Cadet firing the cannon
September 3, 2021 – Lane Stadium was packed to capacity and bursting with excitement for the first Virginia Tech football game of the season, and the first that fans were fully allowed back in the stands since 2019. Virginia Tech faced off against the North Carolina Tarheels, winning 17-10. (Photo by Christina Franusich/Virginia Tech).

"Being on Skipper Crew means a lot to me. We work as a team to get things done at any event where we need to fire the cannon, and our chemistry in doing so is unmatched. I personally care about each and every person on Skipper Crew, and I'm sure anyone on Skipper Crew would say the same. These people are like family to me, and i wouldn’t trade it for anything."

Angel Carcamo-Reyes Skipper Crew

EACH YEAR, DATING BACK TO 1918, Virginia Tech (then VPI) would meet rival Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in a football game played Thanksgiving Day. VMI had a cannon named “Little John,” which it would fire every time the Keydets scored, while their cadets chanted: “Where’s your cannon?”

In the early 1960s, Homer “Sonny” Hickam ’64, Alton “Butch” Harper ’64, and George Fox ’64 tired of the smack talk and decided to fire back. Armed with a plan to “build the biggest cannon the world had ever seen,” the trio collected extra brass from cadets’ uniform items as well as shell casings from the firing range, which they would melt for the gun. Foundry owner Paul Huffman, an alumnus of the Corps of Cadets, cast the cannon at no charge.

When the cadets learned of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), this gave birth to the name Skipper, which had two meanings: first to honor JFK, as he had been a skipper in the U.S. Navy, and also as an inside joke for the cadets (Skipper was a nickname for senior cadet privates who had gotten in trouble.) At the 1963 VMI vs. Virginia Tech game, 50 cadets hauled Skipper from underneath the bleachers and fired the gun.

The cannon suffered a blowout in 1982, so in 1984, Paul Huffman Jr. ’78, whose father had cast the original Skipper, offered to fabricate a new cannon at no charge. Skipper II is based on a Confederate Civil War cannon. Its design compares to a 3-inch ordnance cannon, which is 70 inches long and weighs about 800 pounds.

Members of the 2021 Skipper Crew, Alex Bangardt, Ethan Boutwell, Gavin Coburn, Shane Huweart, Ricky Weikle, Angel Carcamo-Reyes, and Caleb Tuggle, contributed to this story.

cannon firing on Drillfield in front of Burruss
Skipper is fired during Pass in Review events on the Drillfield

The Crew

Each year, new members of Skipper Crew are selected via a “tap” process. Cadets spend several weeks learning about the history of the cannon and how to clean and operate it. Also, they must be physically capable of serving on Skipper Crew. Cadets are ranked during the highly selective process, with only the top percentage of the tap class named to the crew.

Training And Safety

Although every member of Skipper Crew has a specialty, each crew member is trained to perform every job. These include rolling black powder charges, managing the transport on busy game days, cleaning the gun and the limber (the large brass and wooden carriage that supports Skipper), and cleaning procedures after being fired.

Members of the Skipper Crew use normal firearms hearing protection. However, since the blast is focused forward, it is quieter from behind the cannon than one might expect.

The Charge

The charge shell is crafted from aluminum foil, which is filled with 8 ounces of black gunpowder, rolled, and packed tight. Once loaded, a pick is driven through the charge, creating a small opening. The cannon’s cord is pulled, driving a hammer onto a primer, which shoots sparks into the charge, causing the explosion.

Care And Keeping

The maintenance crew makes sure that Skipper is well cared for, especially during games in between shots. The cadets’ tasks range from cleaning the bore to emptying the barrel thoroughly so that no debris remains after firing.

On The Move

On game days, a service vehicle tows Skipper and the limber to Lane Stadium. The members of Skipper Crew run in front of and alongside the truck to help with traffic control. The lead member of the Skipper Crew carries a flag and the truck blares music along the route.

Standby, Fire!

In keeping with Virginia Tech tradition, Skipper fires three times for every Corps of Cadets pass in review and also fires at events like the Caldwell I and II marches and Ring Premiere. On football game days, Skipper opens the day, firing twice at Hokie Village, again when the team walks by, once to start the “March to Victory,” and at the close of the national anthem. Also, Skipper fires every time the Hokies score and to mark the end of each home game.

Living Quarters

Skipper lives on the Upper Quad in a storage room within the basement of Pearson Hall East, often referred to as the “Cave.” Campus visitors can easily locate the Cave by finding the two crossed cannons carved within the stone above the entrance. Skipper is visible through a special viewing window.

Share this story