A Pumpkin Gun

Minnesota’s technology underground is a loose confederacy of extreme tinkerers and technical self-expressives—guys, mostly, with day jobs in corporate labs and academic facilities—who spend incredible amounts of time and money on odd stuff that goes boom, whoosh, and splat. It is a netherworld of guerilla science, cobbled together with pneumatic pumps, reclaimed solenoid valves, and rusty arc welders.

There are numerous specializations. Some are into high-powered amateur rockets, million-volt tesla coils, titanium-clad warrior robots, and hand-welded railguns. Still others are into vegetable-hurling weaponry.

I first became aware of Minnesota’s leadership in the field of agricultural artillery when I got interested in a recent surge of non-traditionally powered projectile launchers. First, there was a public television show called Secrets of Lost Empires, which featured a bunch of guys who built a working catapult and knocked down a medieval wall with it. A few months later, a distressed Dan Rather (“What new danger lurks in America’s garages?”) reported on a young Texan who, mishandling a friend’s homemade potato cannon, shot himself in the head with a bullfrog (long, messy story). It turned out that the friend bought the parts for his spud-gun off the Internet, from a person who makes them for a living in a small shop just east of the Twin Cities.

Sensing a growing trend, I began seeking out any local news of vegetable-discharging air guns, catapults, trebuchets, giant slingshots, and the like. Other examples soon popped up. Last spring, on WCCO news, I learned about “Two Boys Hospitalized After Potato Gun Accident in Northwest Minnesota.” Then I took note in my newspaper of a “Des Moines Man Arrested for Spud Cannon Possession.”

But these little incidents are nothing compared to pumpkin chucking, an alarmingly popular hobby. A sport of sorts (in the same way that, say, horseshoes, lawn darts, and battle-bots are sports), it is practiced mostly in areas that grow a lot of pumpkins: central Illinois, southern Delaware, and greater Minnesota. The idea seems to have originated in 1986, when a somewhat eccentric and possibly drunk Delaware man dared his friends to find out how far they could throw a pumpkin, using whatever means they could devise. As it turned out, they didn’t get too far, at least not at first. But guys who are serious about heaving pumpkins tend to be long on tenaciousness, too, and are devoted to the doctrine of continuous improvement. It didn’t take them long to get better at it.

Back in 1986, the winning shot sent a ten-pound pumpkin on a ride just under two hundred feet long. The bar has been set higher each year since then. The 2004 crop of shooters includes trebuchets, slingshots, spring engines, ballistae, torsion catapults, and colossal compressed air-powered behemoths such as the “Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator,” whose name was inspired by the raygun belonging to Marvin the Martian, one of Bugs Bunny’s more memorable rivals. The Q36 is from Morton, Illinois, the home of Libby’s, who incidentally make quite a lot of canned pumpkin filling. The gun travels to pumpkin-shooting events on large flatbed trailers and is assembled on-site using a construction crane. The machine is basically a giant air gun fabricated from ten-inch-diameter aluminum piping, pneumatic valves and regulators, and other assorted industrial doohickeys. The gun is powered by huge tanks of compressed air and mounted on a steel launch pad the size of your average garage slab. Its barrel spans nearly eight stories and the whole thing is encased in a welded steel superstructure tensioned with guy wires.

When the trigger is tripped, a deafening release of compressed air imparts great gobs of kinetic energy to the projectile in the breech. If it’s a good, tough-shelled pumpkin, it soars about 4,800 feet before splatting into seedy goo upon impact. That’s getting very close to a mile, and brother, that’s a long way to shoot a pumpkin. If the pumpkin can’t handle it, it disintegrates in the barrel and somewhere down-range, it’s raining pumpkin pie.

One can also divest oneself of a pumpkin with an old-fashioned catapult, and there are several local examples to provide inspiration. Pumpkinland, near Mankato, has one. Mommsen’s Produce Patch in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, does too. Owner Chris Mommsen has a particularly impressive collection of pumpkin-shooting devices. His biggest thrower is a medieval catapult that hurls its ordnance nearly four hundred feet. He’s also got an air-powered cannon with a twenty-foot-long barrel and a two hundred-gallon air chamber. There are not nearly enough eaters of pumpkin pie to justify all that filling—but pumpkin pie was always more community ritual than dessert, anyway.—William Gurstelle