By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
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.