Mike Jackson likes to blow things up.
A retired marine repairman, Jackson has been designing, building and firing cannons for over 50 years. In California, during the laissez-faire days of the 1960s, Jackson built his first cannon, which he used to shoot concrete-filled Metrecal cans into lakes or to blast confetti at drag races. After Jackson relocated to Cordova in 1970, his cannons came in handy for Independence Day and other special occasions when firecrackers weren’t quite adequate.
Jackson’s interest in cannons was sparked by their use in the Civil War, although his interest is less historical than mechanical. His primary cannon, a Cadillac-red instrument about two feet in length, was constructed in the late ‘90s out of a piece of hydraulic cylinder. The work was done by Brian Hansel, an employee who found Jackson’s fascination with small artillery infectious. Hansel would go on to create his pièce de résistance, a large brass cannon that was turned on a lathe in a Cordova cannery.
Jackson hopes the world realizes that, despite his love of things that go boom, he’s no Ted Kaczynski, but a hobbyist who takes proper precautions.
“People can misconstrue what you’re doing,” Jackson said. “It’s like this whole gun issue. It gets misconstrued in the media, like the NRA are terrorists. The NRA aren’t terrorists any more than the man in the moon. Guns don’t go out by themselves and hurt people… Some people, if you make a bigger noise than they do, they just don’t like it.”
Jackson’s belief that artillery doesn’t kill people, people kill people, is seemingly supported by the fact that his half-century playing with cannons has resulted in no injuries. Cordova has, for the most part, been happy to allow Jackson his pastime. Police alerted to the sound of a cannon booming over the sea at a 2017 going-away party were more curious than alarmed. Over the past year, however, Jackson has been unable to fire his cannon due to a shortage of black powder. In the freewheeling ‘60s, it was possible to buy black powder by the barrel without so much as a background check, but times have changed.
Jackson is not the only amateur cannoneer in town. There are at least six other Cordova residents who enjoy firing cannons over water or at the shooting range.
Troy Tirrell owns a cast-iron cannon that shoots pieces of doweling the size of D batteries. At 80 pounds, the gun is a miniature, but still loud enough to wake the neighbors.
“I’ve gotten in trouble many a time,” Tirrell said. “I’ve learned the hard way! It can get you into trouble if you don’t let the authorities know. If someone shoots it out and you don’t know what’s going on, you’ll think something bad’s happened… And it does put out a big boom. You feel it in your chest.”
Like Tirrell, Jackson sees his cannon less as a weapon than as an instrument of ceremony and celebration.
“It seems appropriate on the Fourth of July to set off something that’s bigger than fireworks,” Jackson quipped.