The Showman Shooter From Somerville
Herb Parsons didn’t have an ear-piercing voice like Julia Child’s. And he may not have gone galloping around the kitchen like Graham Kerr, nor performed the gourmet feats of Chef Tell.
Still, with the right kind of studio, he could have taken television cooking to spectacular heights.
The set would have been an expensive one, of course—long enough to outdistance a bullet from a .30-.30, and tall enough so a load of No 6s wouldn’t perforate the ceiling. That’s because Herb Parsons had a unique way of “cooking.” Who else do you know that whipped up an omelet with a Model 12 and chopped his slaw with a high-powered rifle?
Indeed, everything in Herb Parsons’ life was unique. He was an expert marksman with shotgun and rifle, a champion game caller, consultant to the movie industry, showman, and wingshot supreme. The fact that hunters still tell Herb Parsons stories today, over a quarter-century after his death, should give you an idea of the reputation he established.
Parsons was one of the last of the great exhibition shooters, those quick-triggered celebrities who pleased the crowds, and in so doing, were walking advertisements for the shooting industry. In this era of sports saturation, when entire nations can switch from touchdown to home run with a flick of the knob, it is hard to imagine that exhibition shooters used to pack’em in at every stop. But from the mid-1800s until several years after World War II, these perfectionists fired hundreds of millions of rounds—all without benefit of pom-pom girls and instant replay.
Parsons was a shooter from the start. He was born on a farm in Fayette County, Tennessee, in 1908. Fortunately, his was a hunting family. At the tender age of seven, he was given his first gun, a Winchester .22 single shot.
Too young for such a potent weapon? Not when you consider this is the same lad who took the rifle and slew himself a bobwhite quail. On the wing.
Shooting became an obsession. While other boys in his area were saving their pennies for sweets, Parsons tucked his coins away for ammunition. When hunting seasons were in progress, he stayed in the fields and forests near his home. When they closed, he practiced shooting walnuts out of the air. Then he progressed to the local coal yard, where he regularly turned handthrown lumps into black dust.
When he was a freshman in high school at Somerville, Parsons got the opportunity to see Adolph Topperwein of Winchester put on a demonstration. His fate was sealed. Parsons dedicated his life to mastering the sport of shooting for an audience.
Mankind’s appetite for fancy firepower had been whetted decades earlier. In the 1870s, Adams H. Bogardus, an Illinois market hunter, set the pace by bursting glass balls out of the air. On July 4, 1877, he commenced firing with a passion. In 75 minutes, he fired 1000 times and missed only 27. Two months later, Bogardus tried another thousand; this time, 17 escaped his pellets. Before the year was up, he ran through a third thousand, shattering 990. And the race was on.
In less than a decade, exhibition shooters were everywhere. New Yorker A.H. Ruth broke 984 of 1000 glass balls with a rifle. A dentist, Dr. W.F. Carver, missed 660 of 60,000, then put away his instruments and joined Wild Bill Cody’s traveling show. And a young girl—Phoebe Mozee of Darke County, Ohio—ran successive strings of 943/1000 and 4772/5000. You know her today as Annie Oakley.
When the razzle-dazzle of wild west shows ended, arms and ammunition companies got into the act. They put dozens of top-notch shooters on the road, including Topperwein and his wife “Plinky” (Winchester), Ed McGivern (Colt and Smith and Wesson), Billy Hill (Remington), Dave Flannigan (Peters), and Ernie and Dot Lind (Winchester-Western). But perhaps it was Parsons who rose above them all in celebrity status, especially among hunters. He possessed a flair for the spectacular, a gift of gab, and he also knew how to put birds on the ground.
Parsons’ career began in 1929, when Winchester hired him as a salesman. The entire state of Mississippi was his territory. You don’t have to guess how quickly he learned to combine shooting skills with salesmanship. Herb Parsons, boy-wonder shooter turned fast-firing salesman, was about to hit the big times.
The break came in the early ’30s when Topperwein’s failing vision caused him to look for a successor. Parsons was a natural, and spent a great deal of time with the master, perfecting his own routine. Like Topperwein, Parsons was a stickler for realism. He was an exhibition shooter, not a “trick” shot who performed staged or rigged acts. In addition, he knew the more pizazz a shooting show could have, the more a crowd would love it.
In the 1940s, Parsons gave 238 exhibitions to soldiers at military installations. He served as a gunnery instructor during the war. And when hostilities ceased, he hit the circuit for Winchester, putting on thousands of demonstrations. Doubtless, he was the greatest ambassador of goodwill the shooting industry had in modern times.
Parsons’ feats were legion. He would toss seven clay pigeons into the sky and shatter the last while pieces from the first were hitting the ground. He would “center” a handful of eggs between his legs, wheel around with a shotgun and scramble ’em, one at a time. He would suspend a can of gasoline over a candle inside a 55-gallon barrel, then render the whole works to a towering inferno from a safe distance. Using a mirror and two rifles, he would break two targets at the same instant—one in front, the other directly behind him.
Lucian Cary, the late gun writer for True magazine, witnessed a Parsons demonstration in the early 1950s and filed this account: “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 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, I had trouble keeping up with them. He used a .22 Hornet and a .348 lever-action rifle among others. He always used a rifle powerful enough to explode an orange or grapefruit into a cloud of juice or turn cabbage into cole slaw. When he shot at 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 clay targets that were standing on edge. He shot fast and talked fast apparently without effort. Bullets flew out of his rifles and words out of his mouth in a steady stream.”
Parsons kept excellent rapport with his audience: “They’re not hard to hit folks, just easy to miss!” He’d jabber away, casually throwing metal washers into the air and sending them into the clouds with a “zing.” Suddenly, one would fall to the ground, untouched. The crowd would groan.
“Waaaal, how ’bout that!” Parsons would dead-pan. “I musta shot through the hole.” Sympathetic laughter.
With that, he would produce a postage stamp, lick it, and affix it over the hole. Up the washer would go again. Another shot. And down it would come without a sound. Someone from the crowd would be asked to retrieve it. Sure enough, the stamp would be perfectly centered.
His greatest feat was unplanned. It occurred at a half-mile long race track near Blue Hill, Maine. While Parsons was performing, a flock of crows sailed toward some trees at the other end of the track. They were mere pepper specks in the distance.
“What’s beyond those woods?” he yelled to the audience. “Nothing but more woods,” someone hollered back. “They go clean to Canada.”
With that, Parsons grabbed a .30-06, swung it like he was shooting quail, and touched off a round. Seconds later, a crow exploded in a shower of feathers.
“Well,” Parsons shrugged, “that bullet had to go somewhere.”
Herb Parsons became friends with stars of the era. He shot trap with Clark Gable and Roy Rogers, hunted ducks with Wallace Berry and Andy Devine, and did the trick shooting for “Winchester ’73,” starring Jimmy Stewart. At the height of his career, Winchester was booking him three years in advance. In 1954, a movie about his feats, “Showman Shooter,” was produced. An estimated 30 million have viewed it over the years.
Not all of Parsons’ shooting was done for display, either. He was also quite competitive on the trap range. In 1954, he won the professional division at the Grand American trapshoot, and for years, he was a member of Sports Afield’s trap and skeet All-American teams.
But more than anything else, Herb Parsons was a hunter. He is credited with originating the popular, “Go hunting with your boy today and you won’t have to hunt for him tomorrow,” and practiced what he preached with sons Lynn and Jerry. His trophies included near-record Alaskan brown and black bears, moose, antelope and many white tailed and mule deer. Nonetheless, small game and waterfowl were his true loves. He was an expert quail shot, but his skills doubled in the duck blind. In 1949 and ’50 he was international duck-calling champion. He was national champ in ’50 and ’51, retiring undefeated. No shooting exhibition was ever completed without a medley of duck and crow calls. His duck and crow-calling records were popular sellers for years and now are eagerly sought by collectors.
Parsons enjoyed good times in the blind, as well. Herman Taylor Jr., a past president of Ducks Unlimited, frequently hunted with Parsons in southwest Louisiana.
“One day, Herb and Win Hawkins (another longtime DU supporter) and I were in the blind together,” Taylor recalled. “Herb was shooting a Model 42 Winchester. He never gave Win a chance. Every time the ducks would decoy, he’d raise up with the little .410 and—pop, pop, pop—down they’d go. Right before it was time to quit, though, he said he’d give ol’ Win a break.”
“Ah never seen a man who could shoot like him,” said one guide, the late Horace Mhire. “Dat man was a machine. He never missed. After de hunt, he’d start t’rowin’ sings in de air. Little balls and eggs and stuff lak dat. Herb, he would toss up a cabbage, den he would look over his shoulder and ax how you wanted your slew chopped. B’fore it would hit de group’, he’d grind it to bits.”
On July 19, 1959, Parsons underwent surgery for a hiatal hernia. A blood clot developed and he suffered a heart attack. He died four hours later, age 51.
His sons have scattered with careers of their own. Dr. Lynn Parsons is a surgeon in Ohio. Dr. Jerry Parsons is a horticulturist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service and teaches at Texas A&M.
But even though the chapter on fast-firing shooters has closed, Herb Parsons’ name lives on. A Tennessee state lake in Fayette County is named in his memory. Copies of “Showman Shooter” are still being shown. He occasionally is brought back to life in the outdoor columns of newspapers. He was inducted posthumously into the Trapshooting Hall of Fame at Vandalia, Ohio, and is an enshrinee of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the Tennessee State Trapshooting Association Hall of Fame. A dedicated display of his firearms is in the Cody Firearms Museum of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Ducks Unlimited headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee displays his duck calling championship trophies.
“Herb has been gone over 40 years,” said a family member. You’d think people would have forgotten, but they don’t. It’s really a tribute to the greatest shot who ever lived.”