He Has Barrel Of Fun Making Old Cannons

Busy Pasadena Craftsman Builds Replicas

June 28, 1991|By William C. Ward | William C. Ward,Staff writer

You can't accuse Russ Rippel of having idle hands.

The enthusiastic 51-year-old (he calls himself "half a century plus one") spends the little time he has away from his job in the state treasurer's office working with disabled children rebuilding the Aquarius, a 1940s-eratrawler that will be used to educate children in seamanship and the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay.

Rippel, who has six sons and 13 grandchildren, manages to find time to construct an enclosed swimming pool-addition to the Pasadena home he built himself; restore an antique piano; and pursue a lifelong passion of building and restoring Revolutionary War-era style cannons.

Rippel is restoring a replica of an 18th-century cannon he created about 20 years ago, a swivel gun he plans to donate to a county American Legion post. During the past 25 years, Rippel has made and donated cannons to several memorials and museums, most notably the recent donation to the Pikesville Armory, which maintains a weapons museum. Another of Rippel's cannons has been turned into a monument to sailors in Baltimore.

Rippel has made dozens of artillery pieces, mostly swivel guns, for various events and organizations over the years. The gun he is refurbishing has an impressive history.

The swivel gun, mounted on a barge in Baltimore Harbor, kicked off the bicentennial celebration in 1976 with a loud report that echoed for miles around, says Rippel.

"This gun's started skipjack races and yacht regattas," beams Rippel, "We fired it near Tilghman Island, and I'm prettysure they could hear it in Cambridge."

Swivel guns were used by naval vessels in the Revolutionary War to take down rigging and sails of fleeing vessels. The guns used "split," or "chain" shot, which consisted of two balls or expanding bars connected by a chain, which, when fired, would whip through the air like a helicopter rotor, slicingthrough rigging and sails and any unfortunate sailors stationed aloft. Mounted on a carriage on the ship's deck or on a swivel on the vessel's rail, the guns had a range of about one mile.

The weapons were popular with privateers who roamed the high seas seeking stray British merchant ships to plunder. After a successful raid, the hunters would return to the Chesapeake Bay to unload booty and refit themselves in the safety of Baltimore's harbor.

"The weaponry was used on a smaller, faster ship, that would run circles around a bigger ship, shoot out the sails, making them stop and get them that way," says Rippel.

"Once you know how to use this thing, you can shoot the cahoodles off a canary at 100 yards," he said.

Rippel recently rescuedhis gun, which was last fired more than a decade ago, from storage in Baltimore, where it had begun to corrode.

"It was just sitting there, so I retrieved the gun so I could work it," he says. "She's a fine old weapon; when this thing goes off, you know it!"

Rippel says he developed a love for history, particularly cannons, and began tomanufacture them about 10 years before the nation's bicentennial.

"I've always been into history. What amazed me was modern weaponry, but I wondered 'How do you fight with a weapon like this?' " says Rippel,patting the gun's rusted steel barrel. The steel "tube" of the cannon weighs almost 350 pounds.

The first step in crafting a cannonis selecting a suitably large cylinder of solid steel from Eastern and Bethlehem Steel, which costs from $800 to $900. Rippel then takes the piece to a mill in Baltimore and turns it on a lathe, which he uses to shape the piece and auger out the muzzle.

When finished, a swivel gun is a plain, simple-looking weapon, with little embellishment or decoration.

"This design is purely American," explained Rippel, describing his current project. Rippel says French and British versions were much fancier, adorned with decorative flourishes and designs.

It will take two weeks for the Pasadena craftsman to bring hisswivel gun up to snuff. Then, he'll try to donate it to an American Legion post.

Although Rippel owns guns and loves firing the cannons, he doesn't hunt, and is repelled by war and killing.

"The guns are a lot of fun, and I enjoy shooting them, but this is just a fun thing," he says.

After he finishes the gun and its carriage, Rippelhas a long list of other things to do. He says he never intends to slow down -- at least not in the foreseeable future.

"You stop working, you're gonna to die," he says.

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