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A Look Back: Great Shooters in History

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Ed McGivern, “Jelly” Bryce, Annie Oakley and “Wild Bill” Hickok are legendary names in the world of marksmen. But what about other great shooters who aren’t household names? “The names of Adam Bogardus, Doc Carver and Ira Paine are all but unknown today, even among well-informed sports writers,” author James B. Trefethen declared in American Heritage. “[B]ut there was a time when their names were family bywords and when royalty applauded their exploits.” Below are shooters who are forgotten today but who were legends in their time. Read on to see why.

The ‘Fabulous Toepperweins’

A native Texan working as a cartoonist for the San Antonio Express, Adolph “Ad” Toepperwein quit his job in 1889 to become an exhibition shooter. He headed to New York and took a job with Orrin Brothers Circus. He eventually partnered with the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. and in 1902 met Elizabeth Servaty, a cartridge assembler at one of Winchester’s factories. The two wed, and Elizabeth — or “Plinky” — learned to shoot as well as her husband did. The duo — nicknamed the “Fabulous Toepperweins” — toured the U.S., exhibiting their shooting prowess to thousands. Plinky shot strings of 100 trap without missing more than 200 times in her career. In December 1907, Ad set a record by shooting 14,000 2-inch wood blocks without missing one as they were tossed into the air. The remarkable pair continued to tour well into the 1940s.

‘Champion Shot-Gun and Wing-Shot of the World’

New York native Adam Henry Bogardus began shooting a musket as a teenager and soon excelled as a marksman. In 1863, he led a company of the 145th Illinois Infantry during the American Civil War. After the war, he failed as a carpenter, so he started to hunt and sell waterfowl. He beat the best in the business when he started to compete, even traveling to Europe and challenging anyone willing to face him. In March 1877, he shattered 1,000 balls in one hour and 40 minutes. This was followed by another 1,000 balls in one hour and 20 minutes. One of his most enduring feats came in New York in January 1878. He hit 5,156 balls in little more than eight hours with a double-barreled shotgun despite enduring the freezing weather.

Annie Oakley’s Predecessor

Lillian Frances Smith accompanied her father Levi, a marksman and successful hunter, on shooting outings while in California as a young girl. By the age of 10, newspapers recognized her as a crack shot. In April 1885, she used a Winchester to beat “Doc” Carver’s record of breaking 100 glass balls in 2 minutes, 36 seconds. She joined “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show in 1886. Cody called the 15-year-old “a prodigy” and her skill with firearms “perfectly marvelous.” At one point, Cody even offered anyone a $10,000 prize if they could outshoot Smith. She became a rival of Cody’s other female sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, and left the show in 1889.

‘Master Shot of the World’

Ira A. Paine, a trained vocalist from Massachusetts, decided to become a professional shooter instead. It was a wise career change. He put on astonishing — and dangerous — shooting exhibitions that enthralled his audiences. For example, in Detroit in 1880, Paine split a pencil in half with his pistol as his assistant held it. He also cut a peanut in two while it rested on his assistant’s head. Lastly, Paine collected envelopes from audience members and put a bullet through their stamps as his assistant held them between his thumb and finger. He gained international fame for these spectacular feats. Tragically, in September 1889, Paine died in Paris while on tour, ending a stunning career.

‘The Evil Spirit of the Plains’

As a boy, William Frank Carver lived with Sioux Indians where he allegedly earned his unusual nickname. He traveled to Nebraska in 1872 and became a dentist. “Doc” Carver befriended “Buffalo Bill” Cody while hunting buffalo on the plains and became a crack shot. In July 1878, he destroyed 5,550 glass balls in seven hours using numerous Winchester rifles. In 1883, Carver faced off against A. H. Bogardus 25 times, winning 19 of their contests. At New Haven in 1885, he shot for six days straight at 64,881 targets and broke 60,000 of them. In Minneapolis in 1888, he shot 59,350 out of 60,000 targets. The shooter later developed an act of horse leaping from a high dive into a body of water. This continued until the 1970s.

Gone, But Not Forgotten?

None of these “greats” listed are well remembered. But these men and women were legends in their time, captivating thousands of Americans and Europeans — even royalty. Next time Annie Oakley or “Wild Bill” Hickok comes up in discussion, don’t forget to toss these names into the ring. Their feats also deserve to be lauded.

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