It used to be that if you felt the sudden urge to shoot something but found yourself without a gun, all you had to do was hop a streetcar to the local amusement park, stroll over to the midway, and toss a coin into the sweaty palm of a cigar-puffing carny. In return, he’d hand you a loaded .22 caliber rifle and wish you luck. Taking your place alongside other kindred shooters, you’d survey the cheerfully painted ducks, rabbits, cowboys, and Indians moving from side-to-side or bobbing before you, take aim, and fire! If you hit enough of these pockmarked pieces of cast iron, you won a prize, although the pleasure for most was probably in pulling the trigger.

“You’d almost need a bazooka to make it spin.”


Today, the notion that it was once considered perfectly normal to deliver a rifle filled with live ammunition into the hands of anyone with some spare change in their pocket seems absurd—a tragedy waiting to happen, followed by a costly lawsuit. Indeed, the liability issues surrounding the casual distribution of loaded weapons in public places helped kill .22 caliber shooting galleries, which were replaced by arcades designed to receive the less-lethal impact of air-powered BB guns and pistols that shoot pressurized streams of water.


Many people, though, still set their sights on those cast-iron targets from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which are collected as a form of Americana or folk art. In the eyes of at least one collecting couple, arcade targets may even be considered progenitors of the bull’s-eye paintings of mid-20th-century artists Kenneth Noland and Jasper Johns.


“Johns was living downtown in New York City, not very far from Coney Island,” says Richard Tucker, who, along with his wife of 50 years, Valerie, has just written a new book about targets and arcade memorabilia called Step Right Up!: Classic American Arcade and Target Forms. “We don’t think it’s a stretch to say he may have been influenced by the targets in the arcades and shooting galleries out there.”


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