On my recent foray to San Antonio, Texas, I had on my list of things to do– all walkable from my hotel– a visit to the Buckhorn Saloon and Texas Ranger Museum not far from The Alamo. It was here that I “met” a very intriguing couple, Ad and Plinky Toepperwein.
A native Texan, Adolph Toepperwein (1869-1962) took his childhood love of rifles all the way and became a renowned trick shooter. He toured on the vaudeville circuit, and in 1901 began a 50-year relationship with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company as an exhibition shooter. It was during a visit to one of their manufacturing plants that he met a 19-year old employee, Elizabeth Servaty, and fell instantly in love with her. He was 34. While Ad’s sharpshooting career is totally amazing of itself, I’m going to introduce you today to his bride, a pretty amazing shot all on her own.
As soon as Elizabeth, a Connecticut native, married Ad Toepperwein in 1903, he taught his bride to shoot. She had never fired a gun in her life. During her training, she shot at tin cans with a .22, and after several tries, made her first hit, telling Ad, “I plinked it.” Referring of course to the distinctive sound of bullet hitting tin. Ever thereafter, she was known as Plinky. Practice-shooting at easy targets like cans is today known across the world as “plinking.”
To quote Ad himself, Plinky was “a natural.” Within three weeks of her first lesson, she joined his act, shooting one-inch pieces of chalk from between his fingers and empty shells off his fingertips.
She and Ad began touring as a husband and wife trick-shooting team in a career that spanned 40 years. At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, they set one incredible record after another. They shot while standing on their heads and while lying on their backs. They broke two targets at the same time, one in front and one behind using a mirror. Some of Plinky’s aerial targets included marbles, metal discs, apples, oranges and eggs.
Not only did Plinky please the crowds, but she also set records in the process. She was the first woman to break 100 straight targets at trapshooting, and she repeated this amazing feat more than 200 times, often with a twelve-gauge Winchester model 97 pump gun.
She also earned the world endurance trapshooting record by hitting 1,952 clay birds out of 2,000 thrown in five hours and twenty minutes. And this time span included the time needed to cool the gun barrel and unpack targets!
Celebrity shooter Annie Oakley, a member of the Trapshooting Hall of Fame, once told Plinky, “Mrs. Top . . . you’re the greatest shot I’ve ever seen.” In 1969, Plinky was inducted into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in Vandalia, Ohio.
Although trapshooting was her main focus, Plinky was equally skilled with rifle, pistol and shot gun. Elizabeth Servaty Toepperwein became the first woman in United States History to qualify as a national marksman with the military rifle. Amidst all this, she gave birth to and raised son Lawrence, who sadly predeceased her in 1940 at only 36 years of age.
Despite her amazing talent, Plinky was proud to never have shot an animal. And while it’s informally believed she was a better all-around shot than her trick shooter husband, they never held a contest to find out for sure. Plinky died in her San Antonio home with her husband at her bedside, on January 27, 1945, and was buried in Mission Burial Park, San Antonio.
After Ad’s death on March 4, 1962, he was laid to rest beside his wife. Shortly thereafter, a Toepperwein museum housing the memorabilia of the couple’s many years of marksmanship was displayed on the grounds of The Lone Star Brewery in San Antonio. In late 1998 the Toepperwein Gallery was moved to the Buckhorn Saloon and Texas Ranger Museum a few blocks downtown from The Alamo, where I came to know Plinky and Ad.
How about you? Anybody ever gone trapshooting? (I tried at the Bandera Gun Club and was a total failure.) Anybody have a childhood hobby you’ve carried into adulthood, or even become a pro at it?
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