The Shell Hunter

Ben Gately Williams
by Chris Dixon - February/March 2013

For one Civil War relic collector, the past can be very much alive 

The mortar he holds is encrusted with a rime of dirt and rust. Someone brought it to his property in a deep, sand-filled chest. The shell is cast iron, lead banded, much heavier than it looks. Despite having been fired toward Confederate soldiers, it still contains its deadly marble-size lead balls and black powder. “It’s a common misconception that these things are dangerous just to handle,” he says. “But there’s nothing to worry about unless you do something stupid.” With that, he underhands the shell thirty feet into the air.

His friend and I scatter. But the shell lands with a thud and just sits there in silence. The Big Iron Man doubles over with laughter.

“There’s a myth that black powder gets more dangerous as it ages,” he says. “‘Oh, it’s just so unstable.’ Well, if that’s true, do you know how many people should be dead? Do you know how much unexploded ordnance there is around Mobile Bay, Fort Fisher, or under the parade grounds at Fort Sumter? Tens of thousands of shells are probably still buried between just those spots, and there are still shells just all over Charleston. If they’re as dangerous as they say, you ought to see tourists being blown into the air like that scene at the end of Blazing Saddles. I’ve had live shells dug up on farms with plow marks cut right through them. How many farmers have you heard of being blown up?”

Soon, he has scrubbed the shell down and carried it over to a peculiar contraption he built in this remote stretch of piney woods, far from prying eyes and spacious enough to contain any flying shrapnel. He bolts the shell to a stand and lowers it into a deep, water-filled pit dug into the earth beneath a fixed, vertical drill. Connecting the stand to the man are a pair of long, spindly steel arms—one controls a water jet, the other the drill press. The arms snake over the backup blast shield, a hulking, tail-finned automotive relic of the 1950s.

The fat drill bit spins very slowly, biting tiny shards from the shell. Even if relic shells usually aren’t hazardous to handle, heat and possible sparks from drilling can change the equation. Pure black powder ignites at around 572 degrees Fahrenheit, and after so many years, the stuff in this shell might have undergone any number of chemical changes, seeping into fissures and creating explosive pressurized gases. “If I have to disarm something,” he says, “I’m going to do it slowly and underwater.”

The deeper the bit spins, the heavier the sweat on the Big Iron Man’s brow. He’s maintained a light but firm pressure for fifteen minutes when, suddenly, his right arm relaxes and he breathes deeply. He’s broken through. The jet of water neutralizes the powder, but the stuff can be sticky, and when it dries, it’s still dangerous. So he’ll flush out the shell for a couple of hours.

Once the shell is empty, he takes it from this remote site back to his house, hooks an electrode to its nose, fills a fifty-gallon barrel with water, and stirs in sodium carbonate, a chemical mostly used as a water-softening agent. This particular brand of alchemy is a crucial step for metal preservationists. The Big Iron Man probably has twenty disarmed shells—from twenty-pound Hotchkisses to beach-ball-size 300-pounders—in various stages of electrolysis. He learned the discipline from a Florida preservationist whose portfolio ranged from Fort Sumter cannons to the hull of the Titanic.

“Salt is the enemy of iron,” he explains. “It works its way in. Before electrolysis, I had drums of stuff we were finding. I tried coating the shells with wax that had a high melting temperature, because somebody said that would keep ’em from falling apart. But once those salts in the shells started to dry and expand, the shell would break right through that wax and disintegrate. It was heartbreaking.”

He flips a switch that sends a half amp of current into the barrel. Oxides and salts slowly bleed out into the clear water, as if the shell is smoking. For at least six months this electrochemical stew will leach out rust-creating molecules, leaving this small agent of death perfectly preserved and perfectly inert. “So that’s how it’s done,” he says. “If that shell had been picked up by any EOD unit, they would have just blown it up. To me and a lot of other people, that is simply destroying history.”

Which is why the Big Iron Man bothers with all this. Although some of the shells in his collection are worth thousands of dollars apiece, he assures me that he’s not much interested in money or publicity. He’s just sick and tired of hearing about pieces of American military history getting blown to bits.