Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Of Dice and (Tin) Men: Catapulted into a Career

   After the my pleasant (and well received) digression in to Chartlie Sweet and his Anciernt Wargames rules in particular, I'll pick up the thread again at my senior year of college. Notably, as related at the end of my last post in this series, my good friend and wargames buddy, Chuck, became my college room mate for my final year. Once again, we really didn't play much in the way of  wargames while at school, but we talked about them a lot, as well as almost everything else conceivable, becoming much closer friends in the process. He needed a little guidance to stay on track academically, which I provided, along with proofreading some papers for him, etc.

 I had wound up majoring in Chemistry (a subject I still love), in part because when I didn't have any of it in my schedule my Sophmore year, I really missed it, and also because it was an undergraduate degree that allowed many options to proceed from there, and there was never any doubt that I was going to get an advanced degree of some kind. I worked for the Stauffer Chemical company, whose R&D headquarters was in nearby Ardsley, NY, during the summers after my Junior and Senior years, and enjoyed industrial research a lot, but it seemed to me that most of the Ph.D. chemists seemed ultimately somewhat unfulfilled.  In any event, I wound up taking all three of the GRE's, LSAT's (? chemical patent law), and MCAT's - how's that for decisiveness? I did well on all of them (I tend to view standardized tests as a game of strategy), but ultimately decided that Law was probably not something I would really enjoy, plus it was becoming clear that my sister was likely to chose Law as a profession when she graduated the following year.  Therefore, I applied simultaneously to Graduate School in Chemistry and Medical School. Driving and flying for Medical School interviews and talking to Grad school faculty on the phone occupied much of my spare time my final year in college. I had decided that if I got into Medical School, all fine and well, I'd go, and if I didn't, I'd get a Ph.D.  in Chemistry with the objective of teaching and researching at the college/university level. Either way, I was going to just get on with it and not apply to Medical School a second time if I wasn't accepted on the first try. As it turned out, I was accepted at all the Graduate programs I applied to, which made the Medical School interviews easier. Most of these were tolerable, but I still recall the interviewer at N.Y.U. (which happened to be my Dad's alma mater, although for Engineering and Business Administration) whom I thought was a real jackass. I decided then and there that even if I were accepted at NYU, I would not attend. There was no way I wanted to become the  kind of arrogant SoB physician  that the interviewer came across as!

    In the event, I was accepted at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in early March, IIRC. That made my decisions easy - it would cost less than half of what it would cost to attend any other school, plus I could stay reasonably close to my family and friends. All other applications were cancelled, and I suddenly had some free time again! That lead to Chuck and I collaborating to design, test, build, and perfect two miniature firing catapults for use in a Sweet-like game, the rules for which we also developed, inspired also by the Legion! rules by FGU as previously mentioned. For this post, I went down in the basement, and dug out the two catapults we scratch built from materials we had on hand:

Catapult #1; note the use of a Humbrol pain tin lid, in this case "Brown Bess" (oddly fitting, eh?)

Another view of "Brown Bess"; the grid is a 3" square one for reference. We used these very frequently for our House Ancients rules from about 1981 - 1997.

And here we have Catapult #2, "Yellow Facings".  :-)
The length of the arm of the catapult is shorter on this model. 

As I had expected, after 32 years (!), the rubber bands used in "rigging" the catapults have dried up and crumbled.

Here are both devices side by side, with the old rubber bands removed. Note how similar the devices are to ancient catapults (onangers, technically) in design. 

Construction is Masonite, liberal use of Epoxy, coat hanger wire, the aforementioned Humbrol paint tin lids, and Balsa wood (with the coat hanger wire threaded through it) to form the striker bar. The long base of the catapult is not an accident; the Catapult must be steadied firmly with one hand when firing, the thumb on the back and the forefingers on the front, if you are to achieve any accuracy. The term "Onanger" itself refers to a wild ass, the kick of same being shared with the device. It's miniature equivalent is no exception!

Note the indentations on the balsa striker bar from years of firing!

So, of course, having exhumed them form the basement, I had to restore these fine devices to functionality! I bought a bag of rubber bands, and "restrung" them.

In so doing, I was pretty sure I was doing something wrong as it was harder than I recalled to get the bands to stay in place. 

Still, eventually I got them on with sufficient tension in the rubber bands. 

A shot of the pair of restrung catapults. 

Close up of "Yellow Facings"; that is single rubber band used. 

Test shot  #1 - about 18"

Test shot #2 - about 24". Not bad, but I knew these babies could shoot 5-6 feet originally!

We also made two other "catapult" devices, just basically bent stainless steel. These things have a range of at least 8 feet - almost too powerful for the tabletop!  They were also hard to control, so we generally only used them for long range fire attempts. Plus of course, they just don't look "cool", like the model ones do!  :-)

After the test fire of the steel catatpults, I knew that I had strung the models incorrectly. I recalled that we had experimented with several configurations originally, so I went back to the pictures I took at the beginning of the process  and realized my error. 

Can you see the difference?

Properly re-strung in this fashion, both models now had a maximum range of about 6 feet - perfect for my tabletop!  The projectiles fired are discs (and a variety of other shapes such as triangles, crosses, etc) of Plasticene clay with the center point marked. This kid of clay holds its shape well but never dries out, and will not damage your figures when it hits them... although I do recall one game at Charlie's house when a unit of infantry was deployed, somewhat precariously, in a mountainous square. Said unit was targeted with howitzer fire (using the same catapults as for the ancient games), and when the projectile stuck, it knocked over one stand, which hit another, etc., resulting in all four stands of the unit tumbling downhill! With considerable glee (I think it was his shot, LOL), he declared "Oldest rule in the book; if they're knocked over, they're DEAD!"  And so it was. 

I hope you've found this diversion into the construction of firing model catapults for tabletop gaming entertaining!


PS:  I found a website offering "Desktop Onangers" capable of firing 10-20 feet (probably a bit excessive for tabletop use) - kits are $40 each. 


  1. Looking at your first few catapult photos, I wondered when you were going to out the balls on the other side.

  2. I must give these a crack. I've occasionally thought of making something of the sort, and now I've seen examples in the sort of scale that will work on the table, I know the thing can be done! Excellent!

    1. I'd strongly encourage trying it; IIRC it took no more than an hour or so to make each of them, with the only pieces of equipment needed being a table saw to cut the masonite and an electric drill to drill the holes for the wire.