by B.B. Pelletier

Announcement: Tom/B.B. had a slight relapse early Sunday morning. He’s back in the hospital due to a minor complication called a pancreatic pseudocyst. It’s an accumulation of pancreatic fluid that’s not draining. They’re monitoring things, relieving pain and waiting for the fluid to drain on its own (which it’s expected to do). It was the pain that was our biggest concern. Once the pain was gone, all Tom wanted to talk about was airguns and the blog. Stuff happens.

This changes B.B.’s plans to attend the Little Rock airgun show. However, I hope those who attend will send us lots of pictures; maybe we can put them together for a guest blog and show everyone else what they missed!

Now, on to today’s blog. While this is a reprint from an article that appeared in Airgun Revue #2, Tom has been wanting to run this article since March! I thought this was as good a time as any. Enjoy!

Called a countertop trade stimulator, the Challenger was one of many small shooting galleries that accepted pennies.

In the 1930s, the world was in the middle of a hard depression, which many people were not prepared to weather. Lifestyles of the Roaring ’20s had to be revamped to survival in the ’30s. For store owners, the pinch of tight money was particularly defeating because money is the lifeblood of trade.

Not that there wasn’t money enough to go around. There was plenty of money. People were just reluctant to spend much of what they had for fear they wouldn’t be able to get more. This fear paralyzed trade at the grassroots level, which, in turn, ruined the entire economy.

Trade stimulators had been around since the 1890s, but the need for them was never so keen as during The Great Depression. Only organized crime was able to generate a reliable income with their numbers rackets, which resembled the state lotteries of today but on a smaller scale. For a store owner to be a numbers agent, there had to be ties to the mob, which dictated the rules and the shares of the take just as states do today. Enter trade stimulators–devices that made all their money on the premises and could be owned entirely by the store. No waiting for the daily payoff announcement from the mob (or the state lottery commission).

Here’s the payoff. Nine scoring balls relate to the nine disks inside the game.

The “DROP COIN into slot” trade stimulators are a family of seemingly innocuous games that sat on countertops all over the country. For a penny, a person got 10 chances to do something. In the case of the machine shown here, it was to hit nine different paddles, which were scored by steel balls showing in the window at the top. Other machines had different games, but the object remained the same–10 chances to do something for a penny.

The coin goes in the slot on the gun’s right side; then, the lever on the side is depressed to start the game.

Now, suppose the store owner told you that if you got all nine paddles in a single try, he would give you $100. Pretty good play for a penny, huh? Of course you’re no dope, so you figure the game is gaffed–which it is. The No. 3 paddle on this one isn’t connected to the scoring mechanism! You can hit the paddle all you want, that ball isn’t going anywhere. But the store owner takes care of that, too. He pays a shill a sawbuck to run out of the store screaming that he won the prize! You run in with your friends and, sure enough, all the balls are showing. He really did it, you think. Heck, you’re a 13-year-old-kid. What do you know about life? So, the word goes out throughout the neighborhood and soon there’s a line in front of the machine–lots of kids and a few gullible adults, too.

This is what you saw when you played the game. Notice that there is no way to use the sights with the gun passing through the case.

Folks, the play on this little machine isn’t that easy to begin with. The steel balls are launched by a spring-loaded plunger inside the metal gun, which is attached to the front of the box. Sometimes, the balls come out at the full 50 feet per second and are fairly accurate; other times, they just dribble out. And the gun’s sights are completely useless because you can’t see through the wooden box. This is an instinctive thing, not a marksmanship game.

The store owner can, therefore, offer lesser prizes for a run of eight paddles, with little risk of losing. Say a pack of cheap smokes–just the thing to attract 13-year-olds. Since these prizes are possible, there will be a constant, if infrequent, run of legitimate winners to keep the momentum going. Sooner or later, some wiseguy is going to catch on to the gaffed paddle, so the owner changes it periodically. And the law never wises up–because, as you can clearly see, there’s nothing written about any of this anywhere on the game. Even if a grifter tries to cheat the play, the owner simply clears the scoreboard with a penny and chases off the grifter.

Believe it or not, these small simple games had a part to play in the ending of the Depression. They also provided hours of amusement for just pennies; and, perhaps most importantly, they offered hope to people who had all but lost it.

There are many different types of shooting gallery machines like this one. They were made by the ABT company and are so rugged that most still work. You can find several websites that deal in these trade stimulators.