Amid the semi-rural serenity just outside the Greer, SC town limits sits an innocuous garage, its white door primly secured, its brown cladding muted against the green splendor of early summer. Birds chirp, dogs bark, lawnmowers growl, small children splash in backyard wading pools. But inside the garage sit two howitzers, various sized mortars, gunpowder, firing pins, iron balls, all of which taken together could make enough noise to overpower the drowsy murmurs of suburbia and arouse the neighborhood from its summer slumbers.
“I used to practice shooting one of my cannons across that field,” Ben Campbell says, standing near the garage in his backyard and pointing at a quarter-mile-long swath of open country. “I could lob a ball right over those trees at the far end, but the neighbors didn’t like it much.” Ben, whose day job is as an optician, has spent his free time for the past thirty years making and firing cannons in his other job as the creator of Campbell’s Cannons. “Nothing makes a statement like a cannon salute!” says the logo on his business cards, a sentiment with which the neighborhood has had first hand experience.
“I was always fascinated by fireworks, explosions, when I was a kid,” Ben explains. “Back in 1975, I ended up at a machine shop in Greenville owned by Charlie Cranshaw, who made cannons. I learned everything I know from old Charlie. He passed away five or so years ago.”
Among the types of cannon Ben learned about from Charlie was the mortar, the most basic kind of muzzle-loaded weapon, short and squat. But Ben’s most recent creation is a real giant of a mortar, so big that it won’t fit in the garage and nearly scrapes the top of the carport that shelters it. With its main barrel formed from parts of a propane tank, the muzzle with its 9-inch-wide bore looms over Ben’s head. “It’s a replica of what they call a seacoast mortar, like they had along the battery in Charleston Harbor,” Ben says. “It has enough power to fire a ball up to two miles out.”
Inside the garage, more firepower awaits. Occupying the center of the floor is Ben’s replica of an 1841 mountain howitzer, mounted on an oak carriage on wheels that he’d taken from a horse cart once owned by his grandmother. “The barrel’s bronze,” Ben says. “I had a foundry pour it from a wooden mold I made. It takes three-inch balls, and probably weighs 350 or 400 pounds.” The howitzer is nudged up against another that Ben describes as a three-quarter scale six-pounder, also mounted on a rolling carriage and pointing ominously at a red flag with a white star hanging on the wall. Surrounding these two, like smaller siblings admiring their big brothers, are 21 small trench mortars that can be hooked up to a firing panel and set off sequentially, useful for 21-gun salutes. There’s another mortar standing just a foot or so off the floor, small but ominous, with its gaping nine-inch bore wide enough to accept bowling balls. Nearby are two pipe cannons, kind of tabletop models that Ben says he uses to fire golf balls, just for fun. All of them were designed and made by Ben himself in his workshop, where bits of pipe and scrap metal are piled against the walls, and where he uses a huge metal lathe and a vintage pipe-cutter to fashion his cannons.
Summer is a busy time for Campbell’s Cannons. There’s the Fourth of July festivities at Furman University, for which Ben uses the 21-cannon setup, and the occasional trip up to the Brevard Music Center for special occasions, especially when the 1812 Overture is on the program. Ben has also appeared at the Museum Of The Civil War in Greenville and at Civil War re-enactments as far north as Manassas, Virginia.
“I used to do a lot of the re-enactment stuff, but not so much anymore,” Ben says. “The occasion I remember the most was when they raised the Hunley in Charleston Harbor. We went down there with one of our cannons and participated in the ceremonies, like when they re-interred the remains that were found on the submarine. That was a real honor.”
Most of the time, no live ammunition is used at Ben’s appearances. “All they need is the noise and the smoke,” Ben says, opening a metal case. Inside are wads of gunpowder wrapped in aluminum foil to keep them dry, and lined up like so many loaves of bread, and a box containing friction primers, which are small metal tubes containing a small amount of powder and a kind of matchhead. The primer’s inserted into a hole at the rear end of the cannon, setting off the powder when the firing pin is pulled and, in turn, igniting the wad below.
And just how is the cannon business these days? Ben can’t resist the obvious punch line. “It’s booming,” he says.