*Originally published in Guns & Ammo, Summer Edition, 1958, p. 14.
A tradition of the Old West is a fast growing sport today — but unless you can hit your target it's no good.
The "Fastest Gun Alive!" Who is he, and who was he? Men have always tried to establish champions in personal combat, and today's version of a fair fight between two men is a matter of pistols "from the leather." We can't very well arrange matches which would kill off all but the last contestant, but since interest in leatherslapping seems to be increasing very rapidly through the country, shooters are devising ways to put these matters to a convincing test without casualties.
Several open matches have already been held, and it appears that before long this form of shooting sport may become as popular as skeet. Thus it's about time that the basic elements of the game were standardized and made nationwide, so that we'd all be using the same rules.
Essentially, a leatherslapping match attempts to settle the question of who would win if two men faced each other with guns carried in their normal manner, and started at the same time to shoot it out. Sheer speed on the draw is only half the problem, the other is delivering a knock-out wound once the gun is drawn.
A surprising number of timing devices have been designed to measure draw-speed, but relatively few which require the shooter to hit anything. This is a little odd when it is so obvious that the fastest man in the world could easily be killed by the first shot from a slow opponent if his fastest draw simply emptied his magazine without hits.
One reason for the emphasis on speed alone is the show business angle. Western characters on television and the movies work at a fast draw because it looks good on the screen, but they have no need to do anything more, and learning to hit takes time, effort, and a lot of ammunition.
Mechanical timers, while interesting in an academic sense, have serious drawbacks as accurate evaluators of gunslinging ability. One of these is that they usually allow the shooter to initiate the action by removing his hand from a button. This eliminates the shooter's reaction time — the interval required between his decision to draw and his actual movement. This is a big item in a gunfight, and usually occupies from two to three tenths of a second. When you hear of some frantic drawing time like .19 second, it's well to ask just what was timed. If it was merely the time between the start of the gun out of the holster (as recorded by an electrode in the leather) and the explosion of the cartridge, a lot of things have been left out. If, on the other hand, it was the interval between a signal to the shooter to fire and his placing of a major caliber slug in the boiler room of a man target at a reasonable range, it is a fair measure of his ability. Naturally, the two times will be quite different. The simple act of clearing leather may take as little as 1/5 second, but the full fighting reaction is seldom less than 6/10, even with the very best performers.
The only satisfactory way to measure gunslinging ability is in the man-against-man contest, where the problem is to beat your opponent, not the clock. Therefore, matches of this sort must be run like a tennis tournament, with an elimination ladder leading up to the ultimate finalists.
One such event is the Annual Leather Slapping Contest, to be held for the third time this year on the first weekend in August at Big Bear Lake, California. In this match, restricted to big bore handguns, the range is seven yards and the targets are rubber balloons inflated to about 18 inches diameter. The target is certainly not hard to hit at that range, but it's amazing how often it's missed when the pressure is on. Each pair of shooters faces the twin targets, hands at least 10 inches from the guns, and commences on a signal from the director. The bursting balloon leaves no doubt with judges or spectators as to who hit first. If they burst together it's clear that both men would have been knocked out together, even if one hit was very slightly ahead of the other. This counts as a hit for each contestant, and the first man to get three hits eliminates his opponent and moves up another rung on the ladder.
A whistle signal has been used to commence firing. In the past, but will be replaced by a visual signal behind the backstop this year. It was found that certain shooters were obtaining extra speed by keeping their eyes fixed on their holsters as they waited for the whistle. Since one could hardly use this technique in a fight, it had to be rendered unworkable in the match as well.
An especially good gunslinging device has been in for years at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va. It consists of two "bobber" silhouettes constructed of two layers of copper mesh separated by an insulating layer. When the targets are raised into the line of fire the mesh is energized, and when a bullet hits a target it closes the circuit, making possible an infallible record of who won. In practice, two shooters stand side by side facing the backstop with guns holstered. On signal they start walking forward from a range of about 35 yards. Anytime thereafter the director may press a button which raises the targets, at which time the contestants draw and start shooting. When either target is hit a "cease firing" horn sounds, a light indicates which target was hit first, and a clock records the time between the appearance of the target and the first hit.
After each firing, the shooters reloaded, holster their weapons and wait for the next command to advance. Since ranges close from more than 30 yards to about five, this contest is a fine test of the shooter's presence of mind and his knowledge of effective hitting ranges. At 30 yards he must shoot with target-type care in spite of the need for speed, and then as ranges close he must estimate the exact degree by which speed becomes more necessary as the target becomes easier to hit.
No system I have seen impresses the shooter more forcibly with the precedence of accuracy over speed. It is comical and sobering at the same time to watch two pretty fair gunman hurry just a little too much and wind up with empty cylinder in both guns and the clock still whirling around while untouched targets stare somberly back.
Then it becomes a crucial question whether to load just one round and stake everything on it, or to try to get a whole cylinder full in case of still further missing! This sort of thing makes one appreciate an automatic pistol.
There are two weaknesses to the FBI dueling target device. First, it is so sensitive that it will award victory to a bullet which strikes only three feet ahead of its competition. Clearly, solid hits this close together in time would produce a tie and should be recorded that way. Second, it gives full credit to a hit that just nicks the edge of the silhouette, through a pinwheel, a split second later on the other target would win the fight.
Both of these drawbacks could be eliminated easily by causing any hits landing within 1/5 of a second of each other to be called simultaneous, and by energizing only the vital zone of each silhouette. With these modifications the gadget could be a welcome addition to our national matches. A man who could defeat all comers in this competition would fully deserve the title of national pistol champion!
Equipment used in gunslinging matches is naturally a matter for much discussion. While many shooters swear by one combination and sneer at all others, a surprising variety of gear seems to work well. Double action revolvers predominate, but there are a lot of single action fans who can do very well, and any major caliber automatic which has either a double action feature or an easily operable safety gives its users decided advantages in speed of successive shots and quick reloading.
I strongly believe that cartridges used in gunslinging matches should be confined to the most powerful practical loads. It is a little easier to get hits with minor calibers, and yet in a fight a determined foe could quite probably absorb two or three vital hits from a .38 Special or a 9mm, keep his feet, keep on shooting and kill you. Because of the almost universal use of the .38 Special by police agencies, in spite of its constantly evident inadequacy, it is almost necessary to permit its use in any popular contest. But a much better policy would put a bottom limit on the .357 and restrict other calibers to the .45 ACP, .45 Colt and .44 Magnum. These proven man-stoppers, along with a couple of other obsolescent types, are all that should be considered as "serious" sidearms.
There is a widespread and totally incorrect belief that a double-action revolver or auto pistol permits a quicker first shot than those which must be cocked or slipped off safe in order to fire. A little thought will show that, no matter how fast a man can draw, his weapon must be removed from its holster and pointed at the target in order to complete the fighting stroke. While it is in motion any practiced hand can also cock it or slip off the safety without affecting draw speed one way or the other. You can move the gun just so fast, and there is no need to wait until it is pointed squarely at the target to prepare it for action. High speed photographs show that the cocking action on a single action draw is completed just after the muzzle clears the leather, while the safety is released on an automatic pistol about midway between the holster and the firing position.
After the first shot, of course, a double action revolver is faster than a single action unless the latter is fanned, and hitting with a fanned pistol is something only a very few can accomplish. (At one time I would have said it was impossible, but now that leatherslapping competition is on the rise. I have run across two pistoleros who can fan into a police silhouette at seven yards with convincing regularity.)
The auto pistol is distinctly quicker on follow-up shots than either sort of revolver, and is easier to "spot-on" if bullet strike can be observed. In addition, its larger magazine capacity and almost instantaneous reloading can sometimes be decisive.
Holsters for gunslinging work are even more varied than the weapons used, and each type has supporters. Probably the quickest is the Berns-Martin, which, because of its split front, allows the gun simply to be pushed straight forward without actually "drawing" it at all. It has the added advantage of being quite secure — you can turn handsprings without losing the gun and yet it is always ready to go, as there is no retaining strap or catch to release.
The straight Western pouch holster, tied low on the thigh is very quick too, but is usually quite insecure for everyday use. Its fastest technique requires the shooter to develop an instantaneous crouch, timed exactly with the gun-hand contact, which simply drops the holster away from beneath the gun, so that, as with the Berns-Martin, the gun is not actually drawn but just thrust forward.
The "clamshell" holster, which springs away from the gun when a button inside the trigger guard is pressed, has had its share of wins, but it is not considered the best thing to use in a fight as it's awfully hard to find that button with your index finger in a hurry.
The cross-draw, both from a pouch holster slanted across waist or from a spring shoulder holster, is quite efficient but less common than hip and thigh systems. It has the advantage, not apparent in friendly competition, of making the gun available from a sitting position, as in driving a car, and being handy to the "off" hand in case of injury.
But various contests have made it plain that any well designed rig can be effective if the shooter will devote necessary time to it. Absolute speed has never yet won out, as up to now the prize money has gone to the man who is moderately fast and doesn't miss. It's safe to say that any man who can hold a poker chip on the back of his gun hand, then draw and hit his target before the chip hits the ground, is plenty fast enough to win any gunfight. More speed than this won't matter, as your shot will be on its way before anything your foe can do can stop it. Just make sure you hit — and pray he misses!
The game continues to attract followers, both competitors and spectators. Actually it has the highest spectator appeal of any shooting sport, as the range is short enough to permit the whole thing to be seen, the results of each bout are instantly apparent, and the thrill of simulated combat produces excitement not usually present in shooting matches.
As a public sport it is discouraged by both the police and the professional trick shots. The lawmen don't like the idea of these skills developing into common property, while the showmen don't want their highly advertised talents to be submitted to any competitive testing.
Regardless of these problems, leatherslapping is too popular today to fade away. It's a dramatic, colorful and exciting sport, as well as excellent training for law enforcers. It may well develop into a bigger thing than rock 'n roll!
*Originally published in Guns & Ammo, Summer Edition, 1958, p. 14.