It is unclear exactly when East Carolina began using a cannon to hype up the crowd and intimidate its opponents at home football games. But one thing is certain: it has become a staple in the Pirate tradition.
The use of the cannon goes back to at least 1967, when East Carolina officially gained "university" status. At the time the fight song was "Dixie" and, at the start of every home game, a Confederate cannon was fired to introduce the Pirate football team.
In 1970, Mike McGee was named head football coach at ECU. While only being here for one year, he was a big fan of student involvement of athletics. Phil Dixon, then Vice President of the Student Government Association (SGA), was in charge of budgets for the "pep band," freshman and varsity cheerleaders and the homecoming parades. He was approached by Coach McGee to find a way for the SGA leaders to leave their mark in Pirate athletics. Soon after, an idea surfaced of obtaining a cannon more suitable for use from the deck of a pirate ship and a search committee of sorts was formed.
In the late summer and early fall of 1970, Dixon and a committee searched for a more traditional pirate cannon and found one in Michigan. The cost was $2,000 plus $600 in shipping, according to Dixon.
"Money was collected from students, faculty, staff, Pirate fans and anyone else that wanted to contribute," Dixon said. "Locked ballot boxes were placed all around campus and a sign was placed with all boxes asking for any and all donations one could spare."
On October 10, 1970, the Pirates traveled to NC State's Carter Stadium and the students fired their new deck cannon for the first time. From that point until the mid-1970's, the cannon was used at every ECU football game.
Around 1974, an accident involving one of the football players put the use of the cannon on hold. After the player scored a touchdown, he inadvertently ran in front of the cannon, which was placed just beyond the end zone, and when fired it knocked him to the ground. This set off a frenzy of questions about the safety of the cannon by administrators and fans. And from 1974 to the early 1990s, ECU was without its cannon.
In the early 1990s, when the ECU administration looked for ways to recapture a sense of tradition, the idea of reviving the use of a cannon for football resurfaced. Ken Howard, a Greenville native and long-time fan and Pirate Club member, was given the responsibility of reviving the popular tradition. He donated his time, his effort and his cannon--which he and his father built--to the cause. From then until 1998, Howard was on the field, firing the cannon every time the Pirates scored at every home game. In 1998, Howard and ECU decided to shell out the responsibilities to the Army ROTC so that Ken could go back to watching the Pirates play from the stands with family and friends.
In fall 1999, ECU began using a new cannon at the football games. It is a scaled replica of an English 32-pounder iron gun and Garrison model, circa 1760 to 1790, that sits on a naval style carriage and weighs approximately 45 pounds. The cylindrical measure (or the barrel) is 9/16 inch in diameter and is 23 inches long. This cannon was made by Bircher Incorporated (Beaufort Naval Armorers) located in Morehead City, N.C. The owner, Jim Bircher, designed and manufactured the cannon, the shells and everything else in accordance with the U.S. Officers ordinance manual of 1861 with respect to guns such as the packed howitzer model of 1841 for use of black powder only.
Responsibility was again designated to the Army ROTC for its use, cleaning, and upkeep. Each year there is a special group of Army ROTC students that are assigned to the "Cannon Team of the Pirate Battalion." For every home game there is a student leader and a small group of two or three others that handle all game-day duties. The cannon is fired at the end of the National Anthem, when the team runs onto the field, after each time the Pirates score and at the conclusion of all games.
Though the current cannon is small in size as compared to its predecessors, its report can be heard throughout the communities surrounding the ECU campus on game day.