The First Grand American

By the fall of 1899, it was obvious to the old Interstate Trapshooting Association and its sparkplug and secretary Elmer Shaner that a new system of handicapping was necessary to keep trapshooting competitive. Since the clay target replaced the glass ball, the game had increased greatly in popularity, and attendance was up at most tournaments. The big problem was that a handful of shooters was doing all the winning. Elliott, Gilbert, Fanning, Marshall and few others had dominated the pigeon rings for years, and now their superiority spilled over to trap, where they continued their winning ways.

nullSomething had to be done to give the "little guy" a chance to win. The officers of the Interstate Association looked to the success of the Grand American Live Bird Championship. The answer might well lie in placing the better shooters farther back and moving the poorer ones closer to the traphouse. This had been the common practice at pigeon shoots for years.

Officers and directors of the Interstate Association held a Grand American at Clay Targets in New York from June 12th to 15th, 1900. This was the first of 102 Grand Americans and would determine if yardage handicaps increased the poorer shooters, chances of beating the experts.

The vast majority welcomed the idea of a handicap tournament. The "doubters" seemed to be those who were doing all the winning at smaller shoots. Many of these big guns relied on winning as it was their sole source of income.

All the major hunting and shooting publications began promoting the inaugural event months before the tournament. The Interstate Association added $200 to the purse. The program called for 100 targets at unknown angles with a $10 entrance fee. Shooters' handicaps could range from 14 to 25 yards. Prize monies were determined by the number of entries, two monies for every 10 shooters. As this handicapping system had never been tried before, there was great speculation on how many shooters would attend the four-day tournament.

Home for the first Grand American at Clay Targets was the Interstate Park and Casino in the Queens section of New York City. It was not new to shooters as the 8th Grand American at Live Birds was held on these grounds in April 1900. The location was described as " A sprawling complex that offers shooters every convenience, Over 200 rooms, complete with wash basins, pitchers and chamber pots, all within an easy walk to the traps. A magnificent banquet hall serves the finest of evening meal. The casino rivals the best at Monte Carlo, all games of chance are played and sporting women are available upon request."

Competitors shot over four trapfields. Three consisted of traps completely underground (the first reference of bunker shooting in America). The roofs of the pits containing the traps were at ground level, and shooters stood on a raised platform, which made the traps appear even lower. There were five traps on field one-two feet apart, all facing different directions. Fields two and three had a single trap, and the loader controlled the angle of the target by moving the machine with a lever. Field four held three traps-four feet apart, facing different directions. The distance between the five shooting stations varied from three to five yards. Thus the distance between position one and five could be 60 feet. The all-black targets manufactured by the Chamberlin Cartridge and Target Co. of Cleveland were thrown 55 yards. The full foliage of the trees just beyond the eastern boundary fence hindered visibility.

Preliminary Day-June 12, 1900

The program for the day consisted of five 15-target events and five 20-target events, for a total of 175 birds. As this was not a handicap race, shooters employed by manufacturers of trapshooting-related equipment were allowed to shoot for targets only. Eighteen of the 72 entered fell into this professional category. Promptly at 10 a.m., the Oyster squad of Baltimore was called to the line. Squad #1 in the first Grand American consisted of Ansley H. Fox, H. E. Lupus, J. R. Malone, E. H. Storr and Hood Waters. At day's end, the popular Rolla "Pop" Heikes of Dayton, Ohio, a professional for the Remington Arms Co., led the field with 167x175. John Fanning of New York City, a professional for the US Smokeless Powder Co. of San Francisco, trailed by a single target. Ed Rike of Dayton, who came to the tournament with Heikes, had the highest amateur score of 165x175.

The old Sportsmen's Review had this to say about the weather on day of the first Grand American: "This was a glorious day for the sport and it was most sincerely hoped by all present that the perfect weather
continue throughout the week. The morning hours were slightly hazy. A cool and invigorating breeze blew from the east and north sufficiently strong at times to make targets jump and duck. About noon the sun shone bright and warm and at no time was the day oppressive. During the afternoon shady places were eagerly sought."

The Preliminary Handicap-June 13, 1900

The weather was even better than the day before, and many new faces were seen on the grounds. On this second day, the new handicapping system would be tested. The old system allowed extra targets to be shot, counting misses as breaks or adding targets to the number actually hit. The handicap committee was composed of magazine editors Jacob Pentz of Shooting and Fishing; Bernard Waters, Forest and Stream; W. R. Hobart, American Field; and Will Park of Sporting Life. The committee had the latitude of establishing yardages from 14 to 25 yards. However, no one was placed closer than 15 yards or farther back than 22 yards. Only five shot from the maximum 22 yards: B. Leroy Woodward of Campbello, Mass.; W. R. Crosby, O'Fallon, 111.; J. A. R. Elliott, New York, N.Y.; Rolla Heikes, Dayton, Ohio; and John S. Fanning, New York, N.Y. Those shooting beyond 20 yards were further handicapped as they were obliged to stand on the live-bird platform that was almost two feet higher than the regular target platform.

For the first time, 25 targets were shot over four trapfields. (Historically, 100-target races were conducted shooting over five fields, 20 targets a field. Interestingly, it would be almost 20 years before 25 targets would
again be shot on one field during the Grand American.) The handicap committee did a commendable job. H.
C. Briggs of Tarboro, N.C. (shooting under the name Tar heel) broke 89x100 from 19 yards and beat the field. First-place money paid $75.33. No one was able to break 25 straight, and only five shooters broke 248. Tied for runnerup with 88s were two from 18 yards and the great J. A. R. Elliott from the maximum of the day, 22 yards. The shootoff for second place went three extra rounds before Elliott broke 25. This earned him runnerup honors and $62.77, but more significant was Elliott's 25 straight, the first one ever broken in a handicap event.

                                                  The Grand American Handicap-June 14,1900

The pleasant weather of the previous two days disappeared. Rain fell lightly at intervals, and two heavy showers stopped shooting twice. The final rainstorm put an end to shooting for the day before ties could be shot off, and they were conducted the following morning. Elliott and Fanning were given an extra yard based
on their good shooting in the Preliminary Handicap. Neither seemed happy to be the only two standing at 23 yards, but according to reports, "both gentlemen's complaints were kept in their hearts and never voiced."

Shooters with the greatest handicaps shot first. Fanning and Elliott set the pace. Elliott took the first shot in the very first Grand American Handicap and broke 22x25 from 23 yards. Fanning broke 16x25. Rain started to fall after their first event, and shooting was stopped for two hours. The long delay worked against Elliott. When the shooting resumed, he broke 15 on the second field followed by a pair of 18s for 73xlOO. Fanning faired only slightly better with 80xlOO. The additional yard they both received for the previous day's performance had taken its toll.

Four shooters from 22 yards were next up, and according to the Sportsmen's Review, "Heikes started out at a furious gate." He broke 24 on the first and second traps followed by a 22 and 21 on the third and fourth fields for 91x100. Although the majority of the field had yet to shoot, "it was almost a cinch that he was [going to be] the winner of the first Grand American Target Handicap-and he was."

Heikes' score was two targets better than the runnerup, 18- yarder Hood Waters of Baltimore. Four shooters broke 88s to tie for third through sixth place.

Heikes received $130.25 and an elegant trophy donated by the Interstate Association. Waters' second-place finish netted him $113.95, and third through sixth place earned $70.20.

Charles "Sparrow" Young of Springfield, Ohio (competing under the name Robin Hood and shooting a gun he made himself-the Young two-shot trapgun) broke 25 on the first trap and became the first person to break 25 targets straight in the Grand American Handicap. (Twenty-six years later, Young won the Grand American Handicap at Vandalia with 100 straight from 23 yards).

Seventy-four shooters competed in the first Grand American Handicap on that rainy day in New York 102 years ago. The Sportsmen's Review report of the shoot covered every detail. The following shotguns were used by the contestants: Parker Bros.-25; L. C. Srnith-13; Winchester-9; Rernington-6; Greener-4; LeFever-3; Marlin-2; Purdey-2; Scott-2; Francotte-4; Richards-1; Baker-1; Young-1; Cashmore-1; Daly-1; Davis-1.

Forty-six shooters shot ammunition manufactured by U.M.C. (forerunner of Remington), 20 shot Winchester shells, four used Peters, and two used shells manufactured by the United States Cartridge Co. of Lowell, Mass. Two shooters split between U .M. C. and Winchester.

The Consolation Handicap-June 15,1900

Handicaps had again been adjusted as 62 shooters went to the line on the last day of the tournament. Heikes was pushed back to 23 yards and broke 81xlOO. Waters, runnerup the previous day, went back to 19 yards and finished with 76xlOO. Ralph Worthington of Cleveland, shooting under the name Red Wing, won with 93x100 from 16 yards. Worthington was the founder of the Worthington Hardware Co., large Midwest sporting goods distributors until the 1960s.

Shaner and the Interstate Association called the first Grand American Target Handicap "a rousing success." Some were disappointed in the attendance, expecting more Western shooters to participate.  Did the new handicapping system separate the amateur from the expert? Not really. Heikes, the GAH winner, had been a top shooter for 22 years. Elliott, also one of the best at that time, was runnerup in the Preliminary Handicap.

Some changes had to be made. And they were. The following year, shooters associated with companies whose products were used in trapshooting couldn't compete against the pure amateur. The professional class was formed (later called industry reps) , and these shooters competed only against themselves at future Grand Americans.

The handicap system at Grand American #1 was far from flawless (as it still is), but it was a foundation to build from, and the end result was by far better. Out of the 74 who shot there, four have been inducted into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame at Vandalia, Ohio----- Young, Heikes, Elliott and Crosby.

John Browning and John M. Marlin, names synonymous with the American firearms industry , were all in attendance at that first Grand American.

nullFranklin D. Kelsey of East Aurora, N.Y., a drummer boy in the American Civil War, tied for ninth through 14th place in the big handicap and went on to win many important championships throughout the Eastern and Southern states. He attended the first 32 Grand Americans. Kelsey won the veteran championship at the Grand the first three years this event was held (1930, '31 and '32).

At the 1950 Grand American, my dad introduced me to an old white-haired man with small, round-rimmed glasses. He was badly bent over and had trouble walking, but it was his name I remember most.

Never before had I heard a man called "Sparrow." Dad said he had won the Grand American sometime back in the twenties, but that didn't impress me. Ten months later this old gentleman was gone at age 85. How I would like to be 13 years old again and shake hands with Charlie "Sparrow" Young. He was the last of the 74 shooters who competed in that first Grand American a long time ago. And I have a lot of questions I'd like to ask him.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 June 2010 13:36