Replica Builder J. Paul Barnett
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
When we think of the 4th of July, we immediately envision flags waving in
the wind, parades, and gala concerts ending with the 1812 Overture and a wonderful fireworks
display. It’s impossible to separate the festivities from
the date, and it would seem almost incongruous to play the Tchaikowsky work
any other time... though it does get programmed on Pops Concerts occasionally
and even in subscription series by the great orchestras.
No matter what, though, the music evokes a certain patriotic grandeur, and
part of that is due to the cannon shots which happen near the end of the
piece. And like trying to keep the Lone Ranger out of our heads during
the William Tell Overture, it's
impossible to refrain from conguring Calvin and Hobbes during the 1812. Why? It’s
those cannons at the end, of course! Real cannons in the concert hall!
Well, at least at outdoor venues, anyway.
At those gala events, we expect artillery, and J. Paul Barnett is the one
who provides not only the shots, but sees to it that they are fired accurately,
just as the composer demands in the score. For more information about
Barnett and his company, click this
Living in Chicago all my life, I admit to being spoiled by the Chicago Symphony
and all the other great musical groups who are here. But little did
I know that in South Bend, Indiana. which is almost suburban Chicagoland,
really, Barnett is busy making replicas of guns and other metal pieces. For
many years, he’s been called on to bring his re-creations and
expertise to various festivals so that the familiar music will have the proper
After learning of his work, I finally persuaded him to visit the WNIB studios
for a chat, and here is what was said at that time . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: I
assume that you genuinely like the 1812
Paul Barnett: Sure.
It’s an interesting piece of music. There’s a history in the Overture,
and then the history of the overture itself. There’s a lot there to
enjoy in both of them.
BD: When you heard
it as a child, did you think, “Oh, it would be good if it had cannons in
PB: It never occurred
to me. The first one I heard was the old 1952 Dorati recording and I
thought, “That’s nice.” And that was the end of it! [Both laugh]
BD: When did you
come to building cannons yourself?
PB: It was a hobby
that grew up some years ago. In youth I was a State Trooper for a while,
and a high school English teacher for a while. I had become involved
with the muzzle-loading sports and this then grew into that. Some years
ago I got involved in a project that wound up being a small book on Lyle
guns which were developed in 1878 for projecting lifelines to distressed
BD: So these are
not guns that are used to destroy things. They’re actually guns that
are used to save people?
They were used world-wide for lifesaving.
BD: Were you building
these as authentic pieces, or as replicas?
PB: We had made
some Lyle gun replicas and reproductions that are used in restored lifesaving
stations in their Living History Programs. But the ones we used in
the Overture are originals.
BD: When did these
come together — the building of the guns and the putting them into the 1812 Overture?
PB: In 1967.
I got a call from Erich Kunzel in Cincinnati, and he said they were going
to do the 1812 Overture in a stadium
there, and asked if this would be possible. I said I thought so, and
we went down there and muddled through a performance. We got all the
shots inside the music, which was an accomplishment at that time!
BD: But they weren’t
in the right place?
PB: They were close!
They were close as we could get. The orchestra didn’t know what to
expect from us and we didn’t know what to expect from the orchestra.
After the first year I got a chance to go to the library and do some reading,
and found out what Tchaikovsky intended!
BD: Did it surprise
you that Tchaikovsky actually wanted specific cannons at specific places
in the score?
PB: It did, yeah.
In 1880, when he wrote the piece, his intention was to use electric ignition
in the interest of precision. The guns were to be fired from the conductor’s
BD: Then for nearly
a century it was just been a big guy on a big bass drum with a big mallet?
PB: Oh, I don’t
know what they did. There are all the stories about shotguns being
fired over oil drums and things like that. There are stories of downtown
glass taken out and all sorts of things! And some unfortunate things,
BD: That’s right,
because of indoor performances, rather than outdoor!
PB: Right, right,
BD: There’s a wonderful
“Calvin and Hobbes” strip cartoon... They’re listening to a recording
of the 1812 Overture. You
see Calvin’s eyes get real wide when he finds out they use real cannons in
the concert hall, and he says, “I thought classical
music was BORING!” [Both laugh] Of course, he’s just thinking
of the carnage...
In the concert hall they used shotguns over oil drums and pistol shots and
all sorts of things like that. But to be done authentically it pretty
much has to be done outdoors.
BD: Do you think
of yourself as part of the “authentic instrument”
PB: In that sense,
yes. The first five shots are on four, three, two, one and one, and
that’s where we put them. And we have to take the time lag into account.
BD: I see, so you
think about where the guns are and make sure that the sound of the guns will
be at the right time?
PB: The sound must
get to the audience at the same time the sound from the orchestra gets to
the audience. Sometimes it’s in a triangle situation, so there’s a
lot of human judgment involved.
BD: You have to
be an acoustician, then, also?
PB: I suppose,
BD: Do test shots
have to be made at each location, because of the difference in the ricochet
time and echo time and the distance between the cannons and the orchestra?
PB: We’ve fired
test shots every place we have worked, even at places where we have been
for twenty years, just to make sure everything is right. We’ve shot
the same load at Wolf Trap since 1979, with the exception of one show where
we dropped it one ounce and then went back up.
BD: Why the change?
conditions and all sorts of other things may affect it. Actually, we
seem to get the best shots in a fog.
PB: I suppose the
lay interpretation would be that the air is heavy, as opposed to being fluffy
as it would be in the middle of a desert. But we do test shots every
place, and usually the load stays the same from one year to the next in the
BD: Is each installation unique?
BD: Is it a purely
sound idea, or do you think about the flash and the visual?
PB: There is a
tremendous visual effect, and this is something you don’t think about when
you hear any of the recordings that have been made across the years.
There’s a terrific flash that comes out of each gun. It’s very much
part of the show, and there would have been in 1880, too, when he wrote it.
There would have been a beautiful visual effect to it if it had been done,
but it wasn’t done.
BD: So Tchaikovsky
never got to hear the cannons?
not. He wrote it in 1880 and it was to be performed in 1881.
Part of it involved the twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of Tsar
Alexander the Second. It was to have been performed, I believe, in
September, but the Tsar was assassinated in the spring and that kind of let
the air out of the program. It was to have been done in the square
before the Cathedral of the Redeemer, which Tsar Alexander had commissioned
to commemorate the Battle of Borodino, but the cathedral wasn’t finished
until 1883. And according to what I have been told repeatedly across
the years, the Overture was first
performed in 1882 indoors at the Moscow Arts and Industry Exposition with
conventional orchestration. And I’m told that Tchaikovsky was under
pressure to do it in various other venues, but it was done without the cannons.
BD: Do you know
when the first use of the cannons, or any kind of live ammunition was given?
PB: No, not exactly.
But Tchaikovsky died in 1893, and the final theme in the Overture is “God Save the Tsar.”
Of course, after 1917 the Russians weren’t much on playing “God Save the
Tsar.” [Both laugh] I’m told by musicians who have worked with
Russian orchestras that they substitute something else for “God Save the
BD: They just re-wrote
PB: Of course,
they don’t do that now! They’re playing the Overture as written again. In downtown
Leningrad in 1990, we had the pleasure of working with the Leningrad Philharmonic.
BD: Is it special
to you that that was put on record so that your performance is everywhere?
PB: Oh, boy!
That was just a marvelous experience! They flew the guns to Russia
and we were able to get the supplies we needed to Leningrad. We were
there having pleasant conversations with the military and police, and presumably
the KGB and everybody else! I’m told that people were backed up in
Arts Park for some distance. There was a Russian music school that
let its students out to come down and see the 1812 Overture.
BD: I can just
imagine your visa application. “Why are you coming to Russia?”
“Well, I’m going to bring some cannons...”
PB: Yes, exactly!
BD: Did they take
your equipment or your ideas and manufacture different or similar kinds of
things to use there now, forever?
PB: To my knowledge,
BD: Have you licensed
this to anyone else?
PB: [Laughs] No,
no. I don’t think there could be any licensing involved. Our
only claim to uniqueness is that we’ve been doing it for a long time.
BD: Now does it
disappoint you if you hear about, or see on television, a performance where
the cannons are not accurate, or the cannons are not what you expect?
PB: You have to
feel something about that, sure. I suppose if I were a trombonist,
I would watch the trombone section very carefully!
BD: Does it please
you, though, that people are at least trying to get things right now that
they’ve heard it accurately through your efforts?
PB: Yes, sure it
does. With the old Dorati recording, for instance, it was so important
that on one side they had the Overture,
and on the other side they had an explanation of how it was done.
BD: I remember
PB: They took a
gun at West Point, shot it and recorded the shot; then in the lab they dubbed
the shot in sixteen times.
BD: At the right
PB: At the right
places, yeah. It’s going a step further to do it with an electric switch
box, as Tchaikovsky intended in 1880. Of course, he was probably dealing
with big knife switches at the conductor’s podium, and we’re dealing with
nice little toggle switches! They are much less cumbersome.
BD: Do you envision
a time when your mechanism would just be put within the percussion section,
and the third percussionist would be the cannon-firer?
PB: No, because
he couldn’t handle the time lag. The shots have to go through one mind
sitting at the switch box, watching and listening to the guns and listening
to the orchestra.
BD: So actually
you’re listening more than watching the conductor?
PB: I can’t even
see the conductor. My back is to the conductor usually. I’m watching
the guns; I’ve got my hands full there with the guns and the switch box,
and keeping the guns synchronized with the orchestra. It might be a
little hyperbolic to say I guess I’m thinking in milliseconds.
BD: But you do
have to adjust your pushing the toggles to compensate for the time lag.
PB: Exactly, yeah.
Judging from the sound of a camera shutter, for instance, I would guess at
Wolf Trap we’re shooting a sixteenth of a second ahead of time.
BD: What’s the
longest time lag you’ve had? Or is that the longest?
PB: I don’t know
that there have been any longer ones than that. At Ravinia, where we
work every year, it’s almost simultaneous because the guns are close in;
it’s close in sight. Wolf Trap is very expansive.
BD: I was going
to ask if there’s ever a time where you actually push it and hear it.
PB: I think Ravinia’s
closest on that.
* * *
BD: Now that you’ve
got the 1812 Overture down and it’s
a part of you and a part of the American (and probably the world’s) psyche,
would you want to work with another composer to write a piece that includes
PB: That’s come
up across the years and I don’t know. I can’t imagine it happening,
but if it did, it would be interesting to see what would come of it.
I wouldn’t expect much to come of it. Once you have done the 1812 Overture, that’s a hard act to follow
with something else. Perhaps Wellington’s
BD: But maybe for
another program. Or at the end of the first half, have the “other”
piece, and then for the end of the second half, reload the cannons for the
PB: I don’t know.
For one thing, there’s a recycling time involved. The preparations
across the afternoon take hours.
BD: So once you’re
set up, you couldn’t reuse the cannons twenty minutes later?
PB: It would be
BD: [With a sly
nudge] So??? [Both laugh]
PB: Yeah, it’s
a possibility. As a matter of fact, there’s been a program suggested
for next summer that would involve using some additional equipment and then
recycling the equipment. It’s not a musical event; it’s something else.
It’s on the “let’s-look-at-the-possibilities”
shelf right now.
BD: I hope it works
PB: I don’t know
if it’s going to materialize. If it looks like it’s going to happen,
then we would move into gear and see how to accomplish it, if it can be accomplished.
I think it could.
BD: You’ve always
worked these with the small cannons?
BD: Could you do
this with larger bore, or smaller bore instruments also?
PB: We could, sure.
The problem is logistics. Lyle guns were built to be portable, and
we can get sixteen of them into a one-ton pickup truck and trailer.
With full-size field guns or something along that order, you would have to
have semi-trailer-level equipment to move them, and that would be prohibitive
in getting to some of the sites. The cost logistics would be too much.
BD: I’m thinking
maybe of smaller bores, like a standard gauge rifle, or maybe even a Gatling
PB: [Laughs] Small
ones for a set of miniatures? Yeah, no. You don’t get the sound
that’s necessary to correspond with the orchestra.
BD: But maybe a
different piece of music, or for an indoor performance using your mechanism
and your control.
PB: Not with anything
that shoots. For one thing, it would have to be a black powder instrument,
and the smoke out of black powder is just legendary. You would have
to have a fire marshal that was liberal to the point of lunacy to allow that
in the building! [Laughs] But outdoors it works fine. Lyle guns have
a two and a half inch bore, which is a bore consistent with the bore of a
small field gun. And you get a good, deep-throated cannon sound out
of it, with the smoke and fire on each shot.
BD: And that’s
what you want. You want the sound and the smoke and the fire!
PB: The sound,
and the smoke, and fire. It works that way. When Tchaikovsky envisioned
doing that in 1880, that would have been a Star Wars sort of thing. A lot of
people wonder about electricity in 1880, but street lights and telephones
were being installed, and the telegraph was operational in 1843. Telegraphy
was common in the Civil War. The USS Cairo at Vicksburg was sunk by
an electrically detonated torpedo in the river. So Tchaikovsky was
using the technology that was available to him, and he probably had some
very good technical advice from the army or an electrician, or someone.
BD: Is it easier
or harder for you to coordinate your material with a fireworks show afterwards,
as often happens?
PB: After the show,
fireworks are great. If the fireworks are done during the overture,
I would guess they would hire a musician, maybe a keyboardist, and have him
go plinkety, plinkety, plinkety at one end of the piano! But we have
a wonderful time working. Most of the pyrotechnicians that are hired
for those things are very professional guys.
BD: I assume their
kind of firing mechanism is similar to what you use?
PB: Some do.
I’ve seen some of their equipment and it can get very sophisticated.
They’re into computerized things and all that. I hearken back to the
old Model T Ford ways — one switch, one shot.
It has to be that way because of the time lag.
BD: You never envision
it getting to be more computerized?
PB: No, not any
more than you could computerize a musical instrument into the orchestra as
the conductor conducts from one time to the next, or as one conductor conducts
and then another conductor conducts.
BD: Have any conductors
objected to what you’re doing?
BD: They all like
PB: Well, some
conductors aren’t that concerned about the Overture. But some really, really
appreciate it and want to go out and see the guns, see the equipment and
take a historical interest in it. Those, of course, are the ones that
are the most fun to work with.
BD: I’m trying
to think of anything else that needs a cannon. There’s a cannon shot
in Tosca which signals the escape
of the prisoner from the jail.
PB: I guess there
are some in Victory at Sea, too.
That would be a long program to sit through for whatever shot’s at the end!
BD: That’s right.
The cannon shot in Tosca is in the
first act, so you could come in, set it up, and go home! I’m trying
to get you more work! I’m trying to get you into more different pieces
of music. We’re going to have to get something to be written.
PB: Have somebody
do it and I’ll certainly be happy to take a look at it and see if something
can come to fruition.
BD: Would you want
to be coordinating with the composition of it, or just see it when it is
PB: No, that wouldn’t
be my part of the work.
BD: So now the
rest of the time you spend making and building the replicas?
We do a lot of work for ship and port restorations, and museums and things
of that sort.
BD: So you really
are part of the original instrument movement?
PB: I suppose,
yeah! We did some work this spring for the USS Constellation and the
Delaware state flagship, Calmar Nickel. We also did the guns on the
Pride of Baltimore and we’ve done work for movie studios.
BD: I was going
to ask about effects for movies, or if the studios take care of that themselves.
PB: Usually, but
it can be anything. If it’s going to be a thing like Glory or Gettysburg, they bring in re-enactors
because that’s the only way a thing like that could be assembled. But
sometimes there’ll be a situation where a cannon is needed and we will produce
that cannon for them. Sometimes then they’ll go ahead and make fiberglass
spin-offs from that to make that one into a row — as
has happened in a couple of movies. We’re doing some work right now
for the State of Delaware. We’ve just finished an 1860 vintage cook
stove, an enormous thing; it weighs about a half ton. It was on the
Cairo when the Cairo was sunk at Vicksburg, and was used to feed the ship’s
crew of a hundred and seventy men. We’ve produced three of those stoves
in the last twenty years. We’ve got the third one now ready to send
out; we proofed it with three turkey breasts, two hams and a big pot of baked
beans! We get into all sorts of interesting projects.
BD: When you build
a cannon or a stove like this, are you known as the “Cannon
Guy,” or as the “1812 Guy?”
PB: I suppose both!
If they know about us through one aspect of the business, they probably know
about us from the other side, too.
BD: Do you like
the fact that your fame is spreading all over the world?
PB: I suppose!
[Laughs] We’ve had some tremendously interesting times. When Henry
Mancini is handing you the mustard at a tailgate barbecue, that’s a memorable
BD: You’ve got
the one recording out from the Tchaikowsky Gala conducted by Temerkanov.
Are there other recordings that utilize your instruments and mechanism?
PB: Not that I’m
aware of, no. We’ve heard a couple of times that a program from a particular
place has been broadcast. And over something like that, maybe I’ll
get a phone call from a guy in Louisiana or a postcard like the one that
arrived from Belgium!
BD: Do you know
of anyone else who is trying to do the same kind of thing?
PB: We hear about
it from time to time, but I’ve been doing it since 1967 and I think that’s
pretty good durability.
BD: I hope you
continue for a long time.
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© 1999 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 20, 1999.
Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 2001. The transcription
was made and posted on this website in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment
as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews
have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.
You are invited
to visit his website for
more information about his work, including selected
transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of
his guests. He would also like to call your attention
to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.