There was a time in the not too distant past when Winchester and Remington fielded exhibition shooters to flog their products at state fairs and like affairs. They followed in the footsteps of famed western exhibition shooters that came of age during the 1880s. It started in 1874 when the Irish Rifle Team, the premier team in the British Isles, crossed the Atlantic to take on the upstart United States at Creedmoor. Some 8,000 spectators flowed out from nearby New York City to watch the event which was covered by all the major papers and the likes of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, which illustrated the event with elaborate woodcuts.
In the wake of this international competition, exhibition shooters were soon populating vaudeville theaters, circuses, and fair sites, all claiming to be the “World’s Champion Rifle Shot.” In most cases it was a charade as there was no governing body, or even competition to regulate the shooting of ashes from a cigarette held in an assistant’s mouth or buttons from his vest-tricks that were more often than not rigged by the charlatans on stage.
The first legitimate exhibition shooter to rise to prominence was a dentist by the name of William F. Carver who, much like controversial John “Doc” Holliday, gave up the chair and drill for the firearm and fame. Carver shot for six consecutive days in 1885 in New Haven, Connecticut, breaking 64,881 targets out of 60,000. Most importantly he established the rules for endurance exhibition shooting. To earn some side money he also developed a diving horse act . The act was continued by his family after his death and ran until pressure from animal rights groups forced its closure in the late1970s.
Captain Adam H. Bogardus, a member of the National Trap Shooting Hall of Fame, was in heated competition with Carver for the world title and, in a series of 25 matches, was defeated by the dentist 19 times. Bogardus’ was an excellent wing shooter and displayed that skill in Madison Square Garden by shooting at 5,000 glass balls in eight hours and 20 minutes, breaking 4,844 of them. His two guns were alternately cooled in buckets of ice water.
Young Phoebe Ann Mosey, better known as Annie Oakley or ‘Little Sure Shot, and Frank Butler were the next of the famous exhibition shooters. The pair married and together toured for many years with William Cody’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, performing before the crowned heads of Europe.
Adolf Topperwein, son of a gunsmith, was born into the Schützen shooting culture of the central Texas hill country’s German ethnic enclave that also gave us Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and another famous shooter, of sorts, Bonnie Parker. Early on Ad was handling firearms and after seeing Doc Carver on Buffalo Bill’s show there was no stopping him. Ad apprenticed in vaudeville and the circus until 1901 when he was hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company as an exhibition shooter.
While taking a walk on the New Haven Common during a visit to the New Haven plant in 1902 Ad met Elizabeth Servaty, who happened to work as Winchester as a .22 caliber cartridge assembler. He was smitten and they soon married. The new Mrs. Topperwein was not familiar with firearms but didn’t want to remain at home while Ad was on the road. He took up teaching her trick shooting and she soon excelled. It wasn’t long before they were touring together. Along the way Mrs. Topperwein picked up the nickname ‘Plinky.” While Plinky’s specialty was shooting over her shoulder and sighting by looking into the mirror of her compact. Ad famously closed the act by drawing an Indian’s head on a board or sheet of tin using bullet holes.
Asked as to which Topperwein was the better shot Ad diplomatically responded: “Well, I was best at some feats and she was best at others. Reckon it was a toss-up between us.”
Ad’s greatest claim to fame came in San Antonio, Texas, between December 13 and December 22, 1907 when, following Carver’s rules, he used three 1903 model Winchester .22 semiautomatic to shoot at 72,000 2½ inch square hand thrown wooden blocks, missing only nine. His longest run without a miss was 14,540.
The record would stand until Tom Frye, exhibition shooter of rival Remington Arms Company, used three newly introduced Remington Nylon 66 .22 semiautomatic rifles to hit 100,004 out of100,010 wooden over a period of 14 straight days in October of 1959. Even though he did not follow Carver’s rules Frye received a letter of congratulations from Topperwein who lauded him for, “wonderful endurance and accuracy.”
Others have followed in their footsteps, Herb Parsons was Topperwein’s protégé and successor, promoting Winchester product for 30 years. A member of the Trapshooting Hall of Fame he was noted for being able to toss seven clay targets into the air and dust them all before they hit the ground with a 12 gauge Winchester Model 12 pump action shotgun.
Most recently Tom Knapp, sponsored by CZ-USA Benelli and the Federal Ammunition Company would put on 100 live shows a year and made numerous TV appearances. Knapp’s claim to fame is that he could hand toss nine clay targets into the air and using a Benelli semi-automatic shotgun break them all in less than two seconds. He followed that with breaking Parson’s record by breaking eight hand tossed clays with a pump shotgun in 1.87 seconds. Using a 12-ga. Benelli semi-auto shotgun with extended magazine he broke ten hand tossed clays in 2.2 seconds.
They are all gone now and while such names as Smith and Wesson, Colt, Springfield, Eley, and Lapua sponsor competitive teams we shall never see the likes of the great exhibition shooter of the past again.