Elden Meets Thell Reed and Ray Chapman

Thell pistol

There were two towns in southern California that played quite an important role in my early adult life: Corona and the small community at the northern edge of town called Norco.

Immediately after graduating from the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps School with Honor Company 20 of 1953, I was transported by train 100 miles north of San Diego to my new duty station at the Naval Hospital in Norco.

The usual progression of events was to do several months of ward duty, and then possibly go with the U.S. Marines to Korea. While I was waiting for my turn to join the Marines, the Korean War ended, resulting in my continued duty at the Norco Naval Hospital until my enlistment ended in July 1955.

In the spring of 1955 I purchased my first pistol, a 22 caliber Ruger single action revolver from Corona Sporting Goods. On that same day I also bought several boxes of 22 long rifle ammunition and a copy of “Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting” by Ed McGivern.

It was just a few miles northeast of town near Glen Ivy Resort that I first learned that two hands are better than one, especially if you expect to shoot a single action revolver with speed and accuracy. Thank you, Mr. McGivern for the excellent instructions and pictures in your book.

After being honorably discharged from the Navy in July 1955, I returned to San Diego to live and work. My interest in pistol shooting continued to grow, but I will write more about that later.

When I left Corona/Norco, California at the end of my enlistment, I had no reason to think I would return. My new found interest in the quick-draw aspect of pistol shooting however, would soon provide me with a reason to return to Norco.

For a couple of years in the late 50’s I traveled around and picked the brains of folks like Arvo Ojala who had just invented the metal lined quick draw holster designed specifically for the iconic single action 45 Peacemaker. In my travels and conversations the name Thell Reed kept popping up.

In his mid-teens Thell was already considered the wizard of the Peacemaker, and unlike other so-called fast gun “blank poppers,” he could hit what he pointed at with blinding speed and lead bullets.

I decided to make an attempt to meet Thell and somehow I acquired his home phone number in Bell, California. When I finally called, he was not at home, but after identifying myself and my reason for calling, I was told that he and Ray Chapman were at the dump in Norco for the whole day practicing with their pistols. Since it was early and I was only 2 hours away, I headed up to Norco hoping that Thell and Ray would still be there when I arrived.

As I drove in to the dump I immediately spotted Ray Chapman’s station wagon. As I parked nearby I saw Thell and Ray sitting on the tailgate with one bushel basket and one peck basket sitting between them. The bushel basket was half full of 45 long colt reloads and the peck basket was 2/3 full of 38 special reloads.

After introductions and some small talk, Thell strapped on his two gun quick draw rig and put on a pair of tinted safety glasses. After loading the cylinders with real cartridges, holstering both 45 Peacemakers, Thell picked up two pop bottles from a pile nearby and faced the high dirt bank. What followed was nearly beyond belief! Thell put a bottle on the back of each hand and stretched both arms forward and parallel to the ground. After a slight pause and without “pitching” the targets upward, he simply moved his hands downward from under the bottles, “raked” both pistols from their respective holsters, cocking them in the process and then fired, breaking both targets simultaneously in front of the top of the holsters. He repeated this process over and over with only an occasional miss of one bottle or the other.

I knew all the quick draw shooters of the day, famous and not so famous, and I can assure you that no one else, before or since, would have had the courage or the skill to do what I just described above. It would be fair of you to question my qualifications in making such a statement. Well, I was good enough with a 45 Peacemaker to win, among other shoots, the most important wax bullet silhouette shoot ever held in San Diego County. First prize was an electronic fast draw timer which I used in my gun demonstrations for years.

Of the original five masters, Thell, Ray and I were first and foremost live ammo quick draw point shooters, and what I learned watching Thell that day at the Norco dump helped me immensely.

Throughout the day I watched as Thell drew and hit small fixed objects like tin cans with amazing precision from the point. I noticed that despite his great speed the pistol would “lock” onto the target for an almost imperceptible period of time before the hammer fell. Bingo! A light bulb went on in my head. You can’t hit a still target with a bullet coming out of a moving barrel. Ever since that day I have practiced what I call the “Thell Reed Lock” and I doubt that I would have won my three Leatherslap trophies without employing that technique.

That meeting at the Norco dump with Thell Reed and Ray Chapman in the late 1950’s is an event that is permanently etched in my mind.