by Den Robinson
I was just a green kid when I first read about these, now legendary, contests hosted by the Sahara Hotel and Colt Firearms Company. I was just coming off a collapsed lung and I weighed in at my lowest – 122 pounds. I possibly would have been a great REAL gunfighter as, turned sideways, nobody could have hit me plus I ALREADY had a hole in my lung! Anyway, I was both determined and destined to enter in what would become the last Nationals contest. I was probably the first Canadian to ever enter an “OPEN” organized Fast Draw Competition.
The bus trip of over 40 hours, coupled with the characters I met, would keep me from getting much sleep…
The first day we were held up at the border because of my gun and holster which I had kept in the open and by my side as Canada’s laws forbid a concealed weapon…ho-hum. At the border I was escorted off the bus and into their inspector’s chambers where they (rather dumbly) stared at my permit to carry and my gun until, after a 15 minute delay, they bundled my gun into my suitcase and marked the case with a code number of some kind. I then boarded the bus with about every passenger (who were probably angry) gawking at me like I was some kind of alien! Yet, one by one, they struck up conversations with me eventually asking me about the gun/holster or the contest.
I recall at a rest stop in Medford Oregon, two women securing a mop and water bucket so that they could wash the dirt-caked windows of the bus. Since they couldn’t reach them I offered to do it. Boy, was that driver MAD! Especially at me!!! It wasn’t much later that the dirt REALLY clung to those windows.
Vegas was like one or two strips back then. I remember being SO grateful to finally see all the lights appear in the desert. I remember needing to get to a gun store which was a ways down the strip from the Hotel. Having no car I walked and was picked up by a curious driver who had spied my holster. I had my very first ride in a Cadillac! He was a Competition Shotgunner and asked a lot about our sport of Fast Draw and the contest as he drove me directly to the Gun Shop. I had a long walk back though…
One of the places in which we were set up to practice was the Silver Slipper Saloon where I got my very first American Silver dollar, which I still have, and the place was VERY crowded. I had my first glance at something called ‘Twisting”. I’d read about “Thumbers” like Thell Reed and others so I thought “What the heck are these guys doing?”. I didn’t join the practice then… I just watched. I experienced my first case of anxiety and thoughts of futility since I was a “Thumber”. I recall seeing one “Thumber”, Red Jordan I believe, who was posting some fast times by using a “lean-back-fire-over-holster shot” but he was still no match for the “Twisters”. I remember a young boy, well dressed in buckskin, and his “ritzy looking” mom coming to practice and being escorted out of the Silver Slipper as the kid was under age. I never saw them again.
When I returned to the Hotel Sahara I encountered Les Heep (Rawhiders Fast Draw Club) practicing in the hallway. There was Les on a homemade clickerbox timer drawing his gun as countless guests and staff worked their way by him. He and his pard, Wolf River Bob, invited me to take part.
The next day it was all about the Sahara Convention Center. WOW, the layout was plush and this was the building where Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali) had fought. On this day it was a place for 180 or so “Gunslinging Gladiators” and I watched, in awe, along with thousands of spectators. Suddenly, it was ‘my turn at bat, “High Noon” for Dennis! My opponent was a guy named Dick Derrick. I heard the command “Shooter Walk!” and we both stiff legged it down the runway towards each other. To this day I cannot remember what times we shot but I did win the first one. Unfortunately for me it was a ‘two of three’ competition. The crowd cheered. I heard someone yell “Go Canuck!” either cheering me on or urging me to go home. Suddenly, it seemed that this was all about me. I was getting distracted and even more nervous but I was up for this, too far up! When the second signal light came on, I grabbed for the gun (6 inch hand rule) too far in front and webbed the hammer! The trigger was pulled back, but the web of my gun hand held the hammer to keep it from firing. It was now one to one so on to “Sudden Death”. When the third signal start light appeared I did it AGAIN! This time however I reacted, and my left fanning hand swept in to clear the ‘web’ and fired the gun a split second BEHIND my opponent, who also had to “recover”
Back in the stands I was somewhat disappointed but still caught up in the excitement and wonder of all of this. I watched as several of my T.V. western “heroes”, Clint Eastwood (Rawhide – He also competed with us), John Russell (Lawman), Paul Brinegar (Rawhide), Ruta Lee and others appeared on stage. I watched as Rodd Redwing and Ed Stembridge put on a stage show with Redwing announcing to us that he would be using his guns already cocked in his holsters and where they shot on a stage and lit match heads using their rifles, etc. Thanks to our later connection with Arvo Ojala, five of us Thunderbirds later met Rodd and were given a personal tour of Paramount studios and the Stembridge Armories which supplied Hollywood’s guns. In the Sahara Convention Center I ran into Peter Brown (Lawman) and we nodded to each other. I remember wondering if he was thinking; “So that’s what a Canadian looks like?” (skinny and underfed) Then there was Paul Christensen (Valley Gunhawks Fast Draw Club) hurriedly banging out metal plates and ‘liners’ for fast draw shooters on the plush carpeted stairs of the Sahara. Oh yeah, about that carpeting… don’t be touching any door handles or any metal if you’ve walked a ways on that carpeting. We were all like “Mexican Jumping Beans” for the next two days! It really primed us for the nervous contests…. really!
I recall a contestant wearing a Civil War outfit even competing with his “cap n’ ball” Colt revolver. He didn’t last long either. I met Al Brian (Valley Gunhawks Fast Draw Club) who introduced me to holster maker Alfonso Pineda (see picture). Al invited me to the Gunhawks next big contest, which I did attend. I also met writer John Lachuk whose entourage asked me to pose for pictures with two ‘Vegas Beauties’ for inclusion in an upcoming Fast Draw story on the Vegas shoot. (To my knowledge they never used the photos but it was FUN!)
I remember Les, Bob and myself going outside the Center one evening to pose for our own pictures when, behind us, shots were being fired! We turned to look and coming out the Center doors were two T.V. stars, a very young and wasted looking Bob Fuller (Laramie) and his partner, John Smith (Laramie), were draped over two teenage looking girls. Both actors were laughing and firing shots in the air. At later contests I would have trophies I’d won presented to me by an older, more somber Master of Ceremonies, Robert Fuller, who had been doing TV shows like Emergency and movies like The Return Of The Magnificent Seven. I talked with him quite a while at a tavern later. He was a genuine nice guy.
I remember the Arizona and Texas shooters whose “southwestern” accents were so deep that I’d be, in later years, accused by other Canadians of talking “American” for a couple of months after I’d shot with them for awhile. I had no trouble understanding them but my wife, Karen, would have to fake it during conversations. Later she would ask me “What did that man say?”. I recall Al Milicevic’s accent, and I thought it reminded me of my “television-fostered” thoughts of people from “The Bronx”. I remember Americans, not only in Vegas, who picked up on my constant use of the term “Eh?”. I wonder how many Americans, north of Texas that is, are saying; “Eh?” nowadays? (It’s addictive, you know.)
It was finally time to say Goodbye to Les, Wolf River Bob and Las Vegas. I dreaded the bus ride home…as usual the “gringing” of the wheels and transmission made it impossible for me to sleep. At a long rest break in Seattle I was approached by a “gay guy” who tried his darndest to get me to sleep overnight with him as two American sailors did their darndest to overhear and see by peering over the top of the newspapers they were pretending to read. I graciously excused myself and left to get a chocolate bar. I never went back. I recall a nice black lady who tried to show me the intricacies of gambling with “one armed bandits”. I suspect that she was addicted to them!
Soon there was (shudder) the Border…and finally, home.
If they were to hold another such Nationals like that in Vegas, would I go? You bet!!! If I HAD to go by bus, would I still go? No flippin’ way!
Some of my memories of Vegas have since been overshadowed by later adventures in Fast Draw as I came to have many more pleasant as well as adventurous incidents. These memories are ALWAYS enhanced by the excitement and the people we meet aren’t they? … “Eh?”
Den Robinson is one of the founding members of possibly the oldest active Fast Draw Club in existence, The Thunderbirds of Canada. He is currently a Vice Chairman of the Worlds Fast Draw Association. He holds many Fast Draw titles and continues to promote gun safety, Fast Draw and the Thunderbirds Fast Draw Club though his participation in western shows and demonstrations to this day.