A Place in Time

On Schuetzenfest, true love, and the origins of plinking.
by Terry Wieland
(from the May/June 2008 issue)

The little town of Boerne, nestled in the Texas hill country between Austin and San Antonio, is famous for antiques, sauerkraut, and reverence for its German heritage. Driving into town on Highway 87, you immediately see German names everywhere. The streets, the shops, the local directory. And one name that pops up with great regularity is Toepperwein.

If that name rings a bell, it should: Adolph Toepperwein was America’s most famous exhibition shooter from 1900 until the early 1950s. He was also Boerne’s most famous son. And today, the shooting club where Ad Toepperwein got his start still occupies its old range just north of town, hanging on in the face of encroaching housing developments.

The club’s membership is small, its rifles are limited to .22s because of the surrounding houses, and when you walk into the clubhouse you step back in time. But in Boerne, where tradition is almost everything, the shooting club remains part of its treasured heritage, and the results of the weekly shooting matches are dutifully reported in the Boerne Star.

It gives one hope.

Boerne (pronounced Bur-nee, population 6,849) was officially founded in 1852, during the wave of 19th-century German immigration. It’s difficult to believe, now, that immigrants arrived and settled this area barely a decade after the Battle of the Alamo. But they did, and they brought their culture with them.

The town was named after Ludwig Boerne, a writer and political refugee, and his statue stands outside the town library. It’s unclear whether he was the main influence, but the town of Boerne quickly established a reputation for erudition.

“History would have you believe that every farmer carried a volume of Schiller in his overalls,” says the town historian. “This, of course, is an exaggeration; it was every other farmer with a volume of Schiller; the rest carried Goethe.”

Reading and rifles have always gone together, and a major element of German culture and social life throughout the 1800s was target shooting—the legendary Schuetzenfest. German men were en-couraged to become pro- ficient with weapons of war, and target-shooting gatherings took on a life and ritual all their own. This passion was transplanted to North America virtually everywhere Germans settled, from New England through Pennsylvania, as far west as Denver and down into Texas.

The Boerne Shooting Club—Schuetzenverein—was founded in 1864, and the schuetzen club- house was being built just about the same time as Boerne’s town hall.

Rifle shooting, as practiced by the Germans, is highly ritualized, stylized, and formalized—or at least as much as it can be given the prodigious beer consumption that always accompanied the schuetzenfests. It was not uncommon for a match to be decided more by the shooter’s capacity than capability.

There were variations, and the sport did evolve, but the classic schuetzen match is conducted with elaborate single-shot rifles, lovingly and expertly crafted for one purpose: shooting offhand at targets 200 meters distant. And one purpose means just that: A glance at one of the surviving rifles tells you this firearm could not be used for hunting, or
even for shooting from any position other than offhand.

The German schuetzen rifle, whether made in Germany or Austria, Switzerland or the Czech regions, has a long, heavy barrel, a palm rest for the left hand, highly specialized iron sights, and a buttstock whose shape defies description. They typically have extreme drop and a deep fish-belly, a high cheek piece, and a sweeping crescent butt plate with long extensions under and over the arm to hold the rifle on the shoulder.

Because so many American gunsmiths were German, this taste in rifles had an influence on American gunmaking and styles for the next century. Many of the features found on some shotguns, such as the L.C. Smith, can be traced to the specialized schuetzen styling. To call it elaborate is to understate by several degrees.

To those of us who grew up believing only the austere English style was appropriate for a fine gun, schuetzen rifles are florid and even excessive. But there is no question that they shoot exceedingly well.

Germans weren’t the only people enamored of rifle shooting in this era. The English and Irish were as well, and in the years immediately following the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899– 1902) rifle clubs sprang up, with government encouragement, all over England. This was the era of the great transatlantic shooting rivalries (peaceful, for once!), with English and Irish teams competing against the Americans at Creedmoor and other legendary shooting ranges in the northeastern United States. In turn, Americans sailed to England to compete at Bisley.

The rifles used in those matches were more typically English style (epitomized by the Rigby single-shots) while the Americans countered with Sharps rifles, Winchester falling-blocks, Ballards, and the like.

Hard as it is to believe today, these matches, whether local, national, or global, were big news. They received extensive newspaper coverage, scores were published every week, the skilled shots were celebrities known far beyond their own towns, and the matches themselves drew huge weekend crowds.

While big cities had large shooting ranges, smaller towns had their own scaled-down clubs, and gradually a considerable crossover took place between the German shooting traditions and the Anglo-American—so much so that it becomes hard to trace who was doing what in the history books. While the great schuetzen gunmakers had names like Schoyen, Schalk, and Zischang, the greatest of them all was Harry M. Pope. Nationalistic rivalries were forgotten in the intense competition to make better, more accurate rifles and post higher scores. And it didn’t really matter whose rules were whose.

An interesting facet of target shooting through the late 1800s was the evolution of the rifles themselves. Initially, .40-caliber rifles dominated, but these gave way to .38s (especially the great .38-55) and later the .32-40. Recoil was the concern; a rifle that rears back and smacks you is no aid to accurate shooting. At the same time, distances became shorter, and eventually 200 meters (220 yards) became the standard target distance for both offhand and “rest” shooting.

The targets themselves were designed, redesigned, and argued over, and eventually a standard was reached that allowed scores from different clubs to be evaluated with a common yardstick.

The rules of 1900 were intensely demanding for the shooters. The usual group was 10 shots, and some required as many as 25 shots, not five like today. The goal was both to have a small group and to place well in the scoring rings. Group size was measured by pinning
a string to the center of the bull, and then taking measurements to each shot. The distances were added together, and the shortest string won the match.

The Boerne Schuetzenverein was originally built smack in the center of town, behind the Phillip Hotel, the town’s social center. But as Boerne grew, so did concern about flying bullets, even those as well directed as every Schuetzenmeister would insist upon. In 1896, the club moved to the edge of town, but civilization followed close behind, and in 1913 the club purchased six acres from one of its members and built a whole new range well out of town on what is known to this day as Shooting Club Road.

The new club facilities included a range and clubhouse, of course, but the members also built a dance hall, and later expanded it to accommodate larger crowds. The shooting club was the social focus of Boerne and its residents.

Two of the club’s founding members were named Toepperwein, Paul and E. A. F. The latter was probably Ferdinand, a gunsmith and father to Adolph, who was born in 1869.

Young Adolph grew up shooting rifles. His father died when he was 13, and Ad moved to San Antonio where he took a variety of jobs. After seeing an exhibition of trick shooting by
W. F. “Doc” Carver, Toepperwein buckled down to perfect his own skills. In 1889 he quit his job and went to New York. For the next eight years, he toured with a circus as a trick shooter, and in 1901 began a 50-year relationship with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

Events then followed thick and fast.

Shortly after starting work with Winchester, Toepperwein toured one of their plants. There he met Elizabeth Servaty, a 19-year-old employee, and fell instantly in love. They married and Ad began teaching her to shoot, although she had never fired a gun in her life. Elizabeth Toepperwein was
a natural, and soon they were touring as a husband-and-wife trick-shooting team.

The Toepperweins appeared together at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and began setting one astounding record after another. In 1906, shooting a .22 rifle, Ad broke 19,900 out of 2,000 hand-thrown wooden blocks over a three-day exhibition. The following year he did the same trick but in a marathon of 681⁄2 hours, breaking 8,000 blocks without a miss and missing only four of the next 5,000.

During her initial tutelage, Elizabeth was shooting at tin cans with a .22. After several tries, she hit one and said to Ad, “I plinked it,” referring to the distinctive sound of bullet hitting can. The name stuck in more ways than one: Elizabeth henceforth was known as Plinky, and the practice of shooting at informal targets like tin cans is now universally known as “plinking.”

Plinky Toepperwein set a few shooting records of her own, becoming both the first woman to qualify as a national marksman with the U.S.
military rifle (the Springfield .30-06) and the first woman to break 100 straight at trap. For a time she held
the world endurance trapshooting record, breaking 1,952 clay birds out
of 2,000 thrown, in five hours and
20 minutes.

Annie Oakley, easily the most famous female trick shooter of all time, once told Plinky Toepperwein, “You’re the greatest shot I’ve ever seen.” Mrs. Toepperwein may well have been a better all-round shot than her husband, but there’s no record that they ever held a contest to see. Very wise.

The German shooting clubs thrived until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, when a combination of changing tastes in shooting and anti-German sentiment forced many to shut down.

The club in Boerne clung to the old ways with its German name, and even insisted on keeping all its club records in German. In 1934, it became the Boerne Shooting Club, and so it remains.

Today, almost a hundred years after moving to its present location, the Boerne club still holds weekly and monthly matches, competing against similar clubs in and around
San Antonio.

One steaming Sunday afternoon in July I paid them a visit, looking at the clubhouse with its ancient photographs and club awards, wandering through the dance hall with its piano crouching hopefully, waiting for the next dance.

Because of its heritage, the Boerne facilities are strange and arcane to a shooter accustomed to modern rifle ranges and bench-rest shooting. Now limited to .22 rifles only, at a range of 100 yards, the Boerne club still uses the old methods of shooting and scoring. A target master sits down in the butts, behind a solid brick wall, to mark each shot. The shooters rest their rifles on a series of wooden steps, depending on how tall they are, bracing the rifle’s forend against the wood and leaning into the rifle to steady it.

There were only a half-dozen shooters in attendance the day I was there. Heat takes its toll, and Texas in July is no picnic. But under the huge old trees, shooting from the shaded veranda, it was a remarkably pleasant way to pass a Sunday afternoon—as it has been in Boerne, Texas, since 1864.


Spanish Best is one of several books by Terry Wieland. You can find it and other titles by him at Amazon.com.    

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