Quantitative mathematical models describe planar, spontaneous, reaction wave propagation (Zeldovich, Combust. Flame, vol. 39, 1980, pp. 211–214) in a finite hot spot volume of reactive gas. The results describe the complete thermomechanical response of the gas to a one-step, high-activation-energy exothermic reaction initiated by a tiny initial temperature non-uniformity in a gas at rest with uniform pressure. Initially, the complete conservation equations, including all transport terms, are non-dimensionalized to identify parameters that quantify the impact of viscosity, conduction and diffusion. The results demonstrate unequivocally that transport terms are tiny relative to all other terms in the equations, given the relevant time and length scales. The asymptotic analyses, based on the reactive Euler equations, describe both induction and post-induction period models for a fast heat release rate (induction time scale short compared to the acoustic time of the spot), as well as a modest heat release rate (induction time scale equivalent to the acoustic time). Analytical results are obtained for the fast heating rate problem and emphasize the physics of near constant-volume heating during the induction period. Weak hot spot expansion is the source of fluid expelled from the original finite volume and is a ‘piston-effect’ source of acoustic mechanical disturbances beyond the spot. The post-induction period is characterized by the explosive appearance of an ephemeral, spatially uniform high-temperature, high-pressure spot embedded in a cold, low-pressure environment. In analogy with a shock tube the subsequent expansion process occurs on the acoustic time scale of the spot and will be the source of shocks propagating beyond the spot. The modest heating rate induction period is characterized by weakly compressible phenomena that can be described by a novel system of linear wave equations for the temperature, pressure and induced velocity perturbations driven by nonlinear chemical heating, which provides physical insights difficult to obtain from the more familiar ‘Clarke equation’. When the heating rate is modest, reaction terms in the post-induction period Euler equations exhibit a form of singular behaviour in the high-activation-energy limit, implying the need to use a nonlinear exponential scaling for time and space, developed originally to describe spatially uniform thermal explosions (Kassoy, Q. J. Mech. Appl. Maths, vol. 30, 1977, pp. 71–89). Here again the result will be the explosive appearance of an ephemeral spatially uniform high-temperature, high-pressure hot spot. These results demonstrate that an initially weak temperature non-uniformity in a finite hot spot can be the source of acoustic and shock wave mechanical disturbances in the gas beyond the spot that may be related to rocket engine instability and engine knock.