The Shot Heard ‘Round New Brunswick
When Rutgers’ football team pours down the chute and onto the field of SHI Stadium, they are greeted with cheers and a booming muzzle-loading cannon. And whenever I hear that cannon roar, I smile to myself, knowing that I played a small role in bringing the gun to Rutgers.
My father, Ted, graduated in 1949 from Rutgers’ School of Education, and my mother, Libby, in 1947 from New Jersey College for Women, which later became Douglass College. They started bringing me to games when I was about three. Back then, Rutgers had a tiny carbide cannon that the cheerleaders dragged up and down the sidelines to be near the Rutgers end zone. While that cannon did indeed go boom, its small size seemed inadequate for the birthplace of college football. A game against Army changed that. Let me quote from a letter my dad wrote his classmates on October 25, 1971:
“The search for a new cannon really began during the 1967–68 football season and came as a result of seeing the field piece used at West Point (a howitzer). My son Rick and I jokingly compared Rutgers’ 10-gauge shotgun with Army’s anti-tank weapon, and he suggested that a revolutionary muzzleloader would be most appropriate. It did seem a rather wild dream. Nevertheless, the class officers and the 20th Reunion Committee bought my suggestion that this be our class gift, which would be natural since our 20th reunion coincided with the football centennial. [Note: Rutgers and Princeton played the first-ever intercollegiate football game in 1869.]
We asked everyone present to keep their eyes open for a new cannon. I ran down several leads, including the U.S. Army and the West Point Museum. We also checked out gun dealers and antique collectors, but it was not until February 1969 when Fred Hueglin [RC’49] contacted Mr. W.D. Lentz, owner of the Heavy Carriage Company in Cleveland, Ohio, that things got rolling. Mr. Lentz’s outfit specializes in building and restoring full-size cannons for state and federal agencies, historical societies, and other groups interested in ancient artillery.
The [Reunion] Committee was convinced that this company produced authentic work, and detailed craftsmanship was what we were hoping for. As a result, a formal order was placed in May 1969 with some assurance from Mr. Lentz that our cannon would be available for the centennial season.
Mr. Lentz designed an authentic 3/4-scale model of a Revolutionary War field piece that was slightly over nine feet long, from the end of the carriage to the tip of the barrel, and nearly five feet from wheel hub to wheel hub. The barrel was cast iron with a tubular steel lining. The carriage was made of mahogany and was finished in artillery red (or Rutgers scarlet, if you prefer).
The new cannon made its debut on October 23, 1971, as the Class of 1949’s reunion gift rolled into Rutgers Stadium at 10:05 a.m. Shortly after that, the cannon was tested twice before being fired for the first time at the ill-fated Columbia game (a 17–16 loss).
A muzzle-loading piece, the new cannon fires 1/4 pounds of coarse black blasting powder. Quite naturally, reasonable care must be exercised by the gun crew. The barrel must be doused and swabbed out with water after each shot. Its location at the open end of the stadium seems ideal, and its voice and appearance are everything that we hoped it might be.”
There were a few challenges in having a cannon like this. One is that not many people understand how to load and fire a cannon that uses black powder. Another issue was that the university did not have a place to store the cannon. The latter question was resolved by my father, who offered to keep it in our garage. So, for many months the cannon slept in the family garage between two cars. This was very convenient since our home was only a mile from Rutgers Stadium. The gun crew would come by the house on game day, wheel the cannon onto their truck, and secure it for the short ride to the stadium. The gun crew was initially a group from the ROTC. Today, Rutgers uses a team of period re-enactors who know how to load and fire the gun.
When the cannon was presented to the university, the stadium had yet to be expanded, so the cannon was mounted on the hilltop at the south end of the stadium next to the scoreboard. Upon firing, the gun sent a very satisfying cloud of smoke across the stadium, especially when the crew decided to double-shot the gun.
When the cannon made its debut, the Class of 1949 asked if they could select the person to fire the first shot in public. The university agreed, and I can proudly say that I was the person who fired that first shot. That’s why I smile to myself each time the cannon roars out a greeting to the football team.
Editor’s note: Richard Stier’s nephew, Edward Whitehead CC’11, and niece, Charlotte Whitehead SAS’19, got their own chance to fire the cannon, Edward when he was just 7, and Charlotte when she was a student at Rutgers. The Stier family’s Rutgers roots go even deeper than Richard’s parents: his grandfather, Wilhelm Rudolph Stier, graduated from Rutgers College in 1912, and his great uncle, Theodore J.B. Stier, graduated from there in 1925.