Big wave guns have become ubiquitous in the surf world as paddling XXL waves has seen a massive resurgence in the past decade. The drama and violence of heavy water heroes pitting themselves against massive waves appeals to the non-endemic fan far more than any other form of surfing, and these days it seems like just about everyone has a 10'0" rhino chaser resting in their rafters.
But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, for a large part of surfing’s modern history, big wave surfboards didn’t really exist. Instead, the boards ridden by early surfers were geared toward small, symmetrical, peeling pointbreaks—if not simply going straight in the white water.
That all changed in 1950, when George Downing created a board he called The Rocket. Applying the main principles of his Hot Curl board (the most important of which was having a vee in the tail, making it easier to surf on the wave’s face), Downing also added the first removable fin box to his new board, and in doing so created what most consider to be the original big wave board.
Long, narrow, and constructed of balsa, fiberglass, and resin, Downing’s board facilitated groundbreaking performances by him, Wally Froiseth, Woody Brown, Fran Heath, and John Kelly (the latter two having stumbled on the Hot Curl design after hacking vee into the tail of a redwood board with a hatchet), and helped cement Downing’s reputation as the father of big wave surfing.
By 1960, the performances of Downing and crew at maxing Makaha had inspired other chargers to explore the more powerful waves of the North Shore, and Pat Curren had established himself as one of the heavy hitters when the buoys went XL. Curren was shaping himself 11-foot balsa “guns” that weighed in at around 40 pounds, and quickly earned a reputation not only as a charger, but also as a master shaper.
His guns (and those of other shapers) continued to be refined, with narrower “pintails,” drawn-in noses, and well-positioned single fins adding further control during drops and pocket rides at big wave surfing’s new epicentre—Waimea Bay.
During the late 1960s, Dick Brewer took the concept of the gun and applied it to shorter boards, creating what would come to be known as “mini-guns.” These short, pinny boards changed the way surfers approached the world’s newest, heaviest wave—Pipeline—and effectively kickstarted the shortboard revolution.
In the meantime, big wave guns continued to be refined as new waves were discovered and conquered. Noses became narrower, rails become knifier, and eventually the single fin was replaced by three-fin setups such as Simon Anderson’s thruster and Dave Parmenter’s Widowmaker.
By the mid-1980s, waves such as Killers on Isla Todos Santos and Dungeons in Cape Town were known commodities, and big wave surfing was quickly becoming more than just something you did in Hawaii. Then, in 1990, Jeff Clark took a few friends out to his private, Northern California big wave venue, and later that year Maverick’s was revealed to the world through a Surfer spread. The global big wave movement had officially arrived.
By the time big wave surfer, shaper, and all-around legend Gary Linden dreamt up the Big Wave Tour in 2009, the tow revolution had come and gone, and big wave guns had evolved substantially. Anthony Tashnick had won the Men Who Ride Mountains contest at Mavs on a bat-tailed quad shaped by William “Stretch” Reidel, and the four-fin had become the setup of choice for many big wave boards.
As the focus turned to waves that had previously been considered unpaddleable, such as Jaws and eventually Nazare, guns became a little wider and thicker, the wide point began to move slightly forward, and many shapers added foam-preserving beak noses to provide extra paddle power without increasing length. Shapers such as Chris Christenson, Bob Pearson, Jeff Bushman, and dozens of others around the world were putting their own modern twists on the big wave gun, while luminaries such as Dick Brewer and Gary Linden continued to sculpt beautiful boards out of balsa that rode as well as they looked.
Meanwhile, George Downing’s son Keoni, a talented big wave surfer in his own right, had continued in his father’s footsteps, shaping big wave boards for himself and many others looking to test themselves against the North Shore’s biggest waves.
As surfing rediscovered its heritage and people began to look back at the classic lines drawn in the 1950s and ’60s, the lineup at Waimea Bay—surfing’s original XXL spot—began to see more and more single fin guns shaped by Keoni Downing and others master craftsmen like him.
The global pursuit of big waves had finally come full circle—the evolution of the guns we ride bookended by two generations of the same legendary surfing family.
Cover shot: Tom Lowe, paddle extraordinaire, at a heavy Irish slab by Ian Mitchinson