The Chamberlin Cartridge Company

Richard Baldwin
From his book, “Road to Yesterday.

A duck hunt in the fall of 1883 proved to be a very significant day for hunters and trapshooters in America. Frank Chamberlin invited J . Palmer O’Neil, president of the Pittsburgh Firearms Co., to shoot ducks on a marsh near Chamberlin’s home in Cleveland, Ohio. The quality of the shells provided by Chamberlin impressed O’Neil. When he learned the ammunition had been loaded on a machine Chamberlin invented, his eyes lit up with dollar signs. Up to that time, all shells were loaded by hand with components supplied almost exclusively by the Union Metallic Cartridge Co. and the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., both Connecticut companies. Mass-produced shotgun shells were unheard of, and Mr. O’Neil quickly recognized the tremendous profits in store-bought, loaded shells.

Soon, with O’Neil’s money and Chamberlin’s loading invention, the Chamberlin Cartridge and Target Co. was born.

The timing couldn’t have been better for an ammunition company just getting started. Bogardus and Carver were touring the country for George Ligowsky, promoting his new clay target that was quickly replacing the glass target ball. Gun clubs were being organized in every little town, and millions of game birds were being shot annually for market and sport. Chamberlin’s first automatic loading machine produced from 1,200 to 1,500 shotgun shells an hour. It was housed in a building owned by Chamberlin’s former employer, J. H. Webster.

chamberlin-catalogLike O’Neil, Webster quickly recognized the potential of the product manufactured in his barn, and he wanted to be included in the profit picture. Expansion was a necessity and funds were short. The new firm hired Webster after he loaned the company a sizeable amount of money. Business flourished, and soon a new factory in San Francisco served the Western market.

Chamberlin’s business was successful in every sense of the word. One hundred black powder shells sold for $2.50, smokeless powder cost a dollar more, and chilled shot was an extra 10 cents. People who had hand-loaded shells didn’t anymore. It wasn’t worth the effort when factory loads were so plentiful and inexpensive.

In 1887 trouble started. Winchester and the Union Metallic Cartridge Co., now convinced that ammunition-loading machines were here to stay, entered the business with their own machinery. Overnight Chamberlin had two giant competitors. To make matters worse, both Winchester and U.M.C. stopped selling Chamberlin hulls, primers and wads. They were forced to import expensive English components.

Chamberlin manufactured a number of different loads for trapshooters. The Blue Rock became the most popular and later became the name of their famous target. The company referred to this load as the “snuff-’em-outers.”

Soon after the Alaska gold rush, Klondikers and Gold Dust shotgun shells became available.

Ever the innovators, Frank Chamberlin’s company introduced the first shotgun shell box to hold 25 shells. Cartridge boxes for 100 shells were too fragile to hold the weight of heavier loads, and they sometimes broke during shipment. He packaged 20 boxes of 25 in a wooden container and quickly solved the problem. Again he held an edge over his competition, but within months Winchester and U.M.C. copied his packaging.

By 1900 Chamberlin was mostly out of the ammunition business, but his company’s affiliate, the Cleveland Target Co., played a major role in supplying traps and targets to gun clubs throughout America.

The company’s early years saw their entire line of traps and targets manufactured at their Cleveland ammunition site. As Blue Rock targets increased in popularity, they needed to expand again their facilities, and land was purchased in Findlay, Ohio, for a new factory.

Chamberlin selected the Findlay location because of its good local clay, a primary ingredient in the manufacturing process. Interestingly, a second reason for the move was that the city was experiencing a natural gas boom, and land was being sold at a fraction of its value to attract industry. The company ended up signing a five-year contract that provided all the gas they needed for $100.00 a year.

J. H. Webster, whose barn once housed the complete assets of the Chamberlin Cartridge and Target Co., was named president of the new Findlay facility. Frank Chamberlin selected his shooting partner, Paul North, as vice president and general manager. Another shooter, F. C. Damm, who held a number of patents for traps and targets, was named factory superintendent.

The new plant at Findlay made all the company’s clay targets and a fair percentage of their traps. The firm operated solely under the Chamberlin name. Some 50 employees turned out 24,000,000 Blue Rock targets the first year. The second year, between 150 and 160 barrels of targets packed in straw left the plant daily. In 1926 they replaced barrels with the conventional cardboard boxes in use today.

The first Blue Rock targets to leave the plant sold for $7.00 per 1,000. Workers were paid 5 1/4 cents a barrel and averaged $1.80 for a 10-hour day. AI Barton oversaw target quality and generally is credited as the designer of the Blue Rock target.

chamberlin-shell-boxesChamberlin was the first ammunition company to mark shotgun shells for a particular bird or animal. Today these four old Chamberlin boxes are worth approximately $4,000 each.

Traps were profitable items for Chamberlin. The Expert and Extension models were made at Findlay, while larger models continued to be manufactured at the Cleveland plant until 1921. Eventually everything was shipped to Findlay, including the shotgun shell- loading machines which were never reassembled.

In the spring of 1897, the company introduced the long-awaited Magautrap at a special shoot on the roof of Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was truly the world’s first automatic trap, built on a bicycle-like frame and operated by pedals. The faster one pedaled, the farther the target went. Eventually it was electrically operated, and the pedal power was eliminated. This ended trapshooters’ complaints that the operator could slow down targets for certain shooters by pedaling slower.

Chamberlin originally leased the Magautrap to gun clubs which promised to throw only Blue Rock targets. The agreement and a warning violation was cast into medal at the base of the trap. This eventually led to litigation. A few small suits were won by the company but a big one was lost, and the court ordered the notice and warning removed from each trap. Some 350 were recalled, and the lettering was ground off. Most were sold back to the clubs that had formerly leased them.

The success of any company lies in the hands of its dedicated employees and the quality of their leaders. Chamberlin had over a half -dozen very capable officers and managers. Paul North was perhaps the best, and he ended up owning the company. He was among the better trapshooters of his day, and those who associated with him regarded him highly. When the 1901 All-American trap team went to England, Paul North managed the team. He worked long and hard to promote the trip and personally raised most of the $4,000 needed to send the team across the pond. North promoted and managed many Chamberlin-sponsored trapshoots when the company donated expensive guns, watches and silver as prizes. He originated the North system of handicapping which placed shooters in classes according to their ability. Prior to this the professional competed head-to-head against the “once a month” Sunday shooter. The pros didn’t like to see money and prizes going to the poorer shooters and for a time boycotted all Chamberlin-run tournaments. Rolla Heikes, Fred Gilbert, J .A. R. Elliott and others began to bad-mouth all Chamberlin products.

This prompted Paul North to write, “In the old days when Chamberlin gave tournaments year after year adding large amounts of purse money, three quarters of the time professional shooters won. Then Blue Rock targets and our traps and Paul North were all right in their eyes. Now we let the amateurs have a chance at the money that the professionals once thought all their own. Suddenly there is a great change. The Blue Rock target is not as it was. The Magautrap is an abomination and poor Paul North stands an outcast without friends and alone. It is sad. Let us weep. But there is a ray of sunshine. Not everyone knows how bad we are over here. We are still selling lots of Blue Rocks and traps.”

In August 1933, Chamberlin sold their target and trap business to the Remington Arms Co. Blue Rock targets are still made at the Findlay plant. They are now over 120 years old, but the Magautrap is gone, replaced by giant machines that require no puller or loader.

Frank Chamberlin, J. H. Webster, Paul North and the Chamberlin Cartridge and Target Co. made many contributions to trapshooting, yet they are all but forgotten. And that’s too bad. The old game owes them a lot, but it’s too late to say thank you.

I would like to take credit for researching what appears in the previous paragraphs, but I cannot. The late Bob Hinman, former shotgun editor of “Shooting Times,” did the homework which included personal interviews with old employees from the Remington plant at Findlay, Ohio. I was fortunate to receive a Chamberlin manuscript he wrote some years ago, and I don’t know if it was ever published. A tip of my tattered cap to my old friend Bob Hinman for this historical contribution.