One Man’s Quest for Pistol Shooting Excellence, Part 2

This is Part 2 of Elden’s article; please see Part 1 from July here.

Early on the August weekend morning of the 1959 Leatherslap, I mounted my motorcycle, a 1955 A.J.S. 500cc British single, and headed north on Highway 395, a two lane road that now runs adjacent to a huge freeway. As I approached San Bernardino I headed into the mountains and began a twisty climb from near sea level to an approximate elevation of 7000 feet. As I entered Big Bear City I stopped at the first store I saw and noticed several guys standing around in the parking lot wearing quick draw rigs. I walked up to a fellow who was wearing a holstered Peacemaker and introduced myself. When I asked him for directions to the Leatherslap, he replied, “You’re a little bit late. It ended about an hour ago.” When I asked who had won the shoot, he answered, “For the second year in a row it was a damned double action, and to make matters worse, the guy won the thing shooting two-handed. If that ain’t enough, the winner is another cop. Last year an LAPD detective and this year an LA Sheriff’s deputy named Jack Weaver. So much for tradition!”

The single action purists at the Leatherslap would obviously have liked a “single action only” rule but that would never happen with LtCol Jeff Cooper in charge. Because the rapid fire double actions and semi-autos were so much more efficient, the single actions were not competitive until Thell Reed, the greatest single action shooter of all time, entered his 45 Peacemaker in the 1963 Leatherslap and became the only single action shooter to ever win the event.

After completing my short discussion with the disgruntled single action purist (I know his name, but won’t reveal it here) I returned to the saddle of my motorcycle and headed back down the mountain through hundreds of the greatest curves you ever leaned a bike into. I only stopped briefly between Big Bear and San Bernardino to observe an accident scene where a guy in a four wheeler had missed a curve and was killed when his car landed at the bottom of a steep 300 foot drop-off. I made my way down the mountain and headed south on highway 395, deciding to make a quick stop at the Swing Inn Café in Temecula. Even though the old Swing Inn is still there and I drop in for a meal from time to time, the past 57 years have brought huge changes to small town Temecula. Running next to old Highway 395 is a wide busy freeway, and the old highway itself is now the main street through town and its historic district. The August sun was slowly setting over the Pacific Ocean as I rode home that evening, my mind full of plans for attending the 1960 Leatherslap competition next summer.

In preparation for the competition I had to find a suitable place to practice and hone my drawing and shooting skills. No police range allowed live ammo quick draw shooting. So in November, a month after being hired by the El Cajon Police Department, I drove out to the Barona Indian reservation, about 15 miles north of El Cajon. After being directed to the tribal chairwoman Mrs. Catherine Banegas Welch, I asked if there might be a safe and out-of-the-way place that I might practice pistol shooting. Before the conversation went any further she wisely asked me what I did for a living. After identifying myself as an officer with the El Cajon Police Department, she said she knew of a place on the reservation that would probably suit my needs. There was a materials pit that was remote enough that the noise would not be bothersome and would also be safe because of the high banks where material had been removed from the side of a mountain. Mrs. Welsh asked only that I not shoot on the Sabbath (Sunday) or before 9 in the morning. I will always be grateful to her and the Barona tribe for allowing me and a limited number of friends, including Thell Reed, to shoot on their reservation.

I was a busy guy in late 1959 and early 1960, what with being a rookie officer with the El Cajon Police Department and attending the San Diego Police Academy. Thanks to police training I was able to shoot my double action revolver quite a bit and to get some reloaded 38 Special practice ammo from time to time. On my days off I went to Barona and practiced point shooting with the August Leatherslap in mind.

 In January of 1960 I had a chance to buy one of those military surplus Colt 1911 A1 pistols for something like $15.00. Who could pass up a deal like that? Even before my purchase of the 1911 I knew I would have to load my own ammo or I would not be able to afford practicing regularly with the S&W Model 19 or the Colt 45 semi-auto. Fortunately Hensley and Gibbs bullet molds and Star Machine progressive re-loaders were both manufactured in San Diego at that time.

In order to properly set up my loading machine, as well as the bullet sizer and luber, Ellard Mock at Star Machine Works needed to know which bullets I would be casting, so off I went to Hensley and Gibbs. My biggest problem with loading 1911 45 semi-auto ammo was that I wanted to reduce bullet weight and subsequent recoil, and at the same time I preferred a semi-wadcutter bullet if possible. I told Wayne Gibbs and his dad that I had fired a couple hundred rounds of the 185 grain semi-wadcutter reloads popular with bullseye shooters but had failure to feed problems, which I thought was due mostly to the 185 bullet being too short to fit the magazine properly. The Gibbs agreed with me and sold me one of their #68 200 grain semi-wadcutter bullet molds which solved the problem. Thanks to “Bullseye” quick burning pistol powder, a correct length recoil spring, and properly adjusted magazines, feeding reliability was spot on and accuracy superlative. In fact I never had a malfunction of any kind in competition. Additionally, I believe I was instrumental in popularizing Hensley & Gibbs #68 bullet.

At this point in early 1960 I had my pistols, my reloading gear, and a great place to shoot on the Barona Indian Reservation. What I didn’t have was a proper metal lined quick-draw holster and pistol modifications needed to convert my 1911 into a serious Leatherslap pistol. Alfonso Pineda, with some suggestions from me, took care of the holster problem in grand fashion, which left me with some pistol modifications including a good trigger job and a modified, reliable and easy to operate thumb safety. Yes, I had fallen in love with the 1911, but was faced with practicing and deciding which pistol I would employ in the upcoming August 1960 Leatherslap. Would it be my Model 19 S&W double action revolver or the 1911 A1 Colt semi-auto?

At the conclusion of several Barona practice sessions working from the holster with both pistols, I came to realize I would have a better chance at success if I used my Model 19 DA. The irrefutable fact was that I had much more experience handling and shooting the Model 19 both at the El Cajon Police PPC Shoots and at the three month San Diego Police Academy which I attended just prior to the August 1960 Leatherslap. Thus the huge amount of shooting practice with the S&W DA was the deciding factor.

During my three months at the Police Academy I loaded lots of 38 Special and 45 ACP. ammunition and went to Barona to practice on my days off. All of my practice at Barona started from the holster, and most rounds were fired from one-handed point. I practiced with both the DA and the 1911 semi-auto, ultimately realizing that I was considerably more accurate from the point with the DA. Additionally, I felt good about my prospects with the DA for both the timed qualification and the man-against-man balloon bust finals.

The 1911 on the other hand presented me with a special problem: consistent accuracy at the 21 foot timed qualification stage was more difficult for me from one-handed point. Before giving up completely on the 1911 in favor of the DA, I decided to try a two-handed stance for the timed qualifications stage. The problem is I had not yet developed a two-handed speed hold for the 1911 (nor had anyone else).

I spent most of my next practice session at Barona working on a two-handed hold and stance for the 1911, something no one else had done. By the time I left the Reservation that day two things had happened: 1) I had unknowingly developed the first effective two-handed speed shooting hold and stance (now called the Modern Isosceles stance) for the semi-auto pistol and 2) I had decided conclusively that my best chance of winning my first Leatherslap in August 1960 would be to go with the DA competing from one-handed point for both stages of the event. Leatherslap history proved that I made a good decision for that moment in time. In a later article I will go into detail about the process I used to develop my two-handed speed shooting hold and stance for the semi-auto pistol.

By the time August 1960 rolled around my S&W Model 19 DA and I were well prepared, so off I went to Big Bear, California and my first Leatherslap. The competition went as planned. I qualified with 5 straight hits and good times on the 12” steel qualification target fired from a one-handed point position. In the man against man balloon bust shoot-off I defeated Jack Weaver for the first place trophy and prizes, again employing the one-handed point position. Weaver used the two-handed speed shooting stance with which he had won the 1959 Leatherslap.

Despite the fact that Jack Weaver invented the first “from the leather” two-handed speed shooting stance for DA revolvers in 1959, no competitor won another Leatherslap shooting two-handed for six more years. More interesting is the fact that no one employing a two-handed stance opposed Weaver in the Southwest combat pistol shoots until I did in June of 1961. The event was Jeff Cooper’s advanced military combat pistol course at Wes Thompson’s range and the results changed combat pistol shooting forever. Since I am the only survivor of the first three places of that important combat shoot, I will tell the whole fascinating story in a future article.

One of the most important things to happen to me at the 1960 Leatherslap was being invited post-shoot to the Cooper residence on Robin Lane at Big Bear Lake. Not only were Jeff, Janelle, Christy, Lindy, and Perry great hosts, but my conversations with Jeff helped define my future interest in combat pistol shooting. By the time I headed back home to San Diego, I had decided to begin concentrating on my 1911 A1 pistol development and the two-handed shooting technique I had created specifically for the 1911 semi-auto pistol in early 1960 at Barona.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that the two-handed hold that I had invented was the first ever that would work for a semi-automatic pistol. My “stacked thumbs” method worked so well that I abandoned my McGivern style DA revolver two-handed hold in favor of my new auto-pistol hold.

In future articles I plan to cover subjects that have not been dealt with in detail if at all. I would like to go into greater depth concerning my development of the first 1911 A1 combat/quick-draw pistol completed in early 1962, the two-handed technique used, and my physical training which was key to making everything work. I will also discuss other historical developments which had a significant impact on the “Modern Technique” as Jeff Cooper called it.

In the summer of 1960 I became the third of the original Five Founding Masters of the Combat Pistol to arrive on the scene, after Jeff Cooper and Jack Weaver, but before Thell Reed and Ray Chapman. Today only Thell and I survive. Thell has generously offered to review the articles I am writing in order to fact check and add any other details to the historic record. If this history is to be told, it now rests on my shoulders.