Dennis Anderson: Knapp a worldwide shooting star

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2007 - 9:41 AM

Tom Knapp grew up in Maple Plain, inspired by the nation's fancy shooters. He then grew up to become one, traveling the world to show off his marksmanship tricks.

Kids pull wacky stunts, and many of the ones Tom Knapp pulled as a youngster involved guns. He shot the heads off dandelions, blew up cucumbers, and, generally, plinked away at anything he perceived to be a target, moving or stationary.

All the while, he dreamed.

Not of being a professional basketball player. Or starring as a pitcher on a baseball team.

But of being a trick shooter. Or what more appropriately today is called an exhibition shooter.

Throughout his childhood, Tom Knapp studied the lives and times of America's great shooters, from Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock, to Phoebe Mozee (a k a Annie Oakley), Adams Bogardus and Adolph Topperwin.

But it was Herb Parsons, the great exhibition shooter for Winchester, who really fueled Knapp's imagination.

Parsons was born in Tennessee in 1908 and became a one-man traveling wonder after World War II.

He was the first wingshot to toss seven clay pigeons into the air and break each individually, with seven shots, before they hit the ground. He also could hold a handful of eggs between his legs, drop them, spin around and with a shotgun splatter each separately in the air.

And he was dead-on with a rifle.

Or rifles.

Using a mirror and two single-projectile firearms, or rifles, he could break two targets simultaneously, one in front of him, one behind.

"Throughout my young life, that's what I dreamed about, exhibition shooting," Knapp said. "Later, entering manhood, I still dreamed about it. I couldn't get rid of it."

As Knapp spoke one morning last week, he stood in the back yard of his Twin Cities ex-urban home, shotgun in hand.

He's a big guy with a handlebar mustache and booming voice; personal accoutrements that might not benefit his shooting, but help make him the showman he is -- just as his hero, Herb Parsons, was a showman.

"That was the thing about Parsons, he knew how to put on a show, and he was quick with his wit," Knapp said. "A great entertainer."

Yet whatever Parsons' accomplishments, Knapp seems to have surpassed them. He has tossed seven clay pigeons into the air and broken them, one at a time, before they hit the ground.

He's done the same with eight, nine and ... yes, 10 clay targets.

"But remember, Herb Parsons only shot seven because the factory-issue Winchester he used -- a Model 12 -- only held seven shots," Knapp said. "Who knows what he could have done" -- Knapp held up one of a half-dozen Benellis that lay on a table in front of him -- "with one of these?"

• • •

Though he lives not far from his boyhood home in Maple Plain, Minn., Knapp has come a long way in his 56 years.

His sponsor list reads like a who's who of international shotgunning, and includes Twin Cities-based Federal Cartridge Co. And he travels the world giving shooting demonstrations for Benelli.

"I just returned from Italy and Bulgaria," he said.

Knapp holds three world shooting records. One, set in 2000 when he tossed eight clay targets into the air and broke them individually, was accomplished with a pump shotgun. The other, involving the 10 broken clays, was completed with a semi-auto scattergun.

But Knapp wasn't always "A Shooting Star," as he is now billed.

For 25 years, he worked for Hennepin County Parks, mostly in maintenance, all the while nursing his shooting dreams.

Back then, the cost of pushing as many as 150,000 rounds a year through his shotgun, some for practice, some for show, was his alone to pay.

"I traveled around, giving un-sponsored shooting shows for seven years," he said. "Those were pretty hard times, financially."

But Knapp had just enough of Parsons-the-showman in him to figure out that the media -- TV in particular -- could help him get where he wanted to go.

"I had a lot of TV guys come out to film me, some of them reluctantly at first," he said. "I remember Tom Ryther, the sportscaster, came out quite a few years ago. I broke clays in the air, vegetables, everything. Then, at the very end, I shot a gallon of gas I had rigged with a detonator. That got him excited."

On the road, Knapp often called a local TV station to tell them "you might want to send a cameraman" to his show.

When he had amassed enough video clips, Knapp packaged them for potential sponsors.

He caught a break in 1989 when Federal said it would supply him with shotgun shells. In 1991, Winchester offered the same booty, plus a little cash.

Knapp rode a bigger updraft still a couple of years later, when Benelli took him on. And he's now back with Federal.

• • •

These days, he travels nearly every weekend, leaving from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Friday mornings, or sometimes Thursday nights, flying to California, New York, and everywhere in between.

Accompanying him are four shotguns, a patch-laden shooting vest, a pair of amber shooting glasses, special hearing protection -- and a knack for busting clay targets.

"Most weekend shooting exhibitions involve Benelli dealers advertising ahead of time that I'm coming to town," Knapp said. "I come in, put on an exhibition, and the dealers have shotguns for everyone to try."

In Italy, he said, he's considered by many shooters to be a modern American John Wayne. Recently at the Italian Game Fair, he was mobbed by people trying to get his autograph.

"I was pushed up against a tractor," he said. "Finally, the only way I could escape was to crawl underneath the tractor and get out the other side."

Minnesota kids who grow up with a knack for shooting usually also are hunters. Knapp is no different. The owner of two Labrador retrievers, he loves to chase birds, a fitting interest now that he is also host of "Benelli's American Bird Hunter," a TV show that airs weekly on the Outdoor Channel.

"We do 26 episodes, and when we begin filming in the fall, I arrange to film on the Monday, Tuesday and sometimes Wednesday after I do a shooting exhibition," he said. "Then I fly home, change clothes, and fly out again."

As Knapp spoke, he reached for a handful of clays, advanced a few steps, and heaved them into the air. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Six clays up, six clays broken.

Then he whipped the shotgun behind his head, and tickled the trigger that way -- also hitting the target.

"You want to try?" Knapp asked.

"Sure."

And I shot a few holes in the sky, sometimes breaking clay targets that were thrown.

Sometimes watching the targets break when they hit the ground.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

Kids pull wacky stunts, and many of the them Tom Knapp pulled as a youngster involved guns. He shot the heads off dandelions, blew up cucumbers, and, generally, plinked away at anything he perceived to be a target, moving or stationary.

All the while, he dreamed.

Not of being a professional basketball player. Or starring as a pitcher on a baseball team.

But of being a trick shooter. Or what more appropriately today is called an exhibition shooter.

Throughout his childhood, Tom Knapp studied the lives and times of America's great shooters, from Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock, to Phoebe Mozee (aka Annie Oakley), Adams Bogardus and Adolph Topperwin.

But it was Herb Parsons, the great exhibition shooter for Winchester, who really fueled Knapp's imagination.

Parsons was born in Tennessee in 1908 and became a one-man traveling wonder after World War II.

He was the first wingshot to toss seven clay pigeons into the air and break each individually, with seven shots, before they hit the ground. He also could hold a handful of eggs between his legs, drop them, spin around and with a shotgun splatter each separately in the air.

And he was dead-on with a rifle.

Or rifles.

Using a mirror and two single-projectile firearms, or rifles, he could break two targets simultaneously, one in front of him, one behind.

"Throughout my young life, that's what I dreamed about, exhibition shooting," Knapp said. "Later, entering manhood, I still dreamed about it. I couldn't get rid of it."

As Knapp spoke one morning last week, he stood in the back yard of his Twin Cities ex-urban home, shotgun in hand.

He's a big guy with a handlebar mustache and booming voice; personal accoutrements that might not benefit his shooting, but help make him the showman he is -- just as his hero, Herb Parsons, was a showman.

"That was the thing about Parsons, he knew how to put on a show, and he was quick with his wit," Knapp said. "A great entertainer."

Yet whatever Parsons' accomplishments, Knapp seems to have surpassed them. He not only has tossed seven clay pigeons into the air and broken them, one at a time, before they hit the ground.

He's done the same with eight, nine and ... yes, 10 clay targets.

"But remember, Herb Parsons only shot seven because the factory-issue Winchester he used -- a Model 12 -- only held seven shots," Knapp said. "Who knows what he could have done" -- Knapp held up one of a half-dozen Benellis that lay on a table in front of him -- "with one of these?"

•••

Though he lives not far from his boyhood home in Maple Plain, Minn., Knapp has come a long way in his 56 years.

His sponsor list reads like a who's-who of international shotgunning, and includes Twin Cities based Federal Cartridge Co. And he travels the world giving shooting demonstrations for Benelli.

"I just returned from Italy and Bulgaria," he said.

Knapp holds three world shooting records. One, set in 2000 when he tossed eight clay targets into the air and broke them individually, was accomplished with a pump shotgun. The other, involving the 10 broken clays, was completed with a semi-auto scattergun.

But Knapp wasn't always "A Shooting Star," as he is now billed.

For 25 years, he worked for Hennepin County Parks, mostly in maintenance, all the while nursing his shooting dreams.

Back then, the cost of pushing as many as 150,000 rounds a year through his shotgun, some for practice, some for show, was his alone to pay.

"I traveled around, giving un-sponsored shooting shows for seven years," he said. "Those were pretty hard times, financially."

But Knapp had just enough of Parsons-the-showman in him to figure out that the media -- TV in particular -- could help him get where he wanted to go.

"I had a lot of TV guys come out to film me, some of them reluctantly at first," he said. "I remember Tom Ryther, the sportscaster, came out quite a few years ago. I broke clays in the air, vegetables, everything. Then, at the very end, I shot a gallon of gas I had rigged with a detonator. That got him excited."

On the road, Knapp often called a local TV station to tell them "you might want to send a cameraman" to his show.

When he had amassed enough video clips, Knapp packaged them for potential sponsors.

He caught a break in 1989 when Federal said it would supply him with shotgun shells. In 1991, Winchester offered the same booty, plus a little cash.

Knapp rode a bigger updraft still a couple of years later, when Benelli took him on. And he's now back with Federal.

These days, he travels nearly every weekend, leaving from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Friday mornings, or sometimes Thursday nights, flying to California, New York, and everywhere in between.

Accompanying him are four shotguns, a patch-laden shooting vest, a pair of amber shooting glasses, special hearing protection -- and a knack for busting clay targets.

"Most weekend shooting exhibitions involve Benelli dealers advertising ahead of time that I'm coming to town," Knapp said. "I come in, put on an exhibition, and the dealers have shotguns for everyone to try."

In Italy, he said, he's considered by many shooters to be a modern American John Wayne. Recently at the Italian Game Fair, he was mobbed by people trying to get his autograph.

"I was pushed up against a tractor," he said. "Finally, the only way I could escape was to crawl underneath the tractor and get out the other side,"

Minnesota kids who grow up with a knack for shooting usually also are hunters. Knapp is no different. The owner of two Labrador retrievers, he loves to chase birds, a fitting interest now that he is also host of "Benelli's American Bird Hunter," a TV show that airs weekly on the Outdoor Channel.

"We do 26 episodes, and when we begin filming in the fall, I arrange to film on the Monday, Tuesday and sometimes Wednesday after I do a shooting exhibition," he said. "Then I fly home, change clothes, and fly out again."

As Knapp spoke, he reached for a handful of clays, advanced a few steps, and heaved them into the air. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Six clays up, six clays broken.

Then he whipped the shotgun behind his head, and tickled the trigger that way -- also hitting the target.

"You want to try?" Knapp asked.

"Sure."

And I shot a few holes in the sky, sometimes breaking clay targets that were thrown.

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  • The Tom Knapp file

    Saturday June 23, 2007

    Hometown: Maple Plain, Minn.Present home: Twin CitiesAge: 56World records: Three, all with a shotgun. The only person to break 10...

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