They Were All Sure Shots


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.