Bucs fans made their own cannon fire during an unusual Super Bowl

Heard thunderous rounds in your neighborhood all night Sunday? You weren’t alone.
A 1998 photo shows pirates at Raymond James Stadium reloading a cannon during pregame revelry.
A 1998 photo shows pirates at Raymond James Stadium reloading a cannon during pregame revelry. [ DAMASKE, JIM | Times (1998) ]
Published Feb. 8, 2021|Updated Feb. 8, 2021

On Super Bowl Sunday, Philip Booth heard what sounded like celebratory cannon fire before he even saw the Bucs score touchdowns onscreen.

“They spoiled the game to some degree because the broadcast I was watching on Hulu was slightly delayed,” he said.

The South Tampa business writer and musician has lived a few blocks west of Dale Mabry since 1993. He’s occasionally heard joyful booms during football season. But none were as loud as the thunderous rounds he heard the night the Bucs made history.

Booth wasn’t alone. Times readers and staffers around Tampa Bay reported hearing blasts.

The cannons on the pirate ship inside Raymond James Stadium usually fire for each touchdown scored by the Bucs. For the Super Bowl, the NFL said the pirate ship guns were a no-go: To have a neutral-site game, pre-recorded sounds would only fire during introductions and if the Bucs won the game.

So why did so many people hear cannon fire all night?

First, a silly question: You can’t actually have a real cannon in your neighborhood, right?

Bill Gruber, park manager at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, said he knows some historic battle reenactors around town who do own cannons.

“But they wouldn’t be shooting them off to celebrate the Super Bowl in their neighborhood,” he said.

Douglas Killian, a living history hobbyist in Hillsborough County, owns three. They cost over $30,000 apiece. Five people, at minimum, are needed to make one fire. Spectators must stand a least 150 feet away from the front and sides to avoid a sonic boom “that turns your insides to jelly.”

It’s also illegal to create a cannon of your own.

“If you make any device that shoots a projectile, that’s considered a gun by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives,” Killian said. “You can not only kill yourself but other people.”

So then what were all those cannon shots heard ‘round the bay? Probably fireworks, Killian said. And they sound pretty close to the real thing, too.

“It sounds like thunder,” he said. “You get a really loud boom and a lot of echoes.”

Fireworks shops are usually busier around this time of year due to Chinese New Year, said Christian Jimenez, assistant manager of Phantom Fireworks on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. But the Super Bowl brought in a whole new type of traffic.

“Even Chiefs fans were coming in to buy fireworks,” Jimenez said.

The most common items sold last week were mortars, which sound — you guessed it — a lot like cannons.

“They’re aerial shells you drop into a little tube,” he said. “They shoot up into the air and burst into a color... It’s pretty similar, it’s almost the exact same thing.”

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Mortars cost between $30 and $70, with kits that include shells and tubes climbing up to $200. On the “biggest spender” board at the front of the store, a shopper named Mike was commended for making the biggest pre-Super Bowl fireworks purchase. He spent $2,000.

Galaxy Fireworks in Tampa was also busy all week leading up to the game.

“None of the other sporting events were like what the Super Bowl was,” said Sharon Hunnell-Johnson, president of Galaxy Fireworks.

Hunnell-Johnson assumed that the boost in sales came from the fact that the stadium was limiting its cannon fire. Plus with limited seating and expensive tickets, not many fans had the opportunity to witness the historic game in person. Folks decided to “fire the cannons” themselves, so to speak.

“People were coming in getting the reloadable mortars, which give you the same sound,” she said. “Everybody wanted to be part of the festivities somehow.”

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