By Charly Gullett
Copyright Warfield Press, Prescott AZ
While cowboy historians agree the first of what we would later recognize as a cowboy action match was put on by Gordon Davis in December 1979, the roots of both the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) and the National Congress of Old West Shootists (NCOWS) lies much deeper. Davis’ match had originally been scheduled for October in commemoration of the Shootout at the OK Corral (c. 1881) but the match got rained out and rescheduled for December. One of the shooters Davis invited was a tall drink of water named Jim Martin, and for good reason. Unlike some shooters at that 1979 match, Martin, at that point, had already been making his living with a sixgun for over twenty years.
During that time, Martin repeatedly demonstrated his ability to handle six-shooters in ways no one else had the huevos to attempt. While very few are able to “twirl” a sixgun in and out of a holster with any kind of style, Martin may be the only man alive who ever drew and twirled two guns, came out of the twirl cocking the hammers onto live Fast Draw wax bullet rounds, threw the two cocked guns up behind his back in an arc that ended in front of him, caught them in mid-air, fired AND HIT two separate targets at the same time. The twirl back into the holster after that performance was a practiced signature by a true professional.
He was no slug when it came to fast draw either. Martin, who is discussed in Bob Arganbright’s book The Fastest Guns Alive, has forgotten more wins than some shooters remember losing. While many leatherslap champions can “fan” a gun into the low 50’s (fifty one-thousands of a second for the draw, fire, and hit), Martin holds to the old style drop thumb technique which he has used to press championship titles into the low 30’s. He has the powder burns on his hip to prove it.
Martin was the top gun for Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie studios for many years during the 1960’s, helping to insure our western heroes didn’t look like morons from outer space when they had guns in their hands. The list of people Martin met or worked with while at MGM looks like a who’s who of the movie business (Jay Silverheels, Iron Eyes Cody, John Russell, Jock Mahoney, Jim Davis, Johnny Horton, Larry Blyden, Hoot Gibson, Crash Corrigan, Max “Alibi” Terhune, Monty Laird, Las LaRue, Will Hutchins, Barbara Stanwick, and many others). How many stars can you recognize in the photograph where Jim is receiving his award for the 1959 First Annual Colt Sahara National Fast Draw Contest in Las Vegas?
He remembers some of the people he met as being pretty good hands with a sixgun, “Most people probably don’t remember Rodd Redwing who was the gun coach at Paramount Pictures, but he was one of the best hands with a gun I ever saw,” Martin reminisced.” “In those days, he was putting a thousand rounds of live ammo downrange every week to keep his edge on the leatherslaps.”
I first met Martin as a result of a discussion regarding the origins of the first cowboy shooting club. A local shooter named City Slicker had told me the first cowboy club was actually started in Arizona. I had the undiplomatic verve to repeat this to a posse member from California. You should have seen the hair come up on his back.
During Winter Range ’96, I mentioned my faux pas to City Slicker and he shook his head and said, “Look, I know the facts because I was there. But if you want the skinny on how it came about, you have to talk to Jim Martin and Bill Waller.”
With the windy exception of the last day, Winter Range ’96 was blessed with beautiful weather for staging the world’s largest cowboy match. Martin and I had agreed to meet up during one of the posse breaks between the stages. There was a crowd around City Slicker’s booth, but even as I moseyed up to the area, there was on head that stood above all the rest. Martin is a big guy. In spite of the physical arthritis that now impacts his life, he presents a formidable image.
I guess about six foot three, perhaps two-hundred thirty pounds with wavy, salt and pepper hair and the weathered face of someone who has been there and come back to tell us about it. Martin is one of those people who was frequently found behind the scenes and still is. Internationally renowned for his expertise in Colt single-action gunsmithing, grip design, and shooting, because of Martin’s arthritis he prefers historical debate to fast draw. His ever-present pet boxer is held tentatively at bay by a leash attached to Martin’s famous right hand.
We sat down on a shady picnic table just behind the Winter Range vendors’ area, and in his inimitable way, Martin began to relate the facts surrounding the birth of the first cowboy shooting club. It is true SASS was officially named in California in 1987, as an outgrowth of Gordon Davis’ embryonic 1979 match. However, the SASS founders got their advice on establishing equipment safety rules, and sanctioning matches from an extant cowboy action shooting club called the Arizona Cowboy Shooters Association (ACSA).
The ACSA was originally launched in 1982 as the Phoenix Sportsman’s Congress (PSC). PSC was putting on weekly cowboy action matches (as well as fast draw events) at the same time California shooters were putting on the first End of Trail. The SASS organizers came to Arizona in 1987, seeking advice because Martin, Waller, and the others had both experience and credentials.
In addition to his world champion status, Martin had been in law enforcement and had trained California duty officers, which included horse-mounted firearms training during the early 1970’s. He had impressed law enforcement officials by challenging their top shooters (some of them using semi-automatics) to a mano a’ mano event with Martin using a Colt SAA. Martin won hands down.
The Phoenix Sportsman’s Congress was initially organized and led by Norm Raby, Bill Waller, Don and Gail Snow, City Slicker, and Jim Martin. While never incorporated, the
PSC began shooting cowboy matches near what is not 14th Street, south of Carefree Highway n the north side of Phoenix. By 1984, it had become clear they needed new digs to handle the large number of shooters, family, and friends that were showing up every Sunday for what had already become formal cowboy action matches. It took the better part of a year, but by the end of 1984, they had found a home range that most clubs can only dream about. Through the efforts of Jim Martin and Bill Waller, the PSC moved in January 1985, to an Arizona location used for western movies call Cowtown. In those days Cowtown was owned by Ron Nix and used for motion pictures as well as TV commercials. It was at Cowtown they adopted the ACSA name.
The 17 original members on the ACSA roster were Don Snow (AKA Cookie), Gail Snow (AKA Barb Wire, the first-ever woman president of a cowboy club), City Slicker, Donna Vogt, Bill Waller (AKA Ringo), a world, national, and Arizona fast draw champion), Nancy Waller (California State Shooting Champion), Fred Parry (AKA Stands Alone), Norm Raby, Paul and Charlene Berford, Ted Chemicky, Rick and Kathy Morrill, Dave Cross, Tommy and Heath Hare (Heath was about 8 years old when he named the group the Arizona Cowboy Shooters Association), and Jim Martin (AKA Al Jennings, an Oklahoma outlaw and blood relative to Martin). This is the complete charter list of the first cowboy club that began shooting weekly matches together in the Arizona desert in 1982.
It was Jim Martin who introduced me to Bill Waller at a recent Cowtown match. I was allowed to go through the old PSC match notices, ACSA incorporation records, the 1987 letter from SASS requesting help, and to verify the NRA affiliation dates/records as well as look at some of the photographs of the first weekly matches.
The contract with Cowtown stated they could use the movies set exclusively as long as they cleaned up after themselves. “That included cleaning the prowlers,” Waller told me with a knowledgeable grin. The also built a better road, cleaned the place up considerably, and Martin personally constructed some of the first steel shotgun and pistol poppers that are still in use at Cowtown today.
Over the years a few things changed. The road washed out (more than once), the range was sold to Shooter’s World (later to Pensky), and the original shooting area eventually became a rodeo corral. “The big difference between then and now is that this is turning into a high profile sport, and people are starting to make a lot of money. It’s big business,” Martin said dryly. “I can’t take all the credit for the work Don and Gail Snow, Norm Raby, Bill Waller, City Slicker, and a lot of other folks around here did to get this started, but if you write this article there’s one thing I want you to make clear – we never mad one dime promoting these matches and that’s not sour grapes either. We never wanted to make any money at it. We just wanted to have a place to shoot cowboy guns and talk about the Old West.”
Raby and the others had organized the Phoenix Sportsman’s Congress based upon a simple, well-defined set of equipment rules. The original rules were as follows:
GUNS: Single-action revolvers, Lever-action rifles with tubular magazines of .25-20 caliber or larger are required. The shotguns are to be double barreled, side by sides with double triggers and no automatic ejectors, 20 gauge or larger.
DRESS: No tennis shoes, T-shirts, or baseball caps. Dress as authentic (western) as possible.
SASS built its equipment requirements around this guideline and the similarities are apparent. Not, however, the distinct absence of pistol caliber rifel requirements and the disallowance of slide action shotguns. The PSC/ACSA has been the source of a long time controversy on the use of the Winchester Model ’97 scattergun. They agree the ’97 is authentic to the cowboy period; they just don’t think the way most shooters reload the gun is very safe. The more than half-dozen negligent discharges this last year with the model ’97 would seem to bear out their complaints. “At one point we outlawed the use of the Winchester ’97 because of the reloading problem.” Martin told me. “It cost us our SASS sponsorship at that time, but we felt like it was the right thing to do.”
(Author’s note: They have subsequently re-allowed the Winchester Model ’97 in their matches but the safety issue has not gone away. I promise to treat the safe reloading of the old Winchester as well as other cowboy firearms in a upcoming issue.)
Eventually, ACSA got too big for Cowtown and a new shootist organization was subsequently formed under the leadership of Steve Chapman (AKA C.S. Fly) and the Rio Salado Cowboy Action Shooting Society. They later found a permanent home at the Ben Avery Black Canyon Shooting Range, currently home to the SASS Winter Range National Championships. The new group retained the old ACSA name and now operates under the able direction of Jerry Stutler (AKA The Ranger).
However, a few miles away, the desert around Cowtown still thunders every Sunday of every month with many of the original PSC/ACSA charter members now shooting under the name of the Cowtown Cowboy Shooters Association. Cookie usually works the firing line as a posse leader, Barb Wire still shoots, as well as bulldogging the paperwork, and Martin talks gunsmithing and western history off the tailgate of his truck. City Slicker and Ring and some of the others can be seen smoking the stages with newcomers and old timers alike. They still shoot the oldest cowboy club match in the world out there, and even with a new game, some roots of Cowboy Action Shooting will always be planted in the Arizona desert.