Antique clay pigeons are rare birds

This is an original Ligowsky Clay Pigeon made in 1880 on top of copies of patent drawings for the mechanical device that shooters used to throw them.
This is an original Ligowsky Clay Pigeon made in 1880 on top of copies of patent drawings for the mechanical device that shooters used to throw them. Mike Marsh

Albert Sabiston traces his ancestors on Long Island all the way back to the 1600s. He lived and worked there as a shipyard laborer and became the owner of a marine engine installation and repair business before moving to Wilmington in 1995. At age 83, he brought with him many things because he is a collector of anything old related to hunting.

He has cabinets full of old decoys and antique maritime artifacts plus a few shotguns left after giving away most of them or selling them to friends. However, among all the antiques is something so rare it raises eyebrows whenever he mentions it to a museum curator or any expert on shooting sports.

“I have a barrel partly full of some clay pigeons made in 1880,” he said. “They were the first ones ever made for throwing with a mechanical device. They are rare because they are so fragile and they were also made to be broken, to be shot to pieces with shotguns.”

Sabiston’s move to North Carolina came about because he could no longer afford to live in New York ecause of the high cost of living. . However, he once used a .410 shotgun to hunt woodcock on Long Island after school and he hunted waterfowl.

When he got older, he turned into more of a collector and less of a hunter. One day, sometime in the 1970s, a fellow named Larry Cole came into his marine engine shop. He knew Sabiston could make things and also was friendly with some members of a skeet shooting club.

“He came into my shop with a wooden barrel full of clay targets,” he said. “He wanted to make a chair out of the barrel and I knew some guys who shot clay targets, so he thought they could use them. They tried, but the targets were so fragile that their machines would not throw them without breaking them.”

A long time later, in 1985, Sabiston was resting his foot on the barrel when he noticed some wording stamped into the tops of some of the targets. On some targets the wording was indistinct. The date on the more legible targets was 1880. The barrel’s delivery card was still stapled to the top and it read “W.D. Parsons, Bay Shore, Long Island.”

“The barrel was found in a stable next door to the house where I was born,” he said. “W.D. Parsons was a descendant of Admiral Decatur and was also an avid shooter. He and his friends were known to shoot clay targets over a canal, so that is where they came from and why they were stored at that location.”

Sabiston did lots of research – he does not use a computer so his search for information has been a slow one. He now has many letters from experts and museums, plus a sizable collection of clay-target and shooting magazines with articles relating to old targets.

“I found out they were made by Ligowsky Clay Pigeon Company,” he said. “They were the first ones anyone ever made and had a cardboard tab glued to the edge for the machine to throw them. After the first year of manufacture, in 1880, they did not have the tab so these are the originals.”

Sabiston contacted experts, including Alex Kerr of Hollywood, Calif. Kerr collected old targets, including glass balls like those used by Annie Oakley in shooting exhibitions.

“He said they were the first targets made to replace glass balls,” he said. “I found patents and drawings for the throwing machine and have copies of them. Alex did not know enough about them so he suggested I contact museums and other experts.”

Sabiston has letters thanking him for donating targets in a box full of documentation. People are stunned the targets even exist.

“I once called a museum in Texas,” he said. “When one man answered the phone, he asked several times if I was certain of what I had before shouting to another man to pick up on the line. When I described the targets again, there was a long silence of disbelief. After I sent them one of the targets, I received a thank you letter. I sold a few of them, but would prefer to sell the barrel with the targets inside it to a single collector or donate them to a museum. I really don’t know what they are worth, but they are certainly rare and can really start up a conversation. To the right person, they are quite an exciting find.”

‘Clay Pigeons’

Original Ligowsky “clay pigeons” are rare because they break easily when struck by shotgun pellets and are as fragile as eggshells. Drop one or bang one hard against a solid object and it shatters. Live pigeon shoots were once popular, but became illegal in many countries in Europe and Great Britain in the early 1900s s well as in many U.S. states.

In North Carolina, an animal cruelty statute made live pigeon shoots illegal in the 1990s. Even today, shotgun shooters called the inanimate targets that replaced live pigeons “clay pigeons” with the Ligowsky Clay Pigeon originating the term in 1880. Ligowsky targets were made of tar and river silt. Today’s clay targets are no longer made with clay, but with pitch and limestone. Biodegradable targets are made of fly ash (coal ash), plaster, calcium bicarbonate and spar varnish. Biodegradable targets are made of sugar and birdseed or grain.