Fred Kimble
The late Charlie Newcomb of Philadelphia was one of the East’s top shooters for over 40 years. Among his many wins was the 1915 Clay Target Championship when the Grand American was held in Grant Park, Chicago. He was elected to the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1999. Before he began his shooting career in 1901, the 6-foot-4-inch Newcomb was a professional basketball player for the Camden (N.J.) Electrics. The team was eventually ejected from the league for being too rough. Maybe Charlie was a little rowdy in his younger years, but all who remembered him late in life talked about his gentlemanly and reserved manner. He died in 1947.

Recently, one of Newcomb’s trapshooting scrapbooks was purchased by a friend of mine over the Internet. The book was labeled "Scrapbook #6," which one can only assume means there were at least five others. The book covers his later years in trapshooting from the early 1930s to the start of World War II. I recently had occasion to page through "Scrapbook #6," and among other great things of interest was a copy of a letter he wrote in 1936 to Jimmy Robinson, the trap and skeet editor of Sports Afield magazine. The letter shed a little light about Mr. Newcomb’s interest. Like us, he had a curiosity and more than a passing interest in shooting history and the early days of shotgunning.

Newcomb’s letter to Robinson read like this:

Dear Jimmy

I understand you had several visits with Fred Kimble, inventor of the choke-bore shotgun and the Peoria Blackbird clay target, while you were in Los Angeles last year. Wouldn’t your Sports Afield readers enjoy a few lines on this remarkable and wonderful old sportsman who has always been considered one of the greatest wingshots of all times? Let’s have a yarn on Mr. Kimble.

C.H. Newcomb

Robinson acknowledged Newcomb’s letter two weeks later by saying, "A story on Fred Kimble’s life would fill a 300-page book. However, here are a few of the interesting highlights of his colorful career that he told me about last winter from his little apartment in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles. He is now 90 years old and I plan a Sports Afield article on him soon.

I don’t know if Jimmy Robinson ever wrote the article on Fred Kimble, but what was enclosed with his letter to Charlie Newcomb will be the subject material for this month’s "The Road To Yesterday." My thanks to the late and great Jimmy Robinson for gathering the Kimble information. If I don’t give him credit, he’d likely spit tobacco juice on my shoe. He had a habit of doing that—one had to be careful when speaking to him.

Fred Kimble was born in the year 1846 in the little town of Knoxville, Ill. He was very musically inclined, and by age six, he could play both the violin and accordion. In 1852 his father was taken by "gold fever," and the family moved to San Francisco. A theater owner there learned of young Kimble's cleverness with the accordion and offered him a chance to play at $50 a week. The majority of the audiences were gold miners, 25 cents was the smallest piece of change they had. After Fred’s performance, they tossed handfuls of coins on the stage. He made $550.00 in tips in the first week he played. At age eight, he was playing violin in the best bordello in San Francisco. He told Jimmy "I played so well, people stopped what they doing just to listen."

The family moved back to Illinois when was nine, and young Freddy started to attend school. His father bought him his first shotgun at thirteen. This is the way he related duck hunt to Jimmy Robinson:

"There was a duck marsh about a mile from town. Early one morning I sneaked up on a flock of mallards feeding close to shore. At about 25 yards. I sprung to my feet and fired both barrels. The mallards turned out to be a market hunter’s tame, live decoys, and their owner didn’t appreciate me killing them. I learned a lesson that morning ob the marsh—be sure of what you are shooting at."

By eighteen he was considered one of the best duck shots in that section of the country.

In 1868 he invented the choke-bore shotgun barrel that would revolutionize the art of wing shooting. This is how he explained the greatest of barrel inventions to Jimmy.

"I started experimenting in the gun shop of Charlie Stock in Peoria, Ill. First, I used musket barrels left over from the Civil War, as they were heavy and would stand boring. After repeated attempts am calipering, I came up with a 6-bore that would drop birds at 80 yards. This gun would shoot #3 shot through a one-inch board at 40 yards."

With his 6-bore, 36-inch barrel muzzle loader, Kimble began challenging anyone and everyone at live pigeons. These were the days of "Doc" Carver, Capt. Bogardus and Ira Paine, who all shot side-by-side guns with no chokes. The inferior guns of Kimble's competitors were no match for Kimble's choke-bored single shot. He won match after match, shooting for up to $1,000 a side. Before very long, everyone wanted a choked gun, and he began to procure regulation double guns and bore them to his dimensions.

Kimble had things his own way until his competitors began shooting against with barrels he bored. He won the Illinois State  Shoot three years in a row, and Bogardus referred to him as "that pesky little guy from Peoria," for he was but 5 feet 4 inches and 140 pounds.

He explained to Jimmy that "gun down" was always the rule in old-time shooting matches of either pigeons, glass balls or clay targets. The gun had to be down (under the armpit) until the bird was released or the target was thrown. "The gun-at-the-shoulder rule of today makes it possible to shoot instantly," said Kimble. "Not in my day. The old rules were better and tougher."

He shot at glass balls for the first time at Jacksonville, Ill., in 1880. Kimble shot there three days without a miss. Later at Decatur, Ill., he shot at glass balls for two more days without missing. At Peoria, St. Paul and Winona, Minn., his long run continued until 735 balls had been hit consecutively over thirteen days of shooting. This was a glass ball record that was never broken.

At the Iowa State Shoot in Eddyville in the early 1880s, live pigeons, glass balls and the new clay target were used. Kimble ran 135 straight targets, killed 36 of 36 live pigeons and hit 53 of 55glass balls. The rules were old rules—gun down. Clay targets were thrown at 18 yards, pigeons released at 30 yards, and glass balls from 18 to 21 yards. He won $600.

The round 2 1/4-inch glass balls were thrown from a catapulting trap and flew evenly. They were easy to hit, and Kimble thought something better could be devised. He wasn’t pleased with Ligowsky’s new clay target that could be hit hard, but often wouldn’t break. He came up with a saucer-shaped target that was made from a combination of coal tar, pitch and other ingredients and was shiny black in color.

His old pal Charlie Stock became interested, and the two of them formed a company to produce a new target called The Peoria Blackbird. Orders couldn’t be filled fast enough, and over two million were sold in their second year.

As the inventor of this new type of target, Kimble thought it best that he become adept at breaking them. He attended all the state shoots that were throwing his targets, and the more that were broken, the more they sold. "Charlie Stock and I made for a good partnership," Kimble said. "While I was away smashing ‘blackbirds,’ Charlie stayed at home making more.

The trade name of Peoria Blackbird brought out the wrath of many tenderhearted souls who believed the inventors had discovered a new brand of live bird. A large supply of Blackbirds were sent to Boston for a big shoot. When the scores were published the day after the tournament, the innocent statement was made that contestants shot at Peoria Blackbirds. A few days later, the newspaper published the following editorial:

What are the Humane Societies Doing? Thousands of Peoria blackbirds have been wantonly slain by a lot of heartless men calling themselves sportsmen, and nothing has been done about it. Must a bird become a pigeon to get protection? Hasn’t a Peoria blackbird the same right to live and enjoy life as a pigeon? Isn’t it just as cruel and heartless to cripple a poor little blackbird? We want the Humane Society to investigate this outrage and bring the perpetrators to account.

Charlie Stock and Fred Kimble thought they had found a gold mine in the Blackbirds. Charlie’s gun shop was too small to handle orders, and Fred’s own barrel-making business had lost much of its importance compared to the excitement of target-making. Things were soon to change.

Big target shoots were being advertised, but there were no orders for Blackbirds. Imitators and infringers were cutting prices and getting the business.

On advice of counsel, a series of lawsuits began. Fred said, "I could win shooting matches but never lawsuits. We would beat the infringers in one court, and they would carry it to a higher one and keep it up until they wore us out.

"One company with a million dollars in capital started making exact copies of our target," Fred told Jimmy. "The president came to Peoria, and we offered to sell him everything for $35,000. He said he’d buy, but when he got home, his directors said no, that they would continue to fight us. Six years later and $20,000 poorer, they wore us out. We quit."

Fred said, "A dozen new target factories sprang up that year. Prices were cut to nothing, and no one made any money. Charlie Stock died, and I never did anything more with the Blackbirds but break a few the other fellows made."

Fred’s experiences after that with other inventions pretty much followed the dubious flight of the Blackbird. He made a mallard duckcall, which was patented by a man he loaned it to. Thousands were sold. A dental electric vibrator was copied by four manufacturers before he could patent it, and the design of the throwing arm of a clay target trap he developed was still in use 30 years later. None of these ever earned him a penny.

"But," he said, "I eventually got rich in spite of my unsuccess by coming up with a process for keeping eggs fresh through cold storage." After discovering how to do it, he kept it to himself long enough to profit— finally.

In his later years, he became a fine amateur painter and a great checker player. Sometime back, Jimmy wrote, "He defeated the world’s champion checker player, a fellow named Turner, at Chicago for a side bet of $1,000. They played 100 games—Kimble winning three and Turner one. The rest were ties. He played checkers for 23 years without losing a game.

Fred Kimble died in 1941 at the age of 95. Every Sunday up to the time he died, he visited the old Union Pacific Gun Club at Los Angeles. And he always brought a bag of oranges for the trapboy. When he was 91, he broke 98x100 from 16 yards the "old way," with the gun down. He was inducted into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in 1969, a well-deserved honor.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 June 2010 14:18