Plinky Topperwein

A San Antonio newspaper printed a rather simple obituary in January of 1945. Elizabeth Servanty Topperwein had passed on and joined the Great Majority. Casual readers could easily have passed over the few words describing the deceased. The name Elizabeth Servanty meant little to the good people of San Antonio; however, try the name Topperwein throughout America meant ‘‘the world’s greatest husband and wife shooting team.’’

The lady put to rest that rainy January morning was once told by Annie Oakley that she was the greatest shooter of all times! That’s a pretty strong statement by any measure, capsule but coming from one Annie Oakley, discount it can’t be taken with a grain of powder.

Like all of us, Miss Servanty was young once. At the age of 18 in 1904, she was a pretty red head working as an inspector on an ammunition-loading machine at the Winchester plant in New Haven, Conn. One afternoon a handsome Winchester trick shooter from Texas stopped at Elizabeth’s station, and they exchanged a few words. After he moved on, she said to a co-worker, "I’m going to marry that man someday."

The trick shooter’s name was Adolph P. Topperwein. Some folks called him Ad; others called him Top. He was born in 1869 in a little Texas town called Leon Springs, not far from San Antonio. His father became a well-known gunsmith for buffalo hunters. Before he was 10, Ad had mastered his 14-ga. muzzle-loading shotgun and Flobert rifle and was supplying game to the family’s dinner table. When he was 11, he saw Doc Carver’s act in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and confided to all who listened that he would eventually be as famous a shooter as Carver. By the time he was 21, most all of San Antonio knew of his skill with the rifle, shotgun and pistol.

The manager of the local Grand Opera House made Ad his protégé and persuaded booking agents to put him in Vaudeville. He was soon performing in New York City.

One afternoon at Coney Island, he broke all of the targets in one shooting gallery after another The next day, the New York papers were full of the feats of the unknown Texas triggerman. He had made the grade.

Shortly after the turn of the century, he became bored with Vaudeville and started looking around for more stable employment. He found it with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company whose guns and ammunition he had long preferred.

Soon he was traveling the country for Winchester, performing trick shooting exhibitions at fairs, gun clubs and sportsmen shows.

A week or so after Ad spoke with Elizabeth at her inspection station at the Winchester plant, they met quite by accident in New Haven Commons. Soon afterwards, they married, and life for the new Mrs. Topperwein would never be the same. Ad began to teach her to shoot, and within three weeks of her first lesson, she was shooting chalk from between his fingers with a .22 rifle and splitting playing cards held edgewise at 25 feet.

During her early shooting lessons, she often missed while shooting a .22 at tin cans thrown in the air. When she did hit one, the bullet made a "plinking" sound. Each time she connected, she would invariably say, ‘I plinked it." Ad picked up on this, and for the rest of her days she was known as ‘Plinky." She called him ‘Daddy." They made their first appearance as a husband and wife trick shooting act at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair. She had been shooting less than three months.

Six months after she pulled the trigger for the first time, she became a member of the famous Winchester trapshooting squad that toured the South in the fall of 1904. At Albany, GA, the team broke the existing world’s record by breaking 490x500. Plinky broke 96x100 that day.

Forest McNeir, the 1940 North American Clay Target Champion, had this to say about her in his 1956 autobiography:

In 1909 the first Sunny South shoot was held in Houston. Mrs. Ad Topperwein won the handicap on 96.

Mrs. Top was the best woman shot of her day. I knew Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill but they were exhibition shooters—rifles, pistols and shotguns.

After she won the Sunny South all the men hung their watch fobs, diamond medals, rings and stick pins on her when she dressed up to go to the old Prince Theater She looked like a walking jewelry store.

The Sunny South prize was $100 in gold and she had five $20 gold pieces pasted on a piece of black silk to form a locket. She told Top if he didn’t stop laughing at her she would split his mustache with the toe of her boot.

That afternoon Jack Wulf who later won the Grand American in 1916 at St. Louis, wanted to take a picture of Mrs. Top sitting between Bill Crosby and Fred Gilbert (1968 ATA Hall of Fame inductees). They were sitting on a steep slope facing the sun. Wulf told them not to look at him, to look at the sun. They did and he let go a nine foot spotted snake out of a spring box right into their laps.

Mrs. Top went over backwards down the slope. You never did see so many flying skirts upside down. When she got up she looked like a half peeled banana. Everybody enjoyed it except for her and what she said to Jack wouldn’t do to print.

Shortly after winning the Sunny South handicap Buffalo Bill presented her with an Indian-made beaded ammunition pouch that she wore continuously until her shooting days ended. (This pouch is now on display at the Trapshooting Hall of Fame Museum in Vandalia, Ohio.)

She broke nine 100 straights in 1913, but her best shooting that year was done in Laramie, Wyo. where in gale-force winds she won the Denver Post Trophy with 94x100 handicap targets. Shooters at the Eastern Handicap at Wilmington, Del., saw her lead the field of 250 with 98x100.

Plinky set an endurance record, shooting alone, at Montgomery, Ala., in 1916 by breaking 1,952 of 2,000 clay targets in 5 hours and 20 minutes. She shot a 7-lb. Model 12 Winchester and didn’t rest a minute despite the fact that the barrel became so hot a number of times that ice water had to be poured over it. She suffered a blistered hand but was still shooting better than when she began. She broke 96 of her first 100 targets and 98 of her last. Her lowest score was 95, and her average for the 2,000 was slightly less than 98%.

A newspaper article once summed up her performance at a local gun club saying, "Mrs. Topperwein’s style of shooting was one of unstudied grace and ease, without any effort and apparently without any thought as to where and at what angle the target would go."

She loved to quote the poem composed by her famous husband early in their marriage. It goes like this:

Lincoln Was Right
You may hit some of your targets most of the time
And hit most of your targets some of the time
But you can’t hit all of your targets every time all of the time.
No matter how great your skill and how hard you try,
Sooner or later you’ll let one go by.

Plinky retired from competitive trapshooting in the 1920s after the birth of her only child, a son. History has failed to record what became of this child whose mother and father once thrilled thousands at a time when Americans idolized those who could shoot.

A few months after her death, some 56 years ago, an article appeared in a shooting publication that said, in part,

"The World’s greatest woman shooter isn’t with us any more. She passed way suddenly but quietly in San Antonio, her only regret that she would be parted, temporarily, from her beloved Daddy’

Perhaps people may forget that she once broke 367 clay targets in a row, that she broke 200 straight 14 times, 100 straight on more than 200 occasions and set an endurance record that still stands. But not a living soul who knew Plinky Topperwein will ever forget her great warm heart, which she wore openly on her sleeve in adoration of her accomplished husband and the man who made her famous. Nor will they forget her ready wit, her firm handshake, her cheerful voice and the way her eyes crinkled that ever-recurring smile.

Ad Topperwein waited 17 years to be reunited with Plinky. He died in 1962, at the age of 93. The end didn’t come easy. He was hopelessly blind and almost totally deaf. Top resided until the end in a small house in San Antonio surrounded by long-ago pictures and trophies he couldn’t see and was cared for by an elderly lady who just thought it was the right thing to do.

When the Trapshooting Hall of Fame selected its first inductees in 1969, Plinky was in this select group. Another woman shooter was also chosen in that initial year, and she was a great admirer of Mrs. Topperwein. Her given name was Phoebe Ann Moses, but the world knew her as Annie Oakley.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 June 2010 09:53