brocksbangers (1)
Weaponry and things that went bang were very important to us boys so it’s no surprise that we spent a lot of our spare time trying to make as many new tools of destruction as our inventiveness would allow. Variously we came up with bows and arrows, catapults, shooting sticks, crossbows, ambows and the glorious “Pistifle”. I’ll come back to the Pistifle later.We purloined short timber offcuts from the nearby sawmill to make our wooden rifles. This was the only source of neatly cut timber we were aware of and it provided raw material for homemade  snow -sleighs and four-wheeled  “guiders” too. . The explosive attack – noise for these weapons was provided by the ratatattatt of our own similarly raw ,shredded and squealing pre-pubescent vocal chords. Noise was everything.

Curiosity sometimes killed the cat.
I’ve lost too many of my feline familiars over the years to have any doubt as to the veracity of that notion. Us boys had more than a touch of that tomcat inquisitiveness in us and at times it could bring our lives close to disaster. A favourite trick and a challenge to our fellows, was to hold a penny banger for the longest time before it either exploded in the hero’s hand or was hastily thrown away to blow up harmlessly .
Penny bangers were small explosive Halloween firework tubes of cardboard and gunpowder whose only raison d’etre was to explode very noisily with as much smoke and excitement as a small ten year old boy would ever require. They were supposed to be supervised by adults whose only requirement was to light the blue {always blue} touchpaper , stand well back while the short fizzing fuse sparked vigourously and await the coming loud bang.
That was how it was supposed to be, as they say now, “for the optics”. The reality was much more prosaic.Most of our parents accepted readily that us boys would buy and use bangers without any kind of supervision. To do otherwise was to try and push water uphill.
We called them “squibs”.
Penny bangers were available every Halloween and sold mostly in the same small corner sweetshops that sold Penny Chews, four for a penny Black Jacks[ with it’s very non-PC “Gollywog” illustration} or Fruit Salad, sherbity Refresher Bars and Bazooka Joe chewing gum.
If pocket money couldn’t stretch to both sweets and bangers, it could be supplemented by foraging in the nearby dump for lemonade bottles or the brown glass “Domestos” bleach bottles. Washed down and reasonably scrubbed in the dubious brackish water of the stream running past the bottom of Austin’s Orchard, these could be traded and parlayed over the counter for twopence or threepence a pop in Mrs .Sherry’s shop. That, plus a “loan” from your mother and possibly a half crown coin from your granny or your uncle at the weekend was the total span of our towering financial empires.
An urban legend circulating through the grapevine telegraph of garbled half-truths, claimed that if the said firework was fist-held tightly enough it would have no option but to explode front and back at the places of least resistance and therefore be rendered virtually harmless to the holder. No damage, apparently, would befall the heroic pyromaniac who demonstrated this dubious intelligence, but the challenge of that unknown logic was, nevertheless ,there in the open to be picked up. So who was man enough to try this and still remain digitally enhanced? This was not for the faint of heart but we each had to comply to retain any kind of credibility within our peer group.Somehow we each passed this initiation rite of passage with all fingers intact. The theory seemed to work with that particular batch of “squibs” but the resulting explosion was like a very hard slap of the teacher’s strap. Oh, yes, teachers at school, with great prescience, were already hardening our putty -like palms in preparation for such experiments.BANG 2
Cap guns , such as the “Cisco Kid” or the “Lone Star” six shooter were sold in huge quantities to boys in the 1950’s and early 1960’s , promoted on the back of the popular “Western” craze which had colonised our black and white television world with weekly- screened shows such as “Rawhide”, “Tenderfoot” , “Wells Fargo” , and “the Lone Ranger” to recall a handful out of the dozens galloping across the airwaves into our parents’ tiny rented televisions .
Cap guns utilised either a little cardboard “pillbox” of hundreds of single “caps” or the same caps would be packed in a continuous paper strip which was already tightly rolled in a spiral. These comprised a paper base with tiny dots of a dry explosive , equidistantly spaced , so that when applied to the cap pistol would feed through the mechanism. When the trigger was pulled, the spiral would engage and the “hammer” accordingly click down with enough force to explode each “dot” with a very loud crack.
We boys loved our bangs and whizzes, so the same caps could be similarly utilised in small spring-loaded toy rocket- missiles where several of them would comprise the explosive payload in the tip.We would of course cram many more than the requisite single cap into these rockets, throwing them as high as our strength would allow, listening for the sonic boom on impact that would set all the neighbourhood dogs a- barking and mothers scrambling to windows.
These pyrotechnical experiments reached their apogee with the invention of the wonderful thing we called the “Pistifle”.
To put this grand tool in perspective, some background is required. We’d already been through the “Adventures of Robin Hood ” phase where Richard Greene romped nightly through his Sherwood Forest adventures on UTV and inspired us to go out and strip and denude the nearest hedgerows of suitable branches to make bows, arrows, shooting sticks, staves and some very destructive and effective catapults. You couldn’t say we weren’t creative in the art of weaponry and it’s brother, destruction. We kept our hands and penknives busy, cutting and shaping suitable sticks. Stout but bendy for bows; straight for arrows; always on the lookout for that perfect forked branch that could be whittled into the “Y” of a handsome catapult or “catty” as they were always known.bang20-415-x-600
For the catty, all that was then required was an old rubber car inner tube to be cut into strips for the power bands and an old leather boot tongue for the actual slingshot. Thin rubber strips were cut from the same rubber source or to make a handgrip and bind the individual parts of the whole weapon tightly together. This was a perfect tool for shooting small stones or marbles at old bottles in the dump {the ones with no re-sale value!} or breaking any windows that were somehow impossibly left intact in the local abandoned railway station.
Mr. Beeching ,the Minister who closed our railway station in 1957 , some five years after my birth ,had only himself to blame for this act of vandalism by consigning the once glorious piece of Victoriana, now a crumbling dereliction, to the mercy and whims of small boys.
Prior to the Pistifle there was the Ambow, a thoroughly less -sophisticated Stone Age cousin to the hot Iron Age modernism of its successor. The Ambow’s genesis lay in the schoolboy terrorism of hard- rolled bus tickets, bent and projected with force from a string of joined -up elastic bands held between finger and thumb.These were lethal enough at close- quarters but the Ambow was more onto a crossbow which fired staples instead of rolled up bus tickets.I don’t think we ever fired this one at anyone because it would undoubtably have caused some serious damage.
Based on the shape of our wooden “Sten Guns” that we fought imaginary wars with, the same woodyard provided the basic materials for this new creation. We poached more timbers and added a crossbow across the barrel, just like William Tell on the television. Somewhere along the way we had discovered a lost “Staple Mine” over at the abandoned railway station.A hoard of half-buried burlap sacks spilling metal staples into the dirt.We harvested these as ammunition and again, every bottle , window or errant dump- rat felt our undoubted wrath .
The inherent savagery of little boys.
Thus by evolutionary means we arrived at the legendary “Pistifle”…
We’d already tried to make gunpowder of course. Back in those pre-Troubles “innocent” childhood days, it was possible to have those abherrent thoughts without attracting opprobrium or any kind of censure from the civic authorities… Until , of course you might inadvisedly bring the house down with an unsolicited errant explosive experiment.
A couple of friends had managed to buy the bones of a very extensive small science lab out of the pages of the weekly “Exchange and Mart” magazine.Finance for this largish purchase had doubtless been provided by proud parents wishing to extend their progeny’s enthusiasm for the sciences.
The swag duly arrived from faraway England in a well-wrapped wooden tea chest.There were bunsen burners , some tripods and glassware and a rough and tumble assortment of raw chemical powders. Of course what we really wanted were chemicals which could make a stink at worst ,or at best , a bang of some description. At the time it was quite possible to buy potassium nitrate ,{ or saltpetre, as it was known}, and sulphur in a chemist shop, but here before us, in jars, smelling redolently of school science labs lay those very ingredients .
We reasoned that with charcoal of some description we had the makings to give old Guy Fawkes a run for his money. Barbecuing outside the home, in the garden , was unheard of in our childhoods, so the idea of buying a bag of ready-made charcoal was not an option .It simply didn’t exist, so short of buying a lot of little packets of artists drawing sticks, if we wanted some charcoal for the completion of our explosive mixture, we’d have to make it ourselves. I first attempted this by cutting some bits of willow up into small pieces, ;putting them into an empty and well- sealed , Lyles Golden Syrup tin, which I had pierced a hole into and finally cooking the contents on my mother’s gas cooker top.
Believe it or not , this process actually worked. The little tin hissed and spumed as the gases escaped through the punched hole, until ,sometime later ,with a bang the lid flew ceilingwards. My mother wasn’t very pleased with this use of her kitchen as a laboratory but the resulting charcoal was surprisingly quite real. Truth be told though, we probably hadn’t the requisite patience or application so we never managed to properly replicate tne recipe those Chinese pyrotechnicians had put together those many centuries before. Instead of nice loud bangs our best result was a crackling fizzle.
So to the “Pistifle” ….
We came up with the glamourous appellation by ramming the words “pistol” and “rifle” together.This grand sobriquet was to place our creation alongside every other secret weapon that Batman’s foe the Wizard or Captain Marvel’s nemesis, the Scorpion could ever possibly conjure up in their quest for world domination.This was a popular theme in the post-war, paranoid Saturday morning cinema serial adventures .
The Pistifle was basically a small cannon fitted on a wooden sten- gun shape. It consisted of a length of pipe fitted with some of those same staples along the top of the Ambow.The back end of the pipe was blocked with a piece of wood which we hammered in hard and then attempted to completely seal by hammering the metal pipe edge down as a crimp. Like a cannon there was an ignition touch hole which was punched through the pipe metal using one of my father’s masonry nails and slightly widened.We needed an explosive charge of course and our own attempts to make same had been less than effective.The solution was staring us in the face.
By dissecting the bangers and removing the long fuse part for use in the touch hole , all we had to do was collect enough powder for a good “charge” and then slide in a wadding with a suitably sized marble. Then light the touch paper and boom!
We dutifully applied ourselves to this task as only enthusiastic boys could. My mum’s fire poker was used as a ramrod to make sure the marble was well-seated against the charge.
At this point I’ll say that this proposed “weapon” was meant to be something that could be taken down to the dump and fired , as it were, from the hip at any rat foolish enough to pop up it’s head. In other words, someone had to be brave enough to hold the thing and risk the consequences. We decided to test -fire it first to see how dangerous it might be to hold.It was duly set up on a couple of bricks facing the coalshed wall and as they say, that blue touch paper was duly ignited.We stood well back as the fuse spluttered and began to fizz alarmingly. Suddenly there a momentous bang and a fog of smoke enveloped the yard. It was as if a bomb had gone off, although I’d only heard a bomb at the cinema or on television at this point .Luckily , as the smoke cleared the kitchen and bathroom windows were still intact. That was the immediate fear. The Pistifle lay a foot away from the bricks where the recoil had pitched it. The back -end plug was gone. Whether it was successful or not was not in question. It worked alright. it had made a hugely satisfying loud noise. …
I wasn’t too sure how we’d extricate the poker from the coalshed wall though. Somehow , in our haste and enthusiasm,we’d forgotten to remove the “ramrod” so there it was sticking inches into the plaster . How was I going to explain the hole in the wall to my father?
We never fired it again…..
These adventures in sonic tomfoolery led inexorably to the biggest whizzbang of all.
Strangely this was one situation that caught me completely unawares. The setting, was again, that old railway station which had become our base camp replete with a signal box as a handy gang hut; now depleted of any glassware in the windows, but still a cosy gathering post, especially on rainy or inclement days. There was, of course, a station platform with disused offices , a large turning shed and a series of abandoned black -tarred sheds. To our eyes there was precious little security anywhere , probably because anything worth stealing was long gone by dint of older boys’ hands. For us youngsters there were only the oddments of slim pickings. Anything of value such as lead from the roofs or copper wiring had long -since made its way to scrap yards.
The place was something of a tumbledown but we could still pick up oddments of scrap lead among the debris and detritus which we used to melt into “QUOITS”.
In the summer evening we would light fires and melt any bits of found booty in an old paint tin from the dumps. The molten lead was then poured into “Cherry Blossom” polish tins or, better still, if we could find an old metal bun tin on the dump.When the resulting hot and dangerous soup cooled, these moulds were tapped out as hard round metal discs.
“QUOITS” was an ancient game that had evolved into a pavement fixture which was another casualty of the Irish Troubles. Like marbles back then, it was a game played by children and adults alike on warm summer evenings, before people were afraid to stay out on the streets. The QUOITS were thrown onto a chalk marked “board” drawn on the footpath with scores much like those on a square- shaped numbered dartboard.
It was in the shambled corner darkness of one of these black sheds that I came upon something curiously interesting.Like I said, curious cats and small boys….the arcane object was akin in size and shape to a fat little paint tin lid.It was made of some kind of metal but it was obviously hollow too. When shaken, it was manifest that it contained something loose rattling about like salt in a sealed shaker. We had to see what mystery this object held, so precious that it had been sealed within.
There was always a plethora of rude and ready tools lying about which we oftimes used casually without thought . A favourite was the railways spike …a large “nail” that had been used to afix the metal railway lines to the wooden sleepers. There were lots of these lying about and we used them variously as chisels.
I soon found myself hammering along the edge of the object with a spike as a chisel and another heavier piece of metal as my “hammer”. I wasn’t having much success because I had nothing to clamp the object against, but I was incorrigible in my task
There are moments in life when time stops momentarily and we can literally smell the roses properly. Unique moments in time and space. This was one of those. With a suddeness the object burst into life in my hands, consuming the air around me and engulfing me in a cloud of frenetic noise and energy. There was an all-encompassing explosion which sucked all other noises from the air. The biggest bang I had ever been close to.Here I was right in it’s epicentre.
Birds had stopped singing, grasshoppers ceased their clacking stridulations. Their mates would no longer be interested. There was an unknowing complete silence as if the universe had momentarily decided to abandon logic and stop being. I realised that I was completely deaf.
It was a frightening , head-shaking, ear- banging few minutes before the world began to re-appear and resume turning ; as sound seeped back to complete and augment the visual picture.
What the f ….!
It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the source of this first near- psychedelic experience. What I had been innocently hammering at was a device used on train lines called a “torpedo”, an explosive detonator used for stopping trains in foggy situations or similar.When placed on the train line and compressed by the iron wheels, it is designed to emit a bang loud enough to be heard above the noise of the train.
You had better believe it.
I have no idea what inquisitive ten year old boys get up to in these safer, more sterile, politically correct times but I can only hope they learn as much and arrive at adulthood with all digits intact and without any hearing loss in those upper frequencies.
Bangs and whizzes indeed…

In memory of  “Otis” the black soul cat. The last of his inquisitive line.



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