Big BangĀ® Carbide Cannons,
The vintage artillery toy that really works and is safe!

Now and again there comes a time when you've just gotta make a big bang.  For some people it's New Years at midnight, for others a birthday isn't complete without some noise. In America, the 4th of July is a classic big bang kind of a night.  I like em all and also usually invent a few other excuses during the course of a year ta boot.  There's just something deeply satisfying about being personally responsible for a REALLY LOUD EXPLOSION of some sort.

When I lived in San Diego it was easy enough to satisfy this craving.  I'd just slip across the border into TJ, purchase a supply of M-80's, Quarter-sticks, or those mega cherry bombs they call Grandotes, stash them discreetly under the spare tire and keep a straight face at the border crossing on the way home.  Here on Cape Cod, it's a little more difficult to satisfy my pyrotechnic cravings.  The fireworks laws here have completely emasculated the industry, so that anything you can purchase legally is limp and wheezy: a few colored sparks and, if you are lucky, maybe a little whistle.  Boring and annoying at best.

So, I was really pleased to happen upon Big-Bang Carbide Cannons1 made by the Conestoga Company in Bethlehem, PA. Carbide cannons are a safe and satisfyingly noisy substitute for fireworks that come in the form of a miniature artillery field piece.  Prices range from about $50 U.S. for the Light Field Cannon, to over $400 U.S. for the 23 inch solid red brass breech loader (a true work of art!). 

Big Bang cannons have a long history, beginning back in 1907 when a patent for the gas cannon was issued to James Hunter Wily, an assistant professor of physics at Lehigh University.  Wily founded the Big Bang company in 1912 and it has been in operation ever since. There are about a dozen models of Big Bang cannon, ranging from small Continental Army field pieces to WWII 155MM replicas that are painted army green and have rubber wheels.

I own the Major Field Cannon, which I blast every chance I get.  In fact if it wasn't snowing outside right now... Carbide cannons work by dropping a little carbide powder into water then igniting the resulting acetylene gas.  If you do it in the right proportions, you get a nice big bang and a foot long flash of fire.  Not much smoke, but you can't have everything.The only supplies needed to operate a Big Bang cannon are Bangsite (carbide powder) that costs $5 U.S. per tube and water.  You get about a hundred shots per tube of Bangsite, so it's cheaper than fireworks.

Making BoomBoom

The firing ritual goes like this:

  1. To get ready, put a couple of ounces of fresh water in the cannon breech, and fill the charger with Bangsite powder.
  2. Look around for a kid who "needs" to make a big bang.  Usually the little one in the back who really wants to do it, but is too shy to ask.
  3. Press the brass plunger button on the charger to drop a wad of Bangsite into the water.
  4. Get a countdown going, 5...4...3...2...1
  5. Give the kid the nod to press the firing button.
  6. BOOM!


1 The Big Bang Cannon website has online ordering and some really duffy videos:

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