Big Bang Cannons
|One of my favorite toys when I was growing up was the Big Bang Cannon. They were very popular here in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. I'm not really sure how popular they were in the rest of the country. But everyone I knew seemed to have one. I'm not sure if I knew it at the time, but Big Bang Cannons were made right here in Bethlehem by the Conestoga Company. They've since moved "next door" to Allentown, PA, but they still make the Big Bang Cannons today from the original castings.
When I began Dave's Cool Toys, one of the first toys I began selling (the 5th to be exact) was the Big Bang Light Field Cannon 6F pictured on the left. Today we sell the entire line of Big Bang Cannons but the 6F is still our best selling model.
|We get asked a lot of questions about the cannons, so I thought I'd create this Big Bang Cannon page with information and facts about this unique item. If you came to this page to purchase a cannon, click here to view our Big Bang Cannon shopping page for our entire listing. You can also click on any picture on this page to take you to that cannon in our shopping cart.
The Conestoga company publishes a great book, Big Bang Cannons, that has lots of history and information on the company and cannons and it is not my intention to duplicate any of that here. There are also other books available such as Big-Bang Cannons: The Carbide Cannon, a Unique American Toy, which I haven't read, but I'm sure has lots of great info.
The Big Bang Cannon, sometimes called Bangsite Cannon or Carbide Cannon, was first invented by William Studdards Franklin, a physics professor at Lehigh University (in Bethlehem, PA) in 1907 because he was concerned about the many injuries from consumer fireworks. James Hunter Wily, another physics professor at Lehigh, founded the company that manufactured the cannons. The first cannon was patented as the "Gas Gun" with patent number 874.952. In 1912 The Gas Cannon Company was formed to manufacture and sell the cannons. In 1916 the name was changed to the Toy Cannon Works and in 1924 it was changed again to The Conestoga Company, which it remains today. James Hunter Wily was the company founder and owner until 1955. In the late 1970's the company was sold to Ercole Spinosa who currently runs it with his son, David.
The original cannon was actually made from glass. This was to show how safe the ignition was. The Conestoga Company has glass versions on display (along with other historic versions) in their offices. Fortunately, they soon began making them from cast iron. This made them virtually indestructible and many extremely old cannons are still being used and are available on eBay today. The original black field cannons haven't changed much since they were first manufactured.
In 1958 the company introduced the Green Military cannons with rubber wheels and from 1916 to 1934 they made solid brass Field Cannons. Those are now made again today. Amazingly, the Big Bang Cannon has been in continuous production since it's beginnings in 1912. They have produced some "cannons" in other shapes as well including Army Tank, Navy Gun-Boat, Bombing Plane, G-Gun, and "Safety" Pistol. Yes that last one looked exactly like a real pistol. An ad at the time says "a real pistol in looks, but it is safe". Obviously, that wouldn't make it to the market today. Some of these non-cannon cannons are still in production today (although we only carry the cannons). Other non-cannon items produced include a Roller Coaster, Ro-To-Top (shown at right), Spinning Top, and Field Glasses.
To see some great old Big Bang Cannons, check out the Toy Cannon Museum.
|How they Work
All Big Bang Cannons work on the same principle. Calcium Carbide mixed with water produces Acetylene gas, which is ignited. This is the same principle that miner's carbide lamps used for many years before wide use of electric lamps. Early Automotive headlights also used the same method.
Some of the cannon models have slightly different firing mechanisms (such as automatic charging with Bangsite), but they are all basically the same in the way they operate. The cannon chamber is pre-filled with water, Bangsite (powdered Calcium Carbide) is dumped into the water with the firing mechanism. The chamber is closed and you wait a few seconds. During this time, the Bangsite is reacting with the water and releasing Acetylene gas into the cannon chamber. After a few seconds, enough of the gas has formed to fire the cannon. You then press the plunger on the firing mechanism, which runs a little file against the flint "spark plug" which creates a spark in the chamber. This spark ignites the gas, creating a loud "BOOM!" and a flash of light from the barrel of the cannon. Open the chamber, blow in to clear the chamber, and you're ready to go again.
Technically, the Big Bang Cannon's "Boom" is not an explosion. When the Acetylene gas ignites and rapidly burns, it immediately expands the gas in the chamber, forcing it out the front of the cannon, where the remaining gas ignites (accounting for the flash). This leaves a partial vacuum in the cannon and at the end of the muzzle. When the air rushes in to fill the vacuum, it produces a loud noise. Very cool.
For complete instructions for your cannon, click here to download a pdf file.
|How Loud Are They?
This is the question we get asked most often. Of course that's a very hard question to answer.
Big Bang Canons safely produce a satisfying boom. In general, the bigger the cannon, the louder the boom. If you are looking for a safe alternative to fireworks, they will definitely provide a loud enough noise. They are not as loud as many professional community-type fireworks displays.
Shown here is a decibel level chart showing some common noises and four of the Big Bang Cannons. At a decibel level of 130 dB you can expect hearing damage. This places Big Bang Cannons at a level that makes an excellent bang, but is safe for hearing as well.
Some tips for the loudest "Bang":
Big Bang Cannons were created as a safe alternative to fireworks and they continue to fulfill that purpose today. When operated correctly they are extremely safe and yet they produce a very loud bang that rivals most of the legally available fireworks today.
Fireworks can be very dangerous and legal fireworks have made a major comeback in recent years. The National Council on Fireworks Safety estimates (based on reported injuries from member hospitals) that in 2006 there were 9,200 fireworks-related injuries that required a hospital visit. In 2005 fireworks caused an estimated 1,800 structure fires and 700 vehicle fires. Many fireworks injuries result in attempting to ignite "duds". The risk of fireworks injury is two-and-a-half times as high for children ages 10-14. Eyes are the second most injured part of the body from fireworks. Even sparklers, which are commonly played with by small children, burn at between 1832º - 3632º Fahrenheit. In doing research for this page I came across many photos of injuries from fireworks that were far too graphic to post here.
While any explosive device can be misused, Big-Bang Cannons by their design are far safer than fireworks.
However, Big Bang Cannons are explosive devices and do carry risks. There is also the potential for abuse. Big Bang Cannons should only be used with adult supervision and should not be used by young children.
Some safety tips for Big Bang Cannons:
Bangsite is Calcium Carbide and when mixed with water produces Acetylene. The powder can also be an irritant. This is not a toy and should be handled properly. The chemical reaction also creates heat. I found one incident online in which someone's cannon misfired and they tipped it over, spilling the water/Bangsite mixture on their leg and causing a burn from the heat (see picture). However, if the cannon had been on the ground, that couldn't have happened and this is the only injury I have been able to find involving Big Bang Cannons.
Following is the Bangsite warning that comes with the cannons:
OK. That's the good, the bad, and the ugly. All that having been said, Big Bang Cannons are very safe when used properly and FAR safer than any fireworks, even sparklers.
Big Bang Cannons can last a lifetime if properly cared for. There are cannons in use that have lasted over 80 years.
Like anything, unless you are going to just use your cannon as a display piece (that would be a shame) it will take some care to assure it lasts long enough to pass along to your children.
The most important thing you can do to assure your cannon lasts a long time is to flush out the cannon frequently, every 50-100 shots. This prevents the build up of lime from the chemical reaction inside the chamber. If the lime is left in the chamber it will harden and reduce the size of the water reservoir. Be sure to rinse out the chamber well and dry before storing your cannon after each use.
Obviously, rust would shorten the life of your cannon, so be sure it is stored dry and keep it out of the rain. I put a few of those silica gel packets that come with electronics in with my cannon to help keep it dry.
If you should get a buildup of lime in the chamber, CLR or Lime-Away is available at the hardware store or supermarket and should be able to dissolve it.
When not properly cared for, they can often be restored. Here's one website I found showing the restoration of an old 155mm Big Bang Cannon. Although it's much better if you just take care of them.
Most old cannons seem to be missing their breech block (the part at the back that holds the flint and Bangsite and seals the chamber). Be sure to keep the breech block with your cannon. If your cannon is missing any parts, we do not carry them at Dave's Cool Toys, but they are available directly from the manufacturer, Conestoga Co.
That's about all you need to do to keep your cannon in good shape for many years.
A few tips on care and storage of your Bangsite:
If you are having trouble getting your Big Bang Cannon to fire, here are some tips.
Try pushing the firing pin down a second time.
Make sure you've added enough water to the cannon. Try fresh water if you've used it for a while.
Make sure the Bangsite is dark gray. If it has turned to a white powder, get a fresh tube.
Check the igniter to see if the flint is making sparks and replace if necessary.
The chamber should be completely closed when firing.
Be sure to wait a few seconds after charging for the gas to form.
|Get Your Own Big Bang Cannon!
Dave's Cool Toys carries the entire line of Big Bang Cannons (the cannon shaped ones).
You can also order Bangsite and spark plugs.