Fast Draw Competition — It Had To Be!

With the advantage of hindsight, it’s easy to look back and see how Fast Draw just had to happen. Most of us involved in the early stages of what was the fastest-growing gun sport of the late 1950’s had spent our formative years watching Western movies at the local theater on Saturday afternoon (mine was appropriately named the West Theater).

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Warner Brothers’ star stable (from left): Will “Sugarfoot” Hutchins, Peter “Lawman” Brown, Jack “Maverick” Kelly, Ty “Bronco” Hardin, James “Maverick” Garner, Wade “Colt .45” Preston and John “Lawman” Russell. All used Arvo Ojala Fast Draw rigs.

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The Great Western Arms Company of Los Angeles was the first to offer
replicas of the Colt Single Action Army, starting in 1954.

A Misspent Youth

Once a week we watched Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash Larue, Rocky Lane, Johnny Mack Brown and a whole list of others. But the real star of every movie was the Colt Single Action Army. And we all tried to outshoot the stars with our cap guns.

In the late 1940’s the new phenomenon of television started spreading across the country.

Today we have 24/7 coverage on hundreds of channels. However, in those days—even though the broadcast day was much shorter—there was still a lot of air time to fill on a very few networks. Much of it was taken up with older Western movies and we were able to enjoy such earlier stellar stars as Buck Jones, Tim McCoy and Tom Mix. Even though Tom Mix normally used Colt double actions, the real star in most of the movies was once again the Colt SAA.

The time was ripe for something that finally arrived in the 1950’s. However, the Colt SAA was no longer being manufactured. Colt had dropped production in 1940, saying they would never make the SAA again.

But in 1954 William Wilson began building the first Colt replica in the Great Western factory in Los Angeles. Great Western offered three standard barrel lengths of 4-3/4″, 5-1/2″ and 7-1/2″—as well as chamberings of .22, .38 Special, .44 Special and .45 Colt. Wilson would soon also offer a Fast Draw Model with a specially tuned action and brass grip-frame. Even with the entrance of Great Western into the market, the demand was still such Colt could no longer resist, and in late 1955 the first of the Second Generation Colt SAA’s arrived.

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Joe Bowman and his custom Rugers from the May 1979 issue of GUNS proved that
purists could accept a “non-Peacemaker” single-action platform.

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Arvo Ojala shows actress Anne Francis a thing or two about single actions.

Sixgun Resurrection

In September 1955 a new era began. The first episode of Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Matt Dillon arrived. This would spawn a whole long list of TV westerns which were extremely popular in the 1950s. Two years later Paladin arrived in Have Gun, Will Travel, with Richard Boone in the starring role. However, for me the real “draw” in both of these shows — which arrived at the same time as Paladin and Tombstone Territory one month later — was the 7-1/2″ Colt SAA. Chris Colt and Clay Hollister of Colt .45 and Tombstone Territory both carried a pair of them, so I had to have one. I purchased the first 7-1/2″ Colt SAA .45 to arrive at Boyle’s Gun Shop in 1957.

Colt and Great Western were offering the sixguns. What was needed was proper leather. This would come mostly from three men — Arvo Ojala, Andy Anderson and Alfonso Pineda, who all worked in the same shop at one time. In July 1956 the shooting public was introduced to the first modern holster which would lead to Fast Draw competition.

On the cover of our GUNS Magazine that month we were treated to Arvo Ojala teaching Marilyn Monroe how to shoot. He was wearing his Hollywood Fast Draw Holster. Arvo revolutionized holster making by placing a steel shank in the drop loop for rigidity, plus a circle of steel around the holster. Both of these were inside two pieces of leather sewn together. The steel-lined holster did away with friction, allowing the sixgun to be cocked in the holster, which resulted in incredible drawing and firing speed. It was also extremely dangerous if used with live ammunition.

Some of the early Fast Draw shoots did use live ammunition, however, this is a task which should be reserved for experts only, real experts such as my friends Jim Martin, the late Bob Munden and Thell Reed. As Fast Draw evolved it became a safer sport, allowing the use of blanks and primer-driven wax bullets only.

Let’s look at some of the early movers and shakers in Fast Draw. Then we’ll look at the leather makers and follow up with some of the early well-known shooters.

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Combat Masters (from left): Ray Chapman, Eldon Carl, Thell Reed, Jeff Cooper
and Jack Weaver. This was the nucleus of the South Western Combat Pistol League.
All 5 men are using Fast Draw-style holsters — but only Weaver is carrying a revolver.

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Dee Woolem, “The Father of Fast Draw,” was also an expert sixgun spinner.

An All-Star Cast

Dee Woolem — The seeds of Fast Draw may have been planted by the Western movies, however it took a modern-day train robber to actually start the phenomenon of the sport. Dee Woolem robbed trains several times a day at Knott’s Berry Farm in the early 1950’s. When he wasn’t reenacting train robbing, he practiced fast draw with his Colt Single Action and specially designed holster. His holster, which was later offered as a do-it-yourself kit by Tandy Leather, rode high on the belt for quicker access as well as safety. He also designed the button-actuated timer, which the shooter’s finger depressed before he went for his gun.

The first contest to use the timer was held at Knott’s. Fast Draw had officially begun. Woolem won four straight national titles and also traveled as an exhibition shooter for Great Western and then Crossman. He well deserves the title of “The Father of Fast Draw.”

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Arvo Ojala incorporated the forward slant on his Hollywood Fast
Draw Holster in the 1960’s. He also showed his Fast Draw
technique in this booklet put out by Listerine.

Arvo Ojala — Arvo was born in the apple country of Washington State and practiced his fast draw and shooting by taking off the heads of rattlesnakes that roamed the orchards. He felt the gunhandling of the major western stars of the 1940’s left much to be desired, so he headed for Hollywood with the idea of teaching Western stars to do it right.

His first movie assignment was on The Return of Jack Slade and word soon spread of his ability. Arvo taught such stars as Dale Robertson, Hugh O’Brian and Sammy Davis Jr. It was also Arvo who appeared in the opening episodes of the early Gunsmoke episodes getting gunned down by Matt Dillon in the streets of Dodge, even though he obviously beat Dillon to the draw.

Holster rigs used in Hollywood at that time also left a lot to be desired so Arvo designed the Hollywood Fast Draw Holster. This drop-loop Western rig was soon seen in virtually every Western movie and TV show in the 1950’s. Matt Dillon, Paladin and Wyatt Earp all wore Ojala rigs.
In Jeff Cooper’s early book, Fighting Handguns, we see the Warner Brothers TV Western stars — Maverick, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot and Chris Colt all using Ojala rigs.

In 1958 I ordered my own Ojala rig; unique because it’s black basket-weave. It is memorable for several reasons, including the fact the first date I had with the lady now known as Diamond Dot saw us driving out to Boyle’s Gun Shop to pick up my Hollywood Fast Draw Holster.

Fifty-five years later I still have the girl and the holster. Although the Ojala rig was superb for Fast Draw and looked wonderful on the hips of the stars, it was totally impractical for any other use — way too bulky and heavy, and exceptionally uncomfortable for everyday wear.

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Taffin is the proud owner of this Cedar Ridge Saddlery
re-creation of the Andy Anderson Walk & Draw.

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Walt Ostin crafted this Andy Anderson-style holster.

Andy Anderson — In 1958, WWII vet Andy Anderson of Fort Smith, Arkansas, opened his Gunfighter Shop in Los Angeles after working with Arvo Ojala. He took the basic metal-lined drop-loop holster, brought it up on the belt, and slanted it muzzle forward. It wasn’t long before his Gunfighter holsters began to appear, worn by such stars as Clint Eastwood (Rawhide), Chuck Connors (Branded) and James Drury (The Virginian).

All of Andy’s rigs, whether high on the belt or worn lower as in the Walk and Draw competition, featured the forward muzzle rake, which was soon adopted by other leathermakers. Andy taught many stars how to handle single-action sixguns and even taught Fast Draw to Raquel Welch.

One of my favorite singers, Marty Robbins, was a fan of Andy’s. Marty not only named this platinum-selling album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, his top single, Big Iron, came directly from the Anderson rig and the 7-1/2″ Colt Andy used. By the time Andy was offering his rigs commercially, I was in college and too broke to buy an original. This has been corrected in recent years with replicas from Walt Ostin and Cedar Ridge Saddlery.

Alfonso of Hollywood: What Arvo and Andy began, Alfonso Pineda carried out to a high science. Alfonso was born in Argentina, migrated north to Nicaragua, and then to California in 1957. He worked for Arvo for a short time and then opened his own shop in the early 1960’s. He raised the holster even higher on the belt, added a metal plate to the belt behind the holster for extreme rigidity, and to further identify his rigs, added a double line of stitching all around the edges.

Alfonso’s holsters soon dominated Fast Draw competitions. They were especially popular with fanners (those who used the heel of the offhand to cock the hammer) and those who favored the twist draw (starting with the grip of the sixgun at an extreme angle outward).

Alfonso made his version of the Fast Draw rig for such stars as Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Lewis. Alfonso passed on in 1995, however his son Omar still produces high-quality Alfonso of Hollywood rigs.

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Some actors were better at Fast Draw than others.
Glenn Ford was one of the best.

Rodd Redwing: Before Arvo, Andy and Alfonso there was Rodd Redwing. Rodd was a Chickasaw Indian, born in New York, who migrated to Hollywood and began teaching Western stars in the 1930’s. He was gun coach and technical director for Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, which introduced Jane Russell to the world. He also went on to coach stars such as Alan Ladd (Shane), Gregory Peck (Duel in the Sun), Gary Cooper (High Noon), Glenn Ford (The Fastest Gun Alive) and a whole long list of others. Rodd also devised the rapid-firing lever-action Winchester Model 92 used by Chuck Conners (as Lucas McCain in TV’s The Rifleman). Burt Lancaster’s behind-the-back draw in Vera Cruz was coached by Redwing.

Rodd also designed a Fast Draw holster in 1937 for use by Hollywood stars, including Glenn Ford’s distinctive rig used in many movies, and began offering it commercially in 1959. It was made for him by Andy Anderson. Redwing did not use metal in the lining of his holsters, using instead — of all things — corset stays to make them rigid and easy to draw from.

Thell Reed: Thell started shooting single actions more than 60 years ago when his father gave the then-7-year-old a pair of Colt .45’s and predicted he would earn a living with them.

As a teenager, Thell shot with Jeff Cooper in Big Bear Lake, California, with a group including Jack Weaver, Eldon Carl and Ray Chapman. They shot live ammunition, with Thell often using the Colt SAA. He was the youngest but also the fastest. His Fast Draw was mostly Quick Draw; Charles McDonald Heard defined the former as being used with wax bullets or blanks, while the latter was with live ammunition.

Thell traveled on tour with Gene Autry in the 1960’s, challenging all comers to put up a Colt SAA against his money offer. At the end of the tour he had nearly a dozen brand-new Colts. Andy Anderson designed Thell’s first forward-slanted Gunfighter rig. Elmer Keith said Thell was the fastest he ever saw, calling him “The All-Time Wizard With A Sixgun.”

Thell still teaches Fast Draw and gunhandling to movie stars, having worked with Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Bruce Willis and Angelina Jolie to make what they do look realistic. Thell is one of the few true masters of Fast Draw with a Colt SAA using live ammunition.

Joe Bodrie: Fast Draw was extremely popular, even more so than Cowboy Action Shooting is today. By the summer of 1959 nearly 200,000 shooters were taking part in Fast Draw. Joe Bodrie was an exhibition shooter, not only doing Fast Draw but also fancy twirls and spins. He was billed as the “Fastest Gun Alive.”

Although Joe was an expert with live ammunition, he realized live ammo — for the vast majority of shooters — had no place in Fast Draw. To promote safety he advised all shooters to use wax bullets powered by primers only. To make things easier he devised an inexpensive loader. Unprimed cases were placed in the loading blocks and the entire affair was pressed down on the block of paraffin wax, allowing the loading of 50 cases at once. They were then primed and ready to go.

Joe was soon joined by other top Fast Draw experts all promoting wax bullets. Who knows how many negligent discharges of live ammunition he prevented?

Bob Arganbright: My friend Bob Arganbright has probably been the premier promoter of Fast Draw over the past 40 years or so with his many articles on the sport itself, sixguns, the history of single action shooting, and premium holster makers.

Bob’s 1978 book, The Story of Western Fast Draw is a classic, with much information and many pictures of the early participants. If you can find a copy, it is well worth purchasing. Bob also has what is probably the best and certainly the most prolific collection of Fast Draw gunleather in existence.

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Beat it to the ground, halfway down! In the September 1959 issue of GUNS,
Dee Woolem drops a paper cup and blasts it with a .45 blank.

Joe Bowman: Joe, also known as “The Straight Shooter,” was a goodwill ambassador for shooting for decades. It is a rare person who has ever attended a Shot Show or NRA Convention who has not met Joe or seen his shooting exhibition. Some of my fondest memories are evenings spent with shooting legends such as Bill Jordan, Jeff Cooper and Joe Bowman. My wife and I had dinner with him and his wife one evening about seven years ago, and he kept us entertained with stories the whole night.

Joe was a veteran of WWII with four battle stars and a Purple Heart and was presented with a special Texas Ranger Badge by the Governor of Texas. He made custom boots for Roy Rogers, leather for Johnny Mack Brown, Jock Mahoney and Sammy Davis Jr. (as well as two pair of custom Ruger single actions for Sammy). Joe also coached Robert Duvall for his role as Gus in Lonesome Dove, but above all, he was a showman. He always dressed like Roy Rogers, complete with fancy boots and fringed shirts, and gave Fast Draw shooting exhibitions all over the country. He seemed to be ageless, still shooting in his 80’s, however, he passed on at the age of 84 in 2009. He was another one of those shooters we will never see the likes of again.

Jim Martin: I first met Jim Martin at Winter Range about 12 years ago. Since that time we have talked regularly and I have tapped into his encyclopedic knowledge of single-action sixguns and Fast Draw. Jim won the 1960 California Fast Draw championship, and went on to win it three more times using a 7-1/2″ Colt SAA and he has been using one ever since. When Great Western was offering do-it-yourself kits in the 1950’s, the then-young Jim acquired kits and put them together to acquire spending money. He knew the folks at Great Western as well as many of the Hollywood stars.

Jim is an expert at tuning and timing single actions. When GUNS celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005, it was Jim Martin who put the Great Western .45’s — which had appeared on the cover of the first issue in 1955 — back into working shape so I could shoot them for the anniversary celebration.

Like many of us, Jim started by using live ammunition in the 1950’s. Jim served as technical advisor to MGM and is well-known for his Fast Draw as well as spinning single actions (he won the World Champion Fancy Gun Handling competition twice). In addition to MGM, Jim also coached stars such as Iron Eyes Cody, Jay Silverheels and Jock Mahoney at Paramount and Corriganville. He was also a good friend of Alfonso Pineda and received the first carved rig done by Alfonso made for (what else?) a 7-1/2″ Colt SAA. Bob Arganbright has dubbed Jim “The Last of The Dinosaurs.”

Bob Munden: Over the years, especially in the early days of Fast Draw, many have claimed the title of “Fastest Gun Alive.” But Bob Munden took it a step higher and was known as “The Fastest Gun Who Ever Lived.” Bob and his wife Becky put on Fast Draw exhibitions for well over 40 years.

I first met them in the late 1960’s when they were working for National School Assemblies, putting on Fast Draw exhibitions in public schools. Can you imagine this happening today?

Since those early days Bob and Becky continued to do exhibitions around the country, in fact, all over the world. They did many episodes of television’s American Shooter TV shows.

Until he passed away recently, Bob was seen on cable TV’s Impossible Shots showing he could do more with a sixgun than Fast Draw. Some of the things he accomplished were truly impossible. In addition to his exhibitions and TV shows, Bob also specialized in custom single-action work. I have several single actions worked over by Bob and they work smoothly and perfectly. He even turned one gun of mine into a fanner with an upswept hammer.

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“Big Iron” special: Andy Anderson’s Walk & Draw Western Gunfighter
rig was favored by country-western singer Marty Robbins.

The Game Changes

Fast Draw holsters dominated movie and TV Westerns until the 1990’s, when more authentic period leather began to be used. While the sport of Fast Draw is still alive and well, it no longer has the following it did during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It spawned a spin-off known as Cowboy Fast Draw, which started in Deadwood South Dakota, about 12 years ago and is now headquartered in Nevada.

The governing body of this relatively new sport is CFDA, or Cowboy Fast Draw Association. This version of Fast Draw requires a .45 single action using wax bullets normally powered by a shotgun primer. Holsters of the drop-loop style are not allowed. Targets are 24″ circles with a light in the center covered by plexiglass. There are placed at 15, 18 or 21 feet. Unlike original Fast Draw, the shooter starts with his hand on the gun and reacts to the light in the center of the target. Scores are the result of the best three out of five shots.

I shot in Cowboy Fast Draw for a while and was the only competitor using a 7-1/2″ sixgun. I retired, never having missed a single target. However, I was bested by those who were faster with their shorter barrels.

But the use of the 7-1/2″ barreled single action has caught on to the point where the John Taffin Shootists Challenge Match is held each Spring in Idaho, with each competitor using the long-barreled sixgun. Some of those folks can get mighty fast! My best times ever were in the seven-tenths of a second range, but some of these newer shooters are down below one-half second, including reaction time.

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“Spud” (aka Coby Coffman) is one of the youngest — and most
successful — participants in today’s Cowboy Fast Draw.

This special event is now sanctioned as a CFDA Shoot. If it is recognized as a National Championship Shoot, I have committed to donating one of my 7-1/2″ single actions to the winner.

For more info: World Fast Draw Association (WFDA) www.fastdraw.org;
Cowboy Fast Draw Association (CFDA), www.cowboyfastdraw.net

By John Taffin

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