When it comes to sport, there’s no explaining what some find entertaining. Whether your passion is chess boxing, bull poker or extreme ironing, there seems to be cult followings for each. And, as it turns out, there’s quite the an interest in anvil firing, a centuries old pursuit where an anvil is blasted up to to 500 feet in the air by nothing more than black powder and a spark.
If this sounds like a crazy and side-splitting good time, you’re right, but you’re not alone in your thinking. The Science channel, will be airing a sports special Monday night that showcases the 2011 U.S. Anvil Shooting Championship. The show, which is hosted by Tory Belleci from Mythbusters, is a raucous good time and well worth checking out if you enjoy things that go boom. I sat down to interview Tory and to laugh about this crazy sport, talk about the danger of anvil firing, and amaze at the sheer ridiculousness of blowing an anvil sky high.
GeekDad: Flying Anvils — seriously (laughing) — what the hell is this?
Tory Belleci: Exactly! (laughing) What the hell is Flying Anvils? Basically, they take a 100 lb. anvil and they put it on the ground, level it and make sure it’s totally stable. They have a pocket that’s drilled out on the top and they fill it up with one pound of black powder and then they put another 100 lb. anvil on top of that and then they light a fuse and stick it into that pocket and when the black powder explodes, it launches this anvil up to 200 feet in the air. It’s so hillbilly, it’s not even funny.
This is serious redneck stuff. It’s a sport and they have competitions and these guys have been shooting anvils for about 200 years. Basically, for this sport, the way they judge it is you fire your anvil into the air and the higher it goes, you get more points and then where it lands is important because the closer it lands to the base, the more points they get as well. The further away it is, they subtract points.
GD: Is the distance only a function of how level the base anvil is?
TB: The more level it is, the straighter it will go up. The idea is that the anvil goes straight up and straight down. So if it’s perfectly level, they’ll get that. However, they don’t want to hit the base anvil because those are hard to come by and if they damage it, it’s a big deal. What happens, if the top anvil isn’t balanced on the bottom anvil, it will start spinning when it gets launched and that spinning will eat up a lot of the energy that could be used for greater altitude. So, if it doesn’t spin, it will go higher, but if it’s spinning, it tends to lose energy. So there is science and engineering behind this ridiculous sport.
GD: In a lot of events where people are looking to legitimize what they’re doing you hear “we have a lot of doctors and lawyers”, but I’m guessing that’s not the case here?
TB: No, no. But these people are the salt of the earth. They’re very normal people. At first, I thought they might be super weird, but they’re just so down to earth, just typical Americans. A lot of them were blacksmiths to begin with and that’s how they got into it. They take it so seriously.
GD: Do they go out and practice every weekend?
TB: That’s the thing. All year they are honing their anvil firing techniques so when they get into competition, they have a good shot. There were about ten teams. And throughout the day, through an elimination process it got down to two teams in the finals and [redacted to prevent spoiler] won the competition.
GD: A sport like this has to fall under the umbrella of “don’t try this at home”.
TB: It is dangerous. A guy got injured during the competition. As if black powder exploding isn’t dangerous enough, let’s send a 100 lb anvil up in the air!
You kinda get used to it because these things are firing off all day and they’re going straight up and coming straight down so you’re not very worried that they’re going to land on you. But there was one case where the guy went to light the fuse and it blew up in his face. There was a gap between the anvils and the spark from the fuse jumped into the gap and ignited the black powder before the fuse burned down.
Everybody thought he was dead, but then the smoke cleared and he was shellshocked and he’d had some injuries to his hand so they rushed him to the helicopter and got him to a hospital. He ended up being OK. He called from the hospital and apologized and encouraged us to keep going. After [the accident], there were a couple of hours where we just stopped and we were asking if we should keep going or stop the competition. But everybody, including the guy who got hurt, wanted to keep the competition going. It’s fun, but it’s dangerous as hell.
GD: Like most redneck sports, right?
GD: Is there a governing body with competition rules for anvil firing?
TB: There is. There’s a set of rules for this. You can only have a 100 lb. anvil, you can only use 1 lb. of black powder, the height and the distance from the base for landing – there are techniques they use for safety. When they say go, they time your setup. You can’t setup all day, you have 30 minutes to set your base anvil, it’s a pretty intense competition.
GD: If there are standard anvils and rules surrounding them, does Nike make a competition anvil?
TB: Nike or Starbucks hasn’t sponsored an anvil yet, but if the sport catches on, and we’re all hoping it does, I’m sure we’ll be seeing Google on one of these anvils.
GD: This show is on the Science Channel, talk about the science part of this competition.
TB: The Science Channel has a whole series of science sports like Punkin Chunkin, Killer Robots, Large Rockets – there are all these extreme sports that started out as hobbies and they evolved into sports. So the Science Channel has gone out and made this series of science sports with science involved in it.
GD: So the science with this one is getting anvils level and blowing them up?
TB: Getting it level is very important, as is getting the black powder sealed. One team, they were all dressed alike with overalls – it was hilarious – but they were blowing bubbles to check the wind. If it was too windy, it could blow their anvil off course. (laughing) That’s science right there.
GD: When they do their prep work, are they instantly serious?
TB: They’re all having a good time, but they do take it seriously. When they setup, they’re out their with levels, making sure the base anvil is as good as they can get it, they’re packing the earth down to try to make sure their base doesn’t move at launch. If it moves, then their top anvil can go off course. At the end, it’s blowing up black powder and sending anvils into the air. How serious can you be about that, right? But they do this in a baseball field and the perimeter of the field is surrounded by fans. So if one of these anvils goes off course, it could easily land on somebody – that’s the exciting part!
GD: The show premieres Monday night at 10 on the Science Channel. Is is a single show or will it be a series?
TB: It will probably be an annual series, as part of the Sci Sports series.
GD: You have a penchant for blowing stuff up.
TB: I love blowing stuff up.
GD: Are you a convert? If I head down to Home Depot, will I find you in the anvil aisle?
TB: We see so much crazy stuff on Mythbusters with everything we blow up. But I have to say, being at this sporting event, it was pretty hairy. Explosions were going off all over the place, anvils flying in the air, It was crazy stuff. When this guy got injured, they all looked at me and they were like “Oh, you’re on Mythbusters, you’re used to seeing this kind of stuff”. And I’m like — “No, I’m not actually.” I’ve never seen anybody that close to an explosion. That was a first. [At Mythbusters] we have bomb techs, we ignite things remotely. This is one of the craziest events I’ve ever witnessed.
GD: And you can’t wait until next year?
TB: Yeah! The only thing is, next year we’re not going to use any more cannon fuses. We’re going to use electric matches and fire them off remotely so no one gets injured. But I’m addicted to this sport now. I want to see if we can launch cars. Let’s ramp this up to the next level!