The Remarkable J.A.R. Elliott

I remember so well the first time I saw the cardboard box. It was buried deep on a shelf in a glass cabinet in the Hall of Fame Museum office. The fact it carried a 1997 postmark and was mailed from New York City suggested it didn't contain anything very historical. I shuffled it around for over an hour as I searched for whatever I was looking for that day. Finally it was time to place the shelf contents back in the cabinet, and my hand again touched the box. This time I opened it.

My eyes fell on an old and tattered scrapbook, approximately 13 inches long and maybe 10 inches wide. Its pages were brittle and fragile as were the many newspaper clippings and personal notations it contained. Written with a blue crayon along the top of page one were these words: "Started at Richmond, Va. Oct. 18, 1900."

nullI turned perhaps three pages before I realized what I was looking at. It was the scrapbook which included personal remarks of probably the greatest live bird shooter of all time, J. A. R. Elliott of New York. An accompanying letter explained that the old shooter's scrapbook, some photos and trophies were given to the museum by two of Elliott's granddaughters in August of 1997. I was familiar with the trophies on display upstairs at our museum, but I was not aware of the existence of this historical scrapbook.

Unlike other major sports, the names and feats of long-departed trapshooters are quickly forgotten. Shooters who a hundred years ago dominated the pigeon rings and trapfields of America aren't household names today. Yet they accomplished in their own sport what Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner achieved at turn-of-the-century baseball. The shooters of old shared newspaper headlines with the great events and people of their day. Elliott's scrapbook bears testimony to this.

From about 1840 to the early 1900s, there were many in America who literally made their living at live pigeon tournaments. The introduction of the glass target ball and its eventual replacement, the clay target, left a lot to be desired in simulating the flight of a pigeon. Many of the old-time shooters refused to shoot glass balls as they were simply too easy to hit. Some got back in the game when Ligowsky invented the clay target, which better simulated the way a bird flies. This new breed of gunners were called "clay pigeon shooters" so not to be confused with trap shooters (spelled with two words) who shot live birds released from a trap. Eventually we all became trapshooters (spelled one word), but not in the beginning.

The early shooting publications speak volumes of those whose livelihood depended on their success in live bird rings. The very best of the old most generally were subsidized by a gun, ammunition or powder company. "Sparrow" Young represented the Robin Hood Powder Co. and often shot under the name Robin Hood. Rolla Heikes and I. R. Graham were Remington men. W. R. Crosby, Charles Spencer and Charles Budd shot Winchester shells and guns. Fred Gilbert was with the Dupont Powder Co. But the best of the best was Winchester's James Albert Riley Elliott, or J. A. R. for short.

When the major league pigeon shooters of the 1870s to 1910 era gathered, complete towns came to watch. Many shoots were held on baseball fields or in enclosed stadiums. Folks paid admission to watch. Women came too but didn't have to pay. Before the clay target Grand American, there was the Grand American Live Bird Tournament held from 1893 to 1902. The 1900 shoot was held at the Interstate Park, Borough of Queens, City of New York. There were 456 entries.

J. A. R. Elliott's scrapbook listed all the competitors at the 1900 shoot. Some famous people shot, including Annie Oakley, Ansley H. Fox (founder of the A. H. Fox Gun Co. of Philadelphia), John Browning (world-renowned gun designer and founder of Browning Arms Co.), Wilbur F. Parker (one of the founding fathers of the Parker Gun Co.), Pierre F. Dupont of the Dupont Powder Co., and W. F. "Doc" Carver.

Elliott and his counterparts shot matches for thousands of dollars and magnificent trophies. The majority of these now priceless pieces of history have been lost over the years, and today only a handful can be accounted for. Many were challenge trophies which had to be given up when the current owner was beaten in a head-to-head match that attracted national attention.

Some of the more noteworthy trophies of those days included the Sportsmen's Review Cup, The Dupont Trophy, The E. C. Cup, The Hazard Powder Co. Trophy, The Kansas City Star Cup, The L. C. Smith Trophy and Ohio State Journal Trophy. But the most cherished and prestigious of them all was the Cast Iron Medal. It was a challenge medal and worn only by the live bird champion of America. The metal in the medal was worthless cast iron. In its center stood a gold pigeon. Shooters cherished it for what it represented and for its intrinsic value. The idea originated with Doc Carver who, along with Capt. A. H. Bogardus, were the most prominent and flamboyant shooters of their time. A shooter who successfully defended the medal five times retired it.

Elliott's scrapbook contained many newspaper reports of his matches. Some of the headlines read, "The Great Elliott Shoots Against Gilbert Here Tomorrow ," "Live Bird Championship of America Attracts Thousands at the Fairgrounds," "Elliott Winner of Dupont Trophy." "Can Anybody Beat Elliott?" and "The Great Cast Iron Medal to be Shot for Here Next Saturday."

The Richmond, VA Times of Oct. 20, 1900 had this to say:

null Mr. Fred Gilbert of Spirit Lake, Iowa will challenge champion J. A. R. Elliott for the live bird championship of America and the Cast Iron Medal at Broad-Street Park this afternoon. Gilbert reached the city yesterday over the Chesapeake and Ohio Railways in a special car marked with a large banner reading "Gilbert, the Wizard of Spirit Lake."

Elliott, when told of what appeared on Gilbert's car, said, "This alleged wizard hailing from the bullrushes of Iowa will soon return there with his tail between his legs."

Champion Elliott is one of four shooting brothers from Kansas City, Mo. and he now makes his home in New York City. He is about forty five years of age. He measures 5 feet 7 inches and weighs 160 pounds. His face is a pleasant one, because his piercing black eyes sparkle like a bed of diamonds and his face is nicely shaded by a well-kept head of iron grey hair.

The champion likes to shoot and likes to win. He has won almost every prize that has been offered and holds every record in live bird shooting. The shooters know him as "Jim" but the sporting records call him "Great  Elliott." He began to shoot in 1870. It was the day of the glass ball craze and he started to shoot for pleasure. Within a few years he was persuaded to enter the professional ranks. The result is all other champions have been defeated, and "Great Elliott" has every big trophy in his possession, several cases of gold and jeweled medals and a healthy bank account."

I don't go through any special training, " he told me at his room in the Jefferson. "I eat and drink just as any man but I don't drink coffee or tea. My nerves are all right under the excitement of a shoot and I care for them. I rest in the summer months at my brother's country club on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but practice every day. I am regular in my hours of rest and have been all my life. I use the nights to sleep and the days to be social and shoot."

The champion does not like clay pigeon matches although he competes in them. "The clays just don't fly erratic enough for me, " he said. When this reporter asked to see the famous Cast Iron Medal he and Gilbert will be shooting for tomorrow, Elliott said, " I didn't bring it as I do not anticipate a separation from it." (Note: Elliott beat Gilbert the next day, grossing 98 pigeons to Gilbert's 93. It was estimated over 5 ,000 witnessed the event.) 

Elliott's supremacy in the pigeon rings of America was glorified by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., which subsidized the champion in many ways. During his best years he shot exclusively a Winchester Model 97 pump gun. No one shot pigeons with a pump in those days. The big favorites were Parker, L. C. Smith and English side-by-side shotguns. Winchester even named a shell after J. A. R. It was called the "Elliott Live Bird Load." In 1903 the company published a little booklet which contained quotes supposedly from Elliott. A few of them were: 

  • Speak not of past performances. They only help the handicapper of today.
  • Raise thy gun often but thy voice seldom.
  • A Winchester gun, like a well-filled purse, is a reliable friend. Keep your gun and your reputation clean.
  • Boasting breaketh no targets.
  • A "dusted" target and a "poor load" provoketh profanity.

Elliott's old scrapbook held me captive for hours. I read every word and every newspaper clipping. With a magnifying glass I reviewed all the photos, looking for any small details of those long-ago days that could be
missed by the naked eye. One of the pages midway through the book contained a copy of a 1902 Hazard Powder Co. ad featuring Elliott. He is standing next to six large trophies and a display case of magnificent medals, all of which he had won shooting Winchester shells loaded with Hazard powder. To the right of the case holding his medals were four faintly written penciled words, My trusty magnifying glass quickly brought them to focus, and the old ticker skipped a beat when I read them.

"We have these medals" jumped from the page! The first thing I thought was, "Who has them?" It didn't take long to come up with the assumption that J. A. R.'s granddaughter had written these words prior to giving the museum the scrapbook. And up until now, no one had ever noticed the penciled note.

A phone call to one of the granddaughters in North Carolina proved my assumption correct. I crossed my fingers when I asked her if she still had the medals.

"Oh yes," came the hearty reply.

I double-crossed them when I asked if she would consider loaning them to the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum.

"Mr. Baldwin," she replied, "I would be more than happy to give them to the museum."

Shortly thereafter I was in the air, headed for Chapel Hill, N .C. There was no way I'd entrust old J. A. R.'s medals to the postal system, a courier service or any other second party-no sir, this untrusting Yankee was determined to hand-carry them north.

I couldn't have been treated more graciously by Mr. Elliott's granddaughter, now in her 80s. She was six or seven years old when he died of cancer at her parent's home in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1924. She remembered him well and was elated that the museum wanted his medals.

In her dining room, on a large mahogany table, sat the exact medal display case pictured in the 1902 Hazard
Powder Co. ad that was in the old scrapbook. It contained 18 magnificent gold and silver medals, some with precious stones.

I thought I'd reached an age when excitement took a back seat to a good winter meal in front of the fireplace, but I must confess the sight of those sparkling gems brought a tremor to my soul.

In the middle of the case, surrounded by lavish yellow and silver colored medals, sat a steel round pin. It was about the size of a silver dollar, and in the center was a gold pigeon.

It stood out from all the rest because it was not beautiful. It was very simple. Very plain. My hand reached for it first because it was so different, so unique. In raised letters around its edges were these words: "CHAMPION LIVE BIRD SHOT OF AMERICA." "My heavens," I thought, "it's the Cast Iron Medal!"

There I stood, holding in my hand what Bogardus and Carver once so proudly wore on their coats. A medal that thousands and thousands of words had been written about over a hundred years ago. A medal that was shot for in front of complete towns and villages. A medal long considered lost.

I shall not quickly forget what J.A.R.'s granddaughter said as I was leaving her North Carolina home. Ever curious about her famous grandfather, I asked, "Just what did Mr. Elliott do for a living?" She looked surprised over such a question but answered quite decisively, "Why, Mr. Baldwin, he shot pigeons:" Rather embarrassed over asking a rather stupid question, I said meekly, "Yes, ma'am, he certainly did."

J .A. R. Elliott's medals were on display for the first time at our museum during the 2001 Grand American. Not far from this display is his famous Winchester Model 97 pump gun that accounted for many of his trophies.

When the Trapshooting Hall of Fame inducted its first members in 1969, Elliott was part of that distinguished group. Many of those he shot against in the old days were honored with him: Doc Carver, Captain Bogardus, Annie Oakley and Fred Gilbert (The Wizard of Spirit Lake), to name a few.

The bulldozer blade has long since destroyed the arenas where Elliott and those like him once performed. The newspaper writers that held him in awe now cover Saturday afternoon high school football games. The ancestors of those who rode on streetcars and in horse-drawn carriages to the fairgrounds to witness the great shooting events of a century ago are now content to sit in front of a television and watch a soccer game from Brazil.

We can all watch the History Channel and catch up on what we missed for being born too late. But the History Channel won't cover the great challenge shooting matches that once captivated Americans a long time ago. And that's too bad. A lot of shooting history has fallen through the cracks of time, never to be recovered. The winds of change can be quite selective and forgetful.

But I hope there will always be a few left who will read with admiration and respect about the great shooters like Elliott who came long before us. Men who walked out on the line, hopelessly alone in front of cheering grandstands. Men who looked to the right and then left, took a deep breath, and said the famous four words every pigeon shooter will long remember: "Is the trapper ready?"

If you are interested in trapshooting history, try to make it a point to stop by the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum located at the ATA headquarters in Vandalia. The museum houses one of the largest collections of trapshooting memorabilia in the world and is open to the public free of charge Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Should you have a trapshooting artifact that you would like information about, contact me a (the Trapshooting Hall of, Fame and Museum, 601 National Rd., Vandalia, OH 45377. The museum is always looking for select items to add to our collection of shooting memorabilia.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 June 2010 13:30