By Andy Clark
The hot mid-day sun beat down as the fellow nervously checked his Ruger Blackhawk single action revolver. Spinning the chamber and checking the hammer mechanism several times he then slipped the gun smoothly in and out of his holster sitting low on his hips. Adjusting his Stetson he looked up and said “I may be nervous, but I am ready”. Stepping into position he slightly bent his knees and placed his partially open right hand over the holster, while his flattened left hand crossed over his stomach and balanced just above the hammer of the gun. Only yards away his opponent stepped into his position and took a similar stance. A split second later there was a deafening and almost simultaneous boom as both guns spit fire, creating a large cloud of blue smoke that hung in the air. It was over. There lying on the ground was not some poor soul but rather the tattered remains of two yellow balloons, both gunfighters checked their guns, holstered them and prepared for the next round.
As you have gathered this was not some scene from the late 19th century in a dusty town of the American wild west but rather, a modern day competition, taking place at the annual Canadian Open Fast Draw Championships in Aldergrove, about an hour east of Vancouver, British Columbia.
The present day Fast Draw competition was born from the Hollywood myth of the western gunfighter. The terms “gunfighter” or “gun slinger” are actually movie and literary terms of the 20th century and were not used in the old west. In the 1950s and early 1960s TV westerns were very popular with large audiences and the Hollywood studios began promoting some of their stars as the fastest guns. One actor, Hugh O’Brien, who portrayed Wyatt Earp in a television series even hired a coach and challenged other Hollywood actors. The beginnings of today’s modern competition are credited to a stuntman, a trick shooter named Dee Woolem who designed a timer to measure the quick draws and in 1954 the first Fast Draw competition was held.
The idea of the sport is to draw a single action revolver from a holster, cock, fire and hit a designated target in the shortest possible time. No live ammunition is ever used. Either blank cartridges or wax bullets. The targets are either a metal silhouette used with wax bullets or balloons that burst from the muzzle blast from the blank cartridges. A light atop the timer signals the competitor when to fire and once the target is hit turns the timer off measuring the speed to the thousandths of a second.
My first impressions while photographing the competitors was the incredible speed they could draw and fire accurately. It was impossible to observe all the movements involved – their hands were that quick. The top shooters can record times of .205 to .400 of a second with ease. When I began photographing the competitors I found it impossible to record their movements with satisfactory results. Focused on their hands and waiting for them to move only resulted in either pictures too early or too late. I soon realized that if I positioned myself so that I could see the timer light come on, the image results improved. I set my shutter speed to 6400 or 8000th of second and once the light came on pushed the shutter button on my 10 frames per second still camera. If I was lucky I got two, maybe three, frames before it was over. These folks were not just fast, they were lightning quick in my opinion. Snap your fingers and it was done.
The competition was held over two days and attracted competitors from across Canada and the western United States. The event was held inside the boards of an outdoor, wintertime ice hockey rink. Hockey sticks and blades of steel replaced by cowboy boots and the smell of cordite. Both men and women ranging in age from 15 to 80-years-old faced the balloon timer. Strength in Fast Draw plays a minor role. Quick reflexes and dexterity are a must and therefore the sport is as popular with women as it is with men. There were six women competing and at least two of them have been World Champions more than once. I was fascinated however by how fast the two 80-year-old men competing actually were. If given the chance and with some practice I believe I could be reasonably quick on the draw, but against these two octogenarians? I am convinced I wouldn’t have had a chance.
Though all the gun slingers taking part were in close competition for prize money and top honors it’s also a tight-knit group of friends with plenty of jokes between each other, such as “if you were any slower you’d have a bird’s nest in your hat”. On the other hand, like in many competitions, ego and confidence play an important role in winning, so as one veteran quipped “Everybody here believes they are the fastest gun.”
(Corrected on July 30th to reflect that Aldergrove is east of Vancouver)