the rotor; stress concentration increases up to a point at which it is excessive, leading ultimately to the failure of the disc.

In firearms, catastrophic failure usually refers to a rupture or disintegration of the barrel or receiver of the gun when firing it. Some possible causes of this are an out-of-battery gun, an inadequate headspace, the use of incorrect ammunition, the use of ammunition with an incorrect propellant charge,[1] a partially or fully obstructed barrel,[2] or weakened metal in the barrel or receiver. A failure of this type, known colloquially as a "kaboom", or "kB" failure, can pose a threat not only to the user(s) but even many bystanders.

In chemical engineering, a reaction which undergoes thermal runaway can cause catastrophic failure.

It can be difficult to isolate the cause or causes of a catastrophic failure from other damage that occurred during the failure, forensic engineering and failure analysis are used to find and analyse these causes.


See also: Structural integrity and failure § Notable failures

Original Tay Bridge from the north
Fallen Tay Bridge from the north

Examples of catastrophic failure of engineered structures include:

See also


  1. ^ Hal W. Hendrick; Paul Paradis; Richard J. Hornick (2010). Human Factors Issues in Handgun Safety and Forensics. CRC Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-1420062977. Retrieved 2014-02-24. Many firearms are destroyed and injuries sustained by home reloaders who make a mistake in estimating the correct powder charge.
  2. ^ Gregg Lee Carter, ed. (2012). Guns in American Society. ABC-CLIO. p. 255. ISBN 978-0-313-38670-1. Retrieved 2014-02-24. ... and left the copper jacket lodged in the barrel, leading to a catastrophic failuer of the rifle when the next bullet fired hit the jacket remnants.

Further reading