Shooters use Colts and other single-action originals, copies and clones.
From across the town square in Springfield, Missouri, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok and Davis Tutt chose to settle an argument that had begun the previous night at a card game. Both men entered the square with holstered revolvers when suddenly both men pulled and fired. Tutt’s shot went wild as the ball from Hickok’s Navy Colt slammed into his opponent’s heart. It was July 21, 1865, and what had taken place was pretty much the only example of a Hollywood-style gunfight in the real Wild West.
Today’s competitive sport of Cowboy Action Shooting uses the ammunition and firearms of the Old West but, fortunately, does not allow participants to face each other. In fact, trained safety personnel strictly supervise the loading, unloading and staging of the guns. And though Westerns no longer dominate the big or small screen, the 92,000-plus members of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) dress up in period clothes to compete with cowboy-era guns on combat-style ranges. But Cowboy Action Shooting wasn’t conceived until 1981, and SASS wasn’t founded until 1987. Three decades earlier came Fast Draw, a shooting sport in which a participant could pretend to beWild Bill, the fictional Marshal Matt Dillon or even Davis Tutt.
When the so-called adult Westerns (referring to grown-up interest, not obscene material) debuted on TV in 1955 with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke, it kicked off a colossal demand for six-shooters and the holsters to carry them. During the 1930s the sale of Colt Single Action Army “Peacemakers” (aka Model Ps) had fallen to 300 a year, and during the war years production ceased altogether. But in 1955 Colt followed the lead of Great Western Arms, which was making a Colt copy, and Bill Ruger, who created his powerful single-action Blackhawk revolver. At the height of the Fast Draw craze in the late 1950s Colt was selling 3,000 of its Model P six-shooters a week, or about 150,000 a year.
Filmmakers needed someone to teach gun handling to actors, and they found that expertise in two very fast shooters. Rodd Redwing was a Chickasaw Indian who started in Hollywood with Cecil B. DeMille in 1931 and was an outstanding exhibition shooter in the style of Annie Oakley and Ed McGivern. Redwing taught Alan Ladd for the classic 1953 Western Shane and Glenn Ford for the 1956 film The Fastest Gun Alive. Even faster was Arvo Ojala, whose family emigrated from Finland to Washington state. In 1950 Ojala opened a leather shop in Los Angeles, across the street from Universal Studios, and began making holsters. He designed and patented a metal-lined Buscadero-style rig that tied down to one’s leg. Ojala’s holster hung from a slot in the gun belt and was constructed of two pieces of stiff saddle leather with a piece of steel in between. This meant almost no friction on the gun when drawn from the holster. Ojala taught stars to thumbcock the gun while in the holster, so all one had to do was level the gun and pull the trigger. By the late 1950s you would be hard-pressed to find a Western star not trained by Ojala and not wearing one of his holsters.
I bought my Arvo Ojala Fast Draw holster in 1958 and paid about $50 for it. That was twice what I had paid for my Crosman Arms pellet gun, which started me out in Fast Draw. I had to have the best gear, since I needed to face the TV screen whenever Matt Dillon (played by James Arness) stepped out onto Dodge City’s Front Street at the start of each weekly episode of Gunsmoke to meet that man in black. That man was none other than Arvo Ojala. Arvo was fastest each week, but we all figured he missed and Matt didn’t.
By that time Fast Draw had taken off as a sport, and clubs were forming nationwide. Soon there were thousands of clubs whose members coveted the title of “Fastest Gun Alive.” From the beginning it was understood that live ammunition would not be safe with this sport. Two types of shooting emerged. One used blank ammo fired close range at balloon targets, and the other used bullets made from wax propelled by shotgun primers at man-shaped silhouette targets of wood or metal.
Dee Woolem was the “Father of Fast Draw.” While working as a stuntman at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Anaheim, Calif., he wanted to see how fast he was with the Colt he was using to rob trains. Soon the other stuntmen at Knott’s wanted to see if they were faster than him. So Woolem invented a clock that timed the draw speed in hundredths of a second. The sound of the blank turned off the clock. The first Fast Draw contest was held at Knott’s Berry Farm in 1954 and included 12 shooters, with the winner getting two chicken dinners.
The new sport attracted the attention of celebrities, with Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. climbing on board. The longtime president of Continental Airlines, Bob Six, even paid Arvo Ojala $500 to teach him and five other executives how to shoot like Marshal Dillon. They called themselves “The Six-Shooters” and traveled on airplanes wearing cowboy outfits that included guns. Air travel is a bit different these days.
Fast Draw contests certainly were fun and challenging, calling for considerable athletic skill, but it was a narrow niche. And it wasn’t a good spectator sport, as every shooter walked to the firing line and repeated what the shooter before had done. Unless you had a chance to win or knew the shooter personally, it wasn’t much fun to watch. But those of us who grew up on Westerns still loved the history, the look and the guns that made the Old West famous. In 1982 a group of Southern California shooters calling themselves “The Wild Bunch” held a shooting competition at a local range. That contest, which they called End of Trail, drew 65 registered shooters. Soon hundreds of men, and some women, wanted to play this new game.
In 1987 these shooting enthusiasts formed the Single Action Shooting Society [www.sassnet.com], the governing body of Cowboy Action Shooting. The game is played much like a police or military combat course and requires two single-action handguns, a lever-action rifle and a shotgun, all based on weapons used prior to 1900. Shooters may use original firearms, but most opt for clones or copies of antique guns. Several European firearms companies now import close copies of Colt, Winchester, Remington, Smith & Wesson and other period weapons. The contests are scored by time, and misses are penalized by an extra five seconds. At the end of the event the shooter with the lowest time wins.
When I joined SASS about 25 years ago, there were 2,000 members, and now we are closing in on 100,000. Our love of the Old West and the gunfighter legend is far from dead. Even Fast Draw remains active, promoted and preserved by the World, Ohio and Cowboy Fast Draw associations. Every once in a while Hollywood even makes a Western, and we are glad they do, but it is SASS and the many club shoots that allow some of us to live in a cowboy fantasy world.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.