Vintage Big Wave Guns
Surfboards made specifically to ride the biggest waves are most commonly referred to as guns, elephant guns, rhino chasers and spears. They are the greatest, the elite of surfboards and hold a special place in the history and evolution of the surfboard and the sport.
Hot Curl Surfboards
The earliest true big wave surfboards built in the late 1930s and 40s, were finless, made of either solid one-piece, multi-laminated or semi-hollow / chambered wood. They came to be known as hot curls and were developed almost by accident.
After a particularly large day at Waikiki in 1937, friends John Kelly, Fran Heath and Wally Froiseth left the water, irritated at their boards’ inability to function in the sizable surf. Because of the wide tail on their redwood planks, they were unable to hold the tight angle to the face of the wave, necessary in those conditions, and would ‘slide ass’, as they called it, every time they attempted to ride one. Without being able to hold a high line it would never be possible to ride larger, faster breaking waves.
In the years that followed, a small group of big wave surfers, including those mentioned, and others like Woody Brown, George Downing and Rabbit Kekai, kept pushing the boundaries and redefining the limits of how big waves could be surfed.
Longboard Era Guns
Significant advancement in the evolution of guns came with the introduction of fiberglass, invented during World War II. The ability to protect a board with a hard shell that was impervious to water meant that boards could be made from the much lighter balsa wood.
Fins had been attached to surfboards in the late 1930s, but it wasn’t until they could be held firmly in place with the waterproof seal fiberglass afforded that they gained acceptance by the masses. Once the marriage of glass, balsa and fin all came together, boards evolved pretty rapidly. Guns could be made lighter, narrower and far more stable. They were now faster and much better at tracking and maneuvering on big waves.
Pat Curren, Wally Froiseth and George Downing were highly sought after shapers of beautiful big wave boards in the 1950s. Throughout the balance of the longboard era, no other label was surfed in big waves as much as Dick Brewer’s Surfboards Hawaii label – with most of the guns being shaped by Brewer or Mike Diffenderfer, one of the best shapers of all time.
Shortboard Era Guns
It was 1967, and the ‘shortboard revolution’ was under way. Big wave specialists like Buzzy Trent, Peter Cole and George Downing were still attracted to the colossal surf at Makaha and Waimea. Their equipment had become narrower, thinner, lighter and even a bit shorter. However, in order to handle the massive breakers they sought, boards in excess of 10 feet were still being ridden by these big wave pioneers.
Arguably the most significant advancement to big wave surfing came in 1992, with the introduction of the assisted tow-in. The idea of towing a surfer into large surf was mentioned as early as 1963 by Mike Doyle in an article for Surf Guide magazine. And there is documentation of others actually using jet skis to tow – as did Herbie Fletcher in 1987 with several pro surfers. But it is Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox and Derrick Doerner who get the credit for inventing the sport. Their first attempts were in 1992 on 15 foot waves near Sunset Beach, Oahu. They quickly realized they didn’t need the same big long guns used to paddle into huge surf and their boards soon dropped about three feet in length and roughly five inches in width – amazingly small boards to tackle gargantuan waves.