In new show Flying Anvils, a centuries-old custom turns into an extreme sport.
Discovery Science introduces an explosive new TV programme
Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's ... an anvil?
Welcome to the 2011 Anvil Shooting Championship in Farmington, Missouri, where teams across the United States "blow it up real good" in a scary sport that risks life, limb and eardrums as shooters stack two 100-pound anvils, add a pile of gunpowder and ignite.
What at first glance might seem a recipe for disaster is actually a formula for sky-high explosive fun in Flying Anvils, a Discovery Science one-hour special hosted by Tory Belleci of Mythbusters.
"I've seen a lot of crazy things on Mythbusters, but hosting Flying Anvils was one of the most intense things I've ever experienced," says Belleci. "This sport is so raw, so explosive and so exciting - how did I not know about it before?"
To watch an antique anvil skyrocket 200 feet straight up turns all the more thrilling as spectators gradually realise that what goes up must come down, hard - but where?
"There is nothing like shooting anvils," says the former world champion anvil shooter Gay Wilkinson, a beefy salt-and-pepper-bearded man who dangles his mountain-man bling - a tiny gold anvil - on a fine chain around his neck. His home is his personal anvil museum.
His anvils are pre-Second World War forged iron - the newer ones have seams and can blow apart - making for some nasty shrapnel.
Wilkinson hollows out a brick-sized cavity into the bottom of each of his hourglass-shaped twin anvils, fills each with a half-pound of gunpowder and seals them with a sheet of paper and peanut butter. He then snugs one atop the other, with the gunpowder-filled cavities tightly facing, to complete the seal. He inserts a fuse, ignites it - and runs.
He considers packing in the gunpowder - one pound is 700 times what it takes to fire a round from a hillbilly musket - the dodgiest step. "If you're smoking, please take a few steps back," he often warns onlookers. "I don't want you to kill us all before you all get to see this."
The tradition is two to three centuries old - some believe village blacksmiths began to blast their anvils as a way to imitate cannon fire to frighten away hostile tribes, while some Southerners believe anvil shooting traces its roots to the Civil War, when Union troops blew up every anvil they found in a bid to hobble Confederate weapon-making.
What has evolved, however, is a festive holiday crowd-pleaser and a 21st-century extreme competition that tests the boundaries of physics - and good judgement.
As the latest addition to Discovery's popular Sci Sports franchise, Flying Anvils joins the ranks of one-of-a-kind, extreme engineering events that include: Punkin Chunkin (the sport of hurling a pumpkin the farthest; current world record: 5,545.43 ft); Large Dangerous Rocket Ships (model rocketeers launch anything and everything, including port-o-potties) and, more recently, Killer Robots (gnarly 200lb robots face off in a cage match to the finish).
Belleci follows the anvil-champ wannabes as they compete to see how high they can fire a 100lb anvil using only a pound of gunpowder and a fuse. Each team's launch is scored on height and accuracy.
In a second modified event, teams use specially engineered anvils with two pounds of gunpowder to send anvils flying in excess of 500ft in the air.
"Not all science comes from men in white lab coats," says Debbie Adler Myers, the executive vice president of Discovery Science. "Flying Anvils offers access into a unique American subculture that combines unconventional science with larger-than-life characters and, most important, mind-blowing explosions. It's a world that many may never have imagined even existed."
"Shooting anvils is like fireworks on steroids," one giddy fan shouts in the TV special.
Oddly enough, or as many might say, sensibly enough, the Artists Blacksmith Association of North America took a pass on these "fireworks" to outlaw anvil shooting for its 5,000-plus members a decade ago, citing the hazards of the practice.
"It's dangerous," Rome Hutchings, the former president of the organisation, told the Riverfront Times of St Louis, Missouri. "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."
- Flying Anvils premieres today on Discovery Science, with repeats tomorrow and on Saturday
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