Shots ring out on an overcast fall afternoon. Musket-toting men clad in coonskin caps and leather leggings have gathered at a campground on the banks of the Osage River, near the Lake of the Ozarks, for the annual Mountain Man Rendezvous. Here they will replicate an authentic frontier fur-trading post, complete with teepees, a tomahawk-throwing contest and target shooting.
Down at the far end of the encampment, a crowd has congregated around a curious sight in the middle of a dirt road: two anvils stacked one atop the other. At the heart of the group stands a tall, sturdy man named Gay Wilkinson. Though his salt-and-pepper beard would make even the burliest of mountain men jealous, Wilkinson is dressed in decidedly un-mountain man garb — khaki shorts, a gray St. Louis Cardinals hoodie, sunglasses. Dangling from his neck is a gold rope chain with a tiny gold anvil attached.
But this is no blacksmithing demonstration, nor is it a historic reenactment of the Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner feud.
What we have here is an exhibition of an obscure but venerable American tradition:
Wilkinson works the crowd like a sideshow huckster, hyping the feat he's about to perform. "I am going to make this anvil fly!" he declares, gesturing toward the two 120-pound hunks of forged iron at his feet. "It's no different than launching pianos or Cadillacs or anything else that wasn't meant to fly."
He upends the top anvil, revealing a brick-size cavity that has been carved neatly into each tool's flat, hourglass-shaped bottom. From a beat-up suitcase, he fishes out a large red tin of black powder and fills each hollowed-out space with half a pound of explosives.
Wilkinson gleefully points out that the amount of gunpowder he just poured into the anvils is roughly 700 times what the assembled mountain men use to fire a single round from their muskets. "If you're smoking, please take a few steps back," he warns as the onlookers press in for a closer look. "I don't want you to kill us all before y'all get to see this."
To keep the powder from spilling out when top anvil is turned right-side up, Wilkinson uses peanut butter ("Acme anvil sealant," he quips) to affix a slip of notebook paper to the powder-packed cavity.
He asks for help flipping the sealed anvil back into place over its twin. A volunteer steps up, grabs the horn and grunts as he and Wilkinson hoist the iron tool. The men set it down gently, the two gunpowder-filled recesses now flush to one another and aligned.
Next Wilkinson herds the crowd to a spot about 50 feet from the loaded anvils and delivers a well-rehearsed introduction. "It'll be loud, but ya won't hardly remember that 'cause there'll be so much else goin' on," he says. "There'll be a slight second of fear after that anvil goes shootin' up and starts comin' back down. It'll look like it's going to land on top of you. It won't. Unless you hear me yell, 'Run!' Then you might wanna move.
"Now, some of you might be wonderin'," he continues, "'Why in the heck we would want to do somethin' like this?'"
"Because we can?" guesses a middle-aged man sporting a camouflage baseball cap.
"That's exactly right!" Wilkinson says with a mischievous smile. "It's a whole lot of fun! People talk about the joy of sex, but it don't last nothin' like shootin' anvils."
Eventually it's time for the show. Wilkinson lights a long fuse that he has threaded into the gunpowder chamber through a tiny hole bored into the side of the base anvil. He scrambles away, nearly stumbling as he backpedals.
The hushed onlookers plug their ears with their fingertips. Time seems to slow down as the fuse hisses and disappears inside the anvil. Thirty seconds elapse. Just when it feels like it might be a dud...
A flash, then a thick cloud of gray smoke. The explosion emits a bone-rattling concussion and a colossal boom reverberates off the surrounding hills and rings in the onlookers' ears. Almost as one, everybody cranes their neck skyward to see the heavy black mass rocket up, up, up, high above the treetops, nearly 150 feet off the ground at its apex. The anvil seems to float for a brief second before plummeting back to earth, where it lands with a dull thud less than five feet from its twin, which hasn't budged from the launching pad.
Anvil shooting — also called anvil launching, firing or ringing — is practiced by a handful of passionate enthusiasts across the South, Midwest and Appalachia, primarily in Missouri and Mississippi.
The National Anvil Shooting Contest — the Super Bowl of competitive anvil shooting — has been held every April since 1994, in the tiny town of Laurel, Mississippi. A dozen men (female anvil shooters are few and far between) compete for bragging rights in two divisions — Traditional and Super Modified — to see who can propel his anvil the highest. A point is rewarded for each foot of altitude, and three points are subtracted for every foot away from the launching pad the anvil lands. The anvil's apex is calculated using surveyor's equipment.
Competitors in the Traditional class — the anvil-on-anvil method Wilkinson demonstrated at the Mountain Man Rendezvous — routinely top 200 feet using a 100-pound anvil and a pound of gunpowder. In the Super Modified division, participants launch a single 100-pound anvil set atop a homemade mortar tube packed with two pounds of powder — enough to send the anvil soaring higher than 800 feet.
It is unclear who holds the record for peak anvil altitude. "The highest one I ever managed was 887 feet," asserts Jerry Hinton, a Laurel native and eight-time winner of his hometown competition. "But that was last year. I think I can it up get over 900 now."
"It's kind of like fish stories sometimes," cautions Columbia resident Mark Bollinger, a former champion in the Traditional division. "There's always somebody somewhere that may have gotten it up higher by adding more powder or using a lighter anvil."
Similarly, there are several theories as to how, when and where anvil shooting originated.
Anvils themselves are among the oldest tools utilized by mankind. Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back 6,000 years show anvils being used to shape metal. Anthropologists posit that their use predates humans, as chimpanzees have been observed using logs as anvils on which to crack nuts.
"The anvil is essentially just a surface," explains Richard Postman, a retired college professor who has authored three books on the history of anvils. "Anvil simply means something that is stationary that is struck by something else."
The earliest anvils were crafted from stone, evolving to bronze and later wrought iron. Today they come in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their purpose and place of origin. A double-horned style is favored in continental Europe (and by Wile E. Coyote), while the single-horn type that came to prominence in Great Britain is standard in the United States.
There are dozens of anvil brands. The English-made Peter Wright is the most sought-after by collectors, while others, such as Arm & Hammer, bear familiar names. The Acme anvils made famous by the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons were actually a generic line of anvils (and other products) sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co.
According to Postman, who spent fifteen years researching his 550-page tome Anvils in America, anvil use in this country peaked in the late nineteenth century, when blacksmiths played a critical role in society. As large-scale manufacturing was introduced and came to prominence, blacksmiths — and their anvils — became increasingly expendable.
"It's no coincidence that 'Smith' is such a common name," Postman points out. "Up until about 1930, everything from forks to sewing needles to axes to wagon wheels was made by a blacksmith. After that, people didn't go to the blacksmith. They went to the hardware store and bought the item new."
But when did folks start blasting their anvils skyward?
At the Mountain Man Rendezvous, Wilkinson tells the crowd that settlers on the American frontier used the report produced by packing black powder beneath an anvil to imitate cannon fire and ward off Indian attacks. Southerners, meanwhile, claim the practice evolved during the Civil War, when Union troops attempted to destroy Confederate weapon-making capabilities by blowing up every anvil they encountered.
Postman, though, says the practice dates back further, to the late 1700s: "It goes back to Revolutionary War times. They'd fire it mainly for noise: It really makes a bang for Fourth of July, Christmas — any holiday or celebration."
These days anvil shooting usually transpires at obscure community festivals. The Mountain Man Rendezvous has featured an anvil-shooting exhibition for nearly twenty years. Until recently the town of Millington, Tennessee, hosted a popular anvil-shooting contest at its Goat Days Festival. The contest in Laurel began at the Jones County Forestry and Wood Products Expo before moving to a private farm.
Despite their shared implement, anvil shooters and contemporary blacksmiths have not forged a common bond. About a decade ago, the Artists Blacksmith Association of North America, whose membership of 5,000-plus makes it the largest blacksmiths' group in the United States, banned the practice because of safety concerns.
"We lost a good six or seven hundred members because of that decision," says Rome Hutchings, president of the organization. "The board took action and disavowed several rogue chapters that continued that activity."
Hutchings can't recall a specific incident or injury that prompted his organization to outlaw anvil shooting, but he heatedly defends the policy. "It's dangerous," he says. "It's probably one of the more dangerous things that can be done. I've heard reports of anvils coming down on top of people's cars, anvils flying apart, near misses with human beings.
"It's really not a sensible thing to do with an anvil."
The sleepy streets of Farmington are lined with tidy yards and modest bungalows, making it easy to pick out the house that belongs to Gay Wilkinson.
It's the one with the fake anvil sticking out of the roof.
Located about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis off Highway 67, Farmington is home to approximately 13,000 citizens, a state prison and a mental hospital. It is also the undisputed anvil-shooting capital of Missouri, and in that regard Wilkinson is its unofficial ambassador.
The gregarious 58-year-old was born and reared in the town and elected mayor in 1993. His proudest accomplishment during his four-year term was building the municipal rec center, which bears an anvil-shaped plaque engraved with his name. "Being mayor is kind of how I got involved in [anvil shooting]," he says. "I could shoot 'em off pretty much anywhere I wanted in the city."
Wilkinson says he learned about anvil shooting in 1994, from an elderly local impresario named Tom Sawyer Nichols. The venerable Nichols was, according to Wilkinson, "a real colorful guy in town," known for launching anvils to celebrate the Fourth of July and other holidays. Wilkinson became acquainted with Nichols while shopping at a local gun store, where the latter had posted an ad offering to sell several pounds of gunpowder. Wilkinson, the proud owner of an antique cannon, a mortar and a collection of assorted handguns, was curious as to why the old guy had explosives on hand.
"I asked my gun shop-owner friend, 'Does he shoot handguns or black-powder rifles or what?'" Wilkinson recalls. "He said, 'No, he shoots anvils.' I was like, 'Whoa!' I'd heard of if before, but I didn't know how it worked or what it really was."
Wilkinson called and inquired about a lesson in anvil shooting. Nichols obliged and the pair soon struck up a friendship. The relationship was short-lived. Nichols passed away a few months after meeting Wilkinson — but not before making a last request of his new pupil: that Wilkinson fire anvils at his funeral.
"Mr. Nichols would say all these great things, like, 'Anvils are like our civil liberties: You can pound on 'em all you want, but they're resilient,'" Wilkinson recalls, adding, "If I'd have known he was gonna croak, I'd have recorded it all."
It's fair to say that Gay Wilkinson is now anvil obsessed. His garage is lined with dozens of the objects, in every size, color, material and brand. He scours the Internet, estate sales and antique stores seeking to expand his collection. His prize is a massive, 450-pound antique anvil that he plans to use as his tombstone. A display in his home is filled with tiny anvils he carved by hand from wood, soapstone and ivory.
"I see anvils in everything," he confesses. "My wife has just about had it up to here with it. She says I have anvils on the brain."
He has no interest in blacksmithing and says he enjoys the tools purely for their aesthetic value. "The old ones are all hand forged," Wilkinson says reverently. "So no two are alike."
Which is not to suggest that Wilkinson's just another hick with an odd hobby. A respiratory therapist, he heads the respiratory-care department at Mineral Area Regional Hospital, where he has worked for the past 41 years.
"It's such a spectacular thing," Wilkinson says of his passion for anvil shooting. "When you're physically separating two things with a force like that — it's quite a cataclysmic event. You can feel it, hear it, see it and smell it. It's quite a sensory experience."
He mainly shoots anvils on special occasions (next scheduled launch: his daughter's wedding) and at paid appearances, such as the Mountain Man Rendezvous. He passes out business cards that read: "Have anvils, will travel."
Beginning in 1996 Wilkinson and his close friend, fellow Farmington native Mark Bollinger, traveled to Mississippi to compete in the National Anvil Shooting Contest. In his fifth year at the contest, Wilkinson won the Traditional division with a blast of 224 feet.
He hasn't been back since.
Each year Gay Wilkinson gives an anvil-shooting demonstration to a group of fourth graders at Farmington Elementary School, as part of the school's Pioneer Days festival.
One year Noel Barton and his son Dakota were in the audience. Impressed by the spectacle, the father and son wanted to try their hand at the hobby.
"I seen it, and I practically begged the man to teach me," Barton says with a thick Missouri drawl. "He said, 'I don't want to do it.' So I went to the source. I had a little old woman teach me how to shoot, named Ms. Martha Nichols."
If that surname doesn't ring a bell, it ought to: Martha Nichols is none other than the widow of Wilkinson's former mentor, Tom Sawyer Nichols.
"Mrs. Nichols might have told him about it," Wilkinson scoffs. "But he learned it from watching me do it at the Pioneer Days."
The Barton family soon acquired a set of anvils and immersed themselves in the hobby. The father-son duo began entering (and winning) anvil-shooting competitions, calling themselves "Team Thunder." The elder Barton even got a tattoo on his forearm depicting an anvil with an explosion underneath it and flames coming off the top.
"We'd seen it done, talked to some people and decided it was for us," says eighteen-year-old Dakota Barton. "We're big historian people. We thought we'd keep it alive — keep the history of it moving along."
Wilkinson says he quickly came to the conclusion that he wanted nothing to do with the Bartons. When he heard they were planning a trip to Mississippi to compete in the national contest, he e-mailed a heads-up to that effect to Mike "Shine" Stringer, the event's cofounder. "I never heard back," Wilkinson says. "I figured they hit it off real good, and I was the turd in the punch bowl."
According to the Bartons, Wilkinson is correct in that assumption. Father and son have attended the nationals every year since 2002. "We good ol' boys," sums up Dakota Barton. "And we got some good ol' buddies down there in Mississippi."
Wilkinson, by contrast, is every inch the gentleman anvil shooter. He speaks eloquently about politics and frequently jokes about his dislike of country music (he prefers Pink Floyd and the Beatles). Asked about the differences between him and other hardcore anvil shooters, he chuckles. "You mean the rednecks? Well, I pretty much get along with anybody that tries to get along with me."
As for Barton, Wilkinson says, "He can do what he wants. I'm not going to stop him from shooting anvils. I'm not the anvil police."
That's dandy with Noel Barton. "There's reasons why I don't like him, but you're talking about personal shit instead of anvil shooting. I just don't like the man. I have no use for him. Bottom line."
Other than competitions, Barton says, he shoots anvils primarily at motorcycle rallies. "The bikers love it," he says. "I don't know why — it's just something about blowing shit up."
Barton says he and Dakota host anvil-shooting fundraisers for local organizations, including one earlier this month for Bismarck High School. Spectators, he explains, pin paper plates to the ground around the anvil launch site and then bet on which plate they think the anvil will land on, with half the pot donated to charity.
"It's called anvil bingo," Barton says proudly. "And it's just about the craziest thing you've ever seen!"
This year, for the first time in more than two decades, there will be no National Anvil Shooting contest in Laurel, Mississippi, owing to the death of the competition's cofounder and host, Stringer. A legend among anvil shooters and the acknowledged originator of super-modified anvil shooting, Stringer succumbed to lung cancer in September at age 63.
"As far as I know of, there won't be another competition," confirms Jerry Hinton, a friend (and competitor) of Stringer from Laurel. "Unless there are some people out there that want to build something new and get together and have one. For now I'm just going to keep doing demonstrations and benefit shoots."
Beyond Stringer, several other competitive anvil shooters have either died or given up the pursuit in recent years, causing the remaining anvil aficionados to worry that their hobby may be going the way of the blacksmith.
"Something needs to happen to get it revived a little bit," Mark Bollinger says. "You got to keep the history of it alive. That's one thing Tom Sawyer Nichols impressed upon Gay [Wilkinson] and I, is that you don't just go out and shoot. You have to talk about how this has been used at celebrations and inaugurations — that the anvil is a metaphor for our nation's strength and resilience."
One of the biggest hurdles facing a would-be anvil shooter is the cost of the setup. Only old-fashioned forged anvils (i.e., those made prior to the 1950s) can be used for traditional anvil shooting; the modern varieties, which are cast rather than forged, have seams and can split during the explosion. Not only are the antiques hard to come by — thousands were melted down as scrap during World War II — but they can be prohibitively expensive.
According to historian Richard Postman, anvils used to sell for a dollar per pound. Recently, though, the price has soared to six times that or more. That makes a pair of 100-pound anvils — it takes two for a traditional launch — a substantial investment.
Acquiring an anvil suitable for super-modified shooting is even trickier. Withstanding the significant force produced by the gunpowder blast requires a specially engineered anvil, and enthusiasts tend to be cagy when it comes to where and how they obtained their "shooting irons."
"The anvil I shoot is custom made out of highest-malleability steel there is — it will bend before it will break," boasts Bollinger. "I'd never tell anybody where it came from. There's liability and whatever — when it was given to me, it was kind of like, 'You'll find this anvil in your vehicle tomorrow.' I don't think anybody wants to be responsible for it."
There's also the murky question of whether anvil shooting is legal.
Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Public Safety, says he is unaware of any state laws that expressly prohibit anvil shooting. Still, notes O'Connell: "There may be local ordinances that would bar this activity in a particular community."
The practice could easily fall under the umbrella of disturbing the peace, i.e., "Anything that unreasonably disturbs or alarms another person or persons," he says.
"I'm not familiar with this activity," O'Connell adds. "But it sounds like it would certainly get someone's attention."
Critics of anvil shooting, including Blacksmiths Association president Rome Hutchings, wonder why lawmakers have never tackled the issue. "I just don't understand how states and counties and municipal governments can be totally oblivious to this," Hutchings marvels. "I wouldn't be too opposed, if people had to be licensed for this kind of activity."
"It's dangerous," seconds Ken Jansen, president of the Blacksmiths Association of Missouri. "You're lofting anywhere from a 70- to 100-pound hunk of steel in the air, and there's no way to tell where it's coming down."
Experienced shooters maintain that the falling anvil is the least of their worries. The most hazardous part of the process, they argue, is loading the gunpowder prior to liftoff.
"We've never had anybody hurt, but you could go out tomorrow and pack that powder and get a freak spark and blow your face off," says eight-time Super Modified champ Jerry Hinton. "It doesn't have anything to do with an anvil coming down on top of somebody."
At the Mountain Man Rendezvous, Wilkinson demonstrates for the audience how he ensures that an anvil will land close to its launching point. He drops two circular steel plates to serve as a sturdy base, then sets a level on top of them to make sure they're parallel to the ground. "You don't want it to be too perfect," Wilkinson explains. "Otherwise the top anvil could come back down and land on the bottom one and cause some serious damage. It's pretty hard to tear up an anvil, but that'll do it."
Launching pad suitably prepared, Wilkinson packs his anvils with black powder and seals them shut in the traditional manner. "Anybody know what brand of peanut butter this is?" he asks rhetorically. "It's Peter Pan. It flies higher than Jif."
Just before the moment of truth, a woman in the crowd turns to leave. "Don't go anywhere, ma'am," Wilkinson says. "You're going to want to see this."
"I dunno, I heard it's kind of loud," she replies.
"Oh, it is!" Wilkinson grins. "But that's where the fun is."