Replica Builder J. Paul
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
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 link.
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 emphatic booms.
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 . . . . .
I assume that you genuinely like the 1812
Sure. It’s an interesting piece
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
BD: When you
heard it as a child, did you think, “Oh,
it would be good if it had cannons in it”?
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
BD: So these
are not guns that are used to
destroy things. They’re actually guns that are used to save
Correct. They were used world-wide for
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?
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
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
of things! And some unfortunate things, too.
right, because of indoor
performances, rather than outdoor!
BD: There’s a
“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
classical music was BORING!” [Both laugh] Of course, he’s
just thinking of the carnage...
Right! 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” movement, then?
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?
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?
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
Atmospheric conditions and all sorts of other
things may affect it. Actually, we seem to get the best shots in
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 same
BD: Is each
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.
Tchaikovsky never got to hear the cannons?
Apparently 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
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
BD: They just
re-wrote the ending!
course, they don’t do that now! They’re
playing the Overture as
In downtown Leningrad in 1990, we had the pleasure of working with the
BD: Is it
special to you that that was put on record
so that your performance is everywhere?
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...”
exactly! [Both laugh]
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
BD: Have you
licensed this to anyone else?
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.
remember that LP.
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
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?
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
actually you’re listening more than watching
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.
yeah. Judging from the sound of a
shutter, for instance, I would guess at Wolf Trap we’re shooting
a sixteenth of a second ahead of time.
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
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 cannon?
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 Victory.
BD: But maybe
program. Or at the end of the first half, have the “other”
and then for the end of the second half, reload the cannons for the 1812.
PB: I don’t
know. For one thing, there’s a
recycling time involved. The preparations across the afternoon
BD: So once
you’re set up, you couldn’t reuse the
cannons twenty minutes later?
PB: It would
BD: [With a
sly nudge] So??? [Both laugh]
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”
BD: I hope it
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.
always worked these with the small
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
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.
thinking maybe of smaller bores, like a
standard gauge rifle, or maybe even a Gatling gun.
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
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
was liberal to the point of lunacy to allow that in the building!
outdoors it works fine. Lyle guns have a two and a half inch
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.
that’s what you want. You want the
sound and the smoke and the fire!
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
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
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
of the pyrotechnicians that are hired for those things are very
BD: I assume
their kind of firing mechanism is
similar to what you use?
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
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
BD: Have any
conductors objected to what
BD: They all
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.
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
PB: I guess
there are some in Victory at Sea,
would be a long program to sit through for
whatever shot’s at the end!
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.
somebody do it and I’ll certainly be happy
to take a look at it and see if something can come to
BD: Would you
want to be coordinating with the
composition of it, or just see it when it is finished?
No, that wouldn’t be my part of the
BD: So now
the rest of the time you spend
making and building the replicas?
Yeah. 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
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.
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?
suppose! [Laughs] We’ve had some tremendously
interesting times. When Henry Mancini is handing you the mustard
tailgate barbecue, that’s a memorable experience!
got the one recording out from the
Tchaikowsky Gala conducted by Temerkanov. Are there other
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
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
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.
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,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
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
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.