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Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices Paperback – June 1, 2001

197 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"13 projects engineered to be safe yet exciting and able to be built with household and hardware-store supplies" -- St. Paul Pioneer Press

"Fun and thrilling" -- Journal of Chemical Education

"Offers a safe, cheap, and legal, labor-intensive and intellectually challenging to the 'oops I blew off my fingers' debacle." -- Burt Constable, Arlington Heights Daily Herald

"To inspire kids to spend more time exploring science" -- The Plain Dealer

"Would-be rocketeers, take note: Engineer William Gurstelle has written a book for you." -- Chicago Tribune

...shows the safe way to amaze and annoy your neighbors with amateur science projects. -- The Daily Oklahoman

If you'd like to launch a potato in a blazing fireball of combusting hairspray, this is your best source. -- Time Out New York

Your inner boy will get a bang out of these devices to build and shoot in your own back yard. --

About the Author

William Gurstelle is the author of Absinthe and FlamethrowersThe Art of the Catapult,  the bestselling Backyard BallisticsBuilding Bots, Whoosh, Boom, Splat, and Notes from the Technology Underground. He is a professional engineer who has been researching and building model catapults and ballistic devices for more than 30 years. He is a contributing editor at Make magazine and writes frequently for Wired, The Rake, and several other national magazines. He can be contacted at

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 8 and up
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press (June 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1556523750
  • ISBN-13: 978-1556523755
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.5 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (197 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

In 2011, Popular Mechanics Magazine added five special editors to its masthead: William Gurstelle, Jay Leno, the Mythbusters' Adam Savage and Jaime Hyneman, and Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds. There's a reason Bill is there along side those luminaries: His views on risk taking, combined with his best selling books have put him in the spotlight.

Media Attention
Long features about Bill and his ideas have run in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Popular Science, the London Daily Telegraph, National Public Radio, PBS, Radio Canada, and scores of other media outlets.

Best Selling Author
Now, because of his groundbreaking views and easy writing style, he's one of the most widely read science and technology authors in the world. His best sellers include Absinthe and Flamethrowers, Backyard Ballistics, Adventures from the Technology Underground, and The Practical Pyromaniac. More than a half million copies of his books have been sold, a truly amazing amount for a technology author.

National Magazine Columnist
In addition to his books, he writes frequently on culture and technology for national magazines including Popular Mechanics, Wired, the Atlantic, and Make. Online, he is a frequent contributor to BoingBoing, Makezine, and Wired.

Popular Speaker
Bill has given lectures to groups all over the world including North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Select clients and their comments are available through the navigation panel to the left.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

140 of 144 people found the following review helpful By Walter Reade on January 6, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a great resource book for pyromaniacs who want to expand their horizons.
The highlight of this book is the chapter on the venerated potato cannon (a.k.a. spud gun). The author presents a simple yet effective design and gives detailed instructions on how to construct it. I have seen a number of designs on the web, and I prefer this for it parsimonious design. I have "launched" a number of spuds with this cannon, and am perfectly pleased with its operation.
Other projects include back porch rocketry (the paper match rocket, the hydro pump rocket, and the pneumatic missile), the Cincinnati fire kite, the Greek fire and the catapult, the tennis ball mortar, the flinger, Pnewton's petard, the dry cleaning bag balloon, the carbide cannon, and the ballistic pendulum.
The book is clearly written and illustrated (with drawings and black and white photographis). It contains a number of history vignettes along with some illustrations of ancient weapons. The remaining chapter includes some ideas for further study.
While I highly recommend this book, please note that some of these projects (most notably the potato gun) are illegal in some states. In that case, this book would be for "reference" only.
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53 of 55 people found the following review helpful By James Schoonmaker on April 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book is a wonderful resource for those boys who have graduated from Nerf and waterguns- and for those of us that never will. What struck me most was the sheer variety of projects in this book- from little rockets powered by a match(!) to monster potato guns, this book has everything. I built a potato gun similar to the one in this book several years ago, and have been looking for projects in the same vein. With this book, I've found them. I especially love the fact that he uses a variety of power sources- the traditional hair spray of the potato gun, air pressure, even chemical combustion.
One of the unique things about this book, as compared to other similar books, is the emphasis on both safety and history. Safety is important for obvious reasons. But most readers are enthusiasts about this sort of stuff, and the history lessons are exciting.
My only complaint is that there is no room in this book for any sort of modification to the designs. For example, there are formulas that can be used to determine the maximum chamber size for a PVC-constructed potato gun, and with this, you can design your own potato gun in relative safety. Unfortunately, the author insists that you stick strictly to his designs. This appears to be an effort to ensure that all of the "toys" created with his book are safe, so that's only a minor complaint.
Can't wait to start lobbing tennis balls!
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80 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Elderbear VINE VOICE on March 5, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What a wonderful boys book--boys from 9 to 90 will get a bang out of these projects. The author presents enough safety information to be reasonable, and mixes in scientific explanations, a bit of math, and interesting anectdotes that take us back into the history of ballistics. But most of all, he presents details plans and parts lists (including sources for hard to find parts) to build things that shoot up into the air, things that go "BOOM," and other cool stuff like fire kites.
Many of the projects described here are also well documented on the internet. But most internet postings have little to say about safety, science, or history. Using this book as a starting point, and the internet as a resource to expand the ideas, could lead one to develop a truly interesting ballistic arsenal indeed!!
Before we had homeland security to worry about, this might have been a good source book for a science fair. Now, it just might be a great way to spend a lifetime behind bars. But, if you're in touch with your inner Goddard, von Braun, or just love the idea of a tennis ball mortar ... then this is the book for you!
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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Logical Paradox VINE VOICE on April 26, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a great book. Just from skimming through it you can tell that a lot of thought and precaution went into it's construction. Parents may be scared seeing a book like this in the hands of their child, but don't be frightened. Most of the projects in here are pretty innocuous and saftey is paramount. The book and author STRESS proper precautions and advise saftey gear for any dangerous experiments. If you have a kid who has been playing with fire, been showing a disturbing interest in explosives or such, then buy them this book and do these projects with them! It will give kids a productive, educational and supervised outlet for these curiosities and fascinations and will give you a chance to teach them a bit about physics and further bond with them. Some young pyros grow into arsonists, others grow into firemen and physicists... you make the choice! Instead of punishing them and trying to curb their interest in such things, channel this energy into something positive.
From the perspective of an adult or adolesent this book is still great. Fun projects and lots of information make for a fun read, and an even more fun summer project. Science teachers and the like will love this book as some of these projects could prove wonderful classroom demonstrations to aid in teaching and more importantly, in getting kids' attention and perhaps sparking an interest.
Great book. more stuff like this might help the curb effects of all the negative stuff out there like the Anarchist's Cookbook and all those [explosive] websites.
A big five stars!
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