What are target balls?

I'm glad you asked!

By Ralph Finch

Nowadays, hardly anyone knows what they are, but more than 100 years ago millions of people knew. From across the United States, throughout England, France, Germany, Italy and other European nations and on down to Australia, people young and old saw target balls in use. Common people to heads of state — U.S. presidents, Queen Victoria, the German kaiser, to name a few — saw target balls fly through the sky.

So, again, what are target balls?

You are probably familiar with trap shooting — the firing with a shotgun at round, clay disks thrown into the air — and perhaps you have even done it. But while clay shooting has been around for more than a hundred years, what came before it?

target ball shooters image

The colorful circus and wild west show brochures and posters, as well as the few period advertisements, present a rather glorified view of ball shooting. Its less-exciting reality is perhaps shown in this photo of two ordinary people shooting a few targets out of a very early and rather primitive trap (which seems to be using a rubber band to toss the ball a few feet). Perhaps the photo shows more: The house in back is large, indicating a rather financially successful farmer. The leaves are off the trees, suggesting late fall, when the summer crops are in and there is a little time to relax before settling in for winter.

The No. 1 answer is live bird shooting, where thousands and thousands of birds, particularly pigeons (which is why clay disks are still called "clay pigeons") were flung from traps and blown to bits. But from around 1876 to 1885, because of a decline in the availability of live birds as well as changing social attitudes, glass balls often were the target of choice, particularly in exhibition, circus and Wild West show shooting. These balls, similar in size and appearance to today's glass Christmas tree ornaments, were the "only substitute ever invented for the living bird," something that Annie Oakley is said to have had silk streamers stuffed inside, something that in one summer the Bohemian Glass Works (in New York City) was making at the rate of 1,250,000 over six months' time, something Buffalo Bill Cody chased after on horseback, "old ladies" darned socks on and babies allegedly cut their teeth on — all according to an 1878 ad! In their heyday, target balls sold for a little over a penny each; today one ball has sold for as much as $28,500, although "common" balls, generally in amber or blue, can be acquired for as little as $100.

Purdy Trap image

This appears to be the trap the two men above are using. (Items that finally went into production didn't always look like those shown in the early ads.)

These glass orbs, once shot at by the hundreds and hundreds of thousands, are now hunted by a growing number of collectors for their rarity and their link to a colorful era long past. As a collectible, the diversity of patterns, colors and countries of origin, as well as the constantly increasing value, combine to make target balls a hobby that can't miss. Need more information?

I admit that I have no idea how or why target balls took over my life, but one has to accept one's fate! I am a collector who not only publishes a three-times-a-year, 68-page newsletter — "On Target!" — for target ball collectors ($40 U.S.; UK subscription is £30), but I am also half way through a 600-page book detailing the history (and value) of target balls and exhibition shooting in the 1870s-1890s.

I'll be happy to talk target balls or attempt to answer your questions; please write to me at: 34007 Hillside Court, Farmington Hills, MI USA 48335-2513, or call me from early morning to late evening at (248) 476-4893. If I don't answer, please leave your phone number and a message and I will return your call. You can also send me an email.

(I will buy and, occasionally, sell target balls. Plus, I am interested in buying target ball throwers.)

Ralph Finch is a longtime target ball enthusiast and collector, world traveler, and oneday author of the finest treatise ever seen on the subject of target balls. He publishes the 68-page On Target! newsletter three times a year, though people beg him to brighten their lives more often.