AMESBURY — The crowd counted down from five in a collective chant, and then there was a cry of “Fire in the hole!”
Necks craned and fingers pointed at a small round object high above, a projectile against a sky quilted with wispy clouds.
It screamed down in an arc and then — splat — met a hill a few hundred feet away, exploding in a firework of orange.
Catapults have been used for centuries as the ultimate siege weapon: breaking down walls, terrorizing, subduing. But these days a robust and diverse subculture is using them for a much more benign purpose: To whip innocent pumpkins through the air.
Newburyport native Chip Hersey is of this gourd-hurling clan, and, at the third annual Pumpkin Chucking Fest fund-raiser Oct. 14 at Amesbury Sports Park, he showed off his handmade catapult, sending dozens of pumpkins to their crushing end.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said the mechanical engineer who now lives in South Portland, Maine, noting a ceaseless process of problem-solving and trial and error.
He and Perry Stone, an economist from Arlington, built their giant throwing machine — menacingly named Mischief Knight — several years ago, tinkering and adjusting ever since.
The pair also have joined a growing legion of pumpkin smashers in Punkin’ Chunkin’, the so-called world championships of jack-o’-lantern jousting held every November in Delaware.
The event, scheduled for Nov. 2-4 in Bridgeville, Del., airs on the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel on Thanksgiving night, and usually attracts about 20,000 spectators and competitors, the latter of whom employ — and at times defy — physics, gravity, and ingenuity with a variety of man- and mechanically-powered catapults, ballistas, and trebuchets.
Mischief Knight’s longest pumpkin toss at the event in the past: 1,596 feet.
“It’s the only place where you’ll see rednecks and MIT professors consulting each other,” said Hersey, fittingly wearing a pumpkin-orange cap.
His enormous hurler — more than 10 feet high with a 16-foot-long arm crafted from surgical tubing and aluminum sailboat parts — has become the centerpiece of the local competition and has raised about $37,000 in three years for Coastal Connections Inc., which helps people with disabilities.
Priming Mischief Knight takes two minutes of swift pedaling on a bike attached to the device; that tenses the lines and tubing and ultimately transfers kinetic energy to them, Hersey said.
“It starts out easy, like a hill climb, one that gets steeper and steeper,” said John Kerrick of Peterborough, N.H., a bicyclist who lent his powerful legs to the task during the Amesbury event.
The ideal pumpkin used is small, dense, and around 8 pounds, Hersey said. But how far it goes, and where, depends on numerous variables, and is almost impossible to predict.
“I’ve never seen it go in the same spot twice,” he said, readying his catapult for another throw.
Nearby, bins brimmed with pumpkins awaiting their fate; Frisbees flew; and a rock band played.
As Hersey let another gourd go — this time above the trees and out of sight — the crowd clapped and whooped.
Watching, Kerrick said with a shrug, “It’s a primitive thrill to see something be launched.”