Halloween has never been kind to pumpkins. But in Sussex County, Delaware, this weekend, hundreds of the gourds will meet a particularly gruesome end: Loaded into hulking compressed-air cannons, fired like artillery shells across an empty field, their ground-splattering detonations will be cheered on by thousands of spectators. Other pumpkins will be vaulted into the air by modern incarnations of medieval siege machines, trebuchets and catapults that whip payloads thousands of feet through the air.
To say that the three-day-long Annual World Championship Punkin' Chunkin' competition—now in its 23rd year—is a labor of love is not only a cliche, but a gross misrepresentation. Chunkin' is a feat of obsessive, competitive engineering. According to Frank Shade, President of the Punkin' Chunkin' Association, some of the machines in competition would cost between a quarter and three-quarters of a million dollars to build from scratch. In most cases, improvements have been heaped on through the years; some devices started in the youth classes and eventually graduated to the corresponding adult group.
The reward for all that determination and the hundreds or thousands of dollars some teams spend to repair or revamp their machines? A 3-ft trophy. "Three years ago a sponsor came and offered $10,000 in prize money," Shade says. "It was the only unanimous vote I've seen." But the association's vote was no thanks, and its reasoning was simple. "Money pushes people to cheat. The biggest thing these folks compete for is a 3-ft trophy for the captain, seven medallions for the team, and seven baseball caps. Those caps are a big deal," Shade says.
Punkin' Chunkin' might not be gunning for a collective payoff, but the sport has become a major attraction for Delaware, drawing some 20,000 attendees in 2007, and $100,000 in revenue. The competition occurs between about Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. There are other attractions, such as a Chili Cook-Off and a Pumpkin Cooking Contest, but chunking is the main event. Each machine is allowed three attempted chunks. Provided the pumpkin isn't instantly pulverized by an excess of air pressure or some other mechanical problem, every chunk has a shot at winning the machine's specific class, as well as taking home the trophy for overall world champion. And although the artillery-like cannons of the Adult Air Class, which generate muzzle velocities between 300 to 800 ft per second, are the reigning long-distance champs—Big 10-Inch managed 4211.27 ft last year, and Second Amendment's 4434.38-ft-chunk in 2003 is the current world record—Shade believes that torsion catapults are poised for an upset. "Machines like Chucky II are laying out pumpkins at over 3000 ft. It's only a matter of time until a torsion cat snaps one out that breaks 4000 ft."
The air guns, which rely on a sudden release of pressure to propel pumpkins out of their barrels, may have hit an engineering wall. Torsion catapults, on the other hand, are still benefiting from design tweaks that provide more room for the catapult's arm to swing and a more efficient angle of release.
It's unlikely that a torsion catapult will take the world record away from Second Amendment this year, but the 2008 world championship could be up for grabs. The Chucky II team, which delivered on its 3000 ft prediction leading up to last year's competition (it won in its class, but the 3080-ft shot was disqualified because the pumpkin split in half in midair), is promising a 4000 ft chunk this year. If the catapults, trebuchets and other more traditional seige machines bring an end to the decade-long reign of the air guns, Shade believes that artillery-minded teams might have to explore a new direction: rail guns.
"Down the line, they could conceivably put something together where one of those electromagnetic rail guns could come on board and blow everyone away," Shade says, referring to the high-velocity experimental weapon systems currently being tested by the United States Navy. "The problem right now is that they have to have a small substation at this point. But that will change. Remember the original cellphones? You practically had to drag them around with a handcart."
Another option—applying WW II-era German rail-gun technology to compressed-air cannons. Instead of a single release of air pressure, cannoneers could begin with a small amount of air and trigger successively larger releases of pressure once the pumpkin is in motion. That would require longer barrels, and possibly computerized, precision-timed charges, but Shade doesn't put anything past Punkin' Chunkers. "We have said for years, if the knowledge and ability and technology devoted to throwing pumpkins could be harnessed, it could solve most of the world's problems," Shade says. "And win some wars, too."
The chunking is now underway, and the winners will be announced on Sunday. Check back here on Monday for exclusive photos from this year's competition. —Erik Sofge