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 

Historical value aside, the shells’ lethal potential sets them apart from other collectibles. Not far from my house in Charleston, a small graveyard holds the remains of fifteen-year-old George Nungezer, Jr. In 1947, Nungezer, ten-year-old William Beas-ley, and two older cadets from the Citadel military academy managed to extricate a 200-pound shell from a cannon at Fort Johnson, the onetime site of a Confederate battery. After an employee at the Fort Johnson quarantine station drilled out the shell for the boys without incident, they set about knocking out its remaining black powder with a hammer so they could fire a toy cannon with it. When a spark ignited the powder, the youngsters were blown out of the tool shed. George died the same day. William lost a leg and suffered grievous burns.

More recently, two incidents shook the relic-hunting community. In 2006, an experienced shell restorer named Lawrence Christopher lost an eye and a few fingers when a shell he was drilling in his Dalton, Georgia, garage exploded. The sheriff’s department confiscated his collection—perhaps $100,000 worth of mostly disarmed shells, harmless as dumbbells—and destroyed it. In 2008, an equally experienced but cavalier Virginia collector named Sam White was blown up in his driveway while working on a nine-inch Navy shell. This makes him, quite possibly, the very last casualty of the War Between the States.

“The recovery of these artifacts can be done safely,” says Jack Bell, “but it’s got to be done with great care.” Bell, a friend of the Big Iron Man’s who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, is the author of Civil War Heavy Explosive Ordnance, a 500-plus-page tome that collectors and professional historians consider a bible. Although none of the relic hunters he deals with consider themselves outlaws, in a sense they are. Federal regulations leave them with little choice. To legally transport a live shell, you need a federal permit. To receive a live shell, you also need a permit, along with an inspected storage magazine (essentially a sturdy metal toolbox). Restorers generally get around this by not transporting shells themselves and by defusing live ones immediately, so that nothing live remains on their property.

Most shell hunters would prefer to have a clearly legal means of having a shell disarmed and then returned to them. But there isn’t one. The Marines are the only branch of the military authorized to render a shell inert. “If you brought us a solid iron shell to have us identify,” says Lauro Samaniego, an EOD officer at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, in South Carolina, “we’d probably hand it right back to you. But if we determined it was a live one with powder, we probably wouldn’t. We have very strict guidelines; if it poses a danger, we have to keep it.”

Despite this black-powder gray area, the Big Iron Man reckons that nothing is likely to change anytime soon, and that’s a shame. “Before a shell leaves my property, it’s always disarmed,” he says. “I talked to a guy in Georgia not long ago who wanted a live one. He says, ‘Well, I figure if it’s been safe this long—’ and I interrupt him and say, ‘Wait, it’s not safe at all. What if you get in a wreck and your car catches fire? What if your place catches fire and an eleven-inch ball goes off?’ If a person is afraid to have a shell taken away from him, he might not have it disarmed at all. And that creates a way more dangerous situation.”

Which is why Simons Young, the Charleston architect, is so glad that he found the Big Iron Man. Today his 100-pound Parrott sits on a mantel, basically the centerpiece of his family’s carriage house. “People come in and say, ‘Where did that come from?’” Young tells me. “I say, ‘Right beneath your feet.’ They just can’t believe it. I know we probably should have called the bomb squad when we found it. But if we had, it wouldn’t be here now.”