Humans have always liked being entertained. There have probably always been men and women who made livings as entertainers, be they thespians, musicians or possessed some other form of showmanship. Stage plays date back 500 years or more, B.C.
In early America, it was no different. Performers with an array of talents toured the country, bringing enjoyment to these pre-TV, pre-motion picture era citizens. The skills these entertainers developed ran the gamut from the ordinary, singers and dancers to the extraordinary, with circus skills, magic and shooting.
Shooting was a well developed sport, long before football, basketball and other games featuring balls were invented. If there were balls involved, they were likely glass balls the trick-shot artist threw into the air and shattered with well aimed volleys.
The first modern Olympic Games (1896) featured a variety of archery and shooting competitions. Earlier, the now famous for tennis venue, Wimbledon, existed as a competitive shooting range.
Among the earliest and most famous of the exhibition shooters touring the country was Annie Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler. They traveled the country doing husband and wife shooting demonstrations for over 15 years before Buffalo Bill Cody “discovered” them and added them to his Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill, himself, was a touring “shootist” before moving into the big time with his world famous show.
With time and technology, the day of the traveling entertainers waned in general, and the demand for skilled shooting demonstrations was hard-hit. These days, there are probably more people doing traveling shows demonstrating Yo-Yo skills than marksmanship skills. I recently had the chance to watch a pair of brothers from Minnesota who are keeping this faded tradition alive, the only touring pair of exhibition shooters now active in the USA.
Called simply, Gould Brothers Exhibition Shooting, Steve and Aaron Gould travel the country and make a living demonstrating their shooting skills, trick shots and showmanship.
Aaron was a lifelong shooter, moving into shooting sports from a start as an avid hunter. Steve was just the opposite. He didn’t have a passion for hunting and shooting as youth or teenager. It wasn’t until Steve was just about out of college he followed his older brother to a range one day, afterwhich they began to shoot together regularly.
It’s the video age and one day Aaron happened on a video of fellow Minnesotan, Tom Knapp, who was by then, arguably the most famous modern day exhibition shooter in the country. He marveled at both the skill and showmanship, Knapp melded together in his performances. He and Steve then started trying to recreate some of the trick shots Knapp had perfected over the years. Most of these involved throwing (by hand) one or more clay targets and shooting them from a variety of positions, from laying down, to standing, shooting from the hip, holding the gun over their head, even bending over backwards.
They don’t make any bones about basing their own show on the sort of performances made famous by Tom Knapp. They became friends with Knapp who encouraged them to “turn pro.” It’s not as though he had a lot of competition.
Six years ago they did just that. They quit their “real jobs” and went on the road. Aaron told me between travel and doing their shows, they are on the road about 200 days per year. The rest of the time they are home with their wives and children - and practicing. He estimated they fire about 60-thousand shotshells each year, honing their skills and trying to add more tricks to their repertoire. One of Aaron’s goals is to break Tom Knapp’s world record of hand-throwing ten clays, then shooting all ten with ten shots before they hit the ground. “I’ve done 10 in practice,” he said, “but I can’t do it regularly enough to include it in the show.”
He did seven in the live show I watched and that’s impressive enough. Steve and Aaron have an large number of YouTube videos. Go to youtube.com and search for Gould Brothers Exhibition Shooting.