In today's professional sporting environment, the entertainment that teams provide when players are off the field or the court is nearly as important as the in-game action.

Every sports team is competing with the considerable advantages of watching sports on television, and so franchises know they must please fans at all times. In this regard, a new and somewhat frightening tool is being increasingly employed by teams of all levels to keep fans satisfied during breaks in play.

Zach Schonbrun of the New York Times profiles the T-shirt cannon, an enormous apparatus which traces its roots back to the Gatling gun, one of the earlier rapid fire weapons when it was invented in the 1860s. The Gatling gun was used by Northern troops in the Civil War, while the Gatling T-shirt canons are used to fire shirts to all levels of a stadium at an extremely rapid rate.

The Phoenix Suns recently debuted their "Gorilla Gatling Gun," a 650-pound beast which can fire 60 T-shirts or 120 mini-basketballs in less than 10 seconds. Not to be outdone, the Philadelphia 76ers' Big Bella shoots 60 shirts in five seconds.

The Milwaukee Bucks use a similar double-barreled canon, created by the sports and entertainment supply company FX in Motion.

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Before long we may see a machine whose size and speeds trumps both of these guns. Todd Scheel, the founder of FX in Motion, which trademarked the first rapid-fire gun in 2007, told Schonbrun his company is working on an even bigger machine.

"The moment that the team calls timeout, the entire world is begging for more entertainment,” Scheel said. “We live in an A.D.D. world. Instead of sitting there for two or three minutes waiting for play to come back in, it’s prime opportunity for teams to make that time exciting.”

The machines do come with some risk. Last year a woman filed a lawsuit against the city of Joliet, Ill., claiming she sustained injuries after she was hit in the face with a T-shirt. In August an intern in the Arkansas athletic department was rushed off the school's football field after a canon exploded during the game.

Still, despite these incidents, T-shirt canons and their derivatives (like T-shirt guns) are becoming more and more popular around the country. As Scheel put it, they combine the always-popular prospect of a free T-shirt with the entertainment aspect of a gigantic canon.

"Our vision was, how can we make the timeout exciting for even the people that don’t get the T-shirt?" Scheel said. "When you wheel out a cannon that can shoot 60 T-shirts in five seconds, it’s quite the visual."