Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Science is great – just look at explosives

Avatar photo
Ben Anderson digresses to remember fun times with the blasting gun.
Reading Time: 3 minutes


In this series, the lads ask if farming is more science or art. 

This month I bought a new chainsaw. I felt the lack of loyalty seeping through my bones as I set my old Husky aside for a brand-new Stihl. I was lured by the 66.8cc of log-shredding power, the shiny orange paint and the magic of the decompression switch. I occasionally catch a glimpse of my old companion sulking in the corner of the shed as I fetch the dog tucker each night.  The shame of betrayal burns but I can’t go back.

However, as enamoured as I am with my new wood-chopping companion, it pales in comparison to my first true love, the blasting gun.

I probably need to step back here to explain myself better. You see, my family has a long and enduring relationship with things that go bang. My great-grandfather, who unfortunately I never had the pleasure of meeting, reportedly never went very far without a splitting axe and a sack full of blasting powder. 

His enthusiasm knew no bounds, resulting in large quantities of firewood, and at one point, a large gum tree straight across the roof of his woolshed.

My great-grandfather was also generous with his supplies, believing in the irrefutable right of his grandchildren to small calibre rifles and as much blasting powder as they could eat. This resulted in plenty of wild game for the table, as well as the unfortunate sinking of a dinghy in the lagoon while blasting for trout. 

This generational love of explosives has survived world wars, depressions, great leaps of technology and successive Labour governments. For my family has always remembered that, whilst it is all very well to be quick and efficient, sometimes it is the process that really matters.

Now, for those of you who have been unlucky enough not to know what a blasting gun is, let me explain. Otherwise known as a “black powder log splitter”, the gun is a cylindrical device about 2 feet long, with a flat head at one end, and a narrowing point at the other. It is filled with blasting or gun powder, then driven into the end of the log you want to split. When it is sufficiently far enough in, a fuse is inserted into a hole in the gun, one that would be long enough for the firer to light and walk promptly back a safe distance. 

Lastly, and in a perfect world, another log would be positioned at the exposed end of the blasting gun to stop it from transforming into a low flying missile, never to be seen again.  

My personal introduction to the blasting gun came when I was still in single figures. My father was the man in charge of operations, and therefore things were done a bit differently. The first departure from best practice was with the length of the fuse. Money was tight and fuse was not to be wasted. Therefore it was cut short. As the fuse was also old, its burn rate was fairly variable. Therefore we were more runners than walkers. 

The second departure from good practice was not putting another log against the end of the gun. Shifting logs was hard work so a wet sack was used instead. This worked somewhat, but also meant that your hiding spot had to be at right angles to the future trajectory of the blasting gun. 

And so I watched the magic of the blasting gun unfold. The log was selected and the gun was prepared. I remember asking my father how he knew how much powder to put in. He was noncommittal, just something about “one more handful for good measure”. Then the gun was driven into the log, the fuse inserted and the sack placed over the end. I watched with fascination as the match flared and the fuse was lit. Its hiss came with a surge of adrenaline and we began to run.  

I had never before in my short life known running to be both so exciting and so full of purpose. We slid into our hiding area baseball-style and waited. The wait wasn’t long, because with a loud thump the gun went off. In hindsight the log must have been partially rotten because the top blew off it and bits of wood rained down through the cloud of smoke all around us.

I remember stepping out from behind our hiding place with my eyes glowing and the smell of blasting powder in my nostrills. I can still smell it now.

This article was supposed to be about whether farming is an art or science, but I’ve strayed a bit. Perhaps there is an art to farming, but it’s the science that makes it fun. And don’t we all need to do things occasionally that blow out the cobwebs? 

People are also reading