J.H. Johnston Great Western Gun Works

Provenance: Ex: Ralph Finch Collection, American Glass Gallery

This outstanding plum amethyst glass orb is called a Johnston Ball. It is highly desired by collectors in various fields and has great provenance. The target ball is in perfect condition and is considered unique in this glass color.

The Johnson Ball is considered an advertising ball in that it has embossed copy on the front reading, FROM (top line), J. H. JOHNSTON (second line), GREAT WESTERN GUN WORKS (third line), 169 SMITHFIELD STREET (Fourth line), and PITTSBURGH, PA. (fifth line). On the reverse side, it reads, RIFLES SHOTGUNS (first line), REVOLVERS AMMUNITION (second line), FISHING TACKLE (third line) CHOKE BORING REPAIRING (fourth line), & C. (fifth line), and WRITE FOR PRICE LIST (sixth line). The entire face of the ball is covered in copy which actually helps the gunshot burst the glass when struck as opposed to glancing off. The 2-5/8″ ball was blown in a 3-piece mold and has a rough sheared mouth.

See a second Johnston Ball in the Virtual Museum in medium golden amber.

The Great Western Gun Works was founded by James Hampton Johnston who was born on December 16th, 1836 in Waynesboro, Franklin County, Pennsylvania. He was a son of John H. Johnston (1811-1889), who was a well-known gunsmith. James would apprentice with his father during those early years in Waynesboro.

In 1860, just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, J. H. Johnston moved to Pittsburgh where he was appointed Master Armourer at the Allegheny arsenal. He served in this position for five years until the close of the war. In 1866, Johnston went to Pittsburgh and with a small amount of capital founded the Great Western Gun Works in a small building at the corner of Penn and Wayne Streets. The first year’s business amounted to only $2,500 in revenue.

The venture proved a success from the start. Two years later, in 1868, the initial establishment was destroyed by fire, and Johnston lost almost everything, having little or no insurance. Johnston would rebound and start new operations at 179 Smithfield Street. Business again prospered so Johnston was compelled to seek more commodious quarters, so he moved his manufactory to a four-story building at 285 Liberty Street, in 1874. That year sales reached over $150,000. Johnston most likely had his target balls made at Agnew & Brown, a glass house that specialized in target balls. They were responsible for the famous Pigeon Target Ball, also represented in our Virtual Museum.

George H. Thurston in Pittsburgh in the Centennial Year said that in 1876 a gun barrel factory employed 20 hands and made products valued at $40,000. In 1881, Thurston reported in Pittsburgh As It Is, or Facts and Figures, that gun manufactories in the city employed 59 gun makers and turned out guns worth $257,000, a goodly portion of which was the production of Great Western Gun Works.

Johnston employed on average 25 skilled workmen though at times had some of his finer stock manufactured in Europe. He attributed his success to his practical knowledge of gun making and strict attention to the market, especially in sporting firearms, for which he shipped to every State and Territory of the Union.

J. H. Johnston’s son, John A. Johnston, entered the firm about 1888 and took over management in 1896. He continued the business until 1923.

Primary Image: Lot 798: “FROM / J.H. JOHNSTON / GREAT WESTERN GUN WORKS / 169 SMITHFIELD STREET / PITTSBURGH, PA. – RIFLES SHOTGUNS / REVOLVERS AMMUNITION / FISHING TACKLE / CHOKE BORING REPAIRING / & C. / WRITE FOR PRICE LIST”, Target Ball, 1880 – 1900. Medium to deep plum amethyst, 3-piece mold, rough sheared mouth, dia. 2 5/8”, perfect. Exceptional color believed to be the only example of this ball in amethyst. Ex. Alex Kerr, Peter Frobouck collections. Est: $12,000 – $16,000 – The Ralph Finch Collection of Target Balls, Traps and Shooting Ephemera, An Absentee Auction in Six Parts – 2017-2019, John Pastor and American Glass Gallery

Secondary Image: Lot 796: “FROM / J.H. JOHNSTON / GREAT WESTERN GUN WORKS / 169 SMITHFIELD STREET / PITTSBURGH, PA. – RIFLES SHOTGUNS / REVOLVERS AMMUNITION / FISHING TACKLE / CHOKE BORING REPAIRING / & C. / WRITE FOR PRICE LIST”, Target Ball, a Pittsburgh glass-house, 1880 – 1900. Medium to deep golden amber, 3-piece mold, rough sheared mouth, dia. 2 5/8”, perfect! Very rare and desirable, a great example, strongly embossed! Est.: $4,000 – $6,000 – The Ralph Finch Collection of Target Balls, Traps and Shooting Ephemera, An Absentee Auction in Six Parts – 2017-2019, John Pastor and American Glass Gallery

Secondary Image: Johnston Target Ball, cack illuminated yellow-amber – Jeff Wichmann, American Bottle Auctions

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