Return of the Giant Killer (Apr, 1951)

Return of the Giant Killer

When David bagged Goliath, the slingshot was a murderous device—now it’s coming back as a weapon for sportsmen.

By Robert Hertzberg

THE man in the bright red shirt strode past the big “No Hunting” sign and knocked on the door of the farmhouse. As the farmer stepped into view, the man said, “May I hunt on your property. . .”

“No!” interrupted the farmer. “Can’t you read signs?”

The would-be hunter reached into his pocket and held up a shiny, fork-shaped object.

“… with this weapon?”

The farmer stared and then burst into laughter. “Sure, you can hunt all you want on my land with that thing. If you bag an elephant, just leave me half.”

“That thing” was one of John Milligan’s Specials, a seven-ounce aluminum alloy slingshot powered by a pair of gum-rubber bands 11 inches long. Milligan didn’t get an elephant because elephants don’t run wild in Detroit, but that day he settled for two pheasants and a rabbit. Believe it or not, his total bag for the season was six pheasants, 14 squirrels, 18 rabbits and 4 coons. Could you have done as well with shotgun or rifle?

Milligan has a full-time job as a foreman in the Ford plant, but the growing popularity of slingshooting as an adult sport has practically forced him into a nice little side business of making and selling his Specials to enthusiasts all over the country. About one third of his customers are doctors—a curious statistic that defies explanation. Maybe the act of whamming steel balls at targets constitutes a healthy mental release for the overworked medics.

And talking of whamming balls over the landscape, in South Pasadena, Calif., the Wham-O Manufacturing Company keeps very busy turning out the “Wham-O” slingshot. It’s a neat, rugged unit made of well-cured ash. This weapon is widely used by slingshot clubs for both target and hunting purposes and, like the Milligan Special, has developed an incredible reputation as a game-getter.

Ex-GI’s Richard Knerr and Spud Melin, known on the West Coast as the Wham-O Boys, were laughed at when they started to promote their innocent-looking gadget at the end of World War II. But they turned scoffers into boosters with demonstrations of their skill. They think nothing now of bringing down pheasant and similar game on the wing! The trick is to use about a dozen BB’s in the pouch of the slingshot. In other words, it’s a shotgun load with rubber bands instead of gunpowder providing the push. The cheapness of both the weapon and its ammunition, its lightness, its freedom from noise—all help make the slingshot a really versatile device. You can unlimber it without fear in areas where the mere sight of a firearm of any kind brings police radio cars with their sirens screeching. Pop away to your heart’s content at targets and tin cans in your own backyard. Every time you do, you’ll quickly have a gathering of neighbors waiting for your invitation to try it themselves.

You have a notion that slingshots are kid stuff? The National Slingshot Association with headquarters in San Marino, Calif., says that 80 per cent of all sales are to men over 30 years old. Among its thousands of members are physicians, dentists, lawyers, engineers, musicians and other professional men too numerous to classify. One affiliated club in Kentucky, restricted to men over 50 years of age, now has more than 60 members.

It takes a man with muscle to handle the modern precision-made, high-powered slingshots with their thick rubber straps-as I found out through personal experience. Not really believing the claims made for these glamorized versions of Tom Sawyers tree forks, I decided to collect some samples for testing.

The Milligan Special was the first to arrive, along with a sack of 7/16-inch diameter polished steel balls. I tacked a 25-yard pistol target to my garage door, backed off 15 paces and loaded the leather pouch. With some huffing and straining I managed to pull it back about 18 inches and then let it fly. My left hand nearly went along with the ball. After massaging my aching muscles, I examined the target and found I had missed completely. However, I hadn’t missed the garage door which measures some eight feet square. In one of its quarter-inch thick panels was a jagged hole where the ball had passed through completely!

Milligan himself uses a three-foot pull, which gives the ball terrific velocity and a very flat trajectory. On one memorable occasion he fired a match against a Detroit police team on a ten-foot target range. He used his slingshot and the police used revolvers. Milligan won! The Wham-O proved just as effective. I like to shoot at tin objects because they produce a very satisfying whack when hit, so I tried out this slingshot on an old pail hung from a tree next to the garage. The first ball was low— not enough pull on the rubber. The second went high—too much elevation. The third went right through the galvanized iron and came to rest inside the pail!

Now, steel balls flying around with the speed of jets can do some damage. But fortunately, it’s very easy to control their range merely by easing off the pull on the rubbers. As with all forms of shooting, skill comes solely with practice. There’s no real aiming involved. You squint in the general direction of the target and let ‘er go.

The real secret of accurate slingshooting is proper ammunition. The size of the balls isn’t important but their shape is. They must be perfectly round. If they aren’t, they corkscrew all over the sky. Standard shot in all sizes from No. 12 up to No. 00 and steel or lead balls or ball bearings up to 5/8-inch diameter are being used with success. For shooting at paper targets, No. 10, 9 or 8 shot is about right. For herding cattle, training dogs and routing nocturnal cats, BB’s or No. 3 buckshot will sting without hurting. For winged game, scatter loads of BB’s with full pull on the rubbers will produce effective patterns. For rabbits and the like, 7/16, 1/2 and 5/8-inch balls can deliver knockout punches.

One of the advantages of slingshot hunting is that a miss with the first shot doesn’t alert the game and make it scamper for cover. Experienced sling hunters keep a couple of extra balls under three fingers as they manipulate the pouch with the thumb and the forefinger. Thus they can get off three shots in rapid succession in as many seconds.

A refinement of the rubber-band propulsion principle is embodied in a unique pistol slingshot that shoots No. 6 shot with amazing accuracy. It’s called the Bull’s Eye Sharpshooter. Built along the general lines of the well-known Colt Woodsman .22 automatic, the Sharpshooter holds about 50 pellets along the top of its barrel. To load it, you simply pull back a slide attached to a small rubber band, the forward ends of which are anchored near the muzzle. The slide receives a pellet through a tiny drop chute and stays cocked. To fire, you pull the trigger.

This is strictly an indoor gun. It peps up any house party because even women can use it. Its accuracy is what utterly fascinates men who are accustomed to real hand guns. At 15 feet, corks suspended from strings make fine targets that swing when hit. There is no rifling or other guide for the shot—it flies forward unaided except for the push of the contracting rubber band. Because of relatively low velocity, the trajectory is curved, but sighting in is accomplished within three or four shots. At 15 feet, the No. 6 shot penetrates an ordinary paper target and drops dead about two feet beyond. At the same distance it can shatter an electric bulb if it hits it squarely—as I learned to my surprise. Glass is rather unpredictable, so it is a good idea to avoid it. However, a sturdy vessel like a milk bottle is quite safe. If you want some real fun, set up the bottle on a table with the open end facing you. Step back eight feet and see if you can put your shots into it!

Back in Biblical times when David bagged Goliath, the slingshot was a weapon to be feared. The giant killer is returning—but as a gadget to be enjoyed by all sportsmen.

  1. BAGTIC says: May 8, 200711:27 am

    David killed Goliath with a “sling”, not a “slingshot”. The ancients did not have rubber to make elastic bands needed to make a slingshot.

  2. Chief AJ says: December 1, 200811:50 pm

    This material is a grat save. I enjoyed seeing and reading this material after 60 years. I received these photos when I joined the NSA in ’49. Chief AJ

  3. Charlie says: December 2, 200810:48 pm

    Chief: For a minute there I was wondering why on earth they would give you photos of slingshots when you joined the National Security Agency. Then I thought, “Hey, the NSA wasn’t even created until ’52, this guy is a liar.” Then I re-read the article and it all made sense :)

  4. Toronto says: December 3, 20082:52 am

    LOL! I *have* heard that other NSA was stealthy, but not like this.

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