Murderous in their mien, the two men in high-heeled boots sidled and slunk toward one another, moving like bent-kneed partners in a slow-motion version of the Twist. Beneath their broad-brimmed hats, their eyes burned fearsomely. They walked with shoulders hunched back, hips thrust forward, right hands itching and twitching near the cold bone grips of holstered, .45-caliber revolvers. Suddenly, with the men a scant 30 paces apart, the two pistols blammety-blammed orange-red flame, and from one of them a perfect circle of gunsmoke floated upward, suggestive of a skywriter's O.
It was all mighty wonderful and spine-tingly and, since nobody fell down dead, it was a little anticlimactic, too. But that's how it went for two full days when 185 of America's fastest guns disputed and eventually settled the Third Annual National Open Walk and Draw Fast Draw Championship two weeks ago in Las Vegas. It would be incorrect to say the contest was good, sustained theater; for the grim-faced men and women involved, however, it was a struggle of real importance. The way they dressed, the way they walked, the exaggerated postures and poses they affected might have struck an outsider as funny, but amongst them you would have done well to smile if you said so.
For this was the fullest flowering of walk and draw, a variation of a phenomenon only seven or eight years old called fast draw or, sometimes, quick draw (SI, Jan. 5, 1959). Whatever it's called, the game has the aim of determining who can pull a handgun from a holster and fire it in the shortest possible time. From there on, it gets complicated. Ammunition may be either blanks or wax bullets—people who fast-draw live ammunition are people who lightly regard their big toe or their best friend. The gun may be fired with the thumb and forefinger (thumbing) or by sweeping the free hand across the hammer (fanning). A competitive fast draw is held in one of three ways: walk and draw, in which the gunmen, weapons loaded with blanks, approach each other √† la High Noon, then draw when a signal light flashes; standing reflex, also started by signal light but commonly using wax loads against balloon or cutout targets; and self-start, or off-the-button, in which the shooter holds one finger of his gun hand on a timer until he is ready to draw.
Thus limited in its scope and pursuits, fast draw may seem like bragging about how fast you can slap a mosquito. But, depending on your sources, the sport, if you can call it that, is going great guns and has a following in the U.S. of anywhere from 60,000 to, wildly, one million people. It has also caused the formation of at least 1,000 clubs. Two magazines are currently serving its needs—Gunsmoke Gazette (circ. 5,000) and The Gunslinger's News (circ. 3,000). And recently fast draw received the ultimate in acceptance and status for any U.S. social practice: Sammy Davis Jr., an ornament of Hollywood's supreme in-group, The Clan, appeared on the Jack Paar TV show, demonstrating his skill with the six-gun.
December 11, 1961
Aside from pure social acceptance, which is strong in the West but spotty elsewhere, fast draw is becoming an economic force of some proportion. Manufacturers of western outfits are discovering a brand-new demand for their anachronistic wares. The Daisy BB people are hustling to popularize cap-gun fast-draw contests for children. A mechanical-game maker in Los Angeles has developed a robot marshal who will practice fast draw with you by the hour for an initial outlay of $1,425. Perhaps the biggest boodle of all has fallen to Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Co. in Hartford, Conn., which gained a measure of earlier fame by establishing western law and disorder. In the last five years the company has quadrupled its production of western-type, single-action revolvers largely because of the fast-draw addict's preference for the venerable Colt Peacemaker. Says sanguine Colt President Fred A. Roff Jr.: "We're just getting started in a brand-new sport. The end's nowhere in sight."
Fast draw as a sport has its origins in fast draw as a way of life and death, a form of casual homicide loosely tolerated in the West as recently as the early 20th century and relentlessly depicted on TV nowadays in glorious black and whitewash. One survivor of the deadly gunfighting days showed up to shoot for fun in Las Vegas. His name is Elzie Lamont Warner, whose face is as sharp as a gravedigger's spade, his nerve as tempered and cold. Now quietly retired in Phoenix, Warner is 68, but when he was 15 or so, he got $60 a month to fight the private range wars of ranchers in Texas, Wyoming and Montana. Today he bears a scalp-wound scar over his left temple but proves, by his presence, that he never lost a real gunfight.
With the exception of Warner, who must merely be indulging a talent of his that has lain dormant for 50 years, the gunslingers seem to be devoted to a pastime little boys give up in grade school. The reasons why can be had plain or fancy. Escapism, some psychiatrists have called it, and some shooters, like Hobart Francis Earp, Wyatt's fourth cousin who basks in the nimbus filtering down via TV from his illustrious ancestor, talk about "reliving our American heritage." They esteem a hobby founded upon "something distinctly native to our great country, something to make you feel proud." Says another of the Heritage School, a truck driver from Hattiesburg, Miss. named Bill Harrell: "I just naturally love history. I read a lot of it in Mans Magazine and True West, and in fast draw I feel I become a part of it in a sense." Many more of those interested in fast draw say, with considerably less mysticism, that the attractions of the sport are the same as in any other—to excel in something and to beat others in a contest. Curt Blakemore, one of the fastest gunmen in the business, states the case for fast draw with as much clarity as a man could ask: "I've tried my hand at a number of things," he says, "and I was never worth a hoot at any. I like fast draw because it's one thing I am good at—and because I made almost $200 a week last year in prize money."
Fast draw also has those miscellaneous types who have never felt the inclination nor taken the time to examine and probe their insides, and who respond to questions about why they shoot with such unadorned remarks as "I like it" or, simpler still, "I dunno."
The modern history of fast draw is only a little less elusive than the motives of the game's adherents. For example, it is difficult to find someone who was not "practicing fast draw in my backyard long before anyone else thought about it." A man named Earl Vaughn of Colorado Springs has, at one time or another, claimed that he invented competitive gunfighting in 1958. An earlier, more substantial claim is made by one Dee Woolem, a 37-year-old, purse-lipped Oklahoman who was once a country-music bass fiddler. One day in 1951 while en route to a Grand Ole Opry engagement in Nashville, he detoured through Knott's Berry Farm, an amusement park with a Wild West motif near Los Angeles, and somehow wound up as the park's head train robber. Already familiar with handguns, Woolem, in his new and novel occupation, soon found time and a gun hanging heavy on his hands. At length, he became so proficient at whipping his pistol from its holster that, in 1954, a Los Angeles TV station put him on the air. The response of viewers who had caught his act, he says, was overwhelming and inspired him to stage a self-start fast-draw competition at the amusement park. When that first formal shootoff was held later in the year, 12 people came, and one of them, on Woolem's say-so, became the national fast-draw champion.
It is Woolem's estimate that 200,000 Americans practice fast draw to some degree today, and he happily counts among that number many whom he himself has indirectly influenced or, in some cases, privately tutored. Whenever the subject of his students is brought up, Woolem is quick to mention Robert Six, president of Continental Airlines, who a few years ago paid Woolem $500 to teach him and five of his executives to draw fast. They called themselves The Six-shooters. Woolem has also given lessons to Donald Douglas Jr., president of Douglas Aircraft Corp.
(Another name that fast draw cherishes is that of Clyde Lovellette, a massive and belligerent man who plays center on the St. Louis Hawks basketball team. Lovellette, though not a competing gunfighter, fancies guns and their manipulation. Once, after being particularly displeased with a referee's call, Lovellette confronted the official in a hotel. Snarling a threat, he whipped out a six-gun and fired on the ref, who was horrified when the gun went off and only mildly amused to discover that Lovellette was using blanks.)
Though he lays no claim to Lovellette, Dee Woolem does claim the title of "The Father of Fast Draw." At various other times, he describes himself as "World's Fastest Gun" (which he may not be) and "The Daisy Kid" (which he is—Daisy now retains him full time to promote their various BB guns). But most modern gunfighters prefer the patriarchal image of Woolem. Says Bud Young, the editor and publisher of the Gunsmoke Gazette in Chicago: "Every sport needs a father figure, or Great Man, who functions as a figurehead and can be turned to with respect by everyone. I think Dee Woolem fulfills this role admirably."
Another major influence in the spread of fast draw was the interest of the Colt works, which awoke to the sport in 1957. "All that time we'd been asleep," says President Roff, "when one day I was invited to attend a fast-draw contest. I didn't even know what it was all about." He discovered soon enough that, in one respect, it was all about buying pistols, and he sent salesmen all over the country with orders to do their utmost to help organize fast-draw clubs. "We got going like hell," says Roff. "We provided rules for contests and how-to-do-it instruction booklets. Of course, we also provided [for $125, blued; $137.50, nickel] the famous old Colt Peacemaker. Before we came in, there were fewer than 100 fast-draw clubs, and we estimate we have been responsible for forming 500 to 600 more. We think, too, that 35% of the Peacemakers we're putting out annually are going into fast draw."
As fast draw has grown, so, of course, have divisive ideas grown apace. Woolem, for example, is opposed to face-to-face walk and draw, arguing that it is unsafe even with blank ammunition. Others say its customary two-out-of-three scoring is implausible when compared to the live ammunition used in the good old days. On the other hand, certain walk-and-drawers consider the use of wax bullets against balloons and other targets dull and undramatic. Even so, there seemed to be several common denominators binding together the men and women who came to the walk-and-draw contest at Las Vegas. Nearly all of the 185 on hand were born in the West, were high school-educated and hold jobs as tradesmen or skilled and semiskilled workers—locksmiths, auto mechanics, salesmen and the like. One or two professional men, including a dentist, were there, too; but in fast draw, social status, like sex, is of minor importance since nobody is ever very far from his equalizer. All shared an abiding earnestness for the business at hand, and all looked thoroughly at ease in the western costumes they wore—straightforward tight-fitting cowboy pants and checked shirts for some, frilly shirts, foulard vests, cutaway coats and tin badges for others.
The only gunslingers who seemed at all uncomfortable in this bizarre environment were two young men from Rochester, N.Y. who lamented their geographical isolation. "There are only two of us in the whole city," said Ian Woodard, a printing plant ink weigher. "Every year we come out to the Nationals, and we realize we're a year behind the times. Last year it was double holsters, and everybody was thumbing his gun. So we got double holsters and practiced thumbing. Now too late we discover single holsters are the style, and everybody's fanning. Last year I got some ideas for a costume and had a tailor back home put it together. Now they're wearing something else."
Few of the fast guns, despite the late-hour lures of Las Vegas, dared stay up past 10 p.m. for fear of damaging their chances for the $1,000 first prize put up by Colt and by Las Vegas' splashy Hotel Sahara, the cosponsors of the Nationals. Among the more earnest and intriguing of those who shot for the money were:
Jack Sims, 24, a Mountain View, Calif. millwright who won the 1960 title, but finished fourth this year. On his wife's advice, Sims put down motorcycle racing and took up fast draw six years ago. Pleasant and cordial, he takes his shooting quite seriously—he and fellow members of his club study motion picture films of past performances in an effort to shave hairbreadths of time from their draws. Sims wears an outfit of forbidding black and suffers indulgently the ribbing frequently accorded gunslingers in costume. "You don't get mad at outsiders, because they don't understand—so what's the use," says Sims. "Just as a fencer would look ridiculous in a swimming suit, a man would look silly firing a six-gun in a sports jacket and slacks. Western clothes are simply a part of our sport." Like nearly every gunfighter one meets, Sims carries business cards identifying him and his club, in this case, the Sidewinders of Los Altos, and will proffer one to a stranger almost automatically.
Claude Keunes Wiley, 32, a missile technician for Convair from Hobart, Okla. Fifty percent Comanche Indian, his middle name means Lame Wolf, he can't imagine why. Wiley designed and made his own costume, an outlandish, beaded suit of black-dyed elkskin and red velvet, with a black hat topped by an eagle feather. He carries his Colt .45 in a silver-ornamented holster. Once Wiley had to make do with less: his first pistol was a cap-and-ball muzzle-loader he picked up in St. Louis for $32, and his first holster was fashioned of cardboard and safety pins. His father taught him to shoot, and his Irish mother, he says, gave him a fast temper. Not fast enough—he finished out of the money.
Carole Hall, 24, the California women's walk-and-draw champion. Carole claims to hold a world record for her sex of .36 of a second, which is right fast for walk and draw. A housewife in Whittier, Calif., she practices fast draw an hour or so every day in her den or on her patio. Other times she helps her husband Robert edit and publish their magazine, The Gunslinger's News.
Curt Blakemore, a floor tile salesman in Westminster, Calif. He has won so many trophies (100 this year, including 26 first prizes in his last 29 contests) that his name strikes dread whenever it is mentioned amongst a group of other gunfighters. A founder of the Southern California Single Action Fast Draw Club—chartered in 1955, its members proudly proclaim it the oldest fast-draw club anywhere—Blakemore says he holds the world's record for outdoor walk and draw with a time of .27 of a second. An amateur gunsmith, he is so exacting about his guns' feel, balance and tuning that he modified the hammer on his favorite Colt four times before he was reasonably happy, once spent seven hours with a leather worker before he was satisfied with the fit of a belt and holster. Counting traveling expenses and ammunition costs, Blakemore spends $2,500 annually on fast draw; and because he works so hard at his play, he has developed a fine set of ulcers at age 26.
Despite his carefully honed weapons, Blakemore turned out to be only the third-fastest gun at Las Vegas. First was Fred Stieler, 24, a plastics worker from Sunnyvale, Calif., who confounded his opponents with his speed (.30 of a second) and the sponsors with his revolver (made by Colt's archrival, Sturm, Ruger & Co.). The runner-up was a burly truck driver named Al Brian. And far down the list, his fine touch rusted by age, was the flint-eyed old Elzie Warner. Though he was shot down early in the proceedings, Warner showed no remorse, and precious little respect for the gunslingers of Las Vegas. "These youngsters are more interested in speed than I ever was," he explained. "I always took enough time to hit the third button on the other man's vest. And another thing, they're too tense and nervous. In my day when you saw a man lick his lips or swallow hard, you knew you were walking toward a dead man."