First among those who cast stones

An ancient martial art had lots of language scholars rocking
June 06, 1976

It was a brief but remarkable exhumation, and when the Fifth National Catapult Contest came to a thudding halt in Indianapolis the other day, it seemed abundantly clear that catapulting is back—though no one is precisely sure where it has been nor what it has been doing there. That's the way it is with some sports. You go six or seven centuries without hearing a word about them, then suddenly everywhere you turn it's catapulting, catapulting, catapulting.

Modern weaponry, even with its splendid capacity for barbecuing the entire planet and everyone on it three times over, lacks the personal touch that the ancient Romans brought to battle with their fearsome siege engines. To be sure, the intervening centuries have produced a serious shortage of cities that require besieging. That being the case, catapulting has evolved into a proper sport for proper young gentlemen and ladies.

This Indianapolis congress of siege engines began modestly 10 years ago at that city's Park School as a Latin project to give students a better understanding of Caesar's Gallic Wars. Five years later the competition was opened to Latin students nationwide; this year 41 machines in seven states competed, 22 of them at a field in Indianapolis. Indy, though slightly better known for an automobile race that runs concurrently with the catapulting season, is widely considered the cradle of modern catapulting. That is largely because it is the home of Bernard Barcio, the Latin teacher at Eastwood Junior High School who conceived the project and sponsors it.

It's not so terribly surprising that many of the young scholars who get involved in catapulting are of a decidedly philosophical nature, having spent much of their natural lives plumbing Pliny and translating Virgil's Aeneid. Ask them why they are chucking rocks across an open field instead of skipping stones across a lake and they are inclined to give one of those thoughtful Edmund Hillary looks and mumble something about "the vast, illimitable void." Then they'll rattle off a few Latin maxims for good measure. If they suspect they are dealing with a dullard—and they suspect this more often than a reasonable man might expect—they will recite declensions until the cows come home.

Most of the machines entered in this year's competition were hybrids of modern technology and medieval craftsmanship. Sometimes they worked; often they did not. In evidence were the three basic types of catapults used by the Roman legions: twisted rope, bent wood and counterweight. Perennis II was typical in that it developed its thrust from a wooden firing arm anchored by an axle bound up in hundreds of lengths of tightly twisted rope. When the triggering mechanism was released, the arm was supposed to shoot forward and launch its payload far into the cloud-flecked sky. Despite the best intentions, however, when 14-year-old Mark Kline fired Perennis, the rock described a parabola manqué and returned to earth some 36 inches from the point of departure. "Very embarrassing," said Kline, already immersed in modifications. "I suppose this is how Caesar started."

A counterweight device called Romulus showed a marked tendency to backfire—that is to say, its missiles went straight up in the air, then straight down again. This nearly resulted in a mutiny by the Romulus crew, and produced one of the most exciting moments of the day when one of its rocks came within inches of ventilating a parked Toyota.

The majority of the machines were constructed of plywood and guile in equal measure, and reflected the untutored enthusiasm of free-thinking engineers. It would have been easy enough to pluck a rock from one of the smaller catapults and throw it twice the distance the machine could manage, but there was mercifully little of that.

Only one catapult, a counterweight called Zephyrus, approximated the Roman war machines we all know from history books and Classic Comics in size, accuracy and design. Counterweights derive their thrust from the force created by the falling weight (in this case, one ton) opposite the business end of the firing arm.

Zephyrus is the modern counterpart of the Roman trebuchet, one of the most devilishly effective of the siege engines. The trebuchet was capable of hurling great boulders over the walls of fortified cities, but even more important in those pre-Geneva Convention days was its ability to throw the carrion of diseased horses into the enemy compound. The resulting pestilence usually exacted a swift and terrible toll.

Zephyrus was built by Indianapolis' own Mary Hyde, her father David, and a crew of five other students. It is the largest catapult in existence, standing 61 feet tall, or roughly the equivalent of a four-story building, yet it is probably only half the size of the ancient catapults. In its sling it carries stones weighing anywhere from 10 to 100 pounds, and is capable of depositing them the length of 2½ football fields downrange. Zephyrus takes two seconds to release its missile, and from that moment until the rock tumbles to earth some six seconds later it has the undivided attention of everyone within squashing distance. Most extraordinary of all is the eerie sound it produces, like the wind whistling through the eaves of a long-ago deserted house. This distinctive whooooshing can be heard from a distance of several hundred yards, and has had a decided impact on the wino traffic through that part of town.

It takes at least half an hour to winch Zephyrus' firing arm into position before each shot, so the better part of the day was spent getting off two shots in each of the seven weight divisions: 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 75 and 100 pounds. The goal of catapulters for the past 10 years has been to throw a 100-pound rock 100 yards, principally because 100 yards would have been outside bow-shot range. Such consideration for historical detail has made catapulting what it is today.

The Hydes spent an anxious Friday trying to prevent a repeat of the successive fiascos of the two previous years. The first time the machine was entered in the competition it had never been fully assembled or test-fired. When time came to set it off there was great gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands, but no action. Last year everything was fine until the moment came to trigger Zephyrus, when again nothing happened. Long after most of the spectators had gone home, Mary decided to try burning the rope that held the firing arm down. That worked, but produced mediocre results.

In both instances the disasters had been caused by insufficient preparation, and Mary had decreed that this year there would be no mistakes. A brilliant student with a robust affection for all things mechanical, she has no truck with contemporaries who would squander their time cruising hamburger stands. Instead, she occasionally writes poetry to the catapult, resounding declarations of her undying love and devotion to "my beloved Zephyrus."

The Hydes are a deeply religious family, and Mary often frets about the un-Christian amounts of money Zephyrus has cost. Her father, whose dour expression and natural pessimism belie his vast enthusiasm for the project, sometimes wonders aloud whether their energies—not to mention affections—might be misdirected. "What good is it for a girl to know about cable clamps?" he asked the day before the competition. "There's not much future in catapult building."

Still, when the time came to load the 100-pound rock into Zephyrus' sling, the Hydes were two souls with but one thought. The arm was carefully secured in place, the angle of the firing pin adjusted, and the release mechanism inspected for any flaw that might wrench the boom from its fulcrum and scatter their dreams to the wind.

Zephyrus had warmed up with a casual 693-foot toss in the 10-pound division, hit its stride in the 20-pound class with a 720-foot throw, then 735 feet with a 30-pound stone, 748 with 40 pounds and 623 feet with 75 pounds. As the final adjustments were made for the 100-pound throw, Barcio—who was garbed in a Roman centurion's lorica and fringed suede calf boots—announced with fitting solemnity that history was about to be made.

When the firing mechanism was disengaged, the big gun groaned momentarily under the added weight, then gathered momentum swiftly into its upward arc. As the arm realized its fullest upright position, the sling opened with a sharp crack. The stone tumbled free and began its mournful ululation indicative of success as it headed hard and true for Canada. A staggering 565'6" away, it sliced a neat divot amid the elephant grass.

It was a special moment for Mary Hyde, who had established a new world record with every shot, but for a time last month, everyone who stood looking into a large hole in Indiana knew what it meant to own a piece of the rock.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)