As a child, Lyle Johnston visited his father’s job sites and spent his days making wooden boats.
After an automobile accident during high school prohibited him from entering the military, he followed his childhood love for woodworking and entered the carpenter trade.
Now retired, Johnston still spends his days in the wood shop, but instead of boats, he makes cannons.
“I’ve always been a shooter and been into guns,” Johnston said. “In the ’70s, there was a company that made cannon kits. I bought a kit and started putting it together. That got me intrigued.”
Combining his love for woodworking with his passion for firearms, Johnston, 69, founded Rimfire Ranch Cannon Works & Shooting Club, located about 5 miles south of Laramie at 30 Ramble-A Road. Specializing in one-half, one-third and one-quarter scale working replicas, Johnston said he tries to keep his cannons as historically accurate as possible.
“There’s some parts on my cannons that aren’t historically accurate,” he said.
For instance, Johnston makes modified trunnions, the cylindrical projections on a cannon supporting it on the carriage. And while the carriages are built using blueprints for the original guns, Johnston said he takes artistic liberties with carriage materials.
“They didn’t use exotic hard woods,” he said.
“But to me, I’m making shootable art.”
While the cannon’s barrels are either machined from brass or steel, Johnston said he’s made carriages from Osage orange, purpleheart, lacewood and Andaman padauk woods.
“I want my cannons to become family heirlooms,” he said.
However, working with the exotic hardwoods can occasionally be more dangerous than the cannons they support.
“During the Fourth of July, we had some people over and fired off a piece made with lacewood,” Johnston said. “I’d worked with the wood before without a reaction, but this time my eyes swelled shut and my scalp got all itchy. It sent me to the (emergency room).”
He said the doctors determined he was allergic to the wood. But that didn’t keep him from working it.
“Now I wear respirator, sealed goggles and a Tyvek hazmat suit when I work with (lacewood),” he said. “But so far, it’s the only one I’ve had a reaction to.”
Born in Laramie, Johnston said he moved away for work after graduating from Laramie High School in 1967. Most recently, he worked as a carpenter and metal fabricator on a maintenance crew at a hospital in Nevada.
“(My wife and I) have lived in Laramie a couple times over the last 35 years,” Johnston said. “When I retired, I decided to come back.”
After settling in, he started tinkering around with his new cannon-making hobby and met Steve Smith, who started machining Johnston’s cannon barrels.
“It was actually Steve that got me into the deck cannons,” Johnston said pointing at a row of small, brass cannons resembling a gun that might have been found on a 19th century sloop. “He was in the (U.S.) Navy.”
While each of the cannons comes with scaled tools and cannon balls, Johnston takes the deck guns a step further.
“I thought it would be cool to present the deck guns as if they had been sliced out of the ship,” he said.
Each deck cannon is displayed on a cutout of a ship’s deck complete with tiny rope rigging to prevent recoil.
“The little ones don’t kick much — the rigging is decorative,” Johnston said. “But I have to stake the (one-half) scaled (cannon) to the ground.”
All Johnston’s cannons can be fired. The smallest shoot a .50 caliber ball, the mid-sized cannons shoot a .69 caliber ball and his one-half scale cannons shoot a ball an inch-and-a-half in diameter.
“The smaller ones go clear out of sight,” Johnston said. “The big gun would probably go over a mile.”
During demonstrations, Johnston said he fires the one-half scale cannons into a backstop of railroad ties stacked three deep.
“It’ll punch through one-and-a-half of those,” he said.
Initially, he didn’t plan to sell his creations.
“Some friends of mine saw what I was doing and had to have one,” he said. “They also encouraged me to get a booth at the gun show.”
At the Albany County Fair Grounds during Wyoming Sportsman’s Gun Show on Friday, Johnston attended his first gun show as a cannon vendor.
“It went pretty well,” he said. “I got a lot of exposure.”
Johnston said he plans on attending the March 8-10 Wyoming Sportsman’s Gun Show in Cheyenne as well.
“I really enjoy this hobby,” he said. “I want to do it as long as people are interested in it, and there are a lot of people interested.”
Contact Lyle Johnston at 702-286-7704 at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about Rimfire Ranch Cannon Works & Shooting Club.