The Peoria Blackbird


by Terry Hogan


Fred Kimble was his name.  Clay pigeons were his claim to fame.  They were called the "Peoria Blackbird".  The name’s a shame.  He was from Knoxville. Perhaps they should have been called the Knoxville Nuthatch. But I suppose like a good storyteller, I should begin at the beginning.


"It was a dark and stormy night."  Of course this has nothing to do with the Peoria Blackbird, but both Snoopy and I believe a good story begins that way*. 


Back before there were clay pigeons, there were pigeons.  And in the name of sport, real pigeons were captured and then released to be blown to bits by "sportsmen" shooting shotguns at these feathered targets. These events were called "trapshooting" and had their roots in England in the early 1800's.  They were called trapshoots because traps were used to hold the live passenger pigeons until it was time for them to meet a near-certain death.  But before "trapshoots", it was still a sport that was "old hat". It was old hat as the pigeons were placed in holes in the ground and old hats were placed over the tops of the holes.  When it was time for a pigeon to be released, the old hat was pulled aside, by the pull of a string tied to the hat. The pigeon, sensing a chance at freedom, flew from his position of relative safety to death.  


Of course there were folks who didn't really care to see these birds blown into feather dust by the upper crust sportsmen, but this probably had little to do with the change. As we all know, the passenger pigeons were all killed. And they were the primary target used in the United States. This extinction made the future use of passenger pigeons as objects to be killed, problematic.


In the U.S., a guy named Charles Portlock came up with the idea of shooting glass balls as an alternative to pigeons.  This was soon after the Civil War (1866), when it was no longer acceptable practice for people in blue coats to shoot people in gray coats, and the reverse.  He got the idea from Japanese glass floats on fishing nets.  He is also supposed to have been the inventor of a glass ball launching device, of sorts. Clear glass balls apparently didn't provide a good target or the right degree of satisfaction to the sportsmen.  So they tried colored balls.  They tried balls with feathers glued to them.  They tried balls with feathers inside them.  They even put gunpowder inside the ball to get a bigger bang out of the sport. But alas, shooting feathers off of balls, or glass balls off of feathers, failed to bring satisfaction to these sportsmen. 


But the balls were easy to hit. They traveled in straight lines and at fairly constant speeds.  Easy targets made good shooters. Annie Oakley once broke 4,772 out of 5,000 glass balls.  She must have terrorized the men the way she could shoot balls.  But it was just too simple.  Something had to be done.


The next evolutionary step after the loss of the passenger pigeons and boring glass balls stuffed with feathers was a clay pigeon. The clay pigeon was invented by George Ligowsky of Cincinnati.  Made of baked clay, the targets were very hard. It was pure clay, a thoroughbred clay pigeon.  But it showed its ancestry and failed to satisfactorily explode like a real pigeon.  It lacked that needed feedback of a puff of feathers drifting to the earth.


Along came Fred Kimble of Knoxville, Illinois.  Remember Fred?  I started the article with him. In or near 1884, Fred came up with a better idea.  He invented the composition clay target. Fred and his partner Charlie Stock came up with a clay pigeon made of clay, coal-tar, pitch and apparently some other stuff. (Another source reported that the Peoria Blackbird was a mixture of "river silt and plaster of Paris".) In either case, these composite clay pigeons were shiny black.   He also developed a "trap" to throw these new and improved clay pigeons.  The Peoria Blackbird was better than Ligowsky's clay pigeon because when Kimble's was shot, it nicely broke apart (perhaps resembling exploding feathers).


But Kimble was not done with the shooting business.  He also is attributed as being the inventor of the mallard duck call.  Frankly, I would have bet that the mallard duck came up with it first, but I've been wrong before.  Now that he invented the mallard duck call, so he could call mallards in closer, he needed something to make it easier to kill them all.  He is attributed as being the inventor of the choke-bore shotgun in 1868. To put it simply (and probably therefore wrong) a choke decreases the spread of the shotgun pellets allowing for a tighter pattern.  So if you aim correctly, the shot will travel farther in a tighter pattern, resulting in more pellets hitting the duck.  Now, as a temporary digression, I was shot by a 12 gauge shotgun with full choke. I can attest to its effectiveness. I still carry pellets which upset X-ray technicians. I also can identify with the ducks. But unlike me, the ducks don't have to explain what those silver dots are on the X-ray films. 


Fred Kimble shot to the top of clay pigeon business with his splattering pigeon. He became quite a good shot himself, using the shotgun that he invented. We are sometimes told in old cowboy movies that he who lives by the gun, dies by the gun.  But not Fred. 


Fred died in 1941.  He was 95 years old.


He must have been one tough old bird.



*For those readers who think I may have been having a senior moment, I should explain.  Awards are given annually for the worst written line.  One such line was the above So some years ago, Snoopy (Peanuts comic strip) decided to become a writer, and he started his novel with the above line. I, like Snoopy, always liked the line.



Early History of Organized Trap Shooting.

Manufacture of Early Clay Targets.