Are Bowling Ball Cannons Legal?

It is legal to build and own a bowling ball cannon, although there are restrictions that vary from state to state.

Ah, bowling. A pleasant pastime and a much-loved sport for generation after generation. One of America’s favorite hobbies, the 10-pin alley has been a central cultural hangout for centuries. What could be better than to get together with fellow bowling enthusiasts at the local lanes and knock down some pins? Well, the answer to that question, apparently, is firing bowling balls from a cannon.

You did not misread; yes, a cannon. Bowling ball cannons (or mortars) have been kicking around for a while now but really picked up traction around 2010. Not only have people been learning how to build one, but there is also a long video thread and countless conversations about how best to fire them- and fire them, they do! If you are questioning the legality of all this, you are not alone. Building your own weapon, as well as actually using it, can’t be legal, right? Wrong. They are perfectly legal, within certain restrictions, but more on that later.

What Is a Bowling Ball Mortar?

Bowling Ball cannon

A bowling ball mortar is an official name for this type of cannon. The short, wide tube sits on an adjustable-angle base and can blast a full-sized ball into the air. Picture a circus cannon, but for balls. The design can vary depending on the engineer, but overall they are generally quite small in size. To date, the posted videos and information thread websites have taken the idea to the very extremes. Big kids everywhere are living out their fantasies. What is it with people and watching things go bang? Whatever the reason, we love it!

Cannons date back to the beginning of the gunpowder age. They are seen depicted from as early as the 12th century. There has always been a fascination with medieval weaponry, and there are few images more iconic than that of the cannon. As far a replicas go, a homemade cannon is an impressive undertaking, but one that seems well worth the reward.

How Are They Made?

Although there are plenty of places to buy a pre-made cannon, part of the fun seems to be trying to make it yourself. Many people join a cannon club for tips and tricks on how to build it. It is also nice to find another guy or gal to go and shoot with or a whole gang of them! If you join others, it makes the experience more fun and a little safer. The importance of safety when building or launching a cannon cannot be stressed enough.

The parts that make up a cannon are the barrel, carriage, powder chamber, and cannon fuse. There are other elements, but these are the main sections. Other additions include trunnions and mortar sponges. Building the perfect bowling ball cannon means getting each section just right, and using the best materials to build it. Since they first became popular in 2010, the methods and techniques used have come a long way. The best thing to do before you start your own attempt is to watch tutorials and videos from the professionals.


You can’t launch a ball unless you have something from which to shoot it. The tube-shaped part of a cannon where the shell, or in this case ball, is shot from is an essential part of the build. Experts suggest that a specialized gas cylinder is the only way to achieve the desired effect. Always look for up-to-date information about the best specs to use. Having an idea of what the pros use and what they recommend is bound to help you out in the long run.


Although traditionally made from steel, a lot of modern amateur builds use oak or another sturdy wood. Wood is much easier to join and work with than steel unless you have experience with metal. With wood, people can use simple nuts and bolts to join the pieces, and it can be done in their own back yards. If you decide to work with metal, ensure you do so in the correct surroundings and with the necessary protective gear.

Powder Chamber

Powder chambers control the shot. Just like in guns, the projectile is powered by the ignited gun powder once the fuse is lit (or finger trigger pulled, in handheld guns). This part is extremely important to get right as it links the whole machine together. Without the powder chamber, there can be no launch. If you don’t intend to fire, you don’t need this part.

How Far Can They Shoot?

Depending on the projectile angle and how strong a powder is used, the balls can be shot up to around 200 yards. That is the equivalent of roughly 600 feet or roughly a tenth of a mile). Because of this, it is important to only ever fire a bowling ball cannon in a safe location with lots of space. A field or empty site might match up to safety standards. If you don’t have this much space, use a very small amount of powder. Better yet, plug it up and wait until you can find a more suitable location.

Is It Legal to Own a Bowling Ball Cannon?

You could be surprised to learn that it is, in fact, legal. The ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) classifies this type of cannon as a replica firearm, and therefore exempt from regulations. The law also states that because the ammunition is no longer manufactured and the explosive cannon ball shell is what did the damage, cannons cannot be considered weapons.

Although there are no federal laws, there are varying regulations from state to state. To make sure you are not in breach of any rules in your area, research further into the individual regulations. Some of the things that could see you face legal trouble include the powder you use, the fuse placement, the loading style, and the site you use it on.

Black Powder Cannons

Black powder (the original gun powder) is the usual thing to use in your bowling ball cannon. Using anything other than black powder could land you in trouble. You can buy small amounts in local gun stores but cannot sell them to anyone else. Using modern smokeless powder in your cannon is against the law in some states.

Muzzle vs Breech Loading

Loading refers to how you put the ball in the hole. Muzzle loading means you drop it down the barrel, whereas putting it in the back is called breech. While it is possible to build either, it is advisable to stick to the muzzle for safety and legality reasons. Depending on what state you live in, the breech style may be illegal.

Site Location

It goes without saying that you should not attempt to launch your cannon within close range of any property or people who are not part of your club. A bowling ball is heavy and packs a punch when thrown by hand. Imagine the damage it could do to whatever it came into contact with after being fired 500 feet through the air! Don’t take any risks. Your car may thank you for it! Maybe people build their cannon in a way it can be loaded onto a car and driven to an area free of potential problems. If you are seen firing a cannon within dangerous range, you are likely to be shut down. You also need to acquire written permission before you can shoot on private land.


Can I use golf balls instead of bowling balls?

The principle is the same whether you use a golf ball, tennis ball, or potato. Anything can be used to plug your cannon, provided the barrel is the right size. If you plan to build a golf ball cannon instead, maybe opt for a narrower cylinder and a lower-powered machine.

Can I post homemade mortars for sale?

Although you are legally allowed to build your own cannon, you cannot sell it to someone else. Despite being classified as a replica, you still need a license to sell one. If you search cannons for sale, every page or service you find should state that they are permitted by the ATF.

Where can I find posted information about cannons?

There are plenty of interesting threads you can search through to learn more about replica cannons- both building and shooting them. Always try to follow a page or thread where the person has mechanical expertise or some kind of training with weaponry. It may be interesting, but is it safe?

Final Thoughts

New videos are posted every day of people finding weird and wacky ways to keep themselves entertained. Hopping in the car for a scenic drive just doesn’t cut it anymore- not unless you have a cannon loaded in the trunk! Bowling ball cannons are one of those crazy ideas that can actually work! They may be legal, but they are still potentially dangerous. Never get carried away and forget about staying safe.