- Historic Sites
They Were All Sure Shots
To a wide-eyed public Buffalo Billpresented a group of matchless marksmen —and one unforgettable girl—whose prowess with a rifle was wonderful to see
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
Then, attracted by the boy’s unusual appearance, an itinerant white trader had befriended him, paid the Indians a jug of whiskey and a bolt of calico to secure young Frank’s release, and shipped him east to Winston, Illinois, to be reoriented in the ways of the white man.
There he had received four years of formal education, learning reading, writing, and enough mathematics to add up bar checks. Armed with these new skills, he had bought a pair of pliers, appended a D.D.S. to his name, and headed back to the plains he had learned to love, fortunately for the hardy pioneers, “Doc,” as everyone now called him, had devoted so much time to shooting that he had had little time for pulling teeth. At first he had shot game for the market, but within a few years, working with William F. Cody, he had started slaughtering buffalo for the Army, at 82.50 a head. It had been while market hunting that he had engaged in his first competitive shooting: he and Cody had amused themselves by betting on which could bowl over the greatest number of buffalo without a miss; Carver usually had come out on top. Me had had one run of 63, all shot from horseback. Later, under a contract for the Union Pacific, he had killed 230 elk, 80 deer, and several buffalo within two weeks.
When notices of the exploits of Captain Bogardus began to appear in the western papers, Carver had started to perfect an act of his own, patterned after that of the champion but employing a rifle rather than a shotgun. After a little practice, he had found that he could hit the flying glass balls with every shot, and after establishing his reputation and fattening his purse in exhibitions around San Francisco, he had written his challenging letter to the New York papers and started east.
On July 13, 1878, in the Brooklyn Driving Park, Carver went gunning for Bogardus’ record. Using six Winchester rifles, he pulverized 5,500 glass balls in 420 minutes with 6,212 shots, a performance that made Bogardus’ best look pallid. Bogardus was not the sort who could let a challenge like that go unanswered. Returning from his European tour with wilted laurels, he sought out the usurper, and the two met at the Astor Hotel in New York on January 18, 1879. They emerged with an amazing agreement—each would shoot at 20,000 glass balls within a period of six days, Bogardus using a shotgun and Carver to be given his choice of shotgun or rille. The stakes, winner take all, were set at $10,000. The contract was signed, “Dr. W. F. Carver, Champion Shot of the World” and “Capt. A. H. Bogardus, Champion Shot-Gun and Wing-Shot of the World.” First, however, Carver had to fulfill a contract for a European tour of his own.
Abroad he was the embodiment of the romance of the American West, and he shot before sell-out audiences. At a command performance before the Prince of Wales, he capped everything he had done before by breaking thrown glass targets from the back of a jumping horse. The Prince was so impressed that he presented the American with a huge diamond-studded stickpin, and from lhat point on, Carver’s social success was assured. Wherever he went in Europe, royalty and nobility sought him out, heaped medals and gifts upon him, and held balls and dinners in his honor. He shot wild boars in Bavaria and grouse in Scotland. He had such a high time, in fact, that he did not get back to America for three full years.
When he did return, the big match he had agreed ujjon with Bogardus failed to materialize. The aging Bogardus was no longer able to take the grind of a six-day shoot, and Carver’s high living appears to have slowed him down. Although the two did compete directly in several hundred-bird pigeon matches, both made comparatively pathetic showings.
Evidently Carver’s slump was only temporary. His old friend, Bill Cody, inspired perhaps in part by Carver’s success, had turned showman himself, and when the famous scout came east with his Wild West Show, he signed Carver as an exhibition shooter.
Carver soon became one of the sensations of the show, and before long, all over America, bottles, blocks of wood, stones, and pine cones were soaring into the air and bullets were whizzing hazardously across the landscape as rural youngsters unlimbered the family guns in an attempt to copy their idol’s style. Every medicine show, carnival, circus, and fair had its own “world champion” who offered to lake on all comers (studiously avoiding direct competition with rival professionals). Many of these marksmen were good, but none could match the master. Every once in a while, one of them would take off after Carver’s old record, but few of those who tried even came close to it.
Then an unknown shooter, Dr. A. H. Ruth, smashed 984 out of 1,000 targets in New York. Even more deflating lo the champion’s ego, however, was the disconcerting news in 1884 that a tiny Ohio farm girl with the eye of a prairie falcon and the energy of a tornado had missed only 57 in a run of 1,000.
This was crowding Carver too closely for comfort; the time had come to show these interlopers what a real shooter could do. At New Haven, in 1885, Carver shot for six consecutive days at the then unheard-of total of 64,881 targets and broke 60,000. Scarcely had he had time to enjoy his press notices when, one month later in Cincinnati, the Ohio girl again stole the spotlight by powdering 4,772 out of 5,000 glass balls—approaching, if not equaling, Carver’s best for an equivalent number of shots. To refurbish his tarnished laurels, Carver was forced to shoot against his own record; at Minneapolis, in 1888, he smashed 59,350 out of 60,000 targets.