Victorian Christmas Bulb? Nope, Even Better – Antique Shooting Target Ball

A rare and beautiful pair of antique 19th Century glass target balls, fully sealed and unopened with feathers inside of them, sold for $850 in June 2014.

Antique glass target balls are colored glass globes, about 3″ in diameter, used in the 19th Century in the US and Europe as part of a recreational target shooting, also called “trap shooting” or “skeet shooting.”  If those terms don’t ring a bell, just picture in early America or England, a wealthy gentleman with a long shot gun out behind his mansion yelling “pull!”  You’d see a small projectile fly up into the air, and the marksman, if he was good, would shoot it out of the air.

Today, these glass balls are often mistaken for early Christmas ornaments, or fishing floats. After some study, and getting familiar with the features of target balls, it becomes easier to discern the difference.

These fancy glass type target balls were used by the limited number of people rich enough to buy an item they knew would be destroyed if it was used correctly.  For those of more modest means, the projectile instead might have been made of clay, called a “clay pigeon.” These look  like a small clay frisbee, and are  launched into the air using a sort of sling type launcher. The clay pigeons, and the early “launchers” as well, are collectible, and have some value, especially if marked with a company name, and/or patent date.

Antique 1880’s Ligowsky Clay Pigeon sold for $25 in December 2016.

Antique pigeon launcher sold for $12.99 in 2012.

But the wealthier folks could afford to use glass target balls.  These were blown into molds, the same way bottles were made at the time. The balls would typically be full of a brightly colored fine powder which would explode into a colored puff cloud in the air, if the shooter hit his mark. Some were filled with feathers to give the illusion of a bird being hit.

These colorful glass balls were launched into the air using a wooden contraption called a “skeet thrower” or “skeet launcher.”  The skeet throwers are also collectible, and potentially very valuable for the oldest and most desirable examples.  But the most avidly collected skeet shooting item is the clearly the beautiful and colorful glass target ball.

This deep olive green target ball sold for $219.41 in March 2016.

These small glass globes usually measure between 2″ – 3″ in diameter, blown in mold construction, with a rough sheared lip.  Normally the lips on these are rough and chippy, but tend to stay in tact better than old bottles that had sheared lips.  Why? Because the stopper on a target ball wasn’t pressed in tightly to contain a liquid like whiskey or some type of elixer. When that was the case, if the bottle had a “sheared” lip, and the cork needed to be pried out, it often cracked or chipped the mouth of the bottle. But usually, the sheared lip on a target ball survived its use.

One of the more popular target balls in Europe in the 1880s, this beautiful cobalt blue target ball embossed ” A St QUENTIN VAN CUTSEM ” sold for $355 in September 2017.

One of the more popular target balls in Europe in the 1880s, was a beautiful cobalt blue target ball, embossed around the center band ” A St. QUENTIN – VAN CUTSEM”.  These were manufactured in France, and used all over Europe. These are not too difficult to find, and not considered rare, but still bring $200-$300 a piece.  Glass target balls with no company name embossed on them, are collectible, but don’t have near the value, with a range of generally between $50-$200.

Embossed target balls have a huge range in values from top to bottom, but that range is very bottom heavy.  The lower range embossed target balls are valued at $150 and up from there. The cream of the crop include some very rare embossed American made target balls, which have sold at auction for six figures!

This target ball is about as good as they come, and brought over $29,000 at an auction in 2010 by the American Bottle Auction Co.

The photo above shows an amber glass ball, with an embossed pigeon on it, made by the Agnew & Brown Co of Pittsburgh circa 1870.  This target ball is about as good as they come, and brought over $29,000 at an auction in 2010 by the American Bottle Auction Co.


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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