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The .22—Choice of Champions

Excerpt from Fair Chase Magazine
By Wayne Van Zwoll, regular contributor, photos courtesy of author
Born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860, Annie Oakley used .22s in jaw-dropping shooting exhibitions. Ad Topperwein met his wife Elizabeth at Winchester. Both shot for the company, she as “Plinky.”

Before the evolution of modern match rifles and dead-center bullseyes in Olympic rimfire events, exhibition shooters worked their magic with .22s. Phoebe Ann Moses was one. Born in an Ohio cabin in August 1860, she had a hard childhood. But subsistence hunting, then shooting for market, would propel her to fame. Annie’s natural talent showed when she began killing quail on the wing with her .22. At local turkey shoots, she beat all comers—including, at one match, visiting marksman Frank Butler. She was 15. A year later Butler married her. Phoebe joined his traveling show as Annie Oakley. When Captain A.H. Bogardus left Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Annie replaced the sharpshooter, aiming in a mirror to fire over her shoulder at glass balls Frank threw in the air.

Petite at 100 pounds, Annie became an audience sweetheart. Germany’s Crown Prince, later to become Kaiser Wilhelm II, asked her to shoot a cigarette from his lips. She did, allowing in the wake of World War I that a miss might have changed history. Annie shot coins from Frank’s fingers. Firing 25 shots in 25 seconds, she’d tear one ragged hole in a playing card–or with careful aim, split it edgewise. In 1884, with a Stevens .22 in Tiffin, Ohio, she shattered 943 glass balls of 1,000 tossed. Johnny Baker, another Wild West Show deadeye, tried for 17 years to outshoot Annie and never did. “She wouldn’t throw a match,” said Baker. “You had to beat her, and she wasn’t beatable.”

Annie used iron sights for exhibition shooting, and often Marlin lever rifles. At age 62, after an automobile accident had crippled her, she could still cheek a .22 and hit every one of 25 tossed pennies.

Another rimfire prodigy, Ad Topperwein, was born in Texas in 1869. A cartoonist early on, he brought his artistic talents to shooting exhibitions. “Indian-head” profiles, drilled into tin at the headlong rate of a shot a second, were snapped up by collectors. Ad specialized in aerial targets; in 1894 he broke 955 of 1,000 tossed clay disks, 2¼ inches in diameter. Disappointed, he fired at 1,000 more and minced 976. Standard clays proved too easy; he ran 1,500 straight with his .22. Ad reportedly centered postage stamps stuck on airborne washers, and hit the bullet of a tossed centerfire cartridge without tearing the case. After Winchester hired Ad, he put a Model 63 autoloader in his routine. Firing it with ejection port up, he hit with another bullet the .22 hull spinning through the air! Perhaps his most remarkable exploit was a 1907 marathon in San Antonio. He fired at 72,000 tossed 2¼-inch wooden blocks and missed just nine!

Topperwein’s 1907 record of 71,991 hits of 72,000 tossed wooden blocks stood until 1959, when Tom Frye used Remington’s new Model 66 to drill 100,004 of 100,010.

That record, set with Winchester 1903 autoloaders, lasted until 1959, when Remington introduced its Nylon 66. Exhibition shooter Tom Frye tested that .22 auto on 100,010 tossed blocks and missed only six! An aging Topperwein graciously sent congratulations. 

Other exhibition shooters, from Herb Parsons to Tom Knapp, have left crowds agape. Knapp told me he could hit a tossed golf ball as many as three times with .22 bullets, keeping it aloft by shading low! He said he could hit air-gun BBs about a third of the time. “But spectators can’t see ‘em.”  

If your marksmanship doesn’t reach that level, take heart. Practice will make you better. With a .22, practice is both pleasant and cheap!

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