Frequently Asked Questions

Power Heads and Bang Sticks

by Sam Miller
Last updated 21-AUG-01

The "power head" and the "bang stick" are not synonyms, though they could be considered distant cousins. Both use a gunpowder cartridge, but the similarity ends there. The powerhead is shot from a speargun and uses the cartridge to force a dart through the fish. The bang stick is uses the cartridge's concussive effect to kill the fish.

Power heads

The power head was a point-impact spear point which contained a propellant, generally a .22 caliber or .38 caliber shell, which when fired, drove a spear point called a "dart" into and hopefully through the fish. There were two separate lines on the gun: one a shooting line, the other attached to the dart. The dart line was in turn attached to probably 200 feet of W.W.II of surplus parachute line which terminated in an inflatable device generally a surplus W.W.II Mae West. This component was contained in a "line pack," which was some how attached, generally via bands, to the barrel of the gun.

The "power head" which is distinctly unique to Southern California, was developed in San Diego in the 1940s by the grand old man Jack Prodanovich. Jack's model was small and compact. It was powered by a .22 caliber rife shell and was unique in that it was cocked by the inertia of firing. A very desirable feature since it eliminated the need to cock it or carry it armed. Those that know Jack well realize that in addition to having hearing problems like all divers of the Viagra generation, he is blind in one eye. This was caused by the power head being rebounded back to him when he was test firing it in a swimming pool. Jacks account of this accident can be found in a 1950's issue of Skin Diver Magazine.

Herb Sampson, of Costa Mesa, was second to developed a power head. Herb's was big and massive and propelled by a .38 caliber pistol shell. Like his spear gun it had unique threads on the shaft - 1/4-24 (as I recall,) so it could only be attached to his gun if adapters were used. The gun, with its twin line releases, his special line pack, and the power head were "the gun" for a number of years, and at one time held more world records than any other spear gun. (Which is how the Sampson got the name "World Record Gun" - ed.)

I would be remiss with out mentioning my dear friend Ron Merker who was unbelievable with this gun. Ron established three world records including the blue fin tuna which he held for 20 plus years. I often think about things of long ago, and I just recalled the prices of the Sampson, the gun $37.50,(after I got to know Herb well he sold them to me for $23.10 (don't ask about the 10 cents that was just Herb)) the line pack $7.50 and the power head $37.50

Bill Barada, of Los Angeles, was all over diving in the pioneering days and contributed to much; About a dozen books including 2 hard backs on spear fishing, the original dry suit, developed the Hammer head muzzle for the Arbalete, established the Neptunes, etc., the list goes on and on. He also developed the .38 caliber "Thunder Head" power head. It was his biggest failure. Both the Prodanovich and the Sampson power heads had triggering mechanisms that extended about a foot in front of the unit and acted as a trigger when it came in contact with a fish. The Thunder Head relied on the point making contact with the fish exactly like the bang stick. As taught in freshman physics every action has an equal and opposite reaction so the arrow being free flight would often, by the laws of physics, be propelled back at the diver if the object that was struck was hard or impenetrable. Even though it was a dismal failure and was on the market for a short time, there is a picture of this unit in the 1950's book "Dive" by the Carriers. I can't recall a good picture of the Prodanovich or the Sampson in any book.

Bang Sticks

The "Bang Stick" was, so far as can be determined, perfected down under in Australia, probably by Wally Gibbons. I first recall seeing it in action in the early 1960's at an under water film festival. Aussies presented a movie in which it was used to dispatch sharks. It is composed of a barrel, which holds the propellant, any thing from a small caliber pistol cartridge to a very large caliber rifle cartridge which must have a rim to hold it in place and ample clearance to allow it to freely travel back and fourth in the barrel, and a back/firing pin, which should be attached to a pole spear.

The operation is quite simple, the propellant slides into the barrel and extends out the firing side about 1/2 inch. The back/firing pin which should contain a safety constructed of a cotter pin inserted crosswise is attached to the barrel. When the prey is spotted the cotter pin is removed, which arms the spear. The spear is grasped, the sling stretched to maximum length like a pole spear and released striking the prey. Upon contact the cartridge is driven up the barrel making contact with the firing pin igniting the cartridge and propelling the charge into the prey. Very simple and effective.

An American, Rhett Mc Nair, lived in Anaheim developed and tried unsuccessfully to market a six shooter bang stick about the time the "Shark Dart" was introduced. My diving buddy at the time the late Jack Waite (note the repro of SDM first edition) and I went to a gun dealer, Hy Hunter in Pasadena purchased a very cheap and beat up .38, cut off the barrel, tossed the handles, and allowed Uncle Sam to fabricate a three foot trigger extension which was welded in place of the gun handle. With six .38s available and placed next to a fish's face, it did wonders to persuade the stubborn Baja fish to exit their holes; they really got an offer they couldn't refuse. The cartridges were water proofed several ways, they could be coated with nail polish, spar varnish or my favorite was a automobile radiator sealant. After one submersion they were always discarded.

About 1958 the US government got into the act. Power heads were at that time were classified as firearms, and fell into the same category as sawed off shot guns, machine guns etc. Therefore they were illegal to posses or use. Finally the government decreed that they could be rendered legal IF they were solidly attached to a shaft longer than 18 inches. By that time the age of the power head was passing into history, so the law was essentially ineffective. I have no idea how the shops legally sell bang sticks in today's government controlled market place.

There is the reoccurring question would the bang sticks be effective against the Great White shark. I don't know! And no desire to find out if they are. There are two excellent books with accounts of GW attacks which I note have not been referenced. The first "The Golden Sea" by Playboy Press which is a detailed account of the fatal attack on Al Schneppershoff Sr. near Guadalupe Island. The second is a book we all know, "The last of the Blue Water Hunters," which devotes the first chapter to and attack about 11 years later at the same place on Harry Ingrahm. I knew both gentlemen well. Harry, whom I knew many years prior to the attack attended a wedding with his wife Donna, Betty and I just a few days after the attack. Needless to state a traumatic event such as a surviving a GW attack entitles Harry for membership in a exclusive club which I have no desire or need to apply for membership. I would suggest that both books are well worth reading. It should also be noted Rodney Fox was also attacked by a GW about 40 years back and has the distinction of escaping. Rodney is often seen on TV on shark specials. There is another book long out of print titled "Sharks and Survival" by Perry Gilbert. Perry was head of the international shark research panel and his book documents recent research and shark attacks throughout the world. There are many many books on sharks,but these come immediately to mind.

The Ultimate Bang Stick?

by Douglas Peterson

The 'ultimate' bangstick has already been invented, (decades ago), sold in small numbers, used very successfully and then died a forgotten death because of the round it fired and the market for bangsticks was/is so small. This item was called the Seaway Bangstick and was developed for the Navy, tested in the Pacific and was the ultimate in design (for the engineers out there) the ULTIMATE in safe weapons (for us gun nuts), and so effective in not only killing sharks but running them off that it was a truly awesome thing to witness. Most people do not believe me when I tell them that it could cut shark in half, but it's true.

The design is so amazing that the freedivers on this list will appreciate it more than most divers do. There are NO moving parts. The powerhead of the unit was machined from one piece of stainless steel, with a fixed firing pin inside but raised about 3/8" off the 'bottom' of the interior drilling. There are six ports drilled radially through the unit just below the level of the firing pin. (Purpose explained in a minute). The entire unit is only 3" long and 5/8" in diameter. It is attached to a solid black anodized aluminum pole spear.

The uniqueness (and cause of the marketing failure) of this, the most amazing destroyer of sharks ever made short of the Bikini Atoll tests, maybe), was the round it fired.... the weapon's round had NO projectile. Many studies performed over many years showed that the projectile actually REDUCED the effectiveness of ANY bangstick. The projectile did virtually NO damage to the target (unless one was lucky enough for a brain shot) and used up a great deal of the energy needed to destroy the target. It is the massive gas expansion BEHIND the projectile that did ALL the tissue and shock damage to the animal. The projectile only poked a tiny hole in the animal and usually showed little to no expansion. It is the incompressibility of water that allows the expanding gasses to do so much damage. The problem with powerheads has always been that 'wounding" a shark so that he dies AFTER killing you was sorta ineffective... Many designs were tried to find a way to stop the shark NOW, not later.

So, the logical thing to do was, obviously, to eliminate the projectile. The cartridge this thing fires is the real oddity. I am holding one as I write this so I'll describe it to you. It is a brass rimmed rifle case cut and trimmed to 2.1 inches long. Into the open end (which has been expanded) where a projectile (bullet) would normally go is inserted a .38 special case complete with primer! At the "Other End" (the real 'end' of the rifle case where the original rifle primer would be) is no primer but solid brass with deep, sharp circular grooves machined into it as a gripping surface. The outside of the case at about midpoint has four small "pinches" (sorta like a Hague and Hague bottle) in it.

This ammunition was inserted into the powerhead "upside-down", meaning the .38 case is resting just above the firing pin and the rimmed case of the rifle is sticking out of the power head about 1/2". The pinches stop the case from striking the firing pin because your thumb can't develop enough pressure to force the dimples over the ridge in the "barrel" and onto the firing pin.

How safe? The ultimate safe weapon. The cartridge is VISIBLE to everyone when it is loaded. The weapon is NEVER carried loaded. It is carried empty and the rounds are carried in a well oiled leather 'bandoleer' (for lack of a better word) on the divers belt. It hold five rounds and after 25 years still looks pretty good. When the diver senses a threat, he/she takes a round off the belt, inserts it into the "barrel" and is ready to go in two maybe three seconds. No more/less than the time it takes to pull a safety pin out of a normal power head.

There were two models made; a six foot pole spear and a 27", tank mounted pole spear. Each has the normal pole spear band attached to the end. The diver simply shot like he would a normal pole spear...normal, that is till the business end hit the target.

This thing has one hell of a charge in it. Not normal rifle powder since chamber pressures had no effect. There was NO resisting projectile to cause massive chamber pressures. There is no barrel to speak of, just the chamber. The unit struck the target, the grooves grabbed the surface, (I NEVER saw or heard of one failing to go off, even on a "high angle off" shot) and drove the case back into the "barrel" and onto the firing pin. When it fired, the case simply broke into two pieces, as did the shark.

This is NOT an exaggeration. I SAW a shark, no correct that, including the film footage, I saw DOZENS of sharks cut in two... up to 12' long. The one I saw hit in the water was struck just above the gills and it literally blew the head off the shark, he rolled over and sank with the head barely attached by a TINY piece of skin tissue. In fact, of the dozens I saw killed in the test film, all but a few simply stopped moving and sank instantaneously, usually in two chunks. The others went into "the shakes" with no direction, the tail thrashing like crazy, but there was obviously no control to the movements. None could have been any type of threat. They were dead; instantly.

When the cartridge detonated we witness the reason for the six drilled ports; the front of the cartridge breaks away, and there is this MASSIVE expanding gas cloud at the point of impact. This causes the massive tissue damage to the animal. Of course as the gas cloud expands at the speed of sound the pressure drops in the area of the explosion. As the pressure continues to drop there is a rush of water to fill the void and also into the ports and the rear half of the case is sucked and ejected out of the forward open end of the powerhead instantly! The unit is ready to be reloaded before the diver can even pull it back! Pretty cool, huh?

The MOST interesting thing about all the tests was the fact that these were done, I believe at Bikini, and the expectation was that they could do all the testing they needed in a few minutes because off this one dock where they tested, there were ALWAYS dozens and dozens of sharks around. When the first film starts there were sharks EVERYWHERE! Each time they killed one the others just disappeared! They had to wait hours to see another! The film was amazing! The diver would kneel on the bottom, wait for one of the myriad of sharks to close the distance enough to hit him with the 6' spear, the camera would shake a bit at impact, and when the camera settled down there was not a single shark in sight except for the one in two pieces on the bottom!

WHY, you might ask would it run OFF sharks? Well, the assumption was that it was due to MASSIVE concussion. In fact, the instruction for my 27" unit stated that you MUST look DIRECTLY at the point of impact on the target because if you turned your head to the side you WOULD, most assuredly, rupture the eardrum of the ear you turned toward the target!!!!!
I still have the bangstick, the tank bracket and quite a few rounds but I have never used it. I saw one fired in Hawaii at NUC, never fired any of them myself, but let me tell you, when we WERE approached by sharks most of our divers (after seeing the film and knowing I had one) tended to edge a bit closer to ME!!

It is a very impressive device and quite up to it's job, and, of course, totally unavailable now.

Other Opinions

  • I have two "bank sticks", so I thought I would put in my two cents worth on this subject. I was given one by a friend while I attending the Blue Water Classic in Australia. This design can accommodate most any cartridge you wish to use, It's just a matter of machining the aluminum rod to certain specs for the shell to fit properly. It can be carried under your wet suit sleeve, slips over your spear tip, and is detonated when you fire your shaft into an object. The other one was made by Charlie Sturgill. It houses a three inch magnum twelve gauge shotgun shell. It probably fits the name as "bang stick" more than the slip on type. The front end unscrews and the shell is placed into it. You rescrew the front end and then the whole unit is screwed onto a "stick", in this case an eight foot, 1/2" diameter aluminum pole. You load it by pulling on the front end which engages a strong spring that is attached to the to a plate that has a firing pin. All you do then is touch something and it disappears. A friend of mine used one in Hawaii on large animals that were bent on doing him harm. They went away and didn't come back (ever)

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 Last Updated: 6/28/04