Throwback Thursday: Herb Parsons, "Wizard With a Winchester"

Was he the greatest shooter to ever live? Some of his records still stand ...

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posted on March 31, 2022
Herb Parsons standing while holding shotgun

The shooter, Herb Parsons, tossed a steel washer high in the air, quickly raising and firing his Winchester .22 rifle. The washer returned to earth with a bounce, seemingly unscathed. The crowd groaned in sympathy. Over the collective sound, a young boy’s voice rang out in disappointment, “Aw, he missed it.”

“Guess I must have shot through the hole,” exclaimed Parsons with a wide smile.

The crowd tittered, not believing him for an instant. But the unflappable Parsons calmly picked up the washer, pasted a stamp over the hole and tossed it into the air once again. As before, he quickly sighted and shot, and the washer plummeted back to the ground.

Parsons grabbed the washer and held it up for the crowd to see. Sure enough, there was a hole through the stamp, in the exact spot where the washer hole was located. The crowd roared its appreciation.

But this particular trick wasn’t over—not by a long shot. Parsons hurled four more washers into the air, all at once. “Right,” he called as he fired at the first one. The washer jumped and dropped to his right. “Left,” he called the second. Sure enough, it spun off to the left. “Up,” he called quickly as the third washer jumped an additional ten feet into the air. “Spin,” he yelled as the fourth and final washer did a neat little flip.

“It’s the toughest stunt I do,” he would later tell a reporter. “The reason that one’s so hard is that I have to hit the washers on the side to guide them. It’s not hard to hit a coin in the middle, but it’s hard to hit a washer on the side.”

For Herb Parsons, shooting was as natural as breathing. The Tennessee youth bagged his first game—a bobwhite quail on the wing—with a .22 rifle. He was just seven years old. The event turned out to be a defining one, as young Parsons resolved then and there to become a great shooter. All through his childhood he saved his money, not for the candy, toys or movies that his peers yearned for, but for ammunition. He practiced daily. By age nine, he was hunting alone, and by the time he was a junior in high school, he had come to the attention of a Winchester representative as a crack shot.

At 20, he was hired by Winchester as a salesman. By doing a little shooting to show potential buyers what the gun could do, he found his sales increasing quickly. It wasn’t long before Winchester decided Parsons should be a full-time traveling exhibition shooter. His amazing accuracy and gift for comic patter made him a favorite of audiences across the United States.

During World War II, Parsons served as an Air Force gunnery instructor, teaching fighter pilots how to lead an aerial target and infantry soldiers how to squeeze the trigger to achieve the greatest accuracy. He traveled to military bases across the U.S., displaying his remarkable shooting ability to the troops.

After the war it was back to the exhibition circuit for Parsons. But exhibition shooting wasn’t the sum total of Parsons’ accomplishments. He claimed the championship at Grand National Trap Shoot in Vandalia, Ohio; was a member of the All-American trapshooting team, several times over; served as a shooting consultant and off-screen shooter for Hollywood films such as  “Winchester 73,” with actor Jimmy Stuart; was a champion duck caller—twice winning the National Duck Calling Contest at Stuttgart, Arkansas, as well as the International Duck Calling Contest at Crowley, Louisiana.; and was an avid and skilled hunter.

But it was Parsons’ shooting tricks that were the stuff of legend. One of his many crowd pleasers was to bend over and toss three eggs between his legs, then whip around, grab his rifle and shoot all three—“scrambling” them before they hit the ground. In another, he would stand between two targets—one directly in front of him and one behind—and tell his audience, “You don’t need eyes behind your head to smash those targets.” Using a mirror to sight and two Winchester .22s—one pointed at each target—he’d prove his point, breaking both targets with ease.

Parsons died at age 51 from a massive heart attack following surgery. But the stories about the “wizard with a Winchester” continue to this day. Many think he was the finest shooter of all time.

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