One Man’s Quest for Pistol Shooting Excellence

Todd’s note: Elden wrote this as one article, but I’ve separated it into two for easier reading on some mobile devices. I will have Part 2 posted the beginning of August. Hope you enjoy it!

Part 1

In the spring of 1955 my Korean War Service was winding down, and I was soon to be honorably discharged from the United States Navy. My last duty station was Corona Naval Hospital in Norco, just north of the small southern California city of Corona, California.

Since I planned to go into law enforcement at some point after my separation from the military, I decided to purchase my first handgun. A Corona sporting goods store had a nice selection of pistols, among them a Ruger 22 caliber “Single Six.” I preferred a 45 Peacemaker but quickly realized I could afford to do a lot more shooting with 22 rimfire ammunition, thus I settled on the “Single Six.”

Lying on the counter was a stack of new books titled “Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting” by Ed McGivern. The salesman assured me that Mr. McGivern’s book was a must for beginning revolver shooters, and although I had little extra money to spend, I decided I could afford to buy the book along with some 22 ammunition.

A few days after purchasing the “Single Six” I drove a few miles southeast of Corona to a place called Glen Ivy. Not far from the resort was a safe place to shoot under a grove of oak trees with a high bank behind them. A two lane county road was behind me, and the freeway was still many years from being built.  After setting up my tin can targets I loaded my pistol and began to shoot. The first thing I discovered was that having to disturb my one-handed grip in order to cock the hammer for each successive shot was making it impossible for me to be consistently accurate. After expending a fifty round box of 22 long rifle ammo with little improvement, I decided to call it a day.

That evening I opened Ed McGivern’s book and found the chapter pertaining to single action revolvers. Some of what I found was not helpful to me, like the instructions for “fanning the hammer.” But by studying the text and pictures pertaining to single and double action revolvers, I was able to adapt a similar two-handed shooting technique that promised to greatly improve my rapid fire speed and accuracy.

My second trip to Glen Ivy with the Ruger Single Six was more successful and my marksmanship improved dramatically. Ever since that spring day in 1955 I never fired a single action revolver one-handed except from the point position and principally for the first shot. The other thing that I came to realize was that the tighter I held the pistol with two hands the more accurately I could shoot, especially rapid fire.

In July 1955 I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy and moved to San Diego, California. My first job was delivering blueprints on my new motorcycle, a 1955 Triumph Tiger Cub. With this bike I began my million-plus mile, 62 year, motorcycle riding experience which continues to this day.

During the late 1950’s I tried National Match bullseye shooting with a Colt semi-automatic 22 target pistol. Unfortunately, I did not adapt well to the mandated one-handed hold, the strange body position or the black bullseye target, so my interest quickly waned and I went back to my Ruger Single Six and a variety of targets, including cardboard silhouettes.

In the late 1950’s I began to study and apply for law enforcement positions in San Diego County. Since all San Diego law enforcement at the time used either Colt or Smith and Wesson double action revolvers, I looked at what was available but did not purchase my duty revolver until again consulting Ed McGivern’s book. Since all his shooting records were set with Smith and Wesson double action pistols I followed suit by choosing a S&W Model 19, four-inch barreled, 357 Combat Magnum. More than half a century later I still own that revolver and a matching twin which I used in gun demonstrations. Like Thell Reed’s pair of factory presentation Colt 45 Peacemakers, the actions on my Combat Mags are as smooth and reliable as one can make them. Like Thell, I do all my own tune-up work by hand and carefully, being sure not to compromise the main spring’s ability to pop the cap.

By the way, I had Thell’s matched set of factory presentation 45 Peacemakers in my hands when I paid him a visit in 2014. They had the smoothest actions and best triggers I’ve ever felt on a pair of Peacemakers, and they were an exact match. This is just another reason why Thell is the best!

Immediately after purchasing my first 357 Combat Magnum I decided to have a uniform duty holster made that could also be used for quick draw and combat competition. Don Hume, a U.S. Border Patrolman, was living in San Diego County at the time and had just gone into business making high quality holsters and uniform rigs. Like John Bianchi and Sochiro Honda, Don started his business in his garage.

The DA Combat Magnum holster did not need to be metal lined a la Arvo Ojala’s Peacemaker rig. However, I did specify that the bottom of the holster be angled forward moderately and that extra-heavy sheet metal be used in the back of the holster from bottom of gun belt to bottom of cylinder, so that the holster would maintain its shape even after tens of thousands of quick draws. The final touch that made the holster usable on police duty was my “fly off” safety strap. I simply had Don make a short strap with a hole that fit over the hammer on the north end and a snap on the holster and strap at the south end. In an emergency I simply needed to extend my thumb, follow the line of the holster in an upward motion toward the grip. As the thumb passed between the strap and the holster during the draw motion, it would simply unsnap and fly out of the way. For competition or demonstration work I would just remove the strap and put it in my pocket.

It was my Smith and Wesson double action revolver that helped get me into combat pistol shooting. For a few months in late 1959 and early 1960 I entered several blank ammo single action quick draw shoots. Since everyone “knew” that single actions were inherently faster than double actions on the first shot, initially no one complained. After I placed third and fifth in my first two big blank shoots, the grumbling began among the single action purists.

The third Los Angeles area quick draw event I entered was one of the biggest balloon bust blank shoots ever held in Southern California, with over 200 entries. The two stage event was electronically timed and involved the breaking of first one small balloon and then two in succession. I won the double balloon bust and finished in second place overall by a few hundredths of a second. Having someone nearly win that important event with a Smith and Wesson double action revolver was more than the single action Peacemaker crowd could take. As a result of almost winning such an important quick-draw shoot, a “single action only” rule was quickly passed post-match, thereby ending my double action blank poppin’ days.

About this time (October 1959) I was hired as a police officer for the city of El Cajon, near San Diego California. I was immediately introduced to the PPC (police practical pistol course) which I dubbed the police impractical pistol course, due mostly to the 25 and 50 yard weird barricade stages.

I don’t ever remember not placing first at a PPC shoot for one basic reason: on the barricade stages I ignored the standard instructions. Instead of placing the weak hand open and flat against the barricade with the shooting hand sitting precariously on the extended weak thumb, I employed a McGivern like “two-handed” hold and placed the double fist firmly against the barricade. (I’ve been told that something similar to this has been used in PPC competitions for years since then). What the PPC did for me was provide an opportunity to compete against other shooters on a regular basis. Being the highest scoring pistol shooter also helped me become Honor Man of my San Diego Police Academy class of July 1960. That experience also provided me the opportunity to study under two legendary San Diego Police officers, Lt. William Gore and Sergeant A. D. Brown.

Despite the things that occurred before and during my early police career I never lost my interest in quick draw shooting. In 1958 I had begun to hear about the Big Bear Leatherslap to be held at Big Bear Lake, California. The fact that it was a live ammunition event open to any type of pistol was especially interesting to me. In August 1958 Los Angeles Police detective Don Nowka won the first Big Bear Leatherslap with his double action police revolver. I decided then and there to travel to Big Bear and watch the 1959 Leatherslap competition.