by Robert Heath
The practice of anvil shooting is traditional down South and has been since the Yankees carried off all of the Confederate field pieces after the Civil War. Before the Civil War, I have been told, Southerners fired off cannons at local courthouse squares to make noise of celebration on the Fourth of July, just like their Northern brethren did. In each section of the country the local militia units would form up, roll out the cannon, strut for the ladies, drill, fire artillery, and go home after a cotillion ball.
After the Civil War, the South turned to anvils for noise making. The practice here is to put about a quarter pound of black gunpowder between two anvils and fire it off with a six-inch fuse. This works very well if both anvils are made of forged steel, have a small losing cavity at their base, and are placed in such a position that the bottom anvil rests on its forging face, feet up, while the top anvil is placed feet down with its cavity covering the pile of powder in the bottom anvil cavity. Such an arrangement will send the top anvil 40 to 100 feet straight up into the air when the charge is set off. The height attained usually depends on how hard the ground is under the bottom anvil or how much powder in placed between the anvils. Some folks even place extra steel plates under the bottom anvil to increase the height caused by the blast. I'm not recommending that anyone try this stunt, although I think it is safe if properly done. I only relate that it happens down here in the South from time to time and has for many years. It takes special anvils and a hefty respect for explosives of any kind to do it safely.
Over the last few years, people have revived this old tradition in Alabama and Mississippi to some limited extent when the Forge Councils of the two sister states have annual blacksmithing conferences. The Alabama Forge Council has its conference at Old Tannehill State Park near Birmingham, and the Mississippi Forge Council has its event at various locations in the Jackson area. Mr. Floyd Daniel, the famous old blacksmith and tool collector from Georgia, actually put this tradition back into use by shooting anvils in Alabama. The practice was quickly picked up in Mississippi and a sort of lighthearted revelry developed to see who could shoot the anvil highest. The height started out at 40 feet, then went to 60 feet, then 92, and finally 104 feet, when everyone realized that one blast was about as loud as another. It was no use to tempt fate by increasing weights of powder charges. That really was aching for trouble. All of the parties involved seemed to settle down to a satisfying 50-foot shot and call it quits on the rivalry. Everyone was geared to a very hefty boom, with the anvil traveling a long but safe distance up in the air. This became standard practice at all of the conferences and everyone present expected basically the same thing to happen each time. That routine was upset at one of the conferences sponsored by the Mississippi Forge Council, which took place in Canton a few years back.
On this particular Saturday when the anvils would be shot at high noon on the courthouse square, people began to gather on the grounds. Someone asked about "anvil dancing" had anyone ever heard of it?" Someone had been thumbing through the WPA Depression Era history files at the State Archives in Jackson, Mississippi, and found an account recorded in 1932, where anvils were shot at an auction in south Mississippi. It seems that when the fuse was lit, a drunken Irishman had stepped up on the top anvil to do a jig and jumped off just in time to avoid the flight up. That was the topic of discussion as the anvils were prepared for the conference shoot in Canton that day. Somehow it seemed to trigger a sense of danger or risk associated with what really is just a very loud noise. One of the local ladies said that the shoot should be canceled because the boom would blow out all of the plate glass windows on the storefronts around the courthouse square.
The people in charge of the shoot began to get a little uneasy. Someone got a teaspoon and they started dipping black powder out of the bottom anvil cavity to make a lighter charge. They had already put in a heavy charge of powder. The talk of anvil dancing, plus tons of broken glass, seemed to spook the gathering crowd.
The anvil shoot did come about, however, but not quite as expected. When the blast came, there was a big cloud of thick, white smoke that obscured the two anvils. People strained to follow the top anvil up, up, through the tree tops, which were very diligently searched for falling iron. But no anvil could be seen as expected. For an instant, everyone who knew about anvil shooting and knew that there should be a top anvil up there in the air somewhere, wondered if they had missed seeing it. We also wondered, for one breathtaking instant, if that anvil would be coming down from on high, right above us. At that exact instant, two ambulances came screaming through the downtown area right past the square at full throttle. Could the anvil have actually been shot to parts unknown and landed on a child blocks away?
When the smoke cleared, we realized that the top anvil had only gone a foot or two and had not cleared the top of the cloud of smoke. No glass had been broken, although the boom given off seemed as loud as any previous shots at conferences.
About a week later, we learned that there had been a serious automobile accident several miles north of town. That accounted for the ambulances. The only real damage caused by the anvil shoot occurred in the barber shop located on the west side of the town square. The local barber said he had been busy giving someone a shave when the boom came, causing him to flinch. That is when he sliced into his customer's ear.
Robert Heath practicing blacksmith and author from Jackson, Mississippi, is a regular contributor to ANVIL Magazine.
Published in the August 1996 Issue of Anvil Magazine