"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."

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