Ron Gilbert has a penchant for things that go boom. He likes shooting off fireworks, guns of all types, and he enjoys tinkering with other small ordnance. And when it comes to sending a 100-pound chunk of heavy metal skyward, he's the man with all the answers.
Gilbert is one of the country's pre-eminent experts in the art of "anvil shooting." He travels all over the South putting on what can only be described as the ultimate gravity-defying stunt.
"It's something of an art mixed with science," Gilbert said in a phone interview. "I guess you could say there's a little magic involved, too, because most people just can't believe they're seeing an anvil flying 150 feet in the air."
Gilbert, who will demonstrate his anvil-shooting this weekend at the 33rd annual Brooksville Raid Re-enactment, spends his days working as a pyrotechnic supervisor for building demolition. About 20 years ago, however, he found himself enthralled with one of America's oldest forms of public spectacle. So he decided to give it a try.
"Long before there were fireworks shows, you had people shooting anvils as a way to celebrate a holiday or event," said Gilbert, 49. "Soldiers did it often during the Civil War. It's got that wow factor that people just gravitate to."
Though the anvil-firing process is fairly simple, it's dangerous and must be done using only established procedures by someone qualified to handle high explosives.
Gilbert uses steel-forged anvils that are more than 100 years old and stronger than those made of cast iron. Preparation for a shoot involves turning one anvil upside down and filling the base cavity with black powder. Next, he places an inverted powder-filled anvil sealed with a paper gasket on top of it. To fire the anvil, Gilbert uses a type of electronic fuse allowing him to remain a safe distance away.
His shows also involve firing several anvils at once — a sort of finale.
"It's pretty spectacular to watch four or five of those things flying through the air at the same time," he said. "The crowds love it."
Though most of Gilbert's anvil shoots are in the 100- to 150-foot range, he knows some experts blast them 500 or more feet up.
"The trouble is, when they come down, they tend to get buried . . . and you have to dig them out," he said. "I hate having to do that."
In his all of his years of shooting anvils, Gilbert says he has never had a major mishap. But it does happen to others. And when it does, as it did in a Discovery Science Channel taping of a Missouri anvil shooting competition a couple of years ago, he regrets it.
"There's a right way and a wrong way to do it," Gilbert said. "Mistakes usually happen out of carelessness. And that hurts everybody."
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The Brooksville Raid Re-enactment is Saturday and Sunday on State Road 50 at Sand Hill Scout Reservation, across from Oak Hill Hospital. (352) 799-0129; brooksvilleraidreenactment.com.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.