The Picture … The Men … The Story

There were five pistoleros who are credited with developing the modern technique of the combat pistol. Jeff Cooper, practical pistol shooting’s founder and driving force, arrived first in the mid 1950’s followed closely by Jack Weaver. I arrived on the scene in 1960, with Thell Reed and Ray Chapman joining the fray the following year. By the end of 1961 all of the important techniques of the craft had been developed.

At a later time I will discuss the developmental process that led to the modern technique of the pistol, but for now I’d like to focus on the story behind the photo. This was the only picture ever taken of the five founding masters of the combat pistol.

In early 1964, airline pilot Herb Richards and his son Skip asked me if the newly formed Southwest Combat Pistol League would like to hold a match on his ranch in Poway, San Diego County, California. Since the setting was ideal, with a mountain to shoot against and the Richards offering to set up the range, approval came quickly from Jeff Cooper and the board. As the date for the event approached, I discovered that Ray Chapman, Jeff Cooper, Thell Reed and Jack Weaver would all be attending the match, which I had been asked to direct.

Having just joined the San Diego Sheriff’s Department after four years on the El Cajon Police Department, I became acquainted with the Sheriff’s Department crime lab technician Bennie Ramsey, who was a highly skilled photographer. Since Bennie had standby duty on the weekend of the pistol match, it took only Sheriff Joseph O’Connor’s permission for Bennie to attend the match.

I arranged to have Bennie take a picture of the five of us after the match, which gave me time to discuss the details with him. I had in mind the kind of photo I thought would be interesting, so I asked if it would be possible to have all of us pointing our pistols at the camera lens. Bennie told me that the best way to get that kind of shot would be to have all of us standing in the point shooting position because that would show most of our bodies including the head and shoulders. A photo of the shooters using the pistol sights would cause most of the face to be covered by the pistol and the shooter’s hands.

After a few more minor details were discussed, Bennie “took charge” and began to set up the photo shoot. First of all, he chose an area where he could use the sky as a background. Then he took a 2 x 12 piece of lumber about 12 to 15 feet long and rested it on about 6 cement blocks. The five of us were to stand on this platform. He placed his camera close enough to the ground to ensure a somewhat dramatic upward view of the shooters looking down at the camera. He positioned everything to take full advantage of the afternoon sun.

Bennie told us that with our full cooperation he was certain he could produce the high quality photograph that we all desired. The first thing he asked was that the four 1911’s and Jack’s K-38 be checked for a second time to be sure the pistols were cleared of ammunition and magazines. Secondly, the five of us then got up on Bennie’s 2 x 12 plank and faced the camera, standing in the order he had chosen. The lineup from left to right was Ray Chapman, myself, Thell Reed, Jeff Cooper, and Jack Weaver.

By using a camera that was low to the ground and pointing upward, Bennie created the illusion of graduated subject heights. Actually, Ray and I were almost the same height, approximately 6 feet. Jack, at the far right was the tallest of the five at about 6’ 3” but he appears much taller than Jeff, when in fact he was only about an inch taller.

The third thing he asked of us was to stand at about a 45 degree angle with our pistols held in the point position, but not too far from the body. He also asked us to have our trigger fingers in the trigger guards, as if ready to fire as we pointed carefully at the camera lens.

Bennie later confided in me that once he had seen the finished photo, he wished he could have predicted that we would point so accurately that the 1911-A1 firing pin holes could be seen down the barrel, which indicated empty cartridge chambers and thus unloaded pistols. Considering how upset some of the modern day squeamish types have become over the finger in the trigger guard aspect of the picture, it’s probably best the pistols had been completely unloaded.

Looking at the clothes we were wearing that day, I remember that Ray, Thell and Jeff were always better dressed than Jack and I. I am wearing my El Cajon Police Department trousers, my custom shooting shirt, and my San Diego Sheriff’s Department hat. That type of hat became part of the uniform when Chief Joe O’Connor was elected Sheriff. The holster rigs we are wearing are examples of the fine workmanship of Andy Anderson and Alfonso Pineda. Ray, Thell and Jack are wearing Andy rigs while Jeff and I are using Alfonso’s. Earlier in the day Jeff had been wearing a shoulder holster but fortunately he switched to the Alfonso before the pictures were taken. The shoulder holster would have upset the balance in the photo.

The Founding Masters photo did not receive much exposure until the September/October 1986 issue of American Handgunner Magazine. Now fifty years later Bennie Ramsey’s shot is not too difficult to find.

Sadly, Ray Chapman, Jeff Cooper and Jack Weaver are gone, and my fellow retired Deputy Sheriff Bob Torbett recently informed me that Bennie Ramsey has also passed away. Thell Reed, however, is still around and working hard as a firearms armorer and technical expert in the film industry. Thell and I have had phone conversations over the years, but since we had not seen each other for many years, I recently decided to take a road trip out to Laughlin, Nevada to meet with him. My wife Pauline Read and Top Gun’s editor Pat Rose joined me for the reunion, where we met Thell and his charming wife Stacey. Thell shared with us that he had just finished working on a picture starring Russell Crowe, an actor he has worked with before, and was now working in a remake of the classic 1960 film “The Magnificent Seven.” Denzel Washington is one of the seven actors that are being trained by Thell how to handle and shoot pistols. In fact, that day Thell showed us the black leather pistol rig custom made by Vic Perez that is part of Denzel’s outfit.

Before leaving that day, I presented Thell with an 11 x 14 print of the Founding Masters photo. Then three months later, the Mojave County, Arizona Constable Mike Hamilton, as well as two local judges requested copies of the photo, which they insisted Thell and I autograph. Who could refuse?

Top Gun Motorcycles webmaster Todd Vosper is a retired United States Marines attack pilot and also an avid pistol shooter. Because of his interest in the history of combat pistol shooting and my part in it, he and Erik Jensen of wiredplanet.com have created this link, which will be dedicated to telling the story.