They Were All Sure Shots

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.