Great Balls of Fire

Grown-up Kenny kid builds 10-foot-tall catapult with football-field range

He’s at it again. The Kenny man who brought us the potato cannon, fire kite and tennis-ball mortar is back with a catapult.

Bill Gurstelle, author of the best-selling "Backyard Ballistics" (SW Journal, Feb. 19-March 3) has built the 10-foot-high, 6-foot-long catapult to publicize his latest ode to making things go boom, splat and whoosh. "The Art of the Catapult," released in June by Chicago Review Press, tells proverbial children of all ages how to build Greek ballistae, Roman onagers, English trebuchets and other siege weapons.

"It’s not like crazy stuff in here," Gurstelle said of the book. "It’s all stuff that you could give to your nephew or son or something and they wouldn’t get into too much trouble. It’s all about the history and science of catapults."

He notes that the plans in the book are for models of catapults and other siege weapons — not for full-scale medieval armaments.

Gurstelle’s catapult is a replica of an eight-story-tall monster built by King Edward I of England in 1304 for a siege of Scotland’s Stirling Castle.

"Did you ever see ‘Braveheart’?" he asked enthusiastically. "There was that whole William Wallace thing? That was the war that these kind of catapults were used in."

Gurstelle built his catapult in Virginia with Grigg Mullen, Jr., a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Military Institute.

"We started with just blocks of wood he’d taken from an old barn in Virginia," Gurstelle said. "The pieces weren’t cut to size. We took the pieces and basically hewed them into the right pieces.

"It took a really long time, but it’s really cool now. It’s really authentic and it fits perfectly. It’s all timber-frame construction. There are no metal fasteners; it’s all wooden joints."

He said that he and Mullen, who is called Colonel by VMI cadets, made the joints of the catapult with a chisel because "there’s really no good automated way of doing that. So there’s a lot of banging on wood."

With his catapult loaded on a trailer behind his SUV, Gurstelle drove to Anthony Middle School, 5757 Irving Ave. S., to test Little War Wolf (named after King Ed’s full-sized Ludgar the War Wolf, which he used to batter Stirling).

There, Gurstelle flung flaming baseballs across the parking lot, where they arced high in the sky and landed harmlessly on the grass about a football field away.

He wraps the balls in socks, squirts on a little lighter fluid to produce the flames and then attaches the ball to the arm of the catapult. (The ball has a bolt bored through it and a foot-long length of rope, to increase the length of the arm and the distance the balls are hurled.) After pulling the arm back to cock it, he releases it by tugging on a rope from about 10 feet away. And the flaming balls fly over 100 yards.

"It’s really cool at night," he said.

So if you’re ever driving in Kenny and you think you’ve just seen a flaming meteor soaring up into the night sky, don’t worry. It’s just Bill Gurstelle, probably accompanied by neighborhood kids (of all ages), having a bit of fun.

The "Art of the Catapult" is $14.95 and is available in bookstores and online.