First-Person Shooter Games… In 1909? Meet “Motographic Target Shooting”

When the concept of projected films took off in the mid-1890s, there was a corresponding boom of inventors who hoped to use the new technology to create everything from virtual reality to shooting games. In the case of “Motographic Target Shooting” the idea was to combine the realism of film with the then-popular shooting gallery.

(Before I get any “ackshually” yes, I do know that the textbook definition of first-person shooter generally calls for a 3D environment but I have clickbait to write and, anyway, let’s just have fun with the old clippings!)

An article in a 1909 issue of The Nickelodeon showcases the latest and greatest use for projected motion pictures. At first considered as a way to train heavy artillery, the sheer size of the required screen soon put the brakes on that idea. However:

“Usefulness is not always proportionate to size: unless, sometimes, it be in inverse ratio. What was impracticable in the scheme for heavy artillery practice becomes at once simple and practical when reduced to dimensions and appointments appropriate to the small armaments of foot soldiers, sportsmen or defenders of the home.”

The article then discusses the appeal of shooting at things that move, a fact that has led to modern billion dollar gaming industry:

“Moving targets have always been popular with those enviable marksmen who are able to hit what they aim at. But the common, mechanical form of moving target is a clumsy thing at best, and fails utterly to produce that tenseness of nerves and thrill of excitement inspired by a living objective point for our bullets.”

A disturbing observation:

Fortunately or unfortunately, there are not enough living objects available for the target shooters of the world. (Editor’s Note: Yipes!) It is necessary to resort to some substitute ; and it is not needful to point out to readers of The Nickelodeon just what art or science, or both, best simulates real life.

James Paterson, of the well known Wilkinson Sword Company of England, is the inventor of the new realistic target. In using it the marksman aims at moving pictures shown on a screen by a cinematograph ; and thus, for instance, may practice shooting against figures that advance and retreat, take cover and emerge from cover, run or walk or crawl, and which actually appear to be firing at him. In this way, it is claimed, he uses his rifle under conditions that are far nearer the “real thing” than any that have been possible heretofore. On this target he can even see the smoke from the enemy’s rifles blown away by the wind, and all the exciting details of his movements are placed before the rifleman so that his capabilities can be tested to the utmost. This remarkable invention should be capable of development to an almost indefinite extent, as the variety of objects and scenes which can be introduced for artillery, musketry and revolver shooting can be made into almost ideal battle picture targets in unlimited numbers. The burglar scene, which is shown on the second target, is intended chiefly for revolver practice.”

Modern sport shooters will be familiar with classic targets, of course, but when this magazine was published, shooting galleries were quite the rage. For the price of a few coins, anyone could hire a .22 rifle and shoot away at iron targets in hopes of winning prizes. Shooting galleries are often featured in old-timey movies so you’ve probably seen one in action. While films usually restrict targets to roosters and ducks and such, there were burglar-shaped targets as well.

The way the “Motographic” version is described, it sounds like they would go through quite a lot of paper:

“The method of working is quite simple. The target apparatus consists of two rollers, upon which is a roll of white paper forming a screen whereon is projected the living picture. When the enemy is seen or commences to fire — as shown by his smoke — the marksman starts practice, and, by a self-recording system, when a hit is made, the result is signaled instantaneously on an indicator at the firing point, which shows the value of the hit, and, when the shooting is finished, registers the total value of the hits. The length of range can be varied from fifteen to twenty-five yards for this system. The whole scheme can be made automatic, so that one person can, by pressing a button, start or stop the machine at will, and a subject can be run continuously by electric motor, the film being unwound and rewound automatically.

It will readily be seen that this scheme can be adapted to simulate all varieties of hunting — large and small game, water and wood fowl. At a sportsman’s show it would be ideal. As an amusement park concession it would certainly keep the gallery crowded with delighted spectators. It might even be possible to charge admission to a general audience, while entertaining the crack marksman at a higher figure.”

I am curious to know how the self-recording system worked or if it worked at all. This era of innovation also meant that there were a number of inventions that were advertised but never delivered or that were delivered but never quite worked correctly. (See: many, many early sound and natural color film experiments.) Actually, that sounds like some video games too…

While its technology is different, the appeal and general mechanics of Motographic Target Shooting is pretty much a modern video game in many ways. It is also true to the period in which it was (maybe) invented. Ambitious, interesting, exciting… and forgotten. That’s the silent era in a nutshell.


  1. Andrew Dederer

    Less first-person shooter prototype. More like an early version of “Mad Dog McCree” (the last in a LONG line of “quick draw” filmed arcade games). Just no electronics (so instead we KNOW when the signal will be given and can check the target sheet for comparison). Slower, but not much different in execution.

  2. Andrew Dederer

    No offense meant, but if I ever did something about the history of arcade games, that’s exactly where it would go. I thought this sort of thing dated from the 70s, not back far enough to use live rounds..

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