Part 1 and 2...JAR Elliott

J.A.R. Elliott, Premier,Part 1

nullJames Albert Riley Elliott (1854-1924), known as "J.A.R.," was one of the premier live-bird and trap shooters in America from the late 1880s until his retirement in 1915. He was the only shooter to ever hold all the important live-bird trophies at the same time. As an employee of Winchester , he won all of his major championships shooting a pump gun when 99% of the guns used by his competitors were side-by-sides. Winchester thought so highly of Elliott that they named a shell after him. When the Trapshooting Hall of Fame chose its first enshrinees in 1968, he was among the select group.

A few years ago, through the generosity of his two granddaughters-now in their 80s-our museum acquired his scrapbook and many trophies. Recently we made copies of photos and Elliott letters along with his notes for a shooting book which he never lived to write. I derived the following paragraphs from these notes and personal conversations I had with his granddaughters.

His last few years he spent fighting stomach cancer. He died on Aug. 7, 1924 , in a 40-room stone mansion in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, NY. Rather impressed with the castle he lived in, I asked a granddaughter, "What did J.A.R. do for a living ? " "Why, Mr. Baldwin, he shot pigeons," she exclaimed. In this issue and the next, you'll see that he did a lot more than that.

Daily he moved restlessly around the stone mansion not to think of the stomach pain that seemed to be always there. Often he thought a good diet would relieve the discomfort, but he lacked the willpower to go on one. In the late afternoon he peered out the bowed front window, waiting for Elinor and Merle's return. He told his granddaughters about the old days but wondered how much they would remember when it was time to tell their grandchildren.

Occasionally Elliott watched the pigeons on the brick sidewalk feeding on whatever satisfied them. And when they were startled and jumped to flight, he would shoulder an imaginary shotgun, swing to the bird, and pull a trigger that wasn't there. Sometimes he thought, "I was close to some of your forefathers. They didn't like me."

At 70 years his gray, piercing eyes still read without glasses. The memories of elderly men are notoriously fallible, and versions of long ago events become tainted. Not so with him. Every minute detail of every important shoot was etched in his mind as if it had all happened but hours ago, and as he aged, it seemed he thought more of the old days than ever before. A good steak cost a buck, a new suit $15, and a fine Parker shotgun with twist-steel tubes less than a good bird dog. Shooters like him often rode in private railroad cars and ate specially prepared food. U.S. presidents shook their hands, and every hunter in America idolized them.

For a while he envisioned he was back in Kansas City , St. Louis , Baltimore or Omaha , walking down an oak plank while shoving two shells in his Winchester pump. Eyes that would never look directly at a camera for fear the flash would harm them looked to the left and right for that first movement. Hundreds-sometimes thousands-standing or sitting behind him breathlessly waited for that first movement too. And when Elliott saw it, his mind and the Winchester became one. A fortunate bird might get seven feet in the air before exploding to pillow feathers. The multitudes roared their approval: "Elliott, Elliott, Elliott," they'd chant as the betting money changed hands.

The end of the era didn't come quickly. He had predicted it as had Rolla Heikes, Bill Crosby and Fred Gilbert. George Ligowsky's clay target was the start of the end for the great live-pigeon matches in America . That, and sentiment among the "do-gooders" about the senseless slaughter of the "beautiful pigeons," spelled doom for him and others like him who made their living at pigeon shoots. It was beyond him that anyone could possibly care for the disease-carrying fowl whose demise in the ring had entertained so many. The women who opposed pigeon shooting wore in their hats the plumage of birds killed solely for their feathers. And likely they rode behind a pair of docked horses, knowing that docking horses' tails was a cruel practice, too. But it mattered not; he had been effectively put out of business when state after state passed legislation outlawing pigeon matches.

The claim that clay birds call for as much skill with the gun as pigeons do was too absurd to discuss. Nothing artificially devised would ever equal the uncertainty and irregularity of a pigeon's flight.

Elliott attended the first tournament that flew this novelty clay target, at New Orleans in 1882. The shoot was held in conjunction with a large cotton exposition. The new and innovative clay target certainly had its faults and imperfections. It was too light to fly properly when the wind was blowing, and dampness often caused the pasteboard tongue on the target to loosen. But the big problem was hardness. Heat caused targets to harden to the point where No.8 or 7 1/2 chilled shot didn't break them. But target manufacturers had come a long way in perfecting them, and in recent years he'd read of some phenomenal scores. Still, his first love was pigeon shooting-the game that had made him famous.

A spineless, tattered scrapbook provided most of his evening entertainment. Lost in the world of another time, he'd often leaf through its torn yellow pages. Here he recorded things most important to him, his early days as a youngster learning to shoot on the southern Kansas prairie and his friendship with Annie Oakley and her husband Frank Butler.

His admiration for Annie went well beyond her ability to shoot and entertain. Childless, she quietly funded education for some 20 young women. For many years she spent the month of July in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, teaching hundreds of women to shoot and donating the money she earned to charities. During the Great War she traveled with Frank, at their own expense, performing shooting exhibitions for World War I soldiers. Whenever J.A.R. competed at Pinehurst, North Carolina, the Butlers' winter home, he dined with Annie and Frank. A photo of the three of them together ranked among his favorites.

In his study to the right of a roll top desk stood his mother's carved mahogany china closet. This old heirloom housed some 40 shooting medals of gold and silver, many with inlaid precious stones. But the one he cherished the most-the one he would hold and gaze at the longest-had no monetary value but represented the most prestigious shooting title in the country: the live bird championship of America.

Doc Carver devised the live bird championship medal in the early 1890s. He paid for the trophy, wrote the rules, and called it the Cast Iron Medal. Anyone could challenge for its possession, and the shooter who could successfully defend it five times would retire it. J.A.R. retired it on April 25, 1902, in Omaha.

His gold pocket watch with the hunting case still kept perfect time, and its heft spoke of quality. He would often snap it open and take it to the bay window where better light allowed him to read the inscription:

From the good friends and fellow sportsmen/N.Y State Tournament/Syracuse, 1912/To: J.A.R. Elliott

About the time the New York shooters gave him the watch, he began to realize that the last juice from the orange had been squeezed. He had seen many changes in the old game, and his winning scores were infrequent. Now shooters had two reasons to go to a gun club: to enjoy a relaxing afternoon, or to beat everyone there. The latter drove him to the great heights he had achieved. When he wanted to relax, he'd take his bird dogs hunting. Most who once shot to win were long retired or had passed on. It was just a game to most now, but in his day, it was a business. A profitable one, too.

Throughout his overwhelmingly successful career, the challenge match he lost to Fred Gilbert in 1896 was the most painful failure to swallow. A faded Kansas City Star newspaper article often reminded him of that late October afternoon.

Fred Gilbert was just a young corn sprout at the time. It was the year after the Iowa lake country boy made his spectacular debut at Baltimore and become famous in a single day. He killed all 25 and went on the win the coveted Dupont Trophy after a long shootoff. Only a small redbird from the number-five box prevented Elliott from being in that shootoff with Gilbert that day. When the young Iowan challenged him for the Kansas City Star Cup, he wasn't concerned. Gilbert had never shot in a 100-bird race before, and they were J.A.R.'s specialty. Elliott never doubted he would win.

The great match was held at the old baseball field in Exposition Park. A great crowd of Elliott supporters were present. He had hand-picked the pigeons, and the Star's famous sports editor, Jim Whitfield, kept score. As the newspaper article described it:

"Everything seemed to favor Elliott. Gilbert was a stranger in a strange land. A gullible lad whose wife sewed money in his trousers so the gamblers and pretty girls wouldn't get it. Elliott intended to get in those trousers. Gilbert's squeaky, feminine voice didn't inspire the few gamblers who bet on him, but soon he showed that while his voice was cracked and shrill, he was plenty strong in taking down birds."

After the first 25, Elliott was straight and Gilbert down one. When 50 had been shot, J.A.R. was still only a single bird ahead. With 25 to go, Elliott had yet to miss, and young Gilbert was down three. The odds in that overflow crowd stood 10 to 1 that Elliott would kill all l00. But the great Elliott slipped up on the 79th and again on the 91st. J.A.R. said later, "In that falsetto voice that I became so used to hearing in the years that followed, Gilbert shrilled, 'I dare Jim Elliott to miss another!"

Elliott did miss another, and the match finished tied at 97. In the shootoff, Gilbert beat him 25 to 24, and the Kansas City Star Cup went home with Fred Gilbert to Spirit Lake, Iowa.

Twenty-five years later Elliott told a friend, "Never before or since have I lost a race when I had so big a lead with so few to shoot. I've shot that match with Gilbert over in my mind many times, and I feel as bad about it today as I did then. Many of my friends lost large sums of betting money on me that afternoon. I lost a fair amount of pride."

While this lost tournament may have been the event he would have mostly wanted to replay, it hardly spelled the end for Elliott. The following year, he beat Gilbert and won back the Kansas City Star Cup. More significantly, in his subsequent years, he forged a great relationship with Winchester, John Philip Sousa and other interesting individuals and companies. In an upcoming issue, I'll tell you some of the details........To be continued.

J.A.R. Elliott, Premier Trapshooter, Part 2

This is the second and final article on J. A. R. Elliott, a premier pigeon shooter and trapshooter from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was one of many during his time who shot both pigeons and targets for a living. An early inductee in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame, Elliott was the best of three shooting brother. ln 1887 they started Elliott's Shooting Park in Kansas City Mo., which operated continuously until 1985.

J.A.R. Elliott's diaries, notes, letters and newspaper articles plus his granddaughters' recollections are the basis for these articles.  Dick Baldwin

Elliott's long association with the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. benefited both parties. Annually, they agreed on a salary and to reimburse him for all tournament travel expenses. Monthly he signed, notarized and returned to New Haven, Conn., an affidavit which stated they would supply him without charge loaded paper shotgun shells solely for his own personal use. Trophies or money he won were his to keep.

If he did not remain on or near the top of the game, Winchester would not renew the monthly contract. On the other hand, if another ammunition company offered him more money, he could easily get out of the Winchester agreement by not re-signing. Some, such as Rolla Heikes, winner of the first Grand American at clay targets, moved constantly from company to company, always for better money. Elliott remained committed to Winchester, and they kept him on until his retirement in 1915.

In sporting journals nationwide, his employer capitalized on his many wins. Daily newspapers talked of his upcoming attendance at local shoots weeks in advance of the tournament, and it was always "Winchester's J.A.R. Elliott."

There was nothing in his agreement specifying that he had to shoot a Winchester shotgun. I assume out of loyalty he elected to shoot a gun of their manufacture. During black powder days, he used their Model 1893 pump gun. When smokeless powder replaced black, Elliott switched to the pump action Model 1897. His performances with a pump amazed the onlookers as he could work the trombone-type action more quickly than the eye could follow. Often there was a second hull in the air before the first had hit the ground.

Elliott's contract with Winchester was administered through one Irby Bennett, whose title was General Agent, Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Irby operated out of Memphis and directed all of Elliott's travels. He also scheduled exhibition shoots for the famous Winchester husband and wife team of Ad and Plinky Topperwein.

Bennett sort of had an "in" at Winchester. His brother, T. E. Bennett, was president-a fact he never let Elliott forget. J. A. R's files contain numerous letters from Irby Bennett on a variety of interesting subjects, some of which aren't printable. Bennett kept in touch with J. A. R. through telegrams and letters that were waiting at hotels for Elliott's arrival. During the spring and summer months J. A. R. was constantly riding the rails from city to city. His tattered black appointment book for shoots during the month of July 1910 read:

Fri.-Sat. July 1 & 2-Niagara on the Lake, NY
Sun.-Mon. July 3 & 4-Troy; NY
Fri.-Sun. July 8-10-Seneca Falls, NY
Thurs.-Sun. July 15-17-Phil., Pa
Sun. July 30-Danbury- Conn.

(The shoot at Danbury was run by Pahquioque Rod & Gun Club. My dad, who was 17 at the time, pulled trap for Elliott on this day. Pahquioque remains an active gun club and is over 100 years old.)

Elliott and the Hazard Powder Co. parted company in 1903 when Hazard merged with Dupont. Subsequently, a Mr. Uhl of the Empire Powder Co. approached J. A. R. with a substantial offer to shoot only Winchester shells loaded with their powder. Empire was fairly new in the business and had a reputation for excessive pressures with low velocities. Elliott requested Empire to send some powder to Winchester for testing. Some weeks later Irby Bennett telegraphed J .A. R. that the powder was the worst Winchester had ever tested and that if Elliott insisted on using it, his scores would suffer as would Winchester's reputation as a manufacturer.

Elliott questioned Winchester's tests as it was not in his makeup to turn down the $1,000 a year that Empire had offered him. In desperation to convince him that the powder was terrible, Bennett humorously wired:

New Haven sent me a few Leader shells loaded with Empire so I could see for myself. I shot in a pattern board at 40 yards and was amazed to see no shot holes in the paper. When I leaned over to examine the paper further; the complete charge hit me in the fanny. I see no need for further correspondence on this subject.     Irby Bennett

Gambling played a big part in the early days of pigeon shooting and trapshooting in America, and Elliott often made mention of big poker games among the competitors at tournaments. His fancy for poker is often expressed in various notes meant to be included in a book that he never lived to publish. Here are two quotes:

"My oculist [optometrist] advised me recently by cord [telephone] that it was time to again examine my eyes as it had been three years. I informed him that they seemed to be reflecting satisfactorily as occasionally I can still see three aces and a full house. However, I would make it in his best interest to make me a new pair of glasses that constantly saw five cards in consecutive order and of the same suit."

In another instance, he said:

"The old frontier scout John Nelson watched me shoot a match against Charlie Budd in Omaha [Nelson guided Brigham Young across the plains to settle Utah, and was an early buffalo hunter, Indian fighter and gambling friend of Wild Bill Hickock]. I watched Nelson check [not bet] four aces in a big poker game. He said he considered that a cinch hand and that he did not believe any man with the instincts of a gentleman would bet a cinch hand."

From all reports, the likeable Elliott was always ready to recite a humorous yarn. The following was to appear in his book:

"I was invited to shoot at a rather formal gun club in the Old South. Prior to my attendance, I was informed indirectly that a number of other experts had visited this club, and all had been met with defeat by being outshot by members of the club. The five Expert traps were set about sixty yards from a forest of large trees, and many of the targets thrown carried into the limbs of these trees. Shooting was quite difficult. About the time the shoot commenced, a number of coaches loaded with Southern beauties who were wives or friends of club members anchored near the score line. I broke about 50 straight before missing one, at which time all the ladies expressed their pleasure quite delightfully. I stepped back from the line, doffed my hat and said, "Thank you, ladies, had I known it would please you so, I would have missed one sooner."

By 1912 many of the big live bird shoots in the Midwest were pretty much over. Sentiment among the "do gooders" had taken its toll, and as a result J. A. R. Elliott's income drastically reduced. But a few Eastern states went against the tide and still had sizeable events with big purses. He found himself spending more and more time where the pickings remained good. In an effort to be closer to the money these shoots offered, he moved from Kansas City to a 40-room stone mansion in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

After purchasing this castle, Elliott left little doubt in the mind of the general public that shooting pigeons and clay targets was a profitable venture. A local newspaper described his new home well. In part it read:

The Elliott estate at 122 76th St. was copied after "Abbotsford," the home of Sir Walter Scott near Melrose, Scotland. The multi-gabled and dormered house is done in cement brick and stucco with a Spanish-style tiled roof. A smaller building to the rear contains eight rooms over a steel-beamed, six-car garage that houses its own heating plant as well as a motorcar turntable. Under the backyard, which is about the size of a small school yard, there is a private bowling alley. A six-story elevator serves the nine bedrooms,12 bathrooms, music room, reading room and numerous utility rooms. In the basement are living quarters for the hired help, a ballroom, a card room and a billiard room with space for three regulation-size billiard tables.

Elliott possessed good business sense and embarked on a number of financially successful ventures, all related to trapshooting. The shooting park he owned in Kansas City with his brothers was one of the most profitable in the nation. He patented what was probably the first shotgun shell reloading machine for home use (J. A. R. called it "a shot and powder measure shell loading block"). Years before the single trigger for double-barrel guns was available, he sent the Hunter Anus Co. (later called L. C. Smith) detailed plans on how to build one. They paid for his services but waited too long to introduce it, and the Fox Gun Co. beat them to the marketplace.

His old friend and shooting buddy John Philip Sousa passed on a suggestion that turned into a very profitable business. The great bandleader, whose hobby was trapshooting, confided that shooting took a toll on his ears, and it was beginning to affect his livelihood. At this time, no one in the shooting game wore any type of hearing protection. Elliott pounced on this opportunity as quickly as he had once dropped a big white bird from the number-three box, and in 1911 he introduced the "Elliott Perfect Ear Protector." Before year's end he held a patent for it in eight countries. And the money came rolling in.


John Philip Sousa's hand written testimonial letter appeared in J .A. R.'s advertisements. It read:

Jan. 20, 1913
Mr. J. A. R. Elliott:
My dear sir,
I consider your invention to lessen the shock of loud noises or overwhelming vibrations of sound of great comfort. The Elliott Perfect Ear Protector is a great success in affording protection from concussions to a sensitive ear. As a shock absorber it is invaluable.
Very sincerely,
John Philip Sousa

Stomach cancer slowed Elliott during the last few years of his life. But the constant pain never affected the old trooper's clear memory of his days on the shooting circuit. Those who fought tooth and nail to beat him in the pigeon rings of years before now wrote after word spread of his condition. Aging Fred Gilbert, long retired from shooting, said, "You beat me two out of every three times we shot against each other, and you did it by about only six inches. You hit 'em in the head and hit 'em in the tail."

In Rolla Heikes' scrapbook, he wrote that he told a friend he had visited J. A. R. a few weeks before the end came. "I thought he looked pretty good," Heikes said, "but when I asked how he felt he said, 'about like the band on the Titanic.' "

J. A. R. died on Aug. 7, 1924, in his 4O-room stone mansion in Brooklyn, N.Y. A simple newspaper obituary rambled on about his impressive home but hardly touched on his shooting accomplishments that provided the dollars to buy the home. And that's too bad. He well deserved a better send-off.

But the Elliott name in trapshooting didn't die with J.A.R. His nephew, Russ Elliott, continued where his famous uncle left off. In 1932 he won the AII-Around at the Grand American and nine years later the North American Clay Target Championship. Old J. A. R. would have been proud of that.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2010 08:32