by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
A history of airguns
This report covers:
- Bleed, break or fall
- Live animals
- Ad Topperwein
- Shooting was king!
- End of the Civil War
- Early mechanical target
- Quackenbush bell and mechanical targets
- Targets 2, 3 and 4
- Target 3
- Target 4
- Quackenbush targets 5 and 6
- Targets 7 and 8
- One more galley target
Bleed, break or fall
“Airgun targets have to bleed, break or fall.” said Leigh Wilcox of the now-defunct Airgun Express, many years ago. Leigh was one of many who felt that punching paper was like watching paint dry. A lot of you readers feel the same, as we have seen in this blog recently. Today’s report was requested by reader GunFun1, but I know that a lot of you are looking forward to it.
I will get back to airgun targets in a bit, but first let’s travel back in time to see where action targets began. For that we need to go to Europe around the year 1300, when shooting events lasted for many days and took on a carnival atmosphere.
The Bogenschuetzen-Gesellschaft (Society of Bowmen or Archers) of Dresden dates from 1286, though there must have been activity prior to that time or else why would the Society form? These were persons of royal lineage (about 400) who gathered annually at a festival to see who was to be the King of the Crossbowmen. The town granted them land, money and special honors because when trouble came, they were the town’s first and best defense.
The royal Saxony family were members who often competed and even won the event. In fact, they traditionally shot the first shot to open the competition. In 1676 the Crown Prince of Saxony won the match and became the king of the crossbowmen that year. A large gold medal weighing 46 ducats of gold was struck and after that time the winner of the match wore it at the banquet and ball that followed.
The target was a wooden bird placed atop a tall pole in the middle of the Vogelwiese or bird field (bird meadow). The pole was on a pivot with ropes that could lower it to the ground for scoring. This is probably not the first action target, but it certainly one of the most famous!
An engraving of the 1612 crossbow match in Dresden. From The Crossbow, by Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey.
In 1702 the English ambassador in Dresden made the “Konigschuss” or king’s shot, winning the match. Queen Anne of England had a gold medal with the value of 20 ducats coined to commemorate the win.
Until the middle of the 20 century live animals were used in target competitions. I won’t go into too much description, but know that turkey shoots in the 19th century in the Appalachian Mountains were at live animals that were tethered behind large logs. The animals could hide behind the logs and the shooters had to find ways to coax them out to take a shot. Often, just the head was presented.
The clay pigeon was developed to replace live birds that were released from hidden cages on the shooting field. Before the clay pigeon was developed, balls made of glass and hardened pitch were used. They stopped using both because broken glass shards were dangerous and the balls often broke during handling and launching. Clay pigeons still break in handling and launching, but they are more reliable, plus they fit together and can be stored in a smaller space.
A glass or pitch ball launcher for shotguns and rifles.
The clay pigeon has been standardized for convenience and to fit all launchers.
Now, I am aware that GunFun1 didn’t ask about all action targets. He is interested in shooting gallery targets, and I am coming to that, but knowing the history of older action targets tells us a lot about the targets that evolved later.
Adolph Topperwein was a poor crockery worker in San Antonio, but from December 13 to December 22, 1907, he shot at 72,500 2-1/4-inch pine blocks that were thrown in the air by 3 young men. In all he missed just 9 of the targets — setting an action target shooting record that stood for almost a century.
Ad Topperwein sits atop the mountain of 72,491 wooden target blocks he hit in 1907.
Shooting was king!
In the days I have bracketed in history — 1300-1900, shooting was considered the king of sports. Shooters were revered and most people looked at shooting like they look at archery or darts today — a demonstration of one’s accuracy.
End of the Civil War
The American Civil War taught the government that it had better do something about the marksmanship of its young men, because many showed up for basic training with no knowledge of how a firearm works. The South, in sharp contrast, drew on a population of young men that was fascinated with shooting and knew very well how to do it. The difference was survival. In the South people had to shoot for their food and they were interested in what kept them fed. In the North big cities had removed the necessity of shooting and many young men had never fired even one shot.
General Phil Sheridan decided that had to change for the best interests of the nation, and he was instrumental in forming the National Rifle Association in 1873. Also, he helped some companies promote their airguns as a means of getting a way to target practice at home into the hands of Americans.
At the same time, the shooting gallery came into existence, or moved forward in the public eye. Many feel it was the Civil War that spawned an interest in guns among North American men, but the development of the gallery gun (AKA Flobert) and the .22 Short cartridge had something to do with it. This made the time ripe for the home gallery target —and they abounded!
Early mechanical target
The Dodo mechanical target was one of the earliest and also the most prolific, but could I find a picture of one to show you? It took me 30 minutes of searching to find something close, and they had it listed as a “squirrel” target. What is shown below is a take on the famous Dodo — or at least a very close copy.
Okay, these are ducks, not “Dodos.” The Dodo target was just two humps of metal with a reset paddle beneath.
In my search I stumbled across another old gallery type target that someone had shot up with a high-powered rifle. But enough was left and it was so attractive that I placed a bid on it. And, I’m the “Great Enabler?”
While researching this report I found this vintage gallery target and placed a bid.
Quackenbush bell and mechanical targets
This is the target that GunFun1 saw in the blog that sparked his interest. Of all old mechanical airgun targets, the Quackenbush targets are perhaps the best-known. They came in 4 variations. The Number 1 is simplest one. It was just a bell target with no other mechanism. It rang when you shot the bell through the center hole. The target is very large (14 inches wide — I have never seen one) and made of wood with a rubber centerpiece that was knocked out with the shot. It is for low-powered airguns firing darts, only. Because they are wood, I imagine they are extremely rare today. They originally sold for $1.50
Targets 2, 3 and 4
These are the metal bell targets that GunFun1 saw. The metal face of Number 2 is 12 inches in diameter and, when you ring the bell, a spring-loaded bird pops up above the face. I have seen one for sale at an airgun show and several online. Antique dealers seem to ask $1,400 for these today. They were $2.00 when new.
This target was offered for sale at the Toys The Shoot airgun show several years ago.
Target 3 has a steel face, and is 15 inches in diameter. It weighs 14 lbs. and also has the spring-loaded bird that pops up. That one is rated for rimfire cartridges, though I imagine they were thinking blackpowder rounds at less than 50 foot pounds. I have seen this one for sale at around $1,200 at some airgun shows. They were $5 when new.
Target 4 was the same as target 3 but without the mechanism. It’s just a bell target. I’ve never seen one. They were $3.00 new.
Quackenbush targets 5 and 6
These are very strange mechanical airgun targets. The Number 5 target is self-painting when the shooter desires a fresh target. He pulls on a string and a roller repaints the face of the target. That is — if it works. Because they are very complex and contain liquid paint, they got out of order easily. Less than a thousand were made and they must be extremely rare today.
Target Number 6 is a pop-up skull target that works like Targets 2 and 3, only a skull pops up instead of a bird.
Quackenbush Target Number 6. From Quackenbush Guns, by John Groenewold.