(UPDATE:Right Guard no longer uses flamable propellent)
This story was an article written for the Jan 14 issue of the Weekly Standard magazine by Tucker Carlson, (co-host of CNN's prime time show Crossfire) one of my most valued customers. He is a self proclaimed (and I would have to agree) "Spudtech evangelist"!
Epiphanies are rarer in life than in literature. But they do occur, those moments when everything changes in an instant, when you know your understanding of the world will never be quite the same. I had one of those this summer, when I saw my first potato cannon.
We were in Maine, visiting friends who live in a rural area up the coast. It was early evening, cocktail hour, and we were sitting on the back porch watching the kids play in the grass. "Hey," said my friend, "want to shoot the potato cannon?" Minutes later he emerged from the barn with the thing in hand: four feet of white plastic PVC plumbing pipe, capped at one end. On the underside was a red button, an igniter taken from a gas barbecue. Using a ramrod, he forced a baking potato down the barrel. Then he unscrewed the back of the pipe, sprayed a shot of Aquanet hairspray into the combustion chamber, and closed it back up. He handed it to me. I pressed the button.
As it turns out, Aquanet (like Right Guard underarm deodorant, and a number of other grooming products) is made with propane. Compressed and ignited, propane explodes. Like a 10. gauge shotgun. Flames leapt from the muzzle. The potato flew about half a mile before I lost sight of it. The report was tremendous. The dogs hid. I was in love.
"That's nothing," said my friend. "Wait till it gets dark. We'll cut open a lightstick and pour it on the potato. It's like a tracer round."
Obviously I needed a potato cannon. It wasn't difficult to find. The Internet is home to a thriving potato cannon community. Overall, it's a group with creative instincts, subversive tendencies, and the free time to combine them. If it explodes and you can imagine it, you can find it on-line, often with blueprints. Within 15 minutes, I came across spud pistols, propane-propelled tennis ball guns, vegetable mortars with car battery igniters, as well as actual potato cannons, with wheels.
I liked the fan pages best. On Spudgun.com, a guy named Dave Malis posted a photograph of himself "shooting toilet paper soaked in Coleman lantern fuel." Just down the page, Nathan Lovern, no hometown listed, is pictured in his undershorts cradling a PVC bazooka the size of a telephone pole. "Well I've completed the Big One," he writes. "It KICKS like a mule!!!!!! It knocked me back about a foot. I used about 15 seconds of White Rain hairspray and shot a plastic bottle full of powered Kool Aid. It went about 300 yards and hit a tree and exploded!!!!! It was awesome!!!!!! I've got to come up with some cheap ammo."
After a bit more searching I wound up at Spudtech.com, official site of the Spudgun Technology Center. Spudtech is the Bell Labs of the potato cannon industry. A few years ago, its engineers created the SP9004, a remarkable device, billed (no doubt accurately) as "the world's most advanced hand held laser-guided bolt-action aluminum potato rifle."
Tempting. In the end I settled for a conventional plastic model with a rifled barrel. Spudtech shipped it to my house in a week for under a hundred bucks, no permit necessary. In 1998, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms released its official position on potato cannons. Spudguns don't qualify as "firearms," the ATF said, "provided that they are used solely for launching potatoes for recreational purposes." As long as it's a hobby, the feds are fine with it. (Go pro, and there's paperwork to fill out.)
Apparently my neighbors feel the same way. They haven't complained yet. And they've had plenty of opportunities. What happens if you fire a lime pointblank at a stockade fence? We now know. What about an apple? How about marshmallows? All experiments we've conducted in my backyard. (For the record, potatoes remain the most effective projectile food. Apples are too mushy. Marshmallows tend to melt in the barrel and clog the rifling.)
A couple of Sundays ago, my kids and I decided to test our marksmanship. We made a bipod out of two-by-fours to steady our aim, and painted a target on a stump. The first one to hit the center with a potato got ice cream.
I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't do well. My first shot missed entirely. So did my son's. (I hit a tree, he knocked a hole in the fence.) Both of the girls did better, but it was our youngest, the two year old, who prevailed. She hit the bulls-eye dead on. The center of the stump disintegrated. She was thrilled, and so were we. In the end, we all got ice cream.
This story was featured in the Appleton Post-Crescent.
Posted Mar. 14, 2002
Interest in spudguns launches successful venture
By Eric Klister
Post-Crescent staff writer
APPLETON — You have to admit there is a certain amount of genius in devising a way to turn a source of complex carbohydrates into a high-velocity projectile. It might be twisted genius, but it is genius nonetheless.
While most of us look at the humble potato and think of french fries, Joel Suprise looks at a spud and thinks, “Fire in the hole!”
The Appleton man is in the business of constructing starch resource deployment facilitators. In layman’s terms, he builds spudguns. He owns the Spudgun Technology Center, headquartered in his garage, through which he sells these tater tossers to people throughout the world.
Before you have the vision of a guy sitting in the back yard of his house Duct-taping empty beer cans together and using hair spray to launch a tennis ball into the air, understand that spudgun development has come a long way. They are now made with space-age materials, powered by propane or compressed air, and some are easily capable of firing a projectile through a sheet of plywood.
In a little less than a year, the Appleton man has become something of an innovator in this industry. But he got into the business almost by accident.
A self-proclaimed professional tinkerer and lover of things that go boom, Suprise was surfing the Internet looking for information that might help him with a homemade cannon he was building when he came across a Web site dedicated to spudguns. The site was owned by Ed Goldmann of Austin, Texas, a chemical engineer who had developed a number of potato launchers, including an aluminum prototype that features laser sighting and bolt action.
Curious by what he found, Suprise looked further into the site and found that Goldmann’s business was for sale. The wheels started turning in his head and soon he saw an opportunity that was just too good to pass up.
“It was borderline impulsive,” Suprise said. “I realized this was something that I could have a good time with, something that I could eventually make successful. I had no idea it would take off as fast as it has. I’m just buried around here.”
Since taking control of the Spudgun Technology Center, Suprise’s workload has increased to the point where soon he will be able to quit his regular job as an electrician. He said he receives orders every day from all over the world, and he has reached the point of developing a backlog of orders.
Jane Pelzel, Suprise’s girlfriend who plays Jill to Suprise’s Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor, seems to put up with this interesting occupation without complaint. In fact, she is quite supportive.
“When Joel decides that he wants something, there is absolutely no stopping him and he will go after it until he gets it,” Pelzel said. “So as far as being successful at this, I always knew he would be. I’m just surprised at how fast. I knew he would get to this point. But, six months later? Ah, no.”
Suprise builds spudguns in all shapes and sizes. Several types can be found around his shop. There is a small cannon that can fire a tennis ball faster than a serve from Pete Sampras, a T-shirt launcher that easily can reach the nosebleed seats and a massive piece of artillery that looks like a tank turret. The latter is a showpiece that fires 20-ounce soda bottles.
Why? Because he can.
Watching Suprise fire a tennis ball against a fence, one’s first impression is that, yeah, these things are pretty cool, but they’re kind of superficial and to a large extent, they are simply self-amusement devices. But Suprise is building spudguns for clients who use them for practical purposes as well.
“You would be amazed at the cross-section of people who order stuff,” Suprise said. “It’s actually quite fascinating.”
Among Suprise’s clients is an aerospace engineering company that uses one of his launchers to test cabin blowouts and depressurization in airplanes. Suprise’s current projects include a harpoon launcher that a customer in Oregon will use to keep logs and downed trees from cluttering up a river, and he is working with a Department of Defense subcontractor to develop a grappling hook launcher that can be used for military applications.
In the future, Suprise plans to develop a water cannon that will put the Super Soaker to shame and a golf-ball launcher that would challenge Tiger Woods for driving distance.
“Their uses are only limited to somebody’s imagination,” Suprise said. “The spudgun in its basic state is something that somebody throws together to go out and blast potatoes. If you have the want, need or desire to use it for something else or to modify it for use for something else, the applications are pretty much endless. It’s not just shooting spuds anymore.”
Suprise also builds a lot of spudguns for high school and college science classes, suggesting that there is even an educational element to these things. Indeed, listening to Suprise talk about the optimum barrel lengths, fuel ratios and ignition systems that help propel a projectile with maximum velocity, he sounds like a physics teacher.
“There is a lot of science involved,” he said. “You don’t just whack off a chunk of pipe and put it together. In order to get the performance of these things, you have to have certain ratios. You do some calculations with it.”
Suprise’s potential for growth is pretty much unlimited. As far as he knows, nobody else is operating a spudgun manufacturing business or at least not to the extent that he is. His garage has become a professional-looking shop, complete with all the equipment needed to fulfill just about any request.
Suprise’s business has even earned national attention. Tucker Carlson from CNN’s “Crossfire,” a self-proclaimed “spudgun evangelist,” came by to do a feature story that will appear in the April issue of GQ magazine.
“I’ve pretty much got the industry by the shorthairs,” Suprise said. “That’s kind of a bonus, too. It’s nice not having any competition.
“Not only do I get a chance to be a big kid, spending all day building toys, but I’m also that big kid that has the cool toys that the other big kids want.”
Spudgun frequently asked questions
By Eric Klister
What is a spudgun? A spudgun, also known as a potato cannon, potato launcher or by various other names, is a device that is designed to, as the name implies, fire potatoes. However, anything that can be shoved down the barrel of a spudgun can be launched. Tennis balls are a popular projectile.
Why were they created? The first spudguns were built many decades ago (the exact date is debatable) as a means of cheap entertainment. While that remains their predominant use, spudguns are used today for everything from playing fetch with a dog to launching T-shirts into the bleachers at sporting events.
How do they work? There are many variations, but every spudgun has three basic elements: the barrel, the fuel chamber and the ignition system. PVC pipe is a commonly used building material. Originally, spudguns used hairspray, deodorant or other aerosol products as fuel. While those are still used today, propane and compressed air also are used. Ignition switches from barbecue grills are commonly used to set the combustion process in motion.
How much do they cost? You probably could build your own crude spudgun for less than $20. The Spudgun Technology Center offers a basic model for about $55. A high-powered spudgun with enhanced features can cost a few hundred dollars, and custom models can cost even more.
How powerful are they? Let’s just say you shouldn’t stand in front of one. Some tennis ball launchers can fire a ball at more than 200 mph, and some cannons easily can fire a 2-inch super ball through a ¾-inch thick piece of plywood. They are quite loud. It would be a good idea to wear ear protection when firing a high-powered spudgun. “They’re not toys, they’re designed to be a big-boy’s toy,” said Joel Suprise, owner of the Spudgun Technology Center. “You have to use common sense and be careful with them. Don’t shoot them at your neighbor’s house. Don’t shoot them at your little sister.”
Aren’t they illegal? According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as long as you are using your potato launcher for recreational purposes, they are legal. If you take your launcher into the woods or a huge field out in the country where you can’t do any damage, they are legal. If you fire tennis balls at your neighbor’s house or passing cars, they become illegal. In any case, you will want to check with your local police or sheriff’s department to make sure you are operating within the law.
This story was featured in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal
Appleton man fuels his passion for things that shoot far
Dec. 1, 2002
Appleton - Ever wonder what became of that kid in high school who loved shop class, souped-up Chevy Camaros and metal bands like Quiet Riot?
Sending stuff flying has been a longtime hobby for Joel Suprise. Now, he builds and sells the launchers that send potatoes and other objects soaring.
When Joel Suprise saw a Web site selling a business that made plastic cannons, or "spudguns," he couldn't resist. Now he's working 60 to 100 hours a week assembling the guns and talking with customers.
Those things are basically as safe as the person using them.
- Joel Suprise,
He was the pyromaniac who later got hooked on Wave Runners and paintball. The one who used to get his kicks zipping down a pulley on a rope tied between the top of his farm's silo and a tree below.
Well, he got a job at a factory that makes machines that make sanitary napkins and diapers. Then he became a journeyman electrician, and worked for a while at a foundry that makes manhole covers. While grunge was the rage in the '90s, he tried to start an '80s-style "big hair" rock band.
Then he found his calling - building cannons that shoot potatoes.
Or beer bottles.
Meet Appleton's Joel Suprise, the Marlboro-puffing, Mountain Dew-chugging 28-year-old owner of the Spudgun Technology Center.
Eight months ago, he was just a regular Joel slaving away at the Neenah Foundry. Then one night surfing the Internet, he stumbled on a Web site dedicated to his latest hobby - plastic cannons that fire anything imaginable and use aerosol deodorant sprays or compressed air for fuel.
Amazing, he thought. Here was a guy down in Texas that actually made a living off this stuff. More amazing still, the guy had the place up for sale.
"I can make money off that," Suprise said to himself.
So, much to his then-fiance's initial chagrin, he scrapped his plans to add a bathroom on their house and scraped together $70,000 to buy the company name, Web site, equipment and all its "intellectual property."
Don't laugh, a lot of science goes into these high-tech toys. One of the tools he purchased, for example, is a specially designed machine that carves rifling grooves into the PVC tubes that are used for cannon barrels. That makes for a straighter shot. The biggest of those guns can fire full 20-ounce pop bottles almost a half-mile.
But people did snicker, particularly his buddies at the foundry.
"Are you cracked?" Suprise remembers being asked. "But they didn't laugh for long . . . they could all see how fast things were picking up for me."
Before we proceed, let's answer a few quick questions.
ARE THESE THINGS DANGEROUS?
But Suprise says the danger only comes when they are used incorrectly or inappropriately. By inappropriately he means they should never be pointed at anything you don't want to destroy, and they should only be used in open spaces where nothing beyond the intended target can be damaged.
By incorrectly, he means only recommended fuels should be used for his "combustion" cannons. A quick blast of Right Guard deodorant inside the chamber at the base of the barrel is what Suprise recommends. He says it is impossible to overcharge the gun with deodorant because if too much gas is put into the chamber, a lack of oxygen will keep it from firing.
High-powered fuels like acetylene should never be used.
Suprise notes his air-powered, or pneumatic, cannons come with a safety valve to prohibit zealous gunners from overfilling the chamber and blowing their guns (and, perhaps, selves) to pieces.
Suprise takes great care - and never drinks beer - while assembling the guns, which are constructed with materials that are pressure-rated to withstand the explosions.
Suprise also maintains a Web site that instructs people on safety issues related to the cannons (www.spudtech.com), and he says he will never knowingly sell to a person under the age of 18.
"Those things are basically as safe as the person using them," he says of his spudguns. "I've not had anything that I've built fail due to an error on my part."
OK. Now a question for Suprise from some of our female readers:
WHY DO YOU MAKE THESE THINGS? AND WHY DO PEOPLE BUY THEM?
"If it goes bang and flies farther than you can throw it, guys love it," says Suprise.
Now a question from our male readers:
HOW MUCH DO THEY COST?
The cheapest combustion model sells for about $60. It is basically a tube with a gas-grill ignition button for a trigger. The most high-tech, air-powered cannons - the kind that shoot T-shirts into the stands at ball games - start at about $500.
Nobody is precisely sure of the spudgun's origins, but Suprise figures its roots twist back several decades to the days of steel beer cans, and the men who drank from them.
"If all these cans were securely taped together to make a long tube, the tennis ball could be stuck down it muzzle loader style and fired by putting a small amount of gasoline in the bottom can (with the hole lid as the breech) and one brave soul (the one that had consumed the most beers) holding a lighted match or lighter near the peel-top hole. Miraculously the tennis ball was expelled with great velocity. Much whooping and hollering ensued," reads the history section on Suprise's Web site.
Suprise knew about these guns as a kid, but they never seemed complicated enough to grab his attention.
As a teenager, he did build a gunpowder-fired cannon that could shoot a golf ball a mile, and by his mid-20s had started to dabble in what some have referred to as the spudgun "movement."
Then he found the spudtech Web site, and it changed his life.
Suprise says the business has taken off beyond his expectations. During a good month, he sells around 90 guns, and sales have picked up in recent weeks thanks to what he refers to as "The Article."
That would be a story that appeared in a recent GQ magazine that proclaims Suprise "The Henry Ford of spudgunning" for his success in bringing the device to the masses.
In a twisted way, Suprise has the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to thank for the free publicity.
He got hooked on CNN once the war on terrorism got under way. One night he was watching two guys bicker away on "Crossfire" when he recognized the name under the dweeby-looking young guy with the bow tie - Tucker Carlson.
Suprise remembered he sold some cannons to a Tucker Carlson in the Washington, D.C., area. He e-mailed him and asked if he was the same guy. Turns out he is, and Suprise says the two became fast friends over the Internet.
Carlson made a trip to Appleton last February and the two spent a night together drinking and a day together testing new guns at the Suprise family farm near Sheboygan.
In the GQ article, Carlson anoints Suprise as an "evangelist for the potato-cannon movement."
A lucky guy
It is a movement that is still unregulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (three of Suprise's favorite things) but, as Carlson notes, recently the guns have come under increased scrutiny.
"There's no question that many ordinary citizens, if they knew what Midwestern teenagers were doing with PVC pipe, might be concerned," he writes.
On his Web site, Suprise does encourage potential customers to "please check with your local authorities. Some cities say NO to using them in the city limits."
Sitting in his garage workshop and screwing and gluing together a special-order gun destined for a woman in Utah (a gift for her brother), Suprise says he is not worried about the future of his industry.
If anything, he frets things will get too big.
"I know at some point, I'll probably need to bring some help in, but I'm not looking forward to it," he says.
Right now, he is humming along just fine. He works 60 to 100 hours a week assembling guns, responding to e-mail and counseling customers over the phone. On the wall and under the fluorescent lights of his windowless back room shop, there is a big white clock - the kind that hang on classroom walls - to occasionally remind him he might want to think about going to bed.
His only employee is his recent bride Jane Pelzel. She helps cut the PVC in her spare time. She is a pharmacy technician and a captain in the National Guard preparing to be shipped overseas. She can't say where she is going, but she does have a hard time lifting the PVC because her arm is sore from an anthrax vaccination shot she recently received.
The couple's pending separation seems like the only bad break in a remarkably lucky run for Suprise. He has his dream job. No bosses. No timecards. No commute.
He has neighbors who not only tolerate but embrace his home-based business, even if they do have to live with the occasional bangs and booms coming from the backyard.
"He's quite the little scientist, I'll tell you that," says neighbor Jerry Arnold.
The local police even cut him some slack.
"They stopped over once and were, like, 'This is cool,' " Pelzel says.
Suprise plans on doing this for at least 5 or 10 years.
Beyond that, his ambitions sound a bit ominous.
"I will probably sell this for an enormous profit, and then go on to something bigger and better."
But now there is still work to be done. Converts to be converted. Cannons to shoot.
Suprise takes a visitor into his backyard to show what his guns can do. He notes one of his bigger cannons can fire a tennis ball out of sight. It takes 23 seconds for it to return to earth.
He drops a tennis ball down the barrel of this smaller gun and aims straight up. He pulls the trigger. THWUMP.
The ball rockets up until it turns into a black fleck against the gray November sky. Then it begins to drift down. It smacks off the roof of his house and hits with a thud on the hood of Pelzel's car.
"Ahh! That's my new car. Probably the only new car I'll ever own," she yells.
Suprise doesn't look too worried.
He notes it's a Saturn, and yells "They're dent resistant."
Just another lucky break for his booming business.
A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 1, 2002.
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last modified 1/14/2010 9:02:45 PM