Jerry Tomkins had every reason to be proud when he pointed to the steering wheel attached to the side of Burlington’s livery barn.
The sign advertised a shooting contest to be held the coming weekend of July 4, 1855.
“John Smith at Distillery Point will host a beef hunt,” the sign declared. “Ten cents a shot at a distance of 100 yards. Free for all guns with a barrel shorter than four feet and free for everyone except Jerry Tomkins.”
Tomkins had been “banned” from the shoot. His prowess with a firearm had become so famous that he was no longer welcome at the many local marksmanship contests that were a feature of every Pioneer Burlington vacation.
Being banned was a great source of personal pride and gave the rejected party ample bragging rights.
And the Iowans on the frontier loved to show off their guns and their own shooting skills. In those turbulent days, a good weapon provided not only protection and food, but was often a source of entertainment.
By the 1850s, virtually every household had at least one gun, and the most popular weapon was the rifle.
Small arms were still 10 years away from becoming an effective weapon and pistols were suspected to be somewhat harmless.
If the choice was for a firearm, then the dueling pistols brought to Iowa by the people of Kentucky and Virginia deserved the highest respect.
However, these were mostly for display, except when borrowed by an adventurous son to hunt squirrels.
The weapon of choice remained the rifle, a weapon then largely hand-made. Every town had a man who was considered the best in the county for making a good rifle and they all seemed to have a favorite style of his.
Back then, a person was measured by a weapon the same way one would be measured by a suit.
The Frontier Rifle was manufactured in a length, size, and weight to match the strength and height of its owner.
A person would want a rifle with a 3 1/2 foot barrel to shoot a “forty pound” ball and have that many revolutions in the barrel. Another customer would ask for a weapon with completely different characteristics.
Bullets were sized by the pound and when an owner showed off his favorite gun, the first question asked was “How much is it per pound” or “How much is she?”
In Burlington, many of the best shooters were members of the German community. They were organized into “target societies” that would compete against trappers and hunters in the community.
During the 1850s there was practically an endless stream of shooting matches and the best shooters conducted these matches much like the sharks in the pool do today.
A “beef sprout” required someone to slaughter a fat animal and offer dressed beef quarters at 10 cents a shot at a given distance.
The target used to be a shooting board that each contestant carried and decorated in any way they saw fit.
When the contest rules called for 10 shots, each bullet hole was measured from the center of the target, and the total distance became the contestant’s “rope”.
The person with the shortest rope was the winner. The best shooters often decorated their homes with target boards that displayed particularly good string play.
After the Civil War, marksmanship contests in Burlington became more organized and “store-bought” rifles dominated.
The Burlington Sportsmen Club was organized followed by the Burlington Sharpshooter’s Society, known for its shots at Cascade Landing.
In 1888 the Burlington Rifle Club took over the Cascade event and in that first year Sharps and Winchesters were used at a range of 200 yards.
A dartboard on the paper target was awarded a turkey and it was recorded that year that Charley Wyman got 27 birds and refused to sell a single one.