by Jim Taylor
From my early youth I have been around men who were fast
with a gun. You would probably not recognize any of their names
for they were (and are not) nationally known. But they were
fast never-the-less. My Dad is one of them. He has
always been quick, having fast natural reflexes. I can remember as a
small boy watching him do fast work with both single action and double action
pistols. Working in law enforcement, he specialized on the double action
later on and even in to his late 70's he was mighty sudden. Barrel
length never was a problem to him. He was equally fast with a 4" or
a 6" barrel. Years ago he used an 8"
barreled Remington .44 cap & ball revolver to do fast draw. An
original 1858, he used it efficiently. He would stand arm's length from
a fence post, toss a quarter at the fence post with his gun hand, then draw
and shoot the post before the quarter hit it. Rarely did he not beat it.
Ed Piper was a prospector in the Superstition Mountains
of Arizona when I was a kid. Though I never got to meet him
personally I was around people who did. He carried a Model 1917
S&W .45 slung low and was pretty good with it. He once had a man
throw a cocked .30-30 on him. The man began to cuss Ed, telling him he
was going to kill him. I guess he was working himself up to it.
While the guy was cussing him, Ed jerked the old Smith and shot the guy
3 times. Then he walked into Apache Junction and turned himself into the
authorities. The Sheriff investigated it and ruled it justifiable
homicide. Ed later said that the guy talked too much. If he was
going to shoot him he should have shot first, then cussed him.
To become proficient with a handgun means (to me) that
the gun can be used accurately without conscious thought. It has become
an extension of the person. Just as in driving a vehicle, if you have to
think what to do when someone pulls out in front of you - it is too late! So
with the proficient use of a firearm. The reaction should be
instinctive.....and correct. Again, as in driving, hitting the brakes
many times is the last thing you want to do. But gaining
that knowledge and skill does not come by reading books or watching
TV. It is the result of having practiced, practiced, and
practiced.....and of having been "there" a time or two and survived.
And I don't mean in a gunfight. I mean having used a firearm to make a
quick shot on a snake that is about to strike, or to drop a critter that is
intent upon getting you! Or any other situation that would call
for a fast, quick, accurate shot.
Most people today don't seem to want to spend the time,
energy and money required to be really good - whether with a car or a gun.
However there is no other way. Some things have to be sacrificed to
attain one's goal of being really good. (And this does include being
SAFE while you are using the gun. To be proficient means you are good at every
aspect of the use of the firearm.) Once you have attained a level of
workmanship with a gun, PRACTICE is the ONLY way to maintain it.
Someone once told Ed McGivern that a certain trick was
impossible with a sixgun. They claimed that there was no way to shoot a
can 6 times in the air, when that can was dropped from the height of 20 feet.
Ed says in his book that after shooting approximately 30,000 rounds he found
he could do it quite easily. Most people don't shoot that much
ammo in several years, let alone months. But to get good you have to
shoot a lot. I was told that Ad Topperwein's driveway was
"paved" with empty .22 shells. Back in the '60's when I
visited Nick Seivers who used to shoot for various ammo companies, I
noted the ground around his shop was covered with empty .22 shells. My
Dad put over 300,000 rounds through his S&W 586 in the first 10 years he
owned it. That was one reason he won so many matches. Constant practice.
Part of my routine has been to dry-fire 1/2 hour a
session, twice a week. Sometimes I will spend another half
hour drawing and snapping the gun, practicing pointing the gun at some object
and seeing how I am lining up on it. All this is done along with
shooting 100 or so rounds each week. Some years back my friend Tom
Peterson and I practiced together at least twice a month. We got to the
place where we could shoot palm-sized groups at 15 feet in total darkness.
I had an indoor range in those days where we would shoot in the winter and
both of us got fairly good at it.
The practice of drawing and firing, whether on the
range or dry-firing, is not done at top speed. The idea is to build smoothness
and consistency. What you put into the "computer" will
come out when you start running on adrenaline. Speed comes
with fear and excitement. When I get scared I want to be smooth and
consistent. For instance, I was walking in the desert with a visiting
minister one afternoon, not paying too much attention to where I was going.
As I went to step down with my left foot I noticed a rather large, fat
diamondback rattler under my foot all cocked and ready to go off.
Somehow, with my left foot still in the air, I levitated upwards to a pretty
decent altitude. During this time I found my six-shooter in my hand and I was
firing it. Two shots hit the snake in the head and two hit him in
the body. I have the mental impression of firing all 4 shots while still
in the air, though that does seem unlikely. However it is the way I
remember it. The draw and firing were totally unconscious, simply
an instinctive reaction. If you practice for smoothness and consistency
there will be a time when you will be faster than you can believe.
I do not know all the tricks the oldtimers used but I
have come to understand that there were very few of the "face off, walk
and draw" type shoot-outs made popular by the movies. There were
times when men faced each other in combat, but they usually had their guns in
their hands. Turkey Creek Jack Johnson faced two men at once in
Deadwood. They met in front of the cemetery, which was thoughtful of
them. They started toward each other at about 50 yards distant with
their guns in their hands. Before they had gone very many steps the two
men coming at Johnson had each emptied their guns and switched to backup guns.
It is recorded that Johnson only fired two shots and that he killed both his
Josephine Earp (Wyatt's wife) recorded in her memoirs
"I Married Wyatt Earp" that Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp cocked
their guns in their holsters as they walked up on the cowboys behind the OK
Corral that fateful day. It makes sense to me. I would do the same
thing - and have when I thought I was going to need it. It is what was
known as an "edge". The "edge" was whatever the
person felt would give him an advantage in a deadly situation. Luke
Short stated that he liked to use the .45 Colt and to crowd in close in a
gunfight. If he missed the first shot the blast usually set his
opponent's clothes on fire. That was Mr. Short's "edge". (note
that he spoke of missing someone at arm's length!) Another
old-time Sheriff said he used talcum powder in his holster to help speed up
his draw. Whatever each person's "edge" was, the express
purpose was to give them extra confidence in a bad situation.
One thing stands out with all the people I have know who
were really good with a gun......they were familiar with them. It showed
in the way they handled them. There was no fumbling,
bumbling around. No "accidental" shots fired. They were
in control. These men handled their guns a lot, used them, shot them and
worked with them consistently. I sometimes cringe when I see people
trying to unload a single action. The barrels point this way and that,
the ejector rod is poked, prodded, thumbed, slipped and there is a lot
fumbling around. Usually they are picking at the shells, trying to get them
clear of the gun. Not a picture to inspire confidence. I am sure
some of the old timers are spinning in their graves! It is said
that Bat Masterson practiced in front of an audience quite often. John
Wesley Hardin was very good at handing his guns and could do spins, rolls and
border shifts with ease. Once, when he had been arrested by the Texas
Rangers, they gave him an empty gun and had him put on a show for them.
The Rangers said his skill was amazing.
That kind of gun handling was done for several reasons,
not the least of which was to maintain dexterity. I don't go in for it
myself, having dropped a gun in front of people and been embarrassed by it,
but it is fascinating to watch a master at it. And the man who is
familiar with his gun has the best "edge" of all - personal
confidence. It only comes with PRACTICE!!
Most all of my gun work has been done over the years
with single actions. They are not the only type to use and I would not try to
convince you that they are. They are they type I have chosen to use.
Whatever type of firearm you use, PRACTICE with it. Use it. Handle it
daily. Learn to manipulate it safely with either hand. Shoot it -
if not daily - at least weekly. Get so familiar with the feel of it that
when you use it, it lays in your hand naturally as if it were a part of you.
Treat it as least as well as you treat your lover. It may someday save
your life. Mine has.
The essence of being a good shot is practice as we have
said previously. This is fundamental. Since not everyone who
desires to be a good shot lives where they can shoot every day, dry-firing is
an obvious part of practice. It is not my intention to go into the all
various aspects of dry-firing a gun. You should learn the particulars
about your firearm yourself. Just be aware that some guns cannot be
dry-fired without damaging them and sometimes even those that are deemed safe
for dry-fire suffer damage from it. For instance I use Ruger Old
Model single action revolvers. Fairly straightforward, there are
no transfer bars or weak links in the Old Models and one can dry-fire them for
years. One day I was holding the sights on a target on the wall, cocking
and snapping the gun, endeavoring to hold the sights study through the
hammer-fall. As I pulled the trigger I heard a snap, and something hit
the floor. It turned out to be the spur on the hammer! The
metal had fatigued or something and the hammer spur had snapped off. I
had it rewelded, kept it in my parts bin for years, and when I built up my
little .357 I put the hammer in it where it works fine today. That is
the only time I ever had anything like that happen.
For most guns, "snap-caps" are best used.
These cushion the blow of the hammer and keep parts from battering. You
can purchase them from most any gun shop. In the old Colt
SAA I put a small leather strip in frame and use that to cushion the hammer
fall. It keeps the frame from battering. I have done that on the
1911 Colt ACP also.
I use small targets to align the sights on while
dry-firing. I like the target to appear slightly smaller than the width
of the front sight when I look through the sights at it. This allows me
to try and keep it centered when squeezing the trigger. If
my follow-through is good the sights will not move off the target during the
squeeze and hammer fall. For really precise work I like the target to
appear 1/2 the width of the front sight when viewed through the sights.
A simple black mark on a piece of white paper works quite well.
For draw and point shooting, I like to hang a tennis ball from
the ceiling on a string. Then I swing the ball from side to
side. I practice pulling the gun and poking the ball with the end of the
barrel. You can tell when you hit it square. Cocking and
squeezing while doing this can be helpful. Practice for smoothness and
consistency, not for speed. That will come with time and excitement.
With a "strong side" holster, the draw is
accomplished by dropping the hand to the gun and pulling the hammer back as
the gun is coming out of the holster. My trigger finger is held out
straight alongside the frame and is NOT in the trigger guard. As the gun
comes up clear of the holster it is poked toward the target. As the gun
is being shoved toward the target my trigger finger goes into the trigger
guard. The trigger is pulled as the gun is poked at the target. This
mainly serves the purpose of keeping me from shooting my leg, though I have
found it does help to hit what I am looking at also.
Some years ago I was showing off in front of some
shooters. I would toss a piece of 2x4 about 4" long with my gunhand,
then jerk my pistol and shoot the block before it went 3 feet in front of me. (
I used full power loads in the .357 Magnum.) In those days I just
stuck my finger in the guard as I jerked the gun, never thinking. On one
occasion the gun hung up slightly in the holster and I fired a shot through my
pants leg. While it did not hit me, it scared me badly
enough that I changed my ways of doing things and practiced never
sticking my finger into the trigger guard until the gun was being poked at the
target. I have never had a problem since.
The single largest problem of dry-firing is what is
known as the "One-More-Shot Syndrome".
This affliction usually befalls the dry-firer at least once in his life.
Basically it is caused by the repetition of the same action over and over
during an extended period of time. The synapses in the brain get
"locked" into doing something the same way and if a completely
different action is not undertaken, the person will perform that same action
unconsciously, even if consciously not intending to. While
most times it results in no harm, it is potentially deadly.
I remember a cop who was dry-firing and practicing his
draw before he went on duty. He had spent over an hour
practicing while waiting to head for the station. When it
came time to leave he loaded his gun, walked to the door, spun around, jerked
the revolver and fired, centering a vase at the end of a 20 foot
hallway. While the shot was clean and accurate it did cause
some consternation on the part of his wife. Fortunately no one was in
the line of the bullet which stopped several rooms later in a wall. This type
of "accident" is more common than most people like to let on.
And like the weird uncle in the family, no one wants to talk about it.
But for those who undertake dry-firing on a regular basis, you do need to be
aware of it. For if you do not handle it right you WILL fire the
gun later even though you do not want to.
I had a close friend who started dry-firing on a regular
basis every other evening. I warned him that at the end of
his dry-firing sessions to put the gun away - out of sight - and not to touch
it for at least an hour. He said, "Sure, fine, OK." One
day I went to visit him and he was in a strange mood. Finally his wife said,
"Are you going to tell him?" and he related how he had been
dry-firing. He put the gun away, but picked up his Colt
Detective's Special and fired a shot through the wall. No one was hurt.
But they could have been. I had hard time not saying, "I told
If you spend time dry-firing, when you are done PUT
THE GUN AWAY. DO NOT TOUCH IT OR ANOTHER GUN FOR AT LEAST AN HOUR.
GO DO SOMETHING TOTALLY UNRELATED - SOMETHING DIFFERENT.
If you don't you will fire it one of these days, unintentionally. No
matter how much you do not want to.
I was a kid living at home and one day spent several
hours in front of a mirror, drawing and snapping, trying to beat the ugly guy
in the mirror. I decided to go out on the range and shoot some
live ammo, so I put that gun away, strapped on a 7 1/2" single action,
loaded it and walked past the mirror on the way out of the room.
As I walked past the mirror I made one of the fastest, smoothest draws of my
life and centered the ugly guy in the mirror. The shot was extremely
loud in the house. The mirror happened to be an antique vanity of my
mothers. The shot ruined it as you might imagine. I checked the
hole in the wall, and in the living room, left a note for the folks saying I
had to be elsewhere, that I had a slight accident but was unhurt, and departed
until things cooled down a bit.
I was present once when an individual shot himself with
a gun he did not remember loading just a minute before. The bullet went
down his leg, alongside the knee, crossed over the shin and exited just above
his ankle. A mid-range .44 Magnum load, this wound laid him up for a
year. He swore he had not loaded the gun, yet he was the only one who had been
handling it. When I picked it up I found 4 unfired rounds in it.
Dry-firing is a fun way to improve your skill or
maintain your skill level. And it is effective. Like all gun handling,
it must be done in the proper manner. Be aware of the dangers and act
accordingly. You do not have to be one of the "accidents".
While some of them are slightly humorous, they can be deadly. We
do not want or need those. I already have plenty of stories already of
holes shot in walls, ceilings, furnaces, and of thermostats shot off the wall
and holes blown in mattresses. I would rather not have any more.
Pistol work with a good sixgun can be one of the most
frustrating AND rewarding undertakings of your life. It can get
"old" .. doing the same thing over and over. However. THAT IS
WHAT GOOD TRAINING IS ABOUT. Repetition until you can act without thinking
about it. When it comes to a high stress situation - be it a large critter
intent on stomping you into the ground or a human adversary who intends to
harm you or your family - you will not have the chance to get creative.
You will do what you have practiced.
Unfortunately for many people, what they have practiced
Don't be one of them.
REMEMBER - NO AMOUNT OF READING WILL TAKE THE PLACE OF
GOING OUT AND DOING IT. Just because you have read about it does not
mean crap. Until you DO it ..and PRACTICE it .. you are only deceiving
yourself. While it is not speaking about pistol practice, what the Good
Book has to say is applicable here:
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-- he will be blessed in what he does.
James 1:23-25 (NIV)
Don't be a "hearer" - be a
"doer".... If you haven't started yet, today is a good day.