Shooting sports legend dies at age 62

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

Elk River lost one of its sports legends April 26 with the death of Tom Knapp, at age 62.

Imagine the Minnesotans who may have greeted Harmon Killebrew, whose life and death touched all baseball fans, when they recognized him in public.

Photo by Tammy Sakry Tom Knapp performed at the 2012 Game Fair in Ramsey.
Photo by Tammy Sakry
Tom Knapp performed at the 2012 Game Fair in Ramsey.

Knapp was similarly revered in his own field of the shooting sports. Though he didn’t hold a wooden bat to swat hundreds of home runs, he was skilled in holding and using a shotgun. He made marksmanship into a career that earned him a comfortable living along with many world records.

“He was a cross between Buffalo Bill Cody and P.T. Barnum,” said Bart Ward, a friend who also made the Killebrew comparison. “(Tom) was definitely the best entertainer.”

Ward and Knapp became fast friends in 2007, when the men both had roles in making Anoka County’s sesquicentennial a very special year to be remembered. Homages to the county’s history included a wagon train ride that began in Ham Lake but took enough turns that the carriages were out three days before wheeling to their final stop at the Anoka County Fairgrounds. After deboarding their wagons, the drivers joined crowds of other people to watch Knapp captivate everyone’s attention for 20 minutes as he showed his don’t-try-this-at-home skills of firing a shotgun from behind his back and above his head, among other angles. That was just part of the day’s entertainment on the fairgrounds, and Ward had co-coordinated those events as a board member of the Anoka County Historical Society.

Knapp later welcomed Ward as a guest to his Elk River home, and they would practice shooting at targets in the backyard.

“He was trying to teach me to shoot a shotgun with both eyes open,” Ward said.

Submitted photo Dane McElrath, at left, and Tom Knapp at one of the marksman’s shows.
Submitted photo
Dane McElrath, at left, and Tom Knapp at one of the marksman’s shows.

Ward appeared to be a lost cause for Knapp that day when the far more experienced marksman realized Ward was left-handed, and that clashed with the guest’s right-eye dominance.

Undeterred by the end of their visit, Knapp told Ward to go home, shoot 4,500 rounds and return in one week. Ward knew his own shoulders were in no shape to take so much pressure in such short time. He knew that his muscles did not have Knapp’s conditioning. “That guy used to pound down thousands and thousands of rounds a week,” said Ward.

Knapp was a top teacher. “He worked with you, and made you feel good about yourself,” Ward added.

The mentor had reached a point with his own shooting where he could toss up to 10 clay targets in the air at once, and hit and fire through each of them in seconds before gravity would get a chance to take them down.

Knapp could also blow away objects that were mere millimeters wide. “He would throw aspirin (in the air), and powder them,” Ward said. “I saw him do it more than once.”

A career with the Hennepin County park system, which later morphed into the Three Rivers Park District, brought Knapp into his 40s before he had any income from showing his shooting skills for live audiences.

Shotgun distributor Benelli, based in Maryland, sponsored tours for Knapp for 18 years, and he hosted a television show titled “Benelli’s American Birdhunter” for eight seasons.

Kevin Koep, a former regional factory representative for Benelli, joined Knapp on several of his weekend trips to vendor shows.

“(The company) sold a lot of product because of Tom Knapp,” Koep said. “He was the ultimate showman. After an event, he would sign every kid’s hat.

“(Tom) had some of the best stories. He would go on and on if you let him, and most people did. He was just a joy to be around. … Even if they saw (the show) once, they would come back again because they loved Tom Knapp. He couldn’t have been a better friend or a greater man.”

Knapp loaded shotguns for as many as 100 shows in a year. His death certainly leaves a great void in the industry, but younger fans and fellow exhibition shooters count his legacy as an inspiration and they remain on the circuit to continue his traditions.

Minnesota-born brothers Steve Gould, 27, now of Alexandria, and Aaron Gould, 31, of Corliss, began shooting together in their parents’ backyard after both sons had finished college. In 2008, they saw some of Knapp’s work in videos online. In 2009, they attended one of his shows in Little Falls. In 2010, they had come to the annual Game Fair, held in Ramsey and introduced themselves to Knapp there after a show.

The brothers had begun already to build their own names in the sport, as Knapp told them he had heard of their shooting presentations.

By 2011, the Goulds were performing as openers for Knapp in Dalton, Minn., and in 2012 they returned there for an encore and they also opened for Knapp at Little Falls.

“He kind of publicly endorsed us the last couple of years,” said Steve Gould, who noted he and his brother have taken their own show to Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia and South Carolina. “But getting to know Tom as a friend far outweighs the endorsement. We could see that he had a passion for what he did. He cared about carrying on the tradition of exhibition shooting.”

“He was a tremendous inspiration, both in his talent and his showmanship,” Aaron Gould said. “I think he saw that we were the genuine artifact. To learn from a gentleman that did so many things was a wonderful experience and a great help.”

Knapp’s personality spoke to the youngest of generations. Dane McElrath, 14, and friends saw a Knapp show last summer in their town of Needville, Texas, located near Houston.

The boys became familiar with Knapp through online videos and recognized and approached him before his live show in Needville just as other youth may greet a famous baseball player. Knapp had an instinct to sit and share stories with the young teens for 30 minutes that day, and drew a smartphone out from his pocket for visual reference.

Dane learned of Knapp’s passing through contacts on Facebook, and the teen sent condolences north to Knapp’s family. “I thought he was a pretty cool guy,” Dane said. “He was really nice. I liked him.”

Knapp died of complications from pulmonary fibrosis. He was awaiting a lung transplant at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester. He had been diagnosed in late 2009, but became and stayed well enough to return to performing until needing to retire in early 2013.

He is survived by his wife of 14 years, Colleen; two stepchildren and four grandchildren; one brother, John, who lives in Montana.

Friends and family will gather for a celebration of Tom’s life 1 p.m. May 11 at the Del-Tone/Luth Gun Club of St. Cloud.