As a young boy growing up in rural Ohio, I had always read of the shooting exploits of the men and women of my era in many outdoor magazines: sharpshooters like Tom Parsons, Adolph (Ad) Topperwein and his wife “Plinky,” and fellow Ohioans Annie Oakley. And, of course, Tom Frye.
However, I had never seen a shooting exhibition before, so it was an extra special day for me when visiting family in Billings, Montana. I happened to glance through the newspaper and saw the advertisement saying that there was going to be a shooting exhibition put on by none other than Tom Frye at a local sporting goods store (Gibson’s) at 10:00 o’clock a.m., today.
Well, I looked at the clock and it was well past that time, but my wife and I decided to go anyway. It was only about a mile or so from the house and it was a sporting goods store, so it was not a total loss.
We pulled into the parking lot and walked toward the side entrance of the store. As expected, the shooting exhibition was pretty much over, with a few stragglers picking up spent .22 short shell casings.
As we neared the door to the store there was a roguishly handsome gentleman sitting on an old wooden Remington cartridge box that was inverted so as to make a seat. The gentleman was under a large cowboy hat, and he looked up at me and said, “Did you come for the shoot?”
I acknowledged that we had.
“Well, as you can see, you’re a bit late. But not to worry, there will be another show, up in the Heights, at 2:00 p.m. if you have a mind to come. My name is Tom,” he added, and extended his hand.
Yep, it was Tom Frye in the flesh and he was shaking my hand. He was wearing a turquoise shirt that had shooting patches on both sleeves, a western bolo around his neck and Levi’s blue jeans. He had on cowboy boots with a piece of duct tape on the left toe of the boot. Mr. Frye was sitting comfortably on that ammunition box but he was attached to an oxygen tank.
I introduced my wife, and he stood up in a gentlemanly manner and shook her hand. He sat back down on that old ammunition box and began rooting around in his shooting box, which was just an old fishing tackle box, and handed me two medallions. They were like the ones that he would have tossed in the air and shot a hole through years ago.
He apologized because these medallions did not have any holes in them because of the safety factor with houses around and he just did not do that anymore.
He also handed me a few spent .22 short casings from that morning’s shooting exhibition. I asked him for his autograph, and he grabbed an old crumpled envelope and autographed it for me. I still have it to this day, as well as the medallions and shell casings. We shook hands again and bade him farewell, telling him that we would see him at 2:00.
We arrived at the parking lot up in the Billings Heights area in plenty of time for the marksmanship exhibition. Tom was getting ready for his show by placing his equipment in just the right places that he needed them. There was an odd-looking device that looked like a giant curved solid iron funnel or a curved blunderbuss that was attached to a metal stand. Tom would shoot through this device, a good distance away, from the side and the bullet would travel down the tube and hit a balloon bursting it. He recognized my wife and me, and suggested the best place for photographs. A good-sized crowd began to fill the area of the parking lot.
He made final adjustments with his equipment. Then at precisely 2:00 he began his speech.
He was holding a Remington Nylon 66 semi-automatic rifle in his hand with the barrel pointing down. Then he told how he became a marksman.
He said that if you too wanted to be a superior rifle shot, you would have to go into a store like this one (Gibson’s) and buy a boxcar load of .22 rifle ammunition. Then, practice every chance you get. He gestured with his hand how high he was when he began shooting. The crowd chuckled at his humor. There were a lot of what is now called “seniors” in the audience, and they all seemed to know him personally or know of him, as was the case with me.
With that introduction out of the way, Tom Frye made sure that the audience was safely behind him and then he began his shooting exhibition. Tom would take a break now and then to explain what he was “attempting” to do, knowing full well that he would not miss a shot. The little Nylon 66 barked when he fired and the spent .22 short cartridges flew through the air and landed on the ground, where they were promptly gathered up by the children of all ages in the audience.
Tom gasped several times through the exhibition, and he would have to take a small break and place his oxygen mask on his face to catch his breath. On one sequence of shooting he stopped and wavered a bit, then apologized to the audience for the delay.
One of the white-haired gentlemen in the audience yelled out, “Take all the time you need, Tom, we are still with you!”
Tom turned, smiled at him, and nodded. Then he turned to me and asked if I was getting my pictures okay. I waved back.
The show lasted about an hour or so. Mr. Frye was always cordial to his crowd and apologized for his need for oxygen that was causing a slight delay. The crowd understood. Even with the need for a break now and then, he never wavered, nor did he miss a shot.
One exhibition shot caused a gasp from us in the crowd. He had placed a Buck hunting knife on a backboard with the blade facing out. On each side of the knife was a balloon. He took aim and fired. Both balloons burst. I saw the blade of the knife actually move. Did he split that small bullet on the knife blade?
Well, I believed it back then, and now that I am Tom’s age I still do!
For the show’s finale, Tom prepared his set for a final demonstration, one which all of us were ready for: his famous marksmanship drawing.
This time it was of a Native American chieftain with a full headdress. Tom explained exactly what he was going to do, and that he had placed four or five copies behind the original. After his speech he took a seat on that inverted wooden Remington cartridge box. He then placed the oxygen mask on his face, took a few deep breaths, then began to shoot.
He took his time and meticulously drew out the portrait with his rifle shots. Then he stood up, and displayed his drawing and thanked everyone for their kind support. The crowd applauded.
Afterwards he began to clean up the area by dismantling his display equipment. The crowd filtered away; my wife and I stayed and offered our help. He graciously accepted our offer, and we carried his tools of the trade to an area of the parking lot where his son was to meet him.
Tom asked me if we would mind watching his two rifles while he went inside the store for a quick burger and soda, and as he stood up he fell toward the plate glass window. I reached out and grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the window.
He looked startled and then smiled and said, “Thanks, I almost crashed and burned.” I replied, “Air Force, right?”
“Yep!” he replied. Then he went inside the store.
He had a gun case with his trademark Remington Nylon 66 rifles lying side by side. They are now in the Cody, Wyoming Buffalo Bill Museum.
Tom came back out, and his son had just pulled up with his pickup truck that had “1SHOT” on the license plate. We helped his son load the equipment into the back of the truck.
As we finished, Tom came over. We shook hands again and said goodbye, then he got into the passenger side of the truck. He waved as the truck left the parking lot.
Two weeks later, Tom Frye was gone. He was only 66 years old.
So, I finally got to see Tom Frye, shootist, not knowing that it was to be his last marksmanship exhibition.
It was an honor knowing this gentle man for the short time that I had with him. He was quite a showman and was always a gentleman.
After all, he was the Montana Marksman!