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Orem man’s business booming

When he plays, it’s not just applause that’s thunderous

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OREM — When it's Karl Furr's turn to play his part in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, he doesn't just blow his horn or toot a flute.

He makes thunder.

Furr fires and fires again, setting off a battery of 16 miniature black-powder cannons that rattle the rafters in perfect sequence and in perfect rhythm.

Recently, in Missouri, when he fired a full-size cannon for a movie re-enactment of the "Battle of Nauvoo," he also blew out the windows of all of the nearby buildings.

"We get a lot of that around here," chides Bill Nelson, one of Furr's neighbors.

Actually, the Furr family rarely blow out windows because the only cannons Karl Furr may fire inside a building are the ones built to one-fifth scale or smaller.

They don't use balls or projectiles, sticking with simply the powder and wadding.

Karl Furr does, however, almost always hits his target, punching the cannon blasts precisely into the musical pieces that require an authentic boom or two.

"That's not something you can always do with this kind of machinery, but these can be set off right on the beat," Furr said.

In the 50-odd years he's played cannons for audiences, he's only missed his cue once.

"I don't know if I fell asleep or what, but I missed one and so at the end there was an extra boom. I felt bad about that because it's pretty obvious when a cannon boom is out of place," said Furr. The cannons speak at a 123 decibel level.

How can one fall asleep waiting to light a section of rocket fuse hooked to an operating cannon?

"We've done this so many times," said Diane Furr.

They've been musical cannons for the Utah Symphony Orchestra, the Arkansas Symphony and the Westminster Symphony in Orem.

"It's always exciting, I think, for the audience. Without me, they are left shooting a pistol into a barrel of water," Karl Furr said. "Other people make cannons, but nobody I know plays them in a symphony."

Karl Furr started making the tiny James cannons shortly after he started working as a machinist at Geneva Steel. He comes by his interest in artillery quite naturally since five generations of his ancestors were involved with cannons in 1745 in the Battle of Quebec, the Revolutionary War at Valley Forge and while serving in the Continental Army.

"I guess I had a black-powder gene in me," Furr said. "I started out building one for my dad and then my mother had to have one and the brothers and the sisters, then all of our kids, then we decided to sell them."

Over the years Karl Furr figures he's created several hundred cannons and Gatling guns, a machine-gun cannon.

He makes the brass parts, the fittings, wheels and barrels by hand. His wife does the black walnut woodwork. Neighbors and friends help with some of the detail work.

The cannons and Gatling guns are for sale. The late actor Steve McQueen bought one.

Furr is very careful with his miniature firing power. He never turns over the console to anyone but one of his sons or his wife. They post a guard on the cannons whenever they put them on display or have to leave them set up for a performance.

"If somebody even put a dime or a marble into one of the barrels, it could be lethal," Furr says. "And children will look right down the barrel. You have to watch them."

E-MAIL: haddoc@desnews.com