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They Were All Sure Shots

July 2024
13min read

To a wide-eyed public Buffalo Billpresented a group of matchless marksmen —and one unforgettable girl—whose prowess with a rifle was wonderful to see

Between close of the Civil War and the turn of the century, a group of unique athletes soared like rockets across the American sporting scene, rising to the heights of public adulation and then sputtering into oblivion with the dawning of a less ingenuous day. The names of Adam Bogardus, Doc Carver, and Ira Paine are all but unknown today, even among well-informed sports writers; but there was a time when their names were family bywords and when royally applauded their exploits. They were a singular by-product of a passing frontier, and at least one of their number found immortality and left a permanent mark on America s culture.

Captain Adam H. Bogardus started the whole thing. Bogardus was a market hunter for wild waterfowl who plied his trade on l he Sangamon River marshes in Illinois during the late 1860’s. Trapshooting, with live birds as targets, was just becoming popular in America, and when Bogardus entered local matches he proved unbeatable. After polishing oft the local competition, he successively defeated Abe Kleinman, the champion of Illinois, and Jra Paine, who claimed to be the champion of the world. After traveling to England to clinch his supremacy over Europe’s best wing shots, Bogardus found that no one would compete with him for bets or prize money, now his major source of income, even when ottered lopsided handicaps. Most shooters would have been content to return to market hunting, but Bogardus was a resourceful man. To capitalize on his fame, he developed an exhibition shooting act that could be performed before paying spectators.

Shooting clubs were springing up all over America, and Bogardus found himself much in demand as a feature attraction al their meets. There was nothing fancy about his early act. It consisted merely of running up a startling score with a minimum of misses in a short space of time. Then, at the next meet, he would beat his own record. In 1869, he killed 500 pigeons in 528 minutes with a muzzle-loading gun. This, considering that he did his own loading, was commendable, but it was only the beginning. He started a four of the major cities, bettering his own record before throngs of spectators at every stop. As he moved east, however, he ran into increasing difficulties with the humane societies, which were gathering influence all over America and which looked askance at the use of live birds as targets. Shooters preferred the wild (and now extinct) passenger pigeons (see “The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , June, 1961), but domesticated pigeons, meadowlarks, quail, and even sparrows were used, and in one city after another Bogardus ran headlong into ordinances that outlawed his act. Faced with these difficulties, he invented and patented a new target, a hollow glass ball two and one-eighth inches in diameter, and a spring trap to throw it. Until the development of the now-standard saucer-shaped clay pigeon, the Bogardus ball and trap were routine equipment wherever live bird matches were outlawed. They revolutionized trapshooting and brought the inventor handsome royalties.

With this equipment and the new breech-loading shotgun, which speeded tip the act tremendously, Bogardus came into his own as a showman. Both his elegant appearance and his extraordinary skill attracted the general public as well as shooting enthusiasts. Muscular, an inch under six feet tall, he weighed 225 pounds. His dark brown hair was full and wavy, and he a Heeled a mustache with a wisp of goatee. In his black shooting suit he was a handsome figure, and at every stop on his now-continuous tour he was greeted by crowds of admirers ami batteries of reporters.

After nearly a decade of touring (he shooting matches, Bogarclus in 1877 decided, before retiring, to clinch his immortality with one last spectacular performance. His lour de force, he announced, would consist of trying to break 5,000 glass balls in 500 minutes. The date appointed was the following January 3; the place, Gilmore’s Garden in New York City.

On the big day, the auditorium was packed to capacity, in spite of the lack of central heating and temperatures below freezing. Bogardus began shooting at 2:10 P.M. , using a double-barreled shotgun with interchangeable pairs of barrels that were switched after every fifty rounds. Two traps hurled the amber-colored balls in rapid succession across a gas-lit muslin screen hung over a wooden backstop eighteen yards from the shooter. Once, when both traps were sprung together, Bogardus broke both targets, shooting so swiftly that the double report blended into a single blast. Two assistants were kept busy cooling the spare barrels with water, but in spite of this, the firing was so rapid that the gun sweated rosin from its soldered joints.

The shooter powdered each hundred of the first 1,200 balls in less than seven minutes. By the time he had reached 2,000, the exertion of loading, lifting, and firing the ten-pound gun forced him to strip to shirt sleeves in spite of the cold. Handicapped by the recoil of the new smokeless powder that indoor shooting forced him to use. and suffering from a cramp in his right hand, he occasionally had to call recesses while an assistant applied arnica and whiskey to his arms and shoulders. At the 4,700 mark he was so exhausted that he had to finish seated in a chair, in spite of delays, however, his last shot, his 5,156th, shattered the last ball cleanly as the clock showed an official time of 480 minutes and 45 seconds. Bogardus felt the mark would stand forever. After the echoes of the last shot and the cheers of the crowd had faded, he told a reporter, with elegant redundancy, “Once in a man’s life to do such a thing is amply sufficient.”

The recoil of the gun had battered him so severely that his shoulder was a blazing purple, and he remained deaf in one ear for two days. But on the strength of this performance, he was offered a spot on the program of the forthcoming Paris Exposition of 1878, where, billed as “The Master Manipulator of the Shot Gun and Champion Wing-Shot of the World,” he was to dazzle crowds that included many of the crowned heads of Europe.

There was just one tiny drop of gall in all of this honey. A few days before Bogardus’ big triumph in New York, a strange letter had appeared in the New York papers. Datelined San Francisco, it stated: “I will wager from $250 to $500 that I can beat any man in the shooting world in the following eight matches.” Then were listed all of Bogardus’ shooting events and a few interesting refinements. The writer also claimed he could break more glass balls with a rifle than any other man could with a shotgun, could shatter a hundred balls with a rifle faster than anyone with a shotgun, and could hit more thrown targets from the back of a running horse than any other shooter could standing. Capping this astounding challenge was an additional wager of $1,000 that the writer could kill more buffalo in one run from horseback than any other man in the world, with the practical provision that “if buffalo are not to be found, I will shoot elk.” The letter was signed “Dr. W. F. Carver.”

The challenge, aimed squarely at Bogardus, although the Master Manipulator was not named, obviously was a hoax. To match a single rille bullet against the spreading pattern of a shotgun on even terms was patently ridiculous to anyone who knew anything about shooting. Everyone, including Bogardus, enjoyed a hearty chuckle over the letter; but in true championship form, Bogardus publicly accepted all challenges involving thrown targets—bulfalo-shooting was out of his line—with a $250 side bet on each match. He then forgot the incident and packed his luggage for Paris.

Carver, however, was in deadly earnest. Reading of the champion’s acceptance of his challenge, he headed east, sending ahead of him as calling cards to the New York editors half dollars neatly drilled with 44 slugs and clippings from California papers saying that he had smashed 885 glass balls with a ride in three hours and three minutes at Oakland the previous February.

On June 1, 1878, Carver arrived in New York, a magnificent, slim-hipped figure six feet two inches tall. His auburn hair was a flowing, wavy mane, and his ruddy face was splashed with a vivid red mustache. His shooting shirt was of the finest black velvet, set oil by a pair of light gray trousers and doeskin gloves: on his head was a fawn-colored sombrero, and his feet were encased in high-heeled boots. By contrast, Bo gardus, handsome as he was, looked like a drab rustic. The question remained, however, whether the flamboyant westerner’s shooting was as good as his looks. The press remained skeptical, and Bogardus, blissfully busy in Europe, was unavailable for comment. Carver took his time about disillusioning the reporters. First he proposed to pay his respects to the oflicers of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in New Haven.

The Winchester people were accustomed to seeing fine shooters, but the exhibition that Carver staged at their Quinnipiac Range left them open-mouthed. Before five thousand spectators, he shattered a succession of glass balls thrown at him from every angle, clipped 26 of 45 silver dollars in mid-flight, broke 1,000 more balls in 80 minutes, and as a clincher killed a passing swallow on the wing. Obviously Bogardus was going to have competition when he returned.

After this demonstration, the New York press took a closer look at the colorful westerner. His background, as he told it, was as unbelievable as his shooting. He had been bom William Frank Carver in Saratoga Springs, New York, on May 7, 1840, but had moved west with his family to the Minnesota River valley in 1844. Some years later his mother and two sisters had been killed in a Sioux uprising, but young Frank had been kept as a hostage and marched by his captors to the Dakota Territory. (His father, absent from home at the time, had escaped, but the boy had never seen him again.)

Adopted by a chief named Redwing, young Carver had developed into a strange and handsome savage, incongruously freckled and with an eagle feather braided into his auburn locks. He had thrived on Indian life, learning the crafts of the hunter and warrior—riding, tracking, and shooting. He had, according to his own modest account, astounded his tutors with his skill.

Then, attracted by the boy’s unusual appearance, an itinerant white trader had befriended him, paid the Indians a jug of whiskey and a bolt of calico to secure young Frank’s release, and shipped him east to Winston, Illinois, to be reoriented in the ways of the white man.

There he had received four years of formal education, learning reading, writing, and enough mathematics to add up bar checks. Armed with these new skills, he had bought a pair of pliers, appended a D.D.S. to his name, and headed back to the plains he had learned to love, fortunately for the hardy pioneers, “Doc,” as everyone now called him, had devoted so much time to shooting that he had had little time for pulling teeth. At first he had shot game for the market, but within a few years, working with William F. Cody, he had started slaughtering buffalo for the Army, at 82.50 a head. It had been while market hunting that he had engaged in his first competitive shooting: he and Cody had amused themselves by betting on which could bowl over the greatest number of buffalo without a miss; Carver usually had come out on top. Me had had one run of 63, all shot from horseback. Later, under a contract for the Union Pacific, he had killed 230 elk, 80 deer, and several buffalo within two weeks.

When notices of the exploits of Captain Bogardus began to appear in the western papers, Carver had started to perfect an act of his own, patterned after that of the champion but employing a rifle rather than a shotgun. After a little practice, he had found that he could hit the flying glass balls with every shot, and after establishing his reputation and fattening his purse in exhibitions around San Francisco, he had written his challenging letter to the New York papers and started east.

On July 13, 1878, in the Brooklyn Driving Park, Carver went gunning for Bogardus’ record. Using six Winchester rifles, he pulverized 5,500 glass balls in 420 minutes with 6,212 shots, a performance that made Bogardus’ best look pallid. Bogardus was not the sort who could let a challenge like that go unanswered. Returning from his European tour with wilted laurels, he sought out the usurper, and the two met at the Astor Hotel in New York on January 18, 1879. They emerged with an amazing agreement—each would shoot at 20,000 glass balls within a period of six days, Bogardus using a shotgun and Carver to be given his choice of shotgun or rille. The stakes, winner take all, were set at $10,000. The contract was signed, “Dr. W. F. Carver, Champion Shot of the World” and “Capt. A. H. Bogardus, Champion Shot-Gun and Wing-Shot of the World.” First, however, Carver had to fulfill a contract for a European tour of his own.

Abroad he was the embodiment of the romance of the American West, and he shot before sell-out audiences. At a command performance before the Prince of Wales, he capped everything he had done before by breaking thrown glass targets from the back of a jumping horse. The Prince was so impressed that he presented the American with a huge diamond-studded stickpin, and from lhat point on, Carver’s social success was assured. Wherever he went in Europe, royalty and nobility sought him out, heaped medals and gifts upon him, and held balls and dinners in his honor. He shot wild boars in Bavaria and grouse in Scotland. He had such a high time, in fact, that he did not get back to America for three full years.

When he did return, the big match he had agreed ujjon with Bogardus failed to materialize. The aging Bogardus was no longer able to take the grind of a six-day shoot, and Carver’s high living appears to have slowed him down. Although the two did compete directly in several hundred-bird pigeon matches, both made comparatively pathetic showings.

Evidently Carver’s slump was only temporary. His old friend, Bill Cody, inspired perhaps in part by Carver’s success, had turned showman himself, and when the famous scout came east with his Wild West Show, he signed Carver as an exhibition shooter.

Carver soon became one of the sensations of the show, and before long, all over America, bottles, blocks of wood, stones, and pine cones were soaring into the air and bullets were whizzing hazardously across the landscape as rural youngsters unlimbered the family guns in an attempt to copy their idol’s style. Every medicine show, carnival, circus, and fair had its own “world champion” who offered to lake on all comers (studiously avoiding direct competition with rival professionals). Many of these marksmen were good, but none could match the master. Every once in a while, one of them would take off after Carver’s old record, but few of those who tried even came close to it.

Then an unknown shooter, Dr. A. H. Ruth, smashed 984 out of 1,000 targets in New York. Even more deflating lo the champion’s ego, however, was the disconcerting news in 1884 that a tiny Ohio farm girl with the eye of a prairie falcon and the energy of a tornado had missed only 57 in a run of 1,000.

This was crowding Carver too closely for comfort; the time had come to show these interlopers what a real shooter could do. At New Haven, in 1885, Carver shot for six consecutive days at the then unheard-of total of 64,881 targets and broke 60,000. Scarcely had he had time to enjoy his press notices when, one month later in Cincinnati, the Ohio girl again stole the spotlight by powdering 4,772 out of 5,000 glass balls—approaching, if not equaling, Carver’s best for an equivalent number of shots. To refurbish his tarnished laurels, Carver was forced to shoot against his own record; at Minneapolis, in 1888, he smashed 59,350 out of 60,000 targets.

The little girl from Ohio who had forced the great Carver to his utmost effort was to become—because of the incongruity of her calling with her size, personality, and beauty—the most spectacular marksman of them all. She was, of course, Annie Oakley, since immortalized in American folklore. She was born Phoebe Anna Oakley Mozee on August 13, 1860, in a crossroads settlement of Darke County, Ohio, fifth of the seven children of a poverty-ridden family. Too young and too tiny for heavy chores, Annie did her bit by bagging squirrels, rabbits, and quail for the larder. By the time she was ten, she had become such a proficient shot that she was killing more game than the family could use and selling the surplus in the market.

At an age when most girls were playing with dolls, Annie’s only toy was a battered old shotgun, and when she found that her skill, which up to then she had taken for granted, caused experienced male hunters to whistle in admiration, she began to indulge in a little trick shooting whenever she realized that she was being watched.

She performed these slums for her own amusement and to bring some slight recognition into an affection-starved life, but it was not long before she discovered that she could turn her skill to profit.

Annie entered all of the local shooting contests, which were a feature of every country fair, supplementing the family food supply with sides of beef and turkeys acquired as prizes. Inevitably, the farmers and backwoodsmen against whom she competed would coax her into shooting at thrown pennies and stones, marveling at her skill and passing a hat to pay her. Before she was twelve, she had become a local legend.

In 1875, Frank E. Butler, a touring exhibition shooter, arrived in Cincinnati with his show and issued his standard challenge to all local marksmen to shoot against him for a cash prize. Fifteen-year-old Annie, who had gone to the city to visit a sister, stepped up to accept the challenge, and when the last glass ball had been shattered, Butler found himself the loser, 25-24. This was the start of the famous courtship upon which Irving Berlin based his rollicking Annie Get Your Gun . Within one year they were married.

Under Butler’s shrewd tutelage, Annie developed a spectacular act which outshadowed even that of her husband. The typical exhibition shooter of the day, like Carver or Butler, was a superb physical specimen of manhood to whom acts of shooting skill seemed natural. Annie, by contrast, was a frail little thing weighing no more than a hundred pounds, round-eyed, darkly beautiful, and looking for all the world like a shy schoolgirl. Yet she handled firearms with the authority and adroitness of an Indian fighter.

After a few years on the road, the Butlers in 1885 were signed as a team with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, and Annie’s fame really soared. She had developed a full repertory of shooting stunts—breaking glass balls from horseback, clipping the ashes from cigars clenched in the teeth of trusting spectators, snapping pennies from between her husband’s fingers, and drawing designs with bullets. One of her stunts involved putting twenty-five rapid-fire shots into the centers of playing cards, which were distributed as souvenirs to spectators. Complimentary tickets to all shows in those days were punched, and from their fancied resemblance to Annie’s targets came to be called “Annie Oakleys.”

Not all of her shooting was of the exhibition type. She accepted all challenges wherever she went, taking on professionals as well as amateurs and beating everyone. Johnny Baker, himself one of the best exhibition shooters, tried to outshoot her for seventeen years in the Wild West Show, but never succeeded.

When Cody took his show to Europe in 1887, Annie soon found herself a world celebrity. The British in particular fell in love with her; Queen Victoria asked that she be presented and, after seeing her in a command performance, awarded her a handsome medal. Annie shot before the Royal Gun Club, where Edward, Prince of Wales, talked the visiting Grand Duke Michael of Russia, an avid shooter, into challenging her. She beat the royal Russian handily, 47 to 36. In Germany she shot a cigarette from the lips of a doting Prince Wilhelm of Hohenzollern. She returned home one of the best-known women in the world, loaded with medals and jewels presented to her by kings, queens, emperors, and dukes.

Aa showman, if not as a marksman, she was never surpassed. For shortly after the turn of the century the last of the shooting shows folded its tent. Various circuses, the firearms companies, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show absorbed the best of the shooters, but even Buffalo Bill’s great spectacle was paling as new and more sophisticated forms of entertainment —the touring play, the lantern-slide lecture, the embryonic cinema—began to invade all but the crossroads towns. The frontier was fading, and replacements for the acts were difficult to obtain. Wild Bill Hickok, Major Frank North, Doc Carver, Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, and Buffalo Bill himself—these had been living history. But the age that had created them was passing, and the new West, crisscrossed with barbed wire, was a far cry from that of the open range, the Pony Express, the buffalo hunter, and the Indian warrior. The trick shooters and riders who replaced the aging heroes were good, but they were performers and little more. They had no names. The great show declined, and in 1917, when Buffalo Bill died, it folded completely, although for a while its ghost lived on in the comparatively pallid “Wild West Show” that, almost as an afterthought, traditionally followed the feature performance at every circus.

When that happened, the shooters who had once thrilled America slipped off into obscurity. The deaths of Bogardus and Carver went practically unnoticed. Only Annie Oakley was remembered when she died, in 1926. To millions who had seen her in her prime, she was difficult to forget.

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