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History

New York Times Staffers Used to Hold Shootouts for Thanksgiving Turkeys

It’s one of the newspaper's Rifle and Pistol Club traditions that lives on in the archives of the “Little Times” newsletter.

On November 20, 1924, a New York Times art department employee named Albert Reddy won himself a 15-pound Thanksgiving turkey and a box of cigars. They were his prizes for claiming first place in the inaugural “turkey shoot” held at the newspaper’s original Times Square headquarters on 42nd Street. By then the Times was operating out of a new office a block away on 43rd, and presumably set up the shooting range at the old space because there was more room, and less chance of tagging an unsuspecting pressman.

The entrance fee was 25 cents. Second prize was also a 15-pound bird — but without the stogies — while the lowest-score winner of the “Booby” prize walked off with a small turkey made of chocolate. Seventy employees got in on the fun, but most didn’t fire on the targets themselves. Instead they placed bets on sharpshooters from The New York Times Rifle and Pistol Club, a throwback group that held inter-office competitions from the 1920s to the 1940s at a makeshift facility tucked below the subway trains that were once used to deliver papers.

The bulk of what’s known about the Rifle Club comes from “The Little Times,” an in-house newspaper that ran from May 1924 to January 1932. Its archives are filled with wonderfully anachronistic articles. “News Department Sleuth Trails Suspicious Intruder,” reads one headline. (Spoiler: it was the window washer foreman.) Another article describes “Moving Picture of Times Soon,” which will be “told in a new language … of action picture, or ‘movies.’” Still another headline, from the slang-evolves bureau: “Medical Department’s New Vibrator.” Other stories are reminders of the not-so-good old days (an unctuous profile of African-American messenger John Owen refers to its subject’s “unfeigned delight over the chance of performing some small service”). Padding out “The Little Times” are the workaday events that fill corporate newsletters everywhere: births, deaths, anniversaries, promotions, and monthly updates on the newspaper’s various social clubs and sports teams, the Rifle Club included. A 1924 brief notes the purchase of a new Model 52, bolt-action repeating Winchester rifle by a Mr. L. Fowler, who used the rifle to “put 10 shots into a spot that could be covered by a 10-cent piece.”

A March 1, 1936 issue of The Little Times. Viewed with the permission of The New York Times. Photo: Patrick J. Sauer

“I didn’t even know a Times Gun Club existed, but I am not surprised,” says Gay Talese, who was a Times staffer from 1953-65 and wrote about the paper’s history in his landmark book The Kingdom and the Power. “Under Mr. Ochs’s ownership, the employees had many privileges and options.” It so happened that these included access to a basement for a little Thursday night target practice, running from 7 to 9 p.m.

It may be hard to square the Times‘s modern, urbane identity with the image of a group of rifle aficionados within its ranks getting together to take target practice down the block from Hamilton. But there are longstanding ties between the newspaper and gun culture. The National Rifle Association was co-founded by Colonel William Conant Church, a Civil War veteran who wanted to improve the marksmanship of his fellow Union soldiers and helped open Long Island’s Creedmoor range in 1872. During the war itself, Church had written for the Times as a Washington correspondent with the Union Army of the Potomac.

One “Little Times” bulletin noted that Misses Rauch, Embrue, and Brydon had become so proficient with a pistol that more experienced members were refusing to compete “for fear they will suffer by comparison.”

The archives indicate that although the Rifle Club was active from 1924 to 1930, it was never quite a centerpiece of extracurricular life at the paper. The bowling and baseball squads consistently got more “Little Times” ink. Annual membership in the gun club held steady in the teens, and the shooting competitions often included fewer than ten gunslingers. Intriguingly, women were disproportionately active in the organization. One “Little Times” bulletin noted that Misses Rauch, Embrue, and Brydon had become so proficient with a pistol that more experienced members were refusing to compete “for fear they will suffer by comparison.”

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The last big Rifle Club development came in 1928, when it was announced that Ygnacio P. Ortega of the Art Department was once again donating a handsome piece of hardware — dubbed the “Castilian Trophy,” and shipped from Barcelona — for the season’s winner. By the time the Great Depression hit, the group was reeling. The Rifle Club only warranted two mentions in 1929, and its lone 1930 headline was “Rifle Club Reorganized” — never a good sign. The organization wasn’t mentioned in 1931, and by 1932, “The Little Times” would cease publication.

A few years later, in 1939, the much more formal “Forty-Third Street Rifle Club” was launched. The new group had its subterranean range, situated five floors below the Times Square asphalt, inspected by police. Two members were booted for shooting out gallery lights. (“‘Claimed they were shooting at rats,’” said a club officer in “Times Talk,” a newsletter that launched in 1947 and petered out sometime in the mid-2000s.) The initiation was $3, dues were $6 a year, and the number of members swelled to a robust 40 (give or take). Tellingly, a picture of the Rifle Club 2.0, its ranks heavy with returning GIs, features no women.

One tradition survived the transition from the old shooting group to the new: the chance to take home a free holiday bird. The last mention of any New York Times rifle, pistol or gun club came in the November 1947 “Times Talk.” The dispatch let employees know that at the group’s last outing, “six turkeys [theoretical] were bagged … in time for Thanksgiving dinner,” but made no mention of who claimed the Booby prize. 

[Photo: Patrick J. Sauer]