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The Wonderful Topperweins

Sharpshooters traveled Texas and the world with their amazing antics

The Toepperweins, Adolph and Elizabeth, were the trigger-happiest couple in Texas history. After tying the knot in 1903, the “Wonderful Topperweins, World’s Greatest Shooting Team” (the first “e” dropped to make the name more readable) traveled the country for nearly half a century. Along the way, they presented exhibitions of marksmanship, sponsored by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

Although Elizabeth Servaty was working at the Winchester factory in New Haven, Connecticut, when she first met Adolph, she had never fired a gun. After instruction from her new husband (she called him “Ad”), she was expert enough to perform for crowds. Adolph described her as “a natural.” She also acquired the nickname “Plinky.” When she first began shooting tin cans, she described the sound of a strike by saying, “I plinked it!” The word “plink” is found today in many dictionaries.

Adolph, on the other hand, had marksmanship in his blood. Born in Boerne in 1869, he grew up shooting under the tutelage of his gunsmith father in Leon Springs. After observing some fancy trigger work in a Wild West show that starred Dr. W.F. Carver, “the shooting dentist,” Adolph began to dream about a career as a showman and practiced target shooting intensely.

Adolph exhibited his shooting skills for hometown crowds. A local promoter took him to New York, where Adolph recalled years later, trick shooters were “a dime a dozen.” All shooters had vaudeville booking agents, but they rated, at least in Adolph’s mind, somewhere “below banjo players and buck-and-wing dancers and only a mite above the trained dog acts.”

The Alamo City promoter convinced a New York agent to accompany Adolph to Coney Island. Adolph said, “We breezed through those gaudy shooting galleries, with me bustin’ every clay pipe, duck and glass ball.” The impressed agent signed Adolph to a contract, and soon he was starring on the vaudeville circuit.

The first public appearance of the “Wonderful Topperweins” was at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, according to Dick Baldwin, former director of the Trapshooting Hall of Fame in Vandalia, Ohio. There, Elizabeth bagged her first women’s trapshooting world record by breaking 967 out of 1,000 clay disks thrown into the air. A few years later, in San Antonio, Adolph spent 10 days shooting 72,491 of 72,500 flying targets to establish one of his own 14 world records.

“Seeing the Topperwein shooting exhibition,” promised a Winchester brochure, “is like going to a circus—a rapid succession of thrills and exciting feats, each more unbelievable than the one before, presented to you by this marvelous pair of shooters with rifle, pistol and shotgun.”

So beloved was the couple in the Lone Star State that during a tour of East Texas, a murder trial was postponed so that the community could witness Adolph and Elizabeth’s shooting exhibition.

When storied sure-shot Annie Oakley caught Elizabeth’s act, she reportedly exclaimed, “Mrs. Topp, you’re the greatest shooter I’ve ever seen!”

The Topperweins are remembered to-day for the “unstudied grace and ease” of their shooting styles. And Elizabeth was proud to say that, in spite of her proven marksmanship, she never shot an animal. The Buckhorn Saloon & Museum on Alamo Plaza in San Antonio displays a gallery of Topperwein photos, guns and other artifacts from the couple’s shooting career.

San Antonio newsman Fred Mosebach reported in 1930 that one of Adolph’s stunts even made President Calvin Coolidge laugh. The marksman placed his rifle on the ground, threw two eggs into the air, ran and somersaulted, then grabbed his rifle and shot the eggs before they hit the ground. “The president not only laughed,” Adolph told Mosebach, “he threw up his arms, clapped his hands and roared.”

Gene Fowler is an Austin writer who specializes in history.