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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."