Book Review: Fast Draw Yesterday Today (Blasgen, 2009)

book spine

Very few books have been written about the history of fast draw competition, and the few that have been written are out of print. As part of my research for the Historical Handgun book, I’ve been trying to track down copies. As I wrote in a previous entry about this topic, Bob Arganbright’s book has been impossible to find outside of the one copy the Library of Congress has (which I was able to access and read a few years ago). Last year I was able to purchase a copy of the other major work on this topic: Fast Draw…Yesterday Today, which is a 600+ page compilation of magazine articles put together by Tom Blasgen.

Disclaimer: The book is thick and I did not want to destroy it by flattening it to scan pages, so I took pics with my phone, and you will see some warping and other distortions as I used Photoshop to remove shadows and crop images. But because copies are rare and very hard to find (I lucked into a copy by being on a Fast Draw group on Facebook), I’m including the pics here along with the key points I think anyone interested in the history of pistol technique should know.

Prior to the 1950’s, wax bullets had been used by early 1900’s dueling trainers, whose force on force sport of simulated dueling was the precursor to modern paintball and marking rounds used in combatives training. Simulated dueling even made a one time appearance in the Olympics.

This page gives the highest level summary of the sport: started in 1954 at Knott’s Berry Farm by the stunt show gunfighters and a tech who developed the first shooting timer.

In the following years, it became a national fad, with Western TV/movie stars, the Rat Pack (particularly Sammy Davis Jr.) and other celebrities taking up the sport. As the article claims, over 250,000 people participated in fast draw matches. That was out of 150M people. The population of the US has doubled since then, but even if you add up the memberships of USPSA, IDPA, SASS, Steel Challenge, and count those that shoot NRA bullseye matches, pretending that there’s no overlap…those numbers are less than 250,000, nevermind a population adjusted 500,000. So the Fast Draw era was a point in time where pistol competition got more (positive) mainstream media attention and general population participation than at any other time in US history.

Jeff Cooper wrote about the sport of Fast Draw in Guns and Ammo magazine back in 1958 (the magazine’s first year of publication).

E.B. Mann was a writer of Western pulp stories and paperback books, who also wrote for gun magazines, and was the champion of Fast Draw at GUNS magazine. In addition to collecting books on guns, I enjoy reading and collecting Western fiction books and pulp magazines. E.B.Mann is one of my favorite authors and over the past few decades I’ve found hardback, paperback, and pulp magazine copies of most of his works.

GUNS covered Fast Draw more than any other print publication and many of the articles in Blasgen’s book can be found in the GUNS magazine digital online archive.

Many early articles focused on the draw speed, similar to the current obsession with the “1 second concealment draw”. Quarter second draw times were the goal of that era.

More data from elsewhere in the book:

At the peak, Fast Draw championships, sponsored by Colt, were held in Las Vegas in the early 1960’s. Interest in fast draw led to many innovations in holsters and timers, and technique. Shooters using the “twist draw” technique, where the gun was fired at a 90 degree angle, began beating the traditional fast draw competitors, and shooters began transitioning to stronger-built Ruger sixguns. As with most other shooting sports, gamers, gamer gear, and gamer techniques pushed the limits of performance but also drove many in the general population away from the game.

KPIX-TV news footage from November 1960 featuring silent views of people preparing for and taking part in a fast draw competition, including Dee Woolem (‘The Daisy Kid’). Also shows movie stars like Ernest Borgnine, Gene Barry and others (possibly Clu Gulager?) watching the event in an indoor arena. Opening graphic designed by Carrie Hawks. (WordPress would not let me embed the video so click the link to see it).

Andy Anderson was another influential holster maker of the Fast Draw era.

This article mentions Ernie Hill, who started out making fast draw holsters and shooting fast draw matches, who became the dominant holster maker for IPSC in its early days, making the same kind of steel reinforced leather holsters the fast draw shooters used, only for 1911 pistols.

By the mid 1960’s, fast draw had waned in popularity, and the dominance of Westerns on TV and on the big screen began to fade as well, as spy and space shows surged in popularity. Most importantly, Jeff Cooper began running fast draw matches using modern firearms and holsters at Big Bear Lake, which led to two handed aimed fire, comstock timed shooting matches (instead of par time), and to basically everything we know as standard practice in defensive firearms training.

Arganbright ties the history together with modern technique in this 1988 article.

Fast Draw competition is still alive, with the Cowboy Fast Draw organization and World Fast Draw Association each sanctioning and running matches. This page from their website lists all the national and world champions by year.

Update: a great video compilation of 1950’s fast draw