After the catapults and the slingshots stopped firing, the big guns opened up.

The first of the mighty cannons was the Universal Soldier, a massive 30-foot metal barrel mounted atop a station wagon body that was mounted atop a truck frame, all of it painted in a camouflage pattern. The captain of the battery, Trey Melson, a legendary local plumber and cannoneer, also wore camouflage, along with a dapper beret. He pulled a cord and his cannon roared, propelling a pumpkin into the heavens. It hung there, an orange orb disappearing into the bright blue sky; then it plummeted to earth 2,715 feet away. The crowd cheered.

"Way to go, Trey!"

A few minutes later, Randy Kezar fired his cannon. Kezar is an engineering student and his weapon, the Honey Dew Screw, is a high-tech device powered by liquid nitrogen. But it didn't quite work. A thick cloud of white smoke belched from the long green barrel and the pumpkin plopped to the ground just 26 feet away. The crowd laughed.

Kezar shrugged. "I don't mind," he said, smiling. "I'm here for the party."

He'd come to the right place. The 13th annual World Championship Punkin Chunk was, like its predecessors, a two-day beer-and-cannon blast. Sometimes the pumpkins soared like rockets; sometimes they sank like rocks. Either way, the result was highly entertaining.

"We're just big kids with real expensive toys," said Larry McLaughlin, 47, a maintenance supervisor for the town of Lewes, Del., and a former world champion Punkin Chunker. He estimates that he and his team have spent $30,000 on various pumpkin-tossing machines over the last 12 years. "It's a good time," he says, "and you get to brag all year if you win."

The Punkin Chunk is an utterly impractical event that is, paradoxically, a tribute to practical people -- to the tinkerers, the backyard fixer-uppers, the can-do guys who look at a massive screw-up, rub their chins and say, "Hey, I think we can fix this sucker if we just get some PVC pipe, an air compressor and some duct tape."

At this year's Punkin Chunk, pumpkins were hurled by contraptions created out of tree trunks, I-beams, giant rubber bands, bicycle wheels, barbell weights, oil drums, old boilers and, in one case, a slice of a football. Several pneumatic cannons were powered by giant air compressors, and one cannon was powered by a truck usually used to pump septic tanks, which inspired a lot of jokes.

That particular cannon, called Bad Hair Day, was fired by the event's only all-female artillery team. It was born when the women were ejected from the pit area at last year's Punkin Chunk, where they were assisting with their husbands' cannon. A security guard said the women were "nonessential personnel." That irked them.

"We decided to form a team and show them how essential we are," said nail technician Cindy Wright, the team captain. Wright and five other women mounted a 40-foot barrel atop a dump truck and painted the rig black with gold trim. A sign in front read "Powered by Estrogen."

Robert Young, 67, a retired judge from Magungie, Pa., created his pumpkin-hurling catapult, the Pennsylvania Chopper, out of a locust post, garage door springs, bungee cords and buckets, all of it mounted on a dump truck. Total cost: $1,357. For months, he videotaped his test firings and played them back in slow motion to study the results.

"It's the funniest film in Pennsylvania," he said. "In one shot, the pumpkin hits the top of the truck."

"He's weird," his wife, Carolyn, explained.

A few minutes later, Young put on his white hard hat, blew his air horn and fired his catapult. The pumpkin went up like a mortar shot and dropped to earth 85 feet down the field.

"Too high," said his son, Don, who is also an attorney. "Wrong angle."

Judge Young smiled. "That's about as good as we're going to do," he said.

The Punkin Chunk is an Olympics for handymen. It's a NASA program for folks who like to fiddle around in the garage. And why shouldn't they get to hurl things into space, too? The Chunk attracts a few engineers and other white-collar types. But it's dominated by carpenters, mechanics, welders and watermen, guys who are good with their hands, guys who wear work boots and overalls and hooded sweat shirts, guys like Bill "Broad Dog" Thompson.

Thompson, a big, brawny 52-year-old well-drilling contractor, invented the Chunk back in 1986, when he challenged Lewes blacksmith John Ellsworth to a pumpkin-tossing duel. Thompson and his friend Melson won that duel, which took place in Thompson's six-acre back yard, by hurling a pumpkin 187 feet with a catapult built with garage door springs. The event became an annual post-Halloween ritual, and every year the crowds got bigger.

"The third year there were 1,000 people," Thompson says, "and we had to move because my yard wasn't big enough. We were tossing pumpkins over the woods, so we couldn't measure anymore."

In recent years, the Punkin Chunk grew into a full-blown festival, complete with food vendors and carnival rides, attracting more than 20,000 spectators over two days, with general admission costing $6 apiece.

Meanwhile, the technology kept evolving. For a while, catapults won; then centrifugal devices dominated. Then, in 1994, Melson built the first pneumatic cannon, which fired a pumpkin 2,508 feet -- more than 1,000 feet farther than anybody had shot one before. Since then, the air cannons have ruled. (Actual cannons -- and other explosive devices -- are not permitted.)

In 1996, word of the Punkin Chunk reached Morton, Ill., which bills itself as the Pumpkin Capital of the World. There, five men built an air cannon on the chassis of an old concrete mixer and drove it 871 miles to the Punkin Chunk. It was an awesome computer-enhanced machine they called the Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator -- named after a device in an animated cartoon -- and it promptly set a world record of 2,710 feet. Last year the Q36 returned to Delaware and threw a gourd 3,541 feet, but it lost to Melson's Universal Soldier, which took the title back with a new record of 3,718 feet.

So this year's Chunk -- held in a new and larger field here -- promised an exciting rematch. Melson started with a 2,715-foot toss, which was respectable but hardly awesome. Then Q36's first pumpkin blasted out of the 80-foot plastic barrel and didn't fall to earth until it had soared a record 3,782 feet. Three other crews fired pumpkins farther than 2,000 feet, and Old Glory -- a cannon captained by Joe "Wolfman" Thomas, a Lewes sprinkler installer -- blasted one 3,313 feet.

Yesterday morning, the combatants arose, shook off the effects of Saturday night's revelries and prepared for the showdown.

The first round of firing left the situation unchanged -- Q36 still in the lead with its record of 3,782 feet. In the final round, Melson decided to turn the air pressure up on his Universal Soldier, and security guards pushed the crowd back lest something blow up. The cannon roared and the pumpkin soared long and high -- so long and high that the spotters couldn't find it. Q36 responded with an awesome blast that the spotters did find -- 4,026 feet downfield.

"New! World! Record!" the announcer bellowed.

By the end of the day, nobody had matched that record but nobody had found Universal Soldier's pumpkin, either. Was it in the woods? Or over the woods?

"It's on the other side of the woods," said Melson. "They'll find it. They just got to go a little further."

Melson sent his teammates out to search but they couldn't locate the pumpkin either. Finally, as dark settled in, the judges decided that "any pumpkin not found is considered lost" and awarded Q36 the title.

Melson was visibly peeved. "The pumpkin," he said, "is out there somewhere." PUNKIN CHUNKIN The previous world record-holder for pneumatic cannon pumpkin projecting is Universal Soldier. The record distance is the equivalent of hurtling the 10-lb. pumpkin almost three-quarters of a mile, or from the Washington Monument to the west end of the Reflecting Pool. The previous records, all set in 1997 with 8- to 10-lb. pumpkins: CLASS

DISTANCE (ft.) HOLDER Pneumatic Cannon

3,718

Universal Soldier Unlimited

1,105

Gene's Machine Centrifugal

2,008

Bad-to-the-Bone Human Power

314

Hyper Tension II Youth (10 and under)

48

Humdinger One (11 to 17)

750

DelCastle Cougars CAPTION: Trey Melson, right, and team member Don Mitchell, launching pumpkins. ec CAPTION: Launch preparations: Mike Davis loads a pumpkin into the Sky Buster. ec