Tom Knapp, at 62; virtuoso of shotgun dazzled crowds with his tricks

Mr. Knapp included safety messages in his patter between shooting tricks, especially if children were in the audience.

Courtesy Colleen Knapp

Mr. Knapp included safety messages in his patter between shooting tricks, especially if children were in the audience.

NEW YORK — Tom Knapp, an exhibition shotgun virtuoso who broke world records by picking off flocks of airborne clay targets with the flair of a western movie hero and dazzled crowds with his effortless precision shattering of golf balls, radishes, aspirin, and other flying targets, died April 26 in Rochester, Minn. He was 62.

The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, his wife, Colleen, said.


Mr. Knapp, who was familiar to viewers of ‘‘Sharpshooters’’ on the History Channel and ‘‘Shooting Stars’’ on Discovery, mastered many kinds of long guns but was known mainly for his bravura with a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun.

A 2007 highlight video (seen by more than 3 million viewers on YouTube) shows him firing his pump-action weapon from the hip, behind his back, and over his head, each time hitting airborne targets.

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In one scene he hurls his shotgun into the air, flings a clay target skyward behind him, pivots, catches his gun and fires, leaving an orange puff of dust where the plummeting target had been.

From 1993 to 2004, Mr. Knapp made and broke his own records for the number of hand-thrown clay targets struck in a single round and for speed in doing so. His last record — 10 airborne targets hit (or ‘‘dusted,’’ in shooting-speak) in 2.2 seconds, each struck with a separate round — was set at an exhibition in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on Oct. 10, 2004.

Mr. Knapp, whose exhibitions were sponsored by firearms manufacturers, was widely considered one of the most accomplished heirs to an American tradition defined in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows by Annie Oakley and A.H. Bogardus.


Mr. Knapp said he had been inspired by trick shooters of the next generation, most notably Herb Parsons, a showman who toured the country from the 1930s through the 1950s and often worked in Hollywood as a trick-shot stand-in for stars like Jimmy Stewart in ‘‘Winchester ’73’’ (1950), which involves a shooting contest.

‘‘Parsons was probably the greatest of the modern era — and in my book, after him, Tom Knapp comes a very close second,’’ said Warren Newman, curator at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., a site of trick-shooting exhibitions. ‘‘What these two fellows did was always so much more than just shooting.’’

He added: ‘‘What they did was amaze people, put on a real show. They were outstanding professionals.’’

Thomas Knapp was born Sept. 30, 1950, in Maple Plain, Minn., the youngest of five children of Howard and Virginia Knapp. His father gave him his first gun, a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun, when he was 9. At 10, he saw a televised performance by Parsons, who was famous for snap-shooting tricks such as tossing three marbles into the air and shattering them with three shots. It set the direction of his life.

‘‘From that day on,’’ he told Field and Stream magazine in 2007, ‘‘I dreamed about making a living with a shotgun.’’

Serving as sponsors, gun and ammunition manufacturers like Winchester Olin, Federal Cartridge, Benelli USA and CZ-USA made it possible in the early ’90s for Mr. Knapp to leave his job with the Hennepin County, Minn., parks department after 25 years and tour full time.

Besides his wife, he leaves two stepchildren, Christopher and Alison; four stepgrandchildren; and a brother, John.

Colleen Knapp said that, before becoming ill, her husband had performed steadily for almost 20 years, appearing for audiences in the United States and Europe. He inserted safety messages in the patter between tricks, she said, especially if children were in the audience.

“Do not try this; I am a trained professional,’’ Mr. Knapp said at one exhibition; he then tossed tomatoes and lettuce and blasted them out of the air. Next came a parade of targets of diminishing size — radishes, marbles, chalk cubes — ending with one of his trademark stunt targets, an aspirin.

“I been thinking about this aspirin here for a little while,’’ he said, holding it up between thumb and forefinger and shaking his head with practiced humbleness. ‘‘No guarantees,’’ he said, flinging it toward the sun.

He missed on the first shot. The second shot left a tiny cloud in the air, like dandelion fluff.

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