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Tater Shots: Boys Love 'Em
In Fauquier County, The Potato Gun Satisfies an Appetite For Destruction

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

There are times when men do as they must.

Jason knew such times 3,300 years ago when he and his crew launched the Argo to explore the eastern Mediterranean -- then still viewed as a realm of unknowable gods and monsters. The need, the instinct, the drive remain today. Take a close look at the bridge of the Enterprise in "Star Trek." That's Jason and the Argonauts rendered in modern terms.

Thus it came to pass recently that some men in the foothills of the Blue Ridge in Fauquier County found themselves compelled by forces larger than themselves -- forces they could barely explain -- to disappear into the workshop of Rob Payne of Broad Run. Some might call it a humble shed out back of his house, but then, some doubtless scoffed at the paltry length of the Argo or the cheesy set of the first "Star Trek."

Payne and his neighbor, Dave Anders, embarked on their particular adventure armed with Wal-Mart bags stuffed with $97.09 worth of PVC pipe, sparking flint, ammunition, targets, beer and hair spray. They would labor through the night, shaping these humble materials. It was a ritual as old as that of the early inhabitants of North America when they flaked humble rock into the Clovis points that became the spears with which they would conquer the wilderness.

Rob and Dave built a spudgun.

Why was it done? Why bother to craft a simple but elegant hand-held cannon that can fire a naked potato 300 yards at speeds approaching 300 miles per hour? Why why why?

Perhaps it is best articulated by the legendary Joel D. Suprise, the laird of the Spudgun Technology Center of Appleton, Wis. -- "Because we are men; and because we can."

Or perhaps we should reflect on the wisdom of the bard, the chronicler, the venerable William Gurstelle of Minneapolis, author of "Backyard Ballistics" -- of which more than 170,000 copies have been sold -- when he reflects, "Anything that goes bang, whoosh, splat -- guys like that."

Whatever the deep and fundamental source of their need, this is the tale of its sating. Jason would have understood.

The Men

It takes a certain type of imagination to dream of assembling common hardware into a device that will launch root vegetables over the tallest trees and a sixth of a mile downrange.

Rob Payne and Dave Anders are the kind of guys who have been known to start preparing for Halloween in July. For years, they and other men in the area have gotten together to turn a nearby quarter-mile of forest lane into a venue for a haunted hayride. Their goal, as Payne puts it: "to give the little [unfortunates] something to talk about to their shrinks if they grow up." They also own enough industrial-strength extension cords to power the forest for sound effects, smoke pots, eerie lights and, last year, a robot.

This is the context in which it came as such a shock when these men realized that after all these years, they'd never gotten around to building a potato chucker propelled by explosive mist and a spark. It challenged their self-esteem, already tested by the slurs of a prejudiced world.

"We're tired of being called rednecks," says Payne. "We prefer Appalachian Americans."

The Lore

The origins of the spudgun -- a.k.a. the potato cannon, the spudzooka and the starch resource deployment facilitator -- are lost in the mists of time. Legend has it that in the United States, the ancestral device was built in the 1960s out of beer cans with their tops and bottoms cut off and then duct-taped into a long tube in the service of seeing how far a tennis ball could fly if enough gasoline was detonated behind it.

Spudguns have evolved over the decades. Suprise, who makes and sells potato guns and their air-cannon cousins and ships them all over the world, offers his SP93xx compressed-air device, richly equipped, in the $600 range. "I kid you not," he says. The device "will fire a golf ball 800 to 1,000 yards." A three-inch-wide barrel will accommodate a full beer can. Some units are powered by scuba tanks.

The appeal of these things may be universal, even eternal. People in the Philippines have long celebrated Christmas and New Year's by taking a six-foot length of bamboo and hollowing it out except for the bottom, near which they drill a hole. The reveler then adds kerosene, sticks his mouth on the hole near the fuel, blows in air and introduces a spark. The resultant explosion fires empty condensed-milk cans. The Philippine Embassy explains that people often try to avoid taking their heads off by wrapping the bamboo with rope.

If this suggests that safety issues have surrounded spudguns since their inception, that would be correct. To start with, if you hate all guns and the people who admire them and everything they stand for, listen to your cardiologist and read no further. If, however, you want to get down to business, the rule of thumb is that it's not a good idea to fire a spudgun anywhere you would hesitate to fire a shotgun. Never look down the barrel of a spudgun. Never let kids use one without adult supervision. Never load one and rest the muzzle on your foot. "Imagine a brick thrown at your foot from an office block roof," writes an Australian spudgunner with the voice of experience.

And let none dare call it folly.

"This is what I do for a living, damn straight," says Suprise, who sells as many as 1,500 cannons per year, as well as parts, kits and accessories, and has an order backlog of six months. He is not just the big fish in the small pond of his specialty, "I'm the mako shark in your swimming pool."

One of his busiest periods is this very season, this time of mourning for the passing of summer, the long Labor Day weekend. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Christmas are also intense times. His simple spudguns cost $59.99, although custom upgrades open a universe of possibilities, including an onboard propane injection system, dual pistol grips and a flashy paint job.

The top of his line is the Tornado Simulator Mega-Launcher II. It costs $2,500. It fires a 12-foot-long, 15-pound two-by-four at 100 miles per hour. Turns out, he says, that if you can build a room that will survive an assault from the Tornado Simulator without the interior wall being breached, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will certify it as tornado safe.

Interest has also been shown by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, which plan to use his cannons to launch global positioning system tracking units onto icebergs. The Navy is interested in using them to launch 12-pound torpedo countermeasure devices that "buzz around and make a bunch of noise that the torpedoes home in on rather than the screws of the ships," according to Suprise.

The Army is also a client, but, he says, its schemes are classified.

The biggest market for Suprise's fully preassembled spudguns is on the coasts, where you "tend to have more yuppies," he says. "Maybe doctors and lawyers and PhDs in astrophysics, for all I know, but you hand them a screwdriver and they'd probably kill themselves." Inland, he says, you generally find "that farmer mentality -- 'I can build that.' "

It is these latter paragons of self-reliance that are epitomized by Payne and Anders.

Hold the Spam

Theirs is a world that worships the canny. Payne, for instance, pays for his workshop and his six-wheel F350 Ford pickup with his day job "trying to break software" as a quality-assurance maven for an information company.

Anders, a plumber by trade who now runs a home restoration and renovation business, shops in a sufficiently valiant part of Virginia that when he went to Wal-Mart and asked for a flint and steel lantern igniter, the guy took one look at the parts list in his hand and "knew exactly what we were doing. He took me straight to them. I bet he has a spudgun at home."

The gun he and Rob Payne decided to build is a classic muzzle loader -- you stick the potato down the business end.

Anders cuts the 36-inch barrel out of a piece of plumber's heavy-duty two-inch-diameter PVC plastic pipe. He then shaves this barrel with an abrasive wheel at an angle such that the inside of the muzzle comes to a sharp edge. The idea is that when the potato gets jammed in, it is peeled in one stroke, leaving a cylinder of brown-skinned spud exterior on the ground, and a perfectly formed slug of nice dense white potato inside the barrel, ready to be rammed all the way down with a T-handled plunger.

Anders cuts the 14-inch-long combustion chamber out of a three-inch-diameter piece of PVC. Then, steadying the assembly on the rear bumper of his truck -- the one with the sticker reading "Virginia Terrorist Hunt Club, Permit No. 9.11.01" -- he cements the two into a reducer coupling designed to connect a pipe of one size with a pipe of another size.

A photographer observing all this asks what would happen if you put a super-hard black walnut on top of the potato.

Payne looks at him, dazzled by the destructive possibilities.

"Is it wrong to fall in love with a photographer?" he asks.

The choice of projectiles is limited only by imagination. Potatoes are obviously really good. They're dense, and fly well. Apples are good. Limes work well. Carrots will work with a one-inch barrel.

Spam does not. Joel Suprise once cranked up an air cannon to 110 pounds per square inch and fired a ball of the stuff, and the result was a V-shaped pattern 100 yards long and 50 yards wide. "Every bird in the neighborhood had gas for a year," he says.

Spudguns can be surprisingly accurate. Suprise says that with one of his custom-made rifled barrels, he can consistently hit a five-gallon bucket at 150 feet. Grigg Mullen Jr., a civil engineering professor at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, swears that he has nailed a clay pigeon in the air. He says he has two witnesses.

Spray It Again

As long as spudguns are only used for shooting potatoes, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms does not classify them as firearms. Some smaller jurisdictions, however -- especially in California, oddly enough -- have gone so far as to declare the devices potato non gratin.

Recently, aficionados have been mourning the reformulation of their fuel of choice -- Right Guard deodorant. "It isn't flammable anymore," Suprise says. "Probably because of us crazy spudgunners."

This has caused many spudgunners to turn to hair spray, the cheapest brands available -- "your Aqua Net, your Suave, your White Rain," author Gurstelle says. The problem with hair spray is that "it's basically plastic in a can," says Suprise, and eventually it will gum up the firing mechanism, which is why alternative fuels are being widely researched -- automotive starter fluid, 195-proof Everclear drinking alcohol out of a spray bottle, and so on in an increasingly volatile list. Payne and Anders decide to go with Suave Extra Hold.

To charge a spudgun, the idea is to voosh several seconds worth of hair spray into the combustion chamber and quickly cap it. The tricky part of making this cap, however, is fitting into it the ignition mechanism for a Coleman Ozark Trail Lantern. The solution involves Payne's impressive drill press, and some countersinking, and accidentally breaking the first igniter. "That's why I bought two of them," muses Anders. "I knew we'd [botch] one up." Then comes the issue of making sure there is an airtight seal.

"What should we use?" Payne asks. "Skoal?"

Anders just looks at him, then silently produces a tube of silicone.

Setting aside the assembly to cure for a night, Payne says, "If I see a turkey buzzard, she's going down."

Showtime

The next night, Payne shows up at the clearing in the forest on his ATV wearing his camos. He has a cooler of "aiming fluid" -- Michelob Ultra -- and a load of ideas. The cannon, he decides, should be named the Appalachian American Attitude Adjuster, and wouldn't it be really great if you stretched some guitar strings across the muzzle such that, if you aim at a deep fat fryer, you'd get french fries?

Anders shows up in his overalls with his wife, Kandy, and daughter, Krista. The ladies began to show interest when he came home with three watermelons and explained they were going to be for target practice.

Payne promptly dubs the fruit the al-Qaeda watermelon brigade and vows to annihilate them with a "weapon of mashed destruction," but there is a slight edge to the joking because no one really knows what to expect. If this thing blows up -- how bad does PVC shrapnel hurt?

In goes the potato, out comes the 14-ounce can of Suave. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. Payne sprays, then slaps the cap home. Anders hoists the weapon to his shoulder. Payne stands behind him to turn the igniter.

He cranks it up.

Nothing happens.

He cranks it again.

Nothing happens.

Anders looks back at him with a silent stare. Then he re-aims the weapon.

Payne cranks it a third time, and BANG the damned thing goes off! The potato flies long and true in the kind of graceful arc that makes football a spectator sport.

Cheers go up! Backs are slapped! Fives are highed. There is so much excitement that the mighty cannoneers entirely forget to belly bump.

More potatoes! Where are the damned potatoes?! Russet after russet fills the air, with one impressive muzzle flash after another.

The air is also filled with questions. How much recoil does it have? (Not much -- like a .22.) What does the combustion chamber smell like? (Tammy Faye Bakker after too long under the studio lights.)

The target is set on a sawhorse. It takes quite a few tries, but finally the soul-stirring moment comes when a one-pound russet connects with a watermelon at over 200 miles per hour. Red and green explodes. Payne rushes to pick up the shards.

"This is your brain; this is your brain on spudgun!" he exults. Then he buries his face in the pink flesh and starts slurping and munching, in the ancient ritual of devouring the kill.

"You guys are having entirely too much fun," says Kandy.

The Inventor-Scientist

In the days that follow, more and grander ideas fly. How about shooting at a kite? What happens if you stick a sparkler in the potato? Or a glow stick? Early one morning, Payne fires off an e-mail, obviously the result of a long night's subconscious processing.

"I think at the heart of every Appalachian American is an inventor-scientist," he writes. "Taking an ordinary object and using it in a way that was never even conceived by its designer is what we do best."

For instance?

"Other people see a packing crate. We see a hunting cabin."

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