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.
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.