Juggling styles and props change over the years. When I started out 33 years ago. you might see one diabolo at a large juggling festival or convention. Now diabolo is everywhere. In the past, gentleman jugglers and heavyweight jugglers were popular, but now they’re extremely rare. In this article, I want to examine the use of props that have almost completely disappeared from the world of juggling. What I’m talking about is the use of firearms as juggling props. Before I begin, I suppose I have to give a warning that no real firearm should ever be attempted to be juggled or manipulated. That’s why they make theatrical props. You can visit http://www.westernstageprops.com/ if you’d like to pursue this type of juggling. They make blank firing guns and rubber prop guns that would be the proper props to use.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, it appears the rifles and pistols were somewhat common props among some performing jugglers. One of the most famous of these was Paul Conchas, a German who was born Paul Hutt around 1875. He performed from 1895 until his death in 1916. He was renowned for his heavyweight juggling feats, but also did one trick with rifles. As a you can see below, he juggled three rifles, complete with bayonets. He fired these off as he juggled them. Some descriptions of his act report working with only two rifles. I think it’s safe to assume that the rifles were modified to make the firing easier and that they were loaded with blanks.
A lesser known contemporary of Conchas was Troba, another European strong man juggler. He also juggled three rifles and fired them as he caught them, but may have done an even more impressive feat with firearms. An article from a 1904 New York Dramatic Mirror newspaper reported that Troba “juggles with three large loaded cannons, which he fires off as he throws them about like so many Indian clubs.” Below is the only known photo of Troba, from my personal collection. You can see that he has pyramids of rifles on each side of him.
Another well known juggler who worked with rifles was James Darmody. Known as one of the first five club jugglers, Darmody was a popular performer from Boston, USA in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Below is a very rare picture of him juggling five clubs, taken from my collection.
While Darmody was quite famous for his club juggling skills, offering $1000 to any juggler who could equal his skill, his other well known act involved “clever gun juggling,” as his advertisements and reviews called it. The images below show a musket among his props. It is unknown precisely what he did with it.
The fourth old time gun juggler was the Australian known as Anglo, but whose real name was Thomas Horton. Around 1904 he wrote the world’s first juggling instruction book, The Art Of Modern Juggling. In this book, he details juggling with both revolvers and with rifles. Below are scans from this extremely rare book explaining these tricks.
Note that this act was supposedly popular enough that the publishers of the book, The Hamley Brothers, sold revolvers made specifically for this trick.
Trivia Side Note
I should note, as a bit of juggling history trivia, that both Darmody and Anglo killed people. In 1899, Darmody was involved in a case of pre-automobile road rage when his buggy collided with another. The owner of the other buggy attacked Darmody, who defended himself by punching the man so hard in the temple that the man died as a result a few days later. Darmody was acquitted of any crime as many witnesses testified that he was not the aggressor. Anglo, on the other hand, shot and killed his second wife in 1904 when he found her with another man. He was found guilty and executed for his crime.
Gentleman juggler Salerno also used a gun in his act. Salerno’s Pistol Trick involved shooting a billiard ball from on top of a special pistol and catching it on top of a cue stick which is “balanced” on another cue stick which was balanced on Salerno’s forehead. We have no pictures of Salerno performing this trick, but an illustration of him doing it can be seen on the right side of the poster shown below. Felix Adanos copied this trick and can be partially seen doing it by clicking here. It was also performed by the Danish juggler Edy. The Pistol Trick is currently being performed by gentleman juggler Freddy Kenton.
Hadj Lessik was the stage name of American juggler Frank Kissell (1865-1940). He appeared as an Arabian performer, spinning and juggling rifles and juggling swords. A review of Lessik’s act from 1898 reads, “Hadj Lessik, the howling, gyrating son of the desert the premier Zouave drill artist, the marvelous Arabian whirlwind gun spinner and desert chief juggler of fire arms, a real Bedouin Sheik, from the scorching sands of Sahara, in his skillful exhibition of Arabian gun spinning and sword juggling, gives a weird, fascinating oriental performance, which is entirely different from anything ever before witnessed in this country. His latest novelty is a grand transformation target, which looks very much like the ordinary one but, at the shot of a pistol three handsome silk flags drop, with portraits of Lincoln, Grant and Washington on them. It is certainly a great novelty and was a feature at Koster & Bial’s.”
Another turn of the century gun juggler and spinner was Major McLaughlin. He began performing in 1889 and had a long career in Vaudeville.
French Gentleman juggler and balancer Kiners was another turn of the century performers who used firearms in his act, as you can see in the photo below. It’s unknown if he toss juggled the rifles seen on the prop stands, balanced them in some fashion, or both.
Here’s a close up of the guns on one of the prop tables.
Roberto Alfonso was yet another juggler who utilized guns in his act. Like Anglo, he juggled pistols and fired them while doing so. Below is a poster of Alfonso showing this and a close up of the feat. It is known that he performed in the 1880s and 1890s.
The well known juggling troupe The Arizonas were best known for juggling large axes, but one of their other tricks featured one of the troupe members juggling three pistols and firing them, as can be seen in the poster image below.
Modern Gun Juggling
While I’m not aware of any current performers who juggle guns and fire them while doing so, manipulation with firearms has not completely vanished. There are numerous military and school affiliated rifle drill teams across the world with their own competitions and communities. Below is one of thousands of rifle spinning videos that you can be found online.