A Single Mississippi View On Anvil Shooting

By Bob Heath

Published in the November 2001 Issue of Anvil Magazine

The recent controversy over anvil shooting at the Southeastern Regional ABANA Conference in Madison, Georgia, prompts this response. I do not claim profound or even deep "master level" knowledge about our craft of blacksmithing. I do claim a deep and an abiding interest in the craft that helps to throw some light on the subject of blacksmithing, at least in my native state of Mississippi. Our traditions do indeed extend far back in history and indeed, we do have an ongoing policy in our fair state of honesty and historic traditions that extend to the craft of blacksmithing. In Vicksburg we had "mechanics" who were hand-building steam engines from scratch as early as 1840 and in Natchez earlier than that. The blacksmiths and gun makers of Natchez were second to none in their productions of pattern-welded damascus dueling pistols and swords for the Southern aristocracy who dueled in Natchez and on cotton plantations of the 1840s. Reese Fitspatrick and Samuel Odel are just two of the best of a host of others in our craft who emerge from the pages of history alongside the names of Mississippi statesmen, politicians, soldiers and adventurers such as Jim Bowie, Andrew Jackson, General Quitman, John Coffee, Stephen Lee, General Barksdale, and many others. We are very rich in our Southern history of the Old Southwest and in our traditions.

In 1541 Hernando DeSoto spent the winter in camp here with 600 Spanish conquistadors. Six blacksmiths, who kept gear and weapons in shape to fight off the fierce Chickasaws, were with his small army. The Indians came very close to capturing them all. That is how far back in time anvils have been located on the soil of our fair state.

When the Civil War ended, the Union Army carried off all of the field pieces and cannons that the Confederate Army had used with such murderous effect at places like Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Fredericksburg. The lack of cannons left the South without the usual means of making noise to celebrate the Fourth of July. Before the Civil War, field pieces had been used at the courthouse squares during militia-sponsored military parades to keep in practice and to celebrate. That all ended in 1865. After that, the practice of anvil shooting became part of the post-war legacy for celebrations that needed noise for the Fourth of July and New Years. The practice of anvil shooting became traditional, and a regular feature at state and county fairs in some parts of the South. The main ingredient was the noise that gunpowder made-in this case black powder only-and not to see how high the top anvil flew into the air. This was the competitive practice of shooting multiple anvils, as is done in some places nowadays. Competition anvil shooting is definitely not a part of tradition. The noise is.

The people who know and understand things about explosives understand that the thing that is so dangerous about any explosive is the element of detonation. If an explosive can be made to burn instead of detonate, as does most black powder, the stress effect on materials such as steel, a gun barrel, or wrought iron, is much less. Detonation refers to near-instantaneous burn. The quickness of an explosive burn determines if the explosion is a detonation or not, as I understand it. If the burn is extremely fast, as in a detonation, the stress effect can be shattering on ferrous materials, the kind of material that anvils are made of.

Some people who shoot anvils tend to rely on the fact that black powder tends to burn instead of detonate. But that is not exactly true. When gun powder or any explosive is set off, sometimes the rate of burn is controlled by how well it is confined. Black powder confined inside of a gun barrel may generate 25,000 psi pressure as it forces a ball down toward the muzzle. Bullets used in modern rifles may generate as much as 50,000 or 70,000 psi pressure inside a gun barrel. That is why heavy breeches are specially designed to withstand the sudden forces that are generated inside the barrel of a firearm. Modern gun barrel iron/steel is usually specially formulated to resist sudden shock as well as force. All irons or steels that go into the manufacture of guns, even modern rifles, is flawed at the molecular level. All steels and all irons have flaws in their grain microstructure. The best knife makers know about these flaws and understand how to make a sharp knife in spite of the flaws that exist along a cutting edge. The people who make guns compensate for the unknown and inherent weaknesses of the material by introducing a design safety factor. They thoroughly test the materials and test fire their guns, if they are smart. Bullets have measured amounts of powder in them. Specified and carefully measured loads are used by wise shooters if they intend to predict the path of a fired bullet or ball to hit a target.

One of the problems that many people who shoot anvils do not understand is that all-and I mean all-material has flaws in its molecular structure. Most people know that shooting anvils made out of cast iron is an invitation to disaster since the internal structure of cast iron is so susceptible to sudden shock, the kind of shock that is associated with an explosive detonation. Hit a bar, even a rather large bar, of cast iron with a hammer and it is likely to break or shatter upon impact. Malleable cast iron is much more difficult to break, however. But it, too, has flaws. A disturbing factor in the way some old anvils were made is that they were sometimes forge-welded together from an assemblage of components. For instance, a large wrought iron central block may have been used for the main body of an anvil to start the assembly. Then a wrought iron horn would be forge welded on with sledge hammers. Then four wrought iron feet were forge welded onto the main body, and finally a steel face would be forge welded on top of the whole assembly to form the forging face of the finished anvil. These old anvils made this way are probably some of the best anvils that are around for forging in a blacksmith shop. But they are certainly not the best anvils to be used for anvil shooting.

Many blacksmiths believe that a forge weld is a strong way to join iron together. I believe it is, but the joint is not as strong as the original metal that make up the pieces, unless the weld is properly made. A welded joint is usually not as strong as the original material unless it is made of double thickness, forged down into the original thickness of the joined pieces. Put another way, if two half-inch bars are both "upset" to make the joint thicker, then the upset ends are properly scarfed and the two half-inch pieces are forge welded to the original half-inch thickness, possibly making the joint as strong as the original bars. When anvil feet or a horn were forge-welded to the body of some of these old anvils, the forge welds were only forged without the benefit of the double thickness taken into account. Those welds were not as sound as the original wrought iron material that went into the body of the anvil. The welds actually represent planes of weakness at the seams of the welds. That is why it is so dangerous to "shoot" some of these old anvils because they represent really potentially dangerous weaknesses in the material, especially when it is considered that the highest stresses occur right at the location of the anvil feet during "shoots."

This defect in safety can be compensated for, to some extent, by test firing these old anvils in much the same manner that gun barrels are test fired. The usual practice of testing a gun barrel is to load the barrel with three or four times the normal charge and put two bullets in the breech to help in building a very large pressure when the powder charge is ignited. Informed people who shoot anvils do the same sort of thing when they test fire their anvils.

Some people who shoot anvils think they are using safe methods if they use an anvil made out of cast steel. After all, cast steel is much stronger and much tougher than cast iron. However, any steel that is cast, especially in a large, solid mass, has an associated dendritic structure. That should throw up a large question mark and doubt in anyone's mind who wants to shoot an anvil made of cast steel, and it does. The really safe shooters have their anvils X-rayed with very powerful X-ray machines that can penetrate to the depths of a mass of metal to reveal flaws in a casting or a weld that may exist. Most anvil shooters don't do this, though, and certainly did not do it in the early part of the last century and the one before that.

Some people who shoot anvils rely on steel anvils that are made in high-quality Swedish steels. The idea here is that the steel is of such high quality that it can withstand shooting stresses. In much the same line of thought, some anvil shooters will use anvils that consist of specially formulated alloying of steels that imparts a toughness to the metal. These are probably the safest anvils of all to shoot since they are modern made by founders who know their business and they are X-rayed before they are put to the test.

I know of at least one anvil shoot that was a contest to see whose anvil would go the highest. The anvils reached heights of about 400 to 500 feet straight up under the impact stresses of a massive load of black gun powder. One of the participants (who was not informed about the things that he should have known about) entered a cast anvil. When the charges went off, all of the anvils went up as expected except his. The horn on that anvil detached from the explosive shock and flew in the direction of the crowd who were observing the shoot. Luckily the crowd was placed about 500 yards off and out of reach of that unexpected horn. That event put a lump of concern in more than one throat that day.

One of the factors that enters into the considerations of anvil shooting is the shape of the cavity located in the bottom of the top anvil that is shot or the cavity located near the feet on the bottom upturned anvil that stays on the ground during a shoot. The way shooting is done down here is that the bottom cavity is filled with powder and the feet of the top anvil are placed on top. Although it may not be entirely understood by those who shoot anvils, those lozenge-shaped cavities actually focus the charge as it explodes and imparts a variety of force vectors that push both upward and also sideways against the feet of both anvils. The sideways force represents a vector pointed directly into any observers that may be so foolish as to stand near. The upward-directed explosive force vectors also represent potential danger due to the fact that the top anvil that is pushed upward can have too much stress transmitted to its parts, such as welded-on feet or horn.

People who know how to safely shoot anvils always use an armored barrier between the observers who are placed far distant from the explosion and the anvils that contain the explosive. The barrier is placed as a precaution, just in case, to prevent any shrapnel that might be generated. Often a caulking sealant is placed between the two anvils to restrict moisture in case it rains. When the charge goes off, that caulking compound will fly off for a short distance and could sting if it hit someone on the legs or face. The flying caulk is not a serious danger because the observing crowd is placed far distant from the shoot and represents more of an annoyance to the shooter who lights the fuse, and does not usually go all the way back to where the crowd is located. The shooter needs to be far enough away to protect his eyes and be behind the barrier and the explosion to be safe.

One troubling aspect of anvil shooting is the variants of the process that uninformed shooters can get involved in. Here is where things really become extremely dangerous. This comes under the heading of the "Cook Shooter." Some people have been known to "shoot" swedge blocks in place of anvils. Swedge blocks usually have vertical sides and are cast. The major force vectors of the explosion act horizontally and toward an observing crowd. One person placed a stick of dynamite in a hardy hole and set that off! Others use cast iron anvils. Nothing could be more foolish.

The real problems about anvil shooting concern the imitators who know nothing about steel, iron, explosives, armored barriers, safe distances, and alcohol. Alcohol and gun powder do not mix and never have, either in hunting, target shooting, or anvil shooting. Anvil shooting can be safe if properly done and if all of the rules of X-raying, thorough testing, and safety are strictly observed. But we cannot prevent those who imitate. That is what makes anvil shooting so very dangerous in modern society-those uninformed and simple people who are always so very sorry when something goes wrong, like when that anvil horn blew off at a shoot here in Mississippi not long ago. Thank goodness no one was hurt or killed. I must admit that I do not know a lot about metallurgy, am not a master blacksmith, and have a very long way to go on the learning curve to really have an adequate understanding of these things. But I do know the things related above are true and absolute, at least for me and mine. I am as Southern as one can get, very deep in Southern independence, American independence, as well as much- appreciated Southern traditions, history, and customs. But I do think anvil shooting anywhere in the world needs to cease at once, never to be done again. Why? Because there are too danged many "monkey see, monkey do" people out there in the world today who do not need to be exposed to this. Adults can use matches. Safe and informed anvil shooters can shoot anvils safely. But children can't be allowed to play with matches, and uninformed imitators cannot be allowed to shoot anvils. We Johnny Rebs need to go along with our Northern brethren on this one. I can't stand to think of a little girl or a little boy getting a mouthful of flying anvil foot because some idiot imitator decided he wanted to show his stuff with a cast iron anvil he picked up at a yard sale the week before. That horn coming off of that anvil down here in Mississippi recently convinces me.

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