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Smashing pumpkins - for the fun of it, and for charity

A bicycle-powered catapult helps Chip Hersey launch pumpkins. A bicycle-powered catapult helps Chip Hersey launch pumpkins. (Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / October 27, 2011

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Alexander the Great employed them as he amassed one of the largest realms of power in ancient history.

Hannibal put them to use during his decade-long occupation of Italy and battering of the burgeoning Roman Empire.

Genghis Khan capitalized on their siege power as he established dominance over a gigantic swath of Asia in the 13th century.

As for Chip Hersey and Perry Stone?

They use catapults to hurl pumpkins hundreds of feet through the air.

The pair of highly splattered squash-chuckers have built a fierce, gourd-slinging machine ominously titled Mischief Knight that they compete with, marvel with, and use to spurn (and, oftentimes, exploit) gravity and physics.

“It’s about throwing pumpkins, having fun, laughing at each other, and also using our brains to solve some problems,’’ Hersey, a Newburyport native who now lives in South Portland, Maine, said of his homemade hurler, which most recently sent pumpkins to their bespattered deaths before hundreds of awed spectators at a fund-raising event for Coastal Connections in Amesbury.

Still, this isn’t a primitive endeavor - or a toy, for that matter. Hersey and Stone, assisted by machinists and mechanical engineers from the Amesbury-based Merrimac Tool Company Inc., have spent the last several years adjusting, tweaking, and perfecting their catapult, a 10-foot-tall monstrosity with a 16-foot-long arm that can send pumpkins flying as far as 1,600 feet.

And in November, they hope to achieve gourd dominance when they compete in the annual Punkin Chunkin World Championship in Bridgeville, Del.

At first (and perhaps not surprisingly), “I thought it was kind of crazy,’’ acknowledged Alan Porter, president of Merrimac Tool. “It took me a while to really get into it. But it took off, and just got more and more serious for all of us.’’

Well, as serious as pumpkin chucking can be, anyway.

At the upcoming world championship on Nov. 4, 5, and 6, for example, Hersey and Stone will line up in a huge field alongside hundreds of other catapults, ballistas, and trebuchets, all in the quest for pumpkin-smashing glory. As the devices, both human- and gravity-powered, rough and streamlined, send pumpkins soaring through the air, ATV riders positioned far off in the field will dodge and duck them, then measure the distance they traveled before their pulverizing return to earth.

With their catapult powered by a stripped-down, wheelless bicycle, Hersey and Stone have snagged fourth, third, and second places - getting progressively better each time - over the years in the adult manpower division, which is one of about a dozen categories in the event. Conceived 25 years ago, Punkin Chunkin now raises upwards of $100,000 for charities and scholarships, and lures more than 20,000 people, according to its website, including dozens of teams composed of professional and amateur engineers, tinkerers, and siege-warfare enthusiasts. The competition is also shown on the Discovery Channel - fittingly - on Thanksgiving night.

But as for the squashy ammunition: It isn’t just any old pumpkin you pick out of a bin at a local farm. There’s a science to their selection. As Hersey, a mechanical engineer, explained, 8 to 10 pounds is the ideal. Also, the denser the better, to cut down on wind resistance - he and Stone typically use the albino Lumina variety for this reason.

But how did the two get on this quixotic catapulting quest to begin with?

“As you might expect,’’ Hersey said, “it’s a pretty funny story.’’

For his 40th birthday, his wife gave him “The Von Hoffmann Bros. Big Damn Book of Sheer Manliness,’’ which includes a section on pumpkin chucking.

He and Stone, an Arlington resident, chuckled about it for awhile, Hersey recalled, but then they stopped laughing, and started wondering.

Eventually they ended up at what he described as a boat graveyard at Lake Winnipesaukee. After collecting several bent masts, they embarked on their first endeavor: A 40-foot-tall, makeshift slingshot.

It didn’t work very well.

Blame it on the physics: the majority of the time, it shot back at them rather than straight ahead, Hersey said.

They competed with it at Punkin Chunkin, and were “the comic relief,’’ he said.

“Our best shot was minus 10 feet,’’ he said.

So they decided to move on to a catapult. They cut up the masts, eventually added surgical tubing for springs and, just recently, replaced an aluminum arm with a carbon fiber arm (making it significantly lighter and stronger, according to Hersey).

Over the years, it’s been a process of tweaking and modifying, contemplating the parameters of physics and gravity - and their budget.

“There have been lots of sketches on napkins,’’ said Porter.

But it’s gotten much more scientific than that. Volunteer machinists from his tool company have helped determine the best materials, components, structure, angle, and swing with computer-aided design programs.

“It’s not the most precision thing we’ve ever built,’’ Porter said, “but it’s certainly the most fun.’’

Also, they’ve sporadically stepped beyond the bounds of frivolity, most notably to raise money for the nonprofit Coastal Connections, with the second annual Pumpkin Chucking Fest held Oct. 16 at Amesbury Sports Park.

In the end, Hersey said, it’s the technical aspect - rather than the irreverence - that he enjoys most.

“The problem-solving: That’s where the fun is for me,’’ he said.

For more on Punkin Chunkin, visit www.punkinchunkin.com.