Castle sieges, without a castle, in Merced

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comApril 30, 2014 

A gathering of about 60 Merced College students looked like something out of a knight’s bad dream as the students launched objects from their siege weapons in an annual contest.

The Siege Weapon Competition is part of the curriculum for physics students in professor Lana Jordan’s class. “It’s my favorite day of the year,” Jordan said.

Students teamed up to build a catapult or trebuchet that will send a basketball through the air for at least 15 meters (about 16.4 yards or nearly 50 feet). If they can hit that mark, they get an A for the assignment.

The siege weapons used a variety of techniques to make the weapons go, whether that was a heavy counterweight, twisted ropes or muscle power. Some were happy to just get the A, while others aimed to launch the ball the farthest and win victory T-shirts.

Sophomore Robert Spankowski, 24, said he used scraps to put his trebuchet together. The roughly 15-foot-tall device was made mostly of wood with a roughly 2-inch metal peg sticking out of the arm. “The most important part of the whole thing is the peg,” he said.

The trick is to get the sling holding the ball to slip from the peg at a 45-degree angle as the 120-pound counterweight falls at the other end, he said. That allows the ball to fly with the most momentum.

Spankowski, who lives in Livingston, said he and his classmate built the weapon and practiced with it for about 30 hours. He said he enjoyed building the device. “Making a medieval weapon is cool,” he said.

What does a student do with his or her siege weapon when the semester ends? Spankowski said he plans to use the trebuchet to launch gourds for trapshooting.

Jordan said the project takes trial and error to perfect. Students in the physics class study forces, energy, motion, torque and other concepts. “Through this, they get to put all those to use,” she said.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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