Shooting Gallery

"Step right up and try your luck. Hit the moving target and win a prize!" Long before video shoot-em-ups, there were real, live shooting galleries where the carny barker would lure in the customer with cries like this. Let's look at the Golden Age of amusement parks and the glory days of the shooting gallery to see what they were like, the guns they used, and how they've made a modern-day comeback.

A study estimated that in 2011, there were 40 million recreational target shooters in the U.S., spending $9.9 billion on shooting-related products and services.

Real Guns, Real Ammo, Real Fun

In today's litigious and safety-conscious society, it is hard to imagine that a kid could hand over a coin and, in turn, be handed a real .22 caliber rifle to aim and fire. Yet, that's exactly what happened from the late 1800s into the 1960s all across the country. A few galleries made it into the 1970s, and the Frontierland Shooting Gallery at Disneyland didn't close until 1984—though that gallery used BB pellets rather than .22 ammunition. (Still operation, the Shootin' Arcade at Disneyland and Disneyworld now uses infrared lights and sensors, instead or projectiles.) A staple at many amusement parks, the creation of portable bullet traps made it possible for fairs and carnivals to set up galleries.

The typical gallery had steel targets, most of which moved in some way, such as ducks "floating" from one side of the booth to the other. They were actually moved by a behind-the-scenes chain pulley. Other popular targets included spinners, steel discs mounted on a pole that would spin around when hit, and playing card suit symbols with holes in the middle mounted in front of a bell, which would ding when hit. Some of the vintage targets were made by C.W. Parker, William Wurfflein, John T. Dickman, and William F. Mangels. A few Mangels galleries are the only ones known to have survived intact.

Most of the .22 caliber rifles used in the galleries were pump action. In 1932, Winchester came out with the gallery version of the Model 62, which would become one of the most widely used shooting gallery rifles. Because they would be handled and seen by thousands of users, the Model 62s were marketed with a large roll mark on the left hand side so users would definitely know who made the rifle. Other manufacturers made special gallery versions as well, including the Marlin Number 18, and the Remington Model 12. The Marlin and Winchester gallery guns, as well as some others, had octagonal, instead of round, barrels.

These gallery guns were designed to shoot .22 Short rimfires, which had a limited velocity and range. Because of injuries from shrapnel and ricochets, many galleries eventually switched to frangible ammunition. Frangible bullets are designed to splatter on contact, some completely into dust. These bullets made the galleries safer and they were easier on the steel targets.

Rather than stamping, as would be done with a conventional die, the markings put on pistols and rifles are placed on circular dies and rolled onto the gun, hence the term "roll mark." It is done to ensure consistency and lessen the chance of damage from the identification process.

The Downfall

Fear of injury, worries about liability, the expense of maintenance, and the cost of ammunition, all led to the .22 caliber rifles being replaced in most amusement parks and shooting galleries by air-powered BB guns, or guns that shot streams of water. One popular shooting gallery game was to shoot a red star out of the middle of a paper target. It used the Feltman BB gun, which was air-powered and designed to look like a Thompson machine gun.

To provide more interaction, and, again, for safety, the BB gun shooting galleries were themselves replaced with infrared light guns which electronically recorded hits or set off an animation when the light beam connected. These were popular until the video arcade, and then home arcade systems, made them unprofitable.

The Comeback

Partly because of nostalgia, and partly becasue of the rarity, vintage shooting galleries are treasured finds. Few totally intact ones exist. One dating to the 1940s was discovered in storage in Coney Island USA. In 2009, an intact Mangels gallery that had been privately owned and used at parties was sold at auction for $43,200. Many of the old steel targets were lost or were sold for scrap, making them collectibles today. Considered examples of Americana or folk art, individual targets are sold for hundreds of dollars.

New innovations have made the shooting gallery concept appealing again. Disney has created 4-D attractions at its theme parks which incorporate 3-D glasses and vehicles traveling through a virtual environment. One such attraction, Toy Story Midway Mania!, cost an estimated $80 million to build and design. Since they are software-based, it is easier to make changes to these theme parks than to actual physical attractions, so they can be kept fresh and up-to-date. On a smaller scale, creative animations and impressive sound effects have made light gun-based shooting galleries a common sight at amusement parks and carnivals once again.

In addition to designing shooting galleries, William Mangels held more than 50 patents for other attractions, and his company was one of the first to mass produce rides for distribution to amusement parks at Coney Island and elsewhere.