Shooting a Line
Hello boy, I’ve been thinking over our conversation about fishing with rockets. I remembered something, and it came to mind just a few hours ago. I remembered that I didn’t actually initiate the system, it was my fishing-mad friend Bernie Walker who got the idea from somewhere — to shoot the line out past the surf at Foxton Beach. But me, being the gun-mad bloke, had to invent the way to do it.
It was common at that time for farmers to clear the stumps and logs off their land to make space for grass, or clear the way for growing and harvesting crops or hay, or to turn felled trees into millable timber. They tried to get rid of the worst logs and stumps by burning them, but that was a slow and inefficient process. Then someone came up with the idea of splitting the logs using a special kind of gun — a log-splitting gun.
Now my dad had one and I knew how to use it because I worked with him clearing logs. The gun was a strong steel tube about 2 inches in diameter, and usually 12 to 18 inches long, sometimes more, and tapered at one end so you could drive it into the centre of a stump or log. It was similar to an artillery shell, but much heavier so it could withstand being belted into a log with a sledge-hammer. You would charge the tube with gunpowder, as you would an old muzzle-loading musket or cannon, and it had a touch hole in the side for the fuse. Quite common they were. And I had one of these guns, and Bernie thought that maybe we could adapt it to send our fishing line out past the surf, just as if our line was attached to a rocket..
Just to digress a little — why didn’t they use gelignite on the stumps, instead of the log-splitting gun?
Gelly was unpredictable in the hands of the average farmer. Remember the house in Stanway Road — blown to bits? And gelignite was more expensive than black powder. So the log-splitting gun was popular because it was cheaper, and thought to be safer. Of course there were accidents, and my father always warned us to make sure the gun was well hammered into the log, and that we put a log or weight behind it so it didn’t fly out when the blasting powder went off. We needed to remember that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You had to organise things so the shock of the explosion was directed into the log. Very quick — a satisfying bang, a puff of smoke and the job was done.
Peter, You’ve mentioned gunpowder, black powder and blasting powder — what’s the difference?
Gunpowder and black powder are the same. Blasting powder is pretty much the same as far as I know. Maybe the ingredients are in slightly different proportions, but for the log splitting guns either blasting powder or black powder did the trick. That said, I do remember that the blasting powder was coarser grained, granular, lumpier, while the black powder was finer. We must have had the formula because we had a homemade version of it too.
I had a high-school class-mate, Lionel Sharman, who formulated homemade gunpowder. That was in the early 1950s when we were at Palmerston North Boys High. One day, during his experimentation phase, Lionel came to school with his eyebrows burned off. Caused comment. The recipe called for ‘fertilizer grade’ potassium nitrate from Watson Brothers in The Square. They sold it as ‘saltpetre’ for the garden. We’d also get sulphur, and somehow Lionel would get or grind up the charcoal.
What did you do with it? How was it used?
My memory is that Lionel has some machine-gun cartridges — half-inch calibre — and he’d stuff them with gunpowder, and set it alight with a match. The mixture fizzed and bubbled and smoked. Then an empty .303 cartridge was inverted, placed over the burning powder and quickly hammered down inside the larger cartridge. This trapped the burning mixture inside. Eventually it exploded and sent the smaller cartridge hurtling into the air like a bullet.
Interesting. You’ve got to have some confinement, a restriction, resistance to activate the effect. Did you do this more than once? Was it a reliable system?
Yes, but on one occasion the contraption fell over and aimed itself at me. I jumped aside just as it went off, the .303 cartridge shot past and bounced around the garage walls.
Things like that stick in the boyish mind. Those kinds of tricks were known and most of the towns around, even the small little villages, had a separate building, a store, that was well locked and secure to keep kids and thieves at bay. They called it the town ‘magazine’, and the town elders saw to it that the explosives and constituents were under control.
So how did you adapt your log-splitting gun to fire your fishing-lines off Foxton Beach?
There was a fair bit of trial and error to start with. We found that the fine fishing-line would snap because of the speed and force of the explosion, so we attached a series of progressively stronger cords to the end that went into the muzzle. You’ve got to soften or reduce the sudden jerk of the initial explosion. It’s possible we started off using my dad’s gun, or might have used the one I had. The one thing I was sure of was that the whole thing could be dangerous. After putting the charge of black powder in we probably put in some wadding or rope down on top of it to even out the explosive force, then Bernie would put in the progressively thinner cords and attach our line, hook and bait, and perhaps add a lead sinker that would act both as a projectile and a weight to settle the line near the bottom.
As I said, I was in charge of coiling the line and loading the gun. Bernie arranged what went into it by way of the fishing gear. That’s how we did it. The other day I thought we must have used a rocket device, but after some roaming around in my mind I recalled the details, or most of them.
I’m glad I had the knowledge how to use the gun to fish with. My younger brother, Fred, he fished at Foxton, but from a boat. Things went badly wrong one day and he didn’t return. That was very sad — a great loss. So fishing with a log-splitting gun may sound dangerous, but I’m glad I suffered from motion-sickness because it meant I never had to venture out to sea.