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Early Wing Shooting Competitions in the United States

posted Aug 9, 2012, 9:33 AM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Dec 11, 2012, 12:47 PM ]
Part One of this Article focused on early wing shooting competitions, primarily in England.  Part Two of this Article focuses on early wing shooting competitions in the United States. 

    Organized wing competitions began much latter in the United States when compared to England.  As discussed in part One of this Article, organized pigeon shooting competitions were wide spread in England as early as 1770.  By contrast, the earliest organized wing shooting competitions in the United States appear to date back to the mid-1820s.  However, this does not mean that wing shooting was not a popular past time in the United States.  The following passage from a history of Philadelphia published in 1833 confirms that wing shooting had been popular in the American Colonies for a long period of time. 

The game for shooters much more abounded before the Revolution than since. Fishing and fowling were once subjects of great recreation and success. Wild pigeons used to be innumerable, so also blackbirds, reedbirds, and squirrels. As late as the year 1720 an act was passed, fining five shillings for shooting pigeons, doves, or partridges, or other fowl, (birds,) in the streets of Philadelphia, or the gardens or orchards adjoining any houses within the said city! In Penn's woods, westward of Broad street, used to be excellent pigeon shooting.

Historic tales of olden time: concerning the early settlement and progress of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania : for the use of families and schools : John Fanning Watson (1833)

    The lack of organized wing shooting competitions in the early days of United States is probably due to a number of factors.  Chief among those factors was the relative abundance of game in the United States when compared in England. Passenger pigeons were very plentiful in the United States at the time, providing a seemingly endless supply of targets for the sportsman interesting in sharpening his wing shooting skills. In addition, the United States had relatively few laws restricting when hunting could take place.  By contrast, hunting in England was restricted to the fall and winter months.  Finally, England had a larger population of individuals who had both the time and the money to regularly take part in leisure activities, such as pigeon shooting.  During the early 1800s these factors began to change in the United States.  Game was less abundant, hunting was restricted to the fall and winter and more people in the United States had the time and money necessary to engage leisure time activities.  As a result, wing shooting competitions began to appear in the United States.  

    A number of sources, including the American Trap Shooting Hall of Fame and the Amateur Trapshooting Association, indicate that trap shooting with live pigeons is believed to have begun in the U.S. around 1825 and that the first record of a trap shooting event in America is found in the history of the Sportsmen's Club of Cincinnati, beginning in 1831.

American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine Volume 3 Number 7;  J.S. Skinner, March 1832,
  A letter to the editor of the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine, dated February 3, 1832  appears to be a sustainability contemporaneous report of the formation of the club in Cincinnati and the first matches held at the Club.  A portion of the letter is reproduced to the left and the entire letter can be found at: American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine Volume 3 Number 7 page 346, March 1832,  (Old copies of American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine Volume can be found on Google Books.)  The February 3, 1832  letter describes several shooting competitions using both snipe and pigeons as targets.   The pigeons released from a trap and the shooters were required to stand a fixed distance (ranging between 18 and 20 yards) from the trap.

   While a number of sources claim that the club in Cincinnati hosted the first pigeon shooting events in the United States, I do not believe Cincinnati to be the birth place of pigeon shooting in the United States.  There are several recorded instances of pigeon shooting events in the United States which pre-date 1831.

The American Farmer, Volume 6,  No. 34, page 271.
 The November 12, 1824 Issue of the American Farmer (Volume 6,  No. 34, page 271) contains a description of a partridge match which was held near Elkridge, Maryland.   The partridge match was not a typical trap shooting type of event.  Instead the match was conducted using dogs and the two groups of competitors hunted different fields.  A total of 86 birds were killed by the competitors and the looser of the match blamed the loss on "ill-broken dogs" which had joined in the hunt.  In the article, the editor (John S Skinner) expresses his happiness to see that the gentleman of America where taking an increasing interest in the "rural sports."  

    In a portion of the  November 12, 1824 partridge match description which is not reproduced here,  the editor of the American Farmer also expressed his preference for the English style of pigeon shooting competitions over a competition based on the number of wild birds each party bagged.  The editor writes: "the best way ... to test the skill of a the sportsman, is that practiced so much, at this season, in England: where each man has let our for him, a given number of birds from a trap".  The Article goes on to provide the results of a number of pigeon matches held in England earlier in the year. 

    The editor of the American Farmer magazine during 1824 was John S Skinner.  Skinner (and the magazines which he founded) played an important role in the development of wing shooting competitions in the United States.  A brief biography of Skinner is contained in the side bar.  Skinner was an avid sportsman who maintained an interest in shooting sports.  During the time when Skinner was editor of the American Framer, the magazine regularly contained descriptions of wing shooting events which were taking place in both the United States and England.  During the mid to late 1820, most of the wing shooting competitions taking place in the United States involved shooting at wild birds under hunting conditions.  However, from time to time, a pigeon shooting event was reported which took place under more controlled conditions.   

The American Farmer (Volume 8, No. 15, page 118).
    A description of an early American pigeon shooting match can be found in the June 30, 1826 Edition of The American Farmer (Volume 8, No. 15, page 118). The match was held in Germantown, Pa near Philadelphia and appears to have been a means a by which the owner of Westley Richards double barrel could raise funds.  Each competitor paid an entry fee of five dollars and all competitors used the Westley Richards double barrel shotgun.    The winner of the match received the gun as the prize.  The 1824 Germantown pigeon shooting event was not truly a trap shooting event of the type which was taking place in England.  Each of the competitors used the same gun and the birds appear to have been released by hand rather than by means of a remote trap or box.    However, the Germantown event does show that pigeon shooting matches were taking place in the United States at that time. 
John Stuart Skinner (22 February 1788 – 21 March 1851)
    Mr. Skinner was an American lawyer, publisher, and editor.  He was also a witness to one of the most famous moments in American history.  

    Skinner was present with Francis Scott Key on the morning of September 14th, 1814 to see the American flag waving above Baltimore's Fort Mc Henry. This moment was the inspiration for Francis Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner which went on to become American national anthem.

    In 1819, Skinner established the magazine "The American Farmer." This was  the first agricultural journal in the United States to attain prominence. 

    In 1829 Skinner published the first American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. At about the same time, Skinner sold the the American Farmer magazine after publishing it successfully for ten years. Skinner remained the editor of the American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine from 1829 to 1839.