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SHOWMAN SHOOTER

By
Lucian Cary, TRUE Magazine, July, 1954

The Story of Herb Parsons,
the "Wizard of Winchester"

click here for a photo gallery
Text and Images scanned by Wilbur Watje

Herb Parsons can toss seven clay targets into the air at once and shoot every one of them before any hit the ground. But there's a lot more to being a successful exhibition shooter than just knowing how to handle a gun

Herb Parsons, who does exhibition shooting all over the country for
Winchester and Western Cartridge, is as well known for his patter as for
his shooting. He will talk for fifty five minutes with only one pause of
a few seconds while firing up to 700 shots with eight or ten different
guns. What he says varies from an earnest plea to keep our country
strong and great to the most outrageous corn.

An executive of a competing arms company said to me,"That guy is just
too brash." Then he grinned and added, "I guess I wouldn't think so if
he were shooting for us."

I was as much interested in how Parsons works as in his shooting. When
you come to think of it, putting on an exhibition of shooting isn't too
simple no matter how good a shot you are. Parsons said he thought Ad
Topperwein, now retired, was the best all time shot among exhibition
shooters. But he thought some of Topperwein's routines were too slow.
One of these, copied by many other exhibition shooters, was to draw the
profile of an Indian or a public character on a sheet of tin with a
succession of .22 bullets. This, Parsons thinks, takes too much time. He
wants his show to move.

We went to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was putting on a show in the
middle of a trap shoot lasting several days at the Jacksonville Gun
Club. Parsons has a station wagon in which he travels with his
equipment. On the way to the gun club we stopped at a supermarket where
Parsons wanted to collect what he called his "groceries." He bought
oranges, grapefruit, potatoes, a couple of small cabbages, a turnip and
several dozen eggs.

The trap shoot suffered from the weather, which was cold for
Jacksonville, from the wind, which made the clay targets do unexpected
things, and from trap trouble which caused delays. Parsons had his
equipment set up hours before the last squad of the day had shot.

His station wagon is pretty well filled aft of the front seat with a
big plywood box. When Parsons let the tailgate down and the lid of the
box, I saw pigeonholes containing some sixteen different guns. The
pigeonholes were lined with sheepskin, the wool on. Each compartment was
marked with the model number of the gun that went into it. Thus the
weapons rode well and yet were quickly available. Another compartment
held three metal bridge tables. Put together they made one table 71/2
feet long. The dark blue table cover was ornamented with the names of
Winchester and Western in red. There was room for ammunition and several
kinds of targets, including washers, marbles, clay balls about the size
of golf balls and made of the same material as the clay targets used on
trap and skeet fields, and small wood cubes.

Parsons set up a pair of steel poles with a rope connecting them. In
the middle of the rope he fastened what looked like two clay targets
taped back to back. I hadn't the faintest idea what this was for.
Another gadget he set up looked like a piece of iron pipe a foot and a
half long and an inch and a half in diameter. I didn't know what that
was for either. He had a dozen or more empty quart oil cans that he had
filled with water. He set these up in a row. And between the oil cans he
set clay targets on edge in the grass. He loaded a number of 10 shot
magazines for a Winchester Model 63 self loading rifle. Finally he
checked his loud speaker. When working he uses a lapel mike. Thus he can
talk to a large crowd without raising his voice.

Earl Cramor, a Western Winchester representative in Florida and
Georgia, helped Parsons set up shop and stood by for the show. Parsons
likes to have an assistant to keep the crowd at a safe distance. He
doesn't want small boys to pick up the guns he has laid out on the long
table ready for use.

Parsons opened the show with the Winchester Model 63 self loading .22.
He told the crowd what the rifle was and began shooting at things he
tossed in the air. His first targets were small cubes of wood. Usually
these split when they were hit. When a cube didn't split but merely
jumped ahead at the shot Parsons hit it again with a second shot. He
tossed up washers, marbles and the clay balls shooting fast and talking
as he shot.

Then he picked up a .30-30 and began tossing oranges in the air. He
changed guns so often that I had trouble keeping track of which gun he
was shooting. He had a .22 Hornet, and a .348 lever action rifle among
others. He always used a rifle powerful enough to explode an orange or a
grapefruit into a cloud of juice, or turn a cabbage into coleslaw. When
he shot at the cans of water they virtually exploded. He picked up a
Winchester .351 self loading rifle with a 10 shot clip and, shooting
from the hip, broke the clay targets standing on edge with great speed.

He shot fast and talked fast though apparently without effort. Bullets
flew out of his rifles and words out of his mouth in a steady stream. He
picked up three clay targets, put them together in a pile, tossed them
high in the air and broke them with three quick shots from a pump
shotgun. He said to the crowd that if he could break three he should be
able to break one more.

He tossed up four and broke them. He said he really ought to break
five. He did. He tried six and broke them. Then he said if he could
break six he should be able to break seven. He did.

This last feat is difficult because of the speed necessary. The shots
follow each other faster with the pump gun than they would with a
semiautomatic shotgun. Occasionally a shot will break more than one
target which isn't what Parsons wants. It is difficult to toss up the
targets so they spread well apart.

It turned out that the piece of red pipe was a mortar. Earl Cramor
fired it when Parsons gave him the signal. Bombs burst high in the air
and out floated a black cloth that sailed on the wind. Parsons shot a
series of .30-06 traces bullets at it. The spectators could see the
bright red sparks of the tracers going through the cloth.

Parsons made his final shot at the clay target, or pair of clay
targets, hanging in the middle of the rope connecting the two steel
poles. When the shot struck, out came a small American flag. Parsons
said a few earnest words about keeping our country strong and great and
the show was over. I noticed that he was sweating a little in spite of
the chill in the air. He'd been working hard.

Parsons was putting on his show at Ocala, Florida, two days later. I
wanted to see it again, since it is never the same twice. Besides,
Parsons said we'd get some crow shooting on the drive of 90 or 100 miles
from Jacksonville to Ocala. Parsons has twice won the national
duck-calling contest at Stuttgart Arkansas, and an international contest
as well. He also knows how to call crows. He has made phonograph records
of both his duck calling and his crow calling that anyone interested in
either should have.

We started out for Ocala at a reasonable hour maybe around 8:30 in the
morning. As soon as we got well out of Jacksonville on the main highway,
Parsons began using his crow call in connection with the loudspeaker.
After a few minutes he said, "Look back." I looked back and was
astonished to see five crows following the car down the cement highway.

Parsons stopped the car alongside the road and we went into a patch of
pine woods and palmettos. He picked a place where we were pretty well
covered with an open space in front of us. He told me to have my gun
ready so I would move it as little as possible when I shot. Then he
began calling. He called persistently for maybe five minutes. I thought
it was no soap and relaxed my attention just as Parsons shot. I saw the
crow only as it was falling to his gun. Parsons had shot the leader, or
lookout, which it is well to do if you are going to get more crows. If
you miss the leader he's going to warn the rest. As it was, more crows
came in. Parsons shot four more crows. Between watching him and my
natural slowness I shot only one.

I was a bit handicapped by shooting a 20 gauge Browning over-and-under
bored for skeet while Parsons was shooting a new Winchester Model 12 in
12 gauge. My Browning is fine for a crow coming in under 30 yards. But
it's too open bored to be reliable beyond 35 yards. However, the real
difference was in the quickness with which Parsons sighted a crow and
his shooting skill.

We stopped off half a dozen times on our way to Ocala. Parsons insisted
on going ahead of me and asked me to follow in his tracks. He said we
were in rattlesnake country and he was more likely to see a snake than I
was. I appreciated his thoughtfulness more after he took me to Silver
Springs, where Ross Allen keeps his snakes. There I saw rattlesnakes
strike. Parsons said my eyes bugged out so he could have hung his hat on
them. I was immensely curious. I wanted to see just how a rattlesnake
does it. Those I saw were coiled but a foot or so of the snake's body
behind his, head was in an S curve. The keeper held out a toy balloon
tied to a stick. It was cold and the snakes were torpid. I saw two of
them miss, going under the balloon. But finally one snake got mad
enough, his rattles buzzing, for no fooling. I don't know that he struck
any faster than a good lightweight delivering a left jab. But he was
fast. And the balloon exploded as his fangs hit it. I guess it's a sound
idea to wear snake-proof hoots or leggin's when hunting in Florida,
rather than sneakers.

On one occasion Parsons killed a hawk and half a dozen crows set up
cries of triumph as the hawk fell. Parsons likes to use a hawk call
occasionally while calling crows because crows regard hawks as mortal
enemies and want to gang tip on them. According to my score Parsons
killed thirty-two crows with thirty-five shells. He missed two crows and
once he had to fire a second shot at a crow that was hard hit but
somehow managing to stay up there for the moment. I avoided counting my
misses. But I killed only eight crows.

Parsons had to do a radio interview at Ocala the next clay. I listened
in the control room. The interviewer had a few notes but there was no
script for the half hour. Parsons talked easily and freely. I felt that
the interview had a reality that is often lacking in a prepared radio
program. Parsons answered questions about guns and demonstrated his
crow, duck and hawk calls. Afterward the head of the station said to me,
"That was a radioman's dream of how it should he done."
Click here to listen to the interview.

It rained so hard that day that Parsons thought he couldn't put on his
show. However, he picked up six or eight sticks of dynamite and his
usual supply of groceries. He put the dynamite on the floor of the car,
saying, "If that goes off I'm glad I met you." Actually there was no
danger. You have to hit dynamite pretty hard to explode it.

The rain let up in the afternoon and we drove out to a skeet field
where, considering the weather, there was a good crowd waiting. Parsons,
who was born in Tennessee, put the Tennessee Waltz on the phonograph
while he set up shop. He did one thing I hadn't seen him do before. He
tied an egg carton to a post maybe 75 yards out. I didn't know what this
was for and he was so busy I didn't ask him.

He did many of the same stunts he had done at Jacksonville, with
variations. At one point, shooting at washers he threw in the air with a
.22, he said he would hit one so it fell near the high house of the
skeet field. It did. Then he said the next one would go near the low
house. It did. The only trick was to shoot at one side of the washer on
the left to make it go to the right, on the right to make it go to the
left.

Parsons laid a shotgun on a box. Then, bending over in the position of
a football center about to snap the ball. he threw two eggs between his
legs and behind him, picked up the gun, turned and smashed them both
with two quick shots. He did the same with three eggs.

After that he went quail shooting with "radar" ammunition so he said.
The advantage of radar ammunition is that you can't miss. Radar directs
the gun to the target. Parsons walked along throwing eggs and shooting
from the hip. He seemed infallible but finally on purpose he missed one.
He said, "That was a hen quail the radar only works on cock quail." With
that he threw another egg and smashed it. "You see," he said, "that was
a cock quail."

Toward the end he picked up a .270 and a Weaver scope sight.

He said, "You see that carton of eggs out there. If I don't cut the
string that holds it to the post in three shots I'm going to give a boy
a rifle."

Parsons took rather deliberate aim at the egg carton. When he fired
there was a good healthy explosion as egg carton and post disappeared. I
knew' then what he had done with those sticks of dynamite he had picked
up earlier.

He said, "That was a .270 Silvertip bullet. You see what it did."

No one was fooled by this transparent exaggeration but the crowd liked
it.

Except for filling an egg carton with dynamite or pretending that he is
shooting radar ammunition, there is no trickery in the shooting Parsons
does. Many years ago I saw Buffalo Bill riding a loping horse around a
circus ring and casually breaking glass balls thrown by an assistant
with what looked like a Winchester lever action rifle. He was using
ammunition loaded with fine shot rather than with bullets. He may have
felt that the fine shot wouldn't carry far enough to hurt anybody in the
audience or, being less than good with a rifle, that he could put on a
better show.

Parsons, whose audience is usually composed of shooters, doesn't use
shot cartridges in rifles. He doesn't need to and he couldn't do some of
his stunts with shot cartridges such as the one where he tells in
advance which way he is going to drive a washer with a bullet. He told
me that it would be possible to put on a good stage show while firing
nothing but blanks. This reminded me of a familiar story--the one about
the vaudeville assistant who was asked what he did. He said, "I'm the
guy who blows out the candle when the boss shoots at the wick."

What Parsons does is properly exhibition shooting rather than trick
shooting. The only malarkey is in his patter not in his shooting. Except
for the Model 70 .270 with a scope sight his rifles arc standard factory
models, with factory open sights. The stocks of his shotguns are
slightly modified so they fit him. He showed me a trick he uses when
they aren't. He raises the comb by putting a strip of moleskin adhesive
plaster on it. There are commercial pads made to lace on and raise the
comb of a gun. The trouble is they also increase the thickness, pushing
the cheek of a right-handed man too far to the left and vice versa. The
moleskin is better. You can use two or more thicknesses on top of the
comb if you need to.

Parsons and his wife and his two sons live in Somerville, Tennessee, 40
miles or so from Memphis, in a house that leaves the visitor in no doubt
of what Parsons likes. In common with many men of vigor with good
appetites he is trying to hold his weight down though the meals served
in his home are against him. The night I had dinner with the family the
main dish was wild duck. But there was roast coon too, and I don't know
how many other things besides lima beans. mashed potatoes, a salad,
pickled peaches, corn bread and strawberry shortcake.

The big living room, which Parsons calls a den, has a ceiling that roes
tip to the roof and is lined with pecky cypress. As you go in you face
eight or ten mallard ducks "flying" from near the roof the way they do
when they are coming in to decoys. There is a pair of Winchester 1873
rifles, highly finished, over the fireplace. Another, a rusted relic. is
embedded in the stonework. One of the rugs is the skin of an oversize
Kodiak bear that Parsons shot in Alaska. And all about are mementos of a
busy life.

Parsons has been teaching his sons, Jerry, aged 7, and Lynn, aged 11.
to shoot. He has no intention of bringing either of them up to become
exhibition shooters. He wants them to choose for themselves. But he
wants them to know how to shoot. Last summer. Lynn Parsons, then 10
years old, spent some weeks touring with his father and doing some
exhibition shooting. He wasn't big enough to shuck a Model 12 Winchester
but he could shoot a .410.

I wasn't there but this is what I heard about the way Herb Parsons
introduced Lynn Parsons. The boy, dressed in a white shirt and white
shorts, was sitting in the stand with several hundred Boy Scouts.
Parsons paused in the middle of his show to say, "Friends, I want to
introduce a boy to you."

This was Lynn's signal to start down out of the stand and join his
father. Parsons went on, "He's just an ordinary American boy. I say that
because it's the truth. But that's not the way I feel about it. I feel
he's an extraordinary boy because he's my boy."

They tell me that the pause between the first because and the second
because was beautifully timed and the last words came over with deep
feeling, enhanced by a Tennessee accent.

What the boy did after his father had introduced him was to break clay
targets thrown in the air one at a time, two at a time, three at a time,
four at a time. He did it as calmly as if he were back home on the farm
where his father had taught him to shoot at moving targets.

Herb Parsons used several devices in teaching his son to shoot. He
painted a croquet ball white for a target. He rolled this hard across
the ground. When the boy shot he could see where his shot charge hit the
ground and thus learn how much ahead of the ball he must shoot. Another
lesson was with clay targets thrown low over a pond. Here again the boy
could see where the shot charge went when it didn't break the target. It
was only when the boy had learned to lead a moving target that Parsons
began throwing clay targets up in the air.

Parsons gave me a lesson in shooting at targets thrown in the air. He
is ever so skillful at throwing. He throws targets so you see the whole
target and not just the edge as in skeet and trapshooting. A pair looked
easy. But I did not find it so. For one thing. the range was short where
the pattern of the gun has not opened up. For another, leading a falling
target is tougher than leading a rising or crossing target. I do not
know of any harder shot in the field than one where a bird is going down
fast.

I tended to shoot under falling targets so much so that Parsons checked
my gun and tried it himself. There was nothing the matter with the gun
fit. The trouble was in me.

I asked Parsons how he did a shot I had seen him do in his show. When
he was pretending to be shooting quail with radar ammunition he threw
one egg high in the air, looked around at the crowd as if he didn't know
where it was, turned as it was falling straight down. and broke it.

I asked how he did this, since passing the falling egg with the muzzle
of his gun would hide it.

Parsons said, "I don't follow it straight down and pass it. I slice it.
I start my swing from one side and conic down and across at an angle.
That way I can see it all the time."

Let me explain exactly what he meant. A properly stocked shotgun shoots
a bit high. Thus when you are shooting you see the target above the
muzzle and the center of the shot charge is up where the target is. You
pick up the target, swing from behind it on a line with its flight, and
shoot as you pass it. Your lead is determined by the fact that the
muzzle of your gun is moving faster, with relation to the target, than
the target is. You may or may not see daylight between the muzzle of
your gun and the target as you shoot. Whether you see it or not it must
be there--with one exception. If you are shooting from the No. 7 station
at skeet where the target comes out at your elbow and is rising in a
pretty straight line, you rifle shoot it--that is, you shoot right at
it. You may get a similar shot in the field. In any case you do not lose
sight of the target because you are pointing at the lower edge of it.
You do not blot it out with the muzzle of your gun.

In following a target down straight down you do blot it out as you pass
it. And that's why Parsons starts from one side and comes across as well
as down.

You do not get a falling target in trapshooting if you shoot as fast as
you should. When shooting trap from the 16 yard line you should break
your targets at from 16 to 18 yards from the trap 32 to 34 yards from
the gun and you should establish a rhythm so you break them all at
pretty much the same distance. When you do this you are shooting at
rising targets. This is comparatively easy when the target leaves the
trap at an angle you follow the line of its flight and pass it.

But a target that goes straight away is easily missed in trapshooting.
I asked Parsons why. He said. "Because you shoot under it." It's quite
different from the No. 7 shot from the low house at skeet. The angle is
different because the target is 16 yards from you when it starts not at
your elbow.

There aren't many tricks about shotgun shooting. It's been done for 150
years. The prime law is that you must be ahead of a flying target and
not too low.

There aren't many tricks about shooting things thrown in the air with a
rifle. It's mostly a matter of practice. But Herb Parsons would say that
if you want to practice on moving targets with a rifle you should use
targets that will break when hit. Throw them with your left hand if
you're a right-handed shooter and throw them up. That way your throwing
hand will be handy to clasp onto the fore end and you're instantly ready
to shoot. And, he would add, don't shoot at bottles or any other kind of
glassware. You may get glass in your face if you do and you will
certainly litter the ground with dangerously sharp edges. Moreover,
there is danger of ricocheting. Throw potatoes, preferably round ones;
throw cubes of wood: throw washers; throw charcoal brickettes. But don't
throw anything made of glass.

Parsons is, rather incidentally, a good trap shot. His average on
registered targets runs between 97 and 98 percent. He has been selected
as a member of Jimmy Robinson's All American trap team four the last two
years. He has shot a Winchester Model 21 double barreled gun much of the
time. Nowadays most trap shots use single barrel guns or
over-and-unders. I asked him if he found the side by side double a
disadvantage. He said. "No sir."

Lucian Cary


 


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