Recollections of a Combat Master

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  • Elden Carl

Ten Years Before Dirty Harry


By Elden Carl


In August 1961 I won my second of three Leatherslap championships in a row, again shooting one-handed point. It marked the first time someone had won the event with a 1911 semi-auto pistol. There was very little time to savor the win because LtCol Jeff Cooper was already planning a .44 Magnum match which was to be held on September 16, 1961.


Preparing For Jeff Cooper's First .44 Magnum Match


I can't pinpoint the exact date I purchased my new 6½ inch Smith and Wesson model 29, but I believe it was mid-summer 1960. I went immediately to Star Machine and Hensley & Gibbs, which were both located in San Diego about 3 miles apart.

Elden with his 6.5" S&W Model 29 44 Magnum on the El Cajon PD practice range

From Hensley & Gibbs I purchased a new four cavity bullet mold for their wonderful Elmer Keith type 240 grain semi-wadcutter .44 caliber bullet. Ellard Mock of Star Machine equipped me with the necessary parts to convert my Star reloader and bullet luber from either 38 special/.357 Magnum or 45 ACP to .44 Magnum (or .44 special if needed). I purchased some .44 Magnum brass and began casting H&G .44 bullets from automotive wheel weights. Once the newly cast bullets were cool, I ran them all through my Star bullet sizer and luber. I believe, to this day, that one of the reasons I got such a good result at the match was that every round I fired, both in practice and in competition, was exactly the same. They were all loaded on the Star reloader using the maximum .44 Magnum #2400 powder charge, same primers, etc., etc. I have always believed that the reliability and accuracy results I've achieved over the years were very much due to Hensley & Gibbs bullets cast from wheel weights, and the sizing, lubing and loading done on Star equipment.


Most of my .44 Magnum practice was done at my Barona Indian Reservation pistol range, which allowed just barely 100 yards for long range targets. Since I knew that deer targets were to be used for the match, I didn't use any bullseye type targets. Mostly I used plain cardboard boxes turned with the narrow sides toward me. I also adjusted my sights for dead center at 100 yards.


My physical preparation remained basically the same as with the 1911 and Model 19, except that I intensified hand, wrist and forearm strength exercises so as to gain more control over the heavy .44 Magnum recoil. While everyone else, as far as I know, went to the S&W 8 3/8 inch Model 29 .44 Magnum, I purchased a 6½ inch model. I chose this pistol for two reasons: a shorter distance between the front and rear sights, resulting in a sharper sight picture, and less barrel time for the projectile, resulting in reduced barrel rise and better “follow through.”


I always wondered why Clint Eastwood ten years later went with a 6½ inch Model 29 in the first Dirty Harry movie, but then changed to the 8 3/8 inch barrel after that. Since blank cartridges don't recoil, I had to believe it was solely for the look. Perhaps he was even aware of, if not motivated by, Jeff Cooper's .44 Magnum matches and associated writings about the magnificent 8 3/8 inch S&W Model 29. Our historian Jay Hohenhaus is looking into that possibility.


Fortunately for me, holster maker Don Hume expedited the construction of my 15 degree right side competition/duty holster complete with “fly-off” safety strap and double layer metal reinforcement on the back. Jeff Cooper's mandate that all strings start from the holster was therefore met and I was ready to head for Big Bear Lake, California.


The Match


The exact location of the match was 8,000 foot Onyx Summit, about 20 miles south of Big Bear City. LtCol Cooper could not have picked a more beautiful location. The deer targets looked right at home there under the tall pines of the San Bernardino National Forest. Jeff used deer targets exclusively for the shoot. The event consisted of three stages: a) the running deer at 25 yards (a deer target on a wire); b) timed fire at 50 yards; and c) slow fire at 100 yards.


Everything went smoothly for the 35 or so contestants. I won the 25 yard running deer stage shooting double action and Jack Weaver won the 50 yard timed fire stage. That left only the 5 rounds in 5 minutes slow fire stage at 100 yards which I shot single action.


Jeff's rules for the 100 yard stage allowed use of any body position but no use of artificial supports. Before the shoot began Jeff had invited all contestants to study the deer targets up close. Scoring rings were light in color and tended to blend right into the target. One had to memorize the location of the ten ring located just behind the shoulder in the heart area. At 100 yards we were unable to see the scoring rings while concentrating on the front sight.


Amazingly Jack Weaver and I tied for first place, each with an astounding score of 49 points out of a possible 50. And both groups were very tight (approximately 4 to 4½ inches in diameter). Since Jeff had mandated that no ties would be permitted, Weaver and I were forced into a shoot-off. Five more shots in five more minutes would decide the outcome.


Weaver shot first and unbelievably duplicated both his score and approximate group size. As I again assumed my seating position in a small depression about a yard behind the line, I remember thinking, “That danged Weaver's got the 100 yard stage won. There's no way anyone can do what he just did!” I also remember that despite facing what seemed to be insurmountable odds, I became almost completely relaxed, thinking, “Oh well, losing the 100 yard stage to the great Jack Weaver on one of his best days ain't no disgrace.” I also remember that each of the five shots I fired in that tie breaker felt perfect. Muscular control, sight picture, recoil control, follow through: everything was spot on, making the 6½ inch .44 Magnum Model 29 in my hands feel more like a .44 special.


Immediately after my fifth bullet had left the barrel, I dumped the brass and reholstered my Model 29. LtCol Cooper then shouted to the scorer to check the target. As I watched the scorer come from behind a giant tree nearby and face the deer target, I was still completely relaxed, thinking at least I'd made a good showing. After scoring the target the official turned to face Jeff 100 yards away and simply shouted, “Fifty!” Jeff yelled back, “Repeat the score!” Again the scorer shouted, “Fifty!” “Bring me the target!” LtCol Cooper replied in a commanding voice.


Everyone gathered around as Jeff confirmed that all five shots were indeed in the ten ring. He then measured the center to center size of the group which was determined to be 3 inches. LtCol Cooper then stated, “We have just witnessed the setting of an unofficial world's record for the pistol.” In post shoot discussions with other top shooters and experts the most prominent opinion was that the “record” would be almost impossible to surpass. One would have to employ full .44 Magnum loads, factory open sights, no artificial pistol supports, adhere to five shots in five minutes on a deer target, and preferably accomplish the record while under the pressure of competition.

Elden with Deer Target after the .44 Magnum Match

A photograph of me, my Model 29 and the record 100 yard deer target was given lots of exposure in newspapers, gun magazines and photo displays. Smith & Wesson pistol salesmen of the time reportedly carried an 8x10 copy of the photo and had an interesting spiel that went something like, “This group was fired in competition and was witnessed by scores of spectators and competitors. We believe our Model 29 .44 Magnum provides better accuracy than any other handgun, but in this instance Mr. Carl shot a slightly tighter group than our factory test group fired from a machine rest.”


It took me more than 50 years to realize that it was Jack Weaver who made my 100 yard 3 inch .44 Magnum record possible. Had he not forced me into a tie breaking shoot-off, the record never would have occurred. And despite defeating Jack in two out of the three stages of Jeff Cooper's first .44 Magnum shoot, Mr. Weaver's magnificent consistency got him additional points toward the 1961 annual Norman Pardee Memorial Award, the equivalent of the Southwest Combat Pistol Championship, which began in 1963.


Back Home And Back To Work


Upon returning to San Diego County and the city of El Cajon, I was surprised by the amount of interest in Jeff Cooper's first .44 Magnum match and my record setting performance. Of course that was 10 years before “Dirty Harry” and decades before there was so much anti-gun sentiment. It was also only one month after I had won my second Leatherslap. The newspaper and television coverage brought a lot of attention to my place of employment, the El Cajon Police Department. Chief Joe O'Conner, happy with the attention his department was receiving, soon called me into his office. By the way, Chief O'Connor was a knowledgeable “pistolero” in his own right and not someone you'd want to “shoot it out” with. He congratulated me for winning another combat pistol championship and then added, “If I hadn't seen the photographic evidence on this one, I'd be inclined to be a disbeliever.” After explaining the circumstances and discussing the technical aspects of the pistol and custom loaded cartridges I had used, the chief went right to the point saying, “I'd like you to carry your record setting pistol on duty.” I replied, “With all due respect, Chief, but shouldn't we be concerned with the .44 Magnum's rifle like penetration?” He responded, “Since you load your own cartridges, why not use your H&G 240 grain cast bullets, but drive them at .44 Special velocity. In case you encounter a situation that requires penetration, carry a pouchful (6 rounds) of your record winning full Magnum reloads.” I concurred and advised the chief that I would need a couple of weeks to load the ammunition and assemble my duty leather goods including two .44 cartridge pouches. He finally added, “And have your sergeant advise me when you begin carrying the .44 on duty.”

Elden with deer target and trophies

As I remember I began carrying my .44 Magnum on approximately the 15th of October 1961. I was surprised that despite some media interest in my pistol demonstrations for law enforcement using my 1911 and .44 Magnum, no other officer that I knew of carried a .44 Magnum on duty. I remember taking one of El Cajon P.D.'s top P.P.C. shooters to the pistol range for an attempted qualification. I put up a silhouette target at 25 yards and handed the officer my pistol and six of my .44 Magnum reloads, which he insisted on trying. Once loaded I gave the officer the order, “Fire when ready!” He cocked the hammer while standing off-hand, took aim and carefully squeezed the trigger. The loud explosion and violent recoil obviously shocked him, because he had not expected the intensity of the disturbance that occurred on the right side of his body. The bullet, by the way, hit near the center of the target. I asked him if he'd like to switch to .44 Special ammunition. He said no, and that he'd like to try another .44 Magnum round.


I suggested that he use both hands on the pistol but he declined. In 1961 I was the only El Cajon P.D. Officer to use two hands beyond 7 yards. Others used two hands only while leaning on the P.P.C. barricades at 25 and 50 yards. I gave the officer, who was still loaded, ready and facing downrange, the order to commence firing. Again he cocked the hammer and aimed off-hand at the 25 yard target. When the hammer dropped this time, everything was the same except there was not a second bullet hole in the target. Before I could say anything, the officer opened the cylinder on the big .44 and cleared it of two empty and four loaded cartridges. I asked him if he'd like to take one more go this time with .44 Special loads. He said simply, “My .44 days are over. I'll stay with my K-38 which I can control. After all, a .38 Special hit is better than a .44 Magnum miss.” It didn't help that this officer was one of our best P.P.C. shots. People tended to put a lot of stock in his opinion, which became quite negative on matters pertaining to the .44 Magnum. Maybe that's why El Cajon P.D. had no more officers packing .44's until George Cretton joined the force a year later.

Elden sharing his S&W Model 29 6.5" 44 Magnum with Detective George Karavantes

I only had one serious confrontation in the year and a half or so that I carried the .44 Magnum as a uniformed officer. That incident occurred in mid-1962 before officers wore bullet proof protective gear. A uniform shirt over a white t-shirt will not stop much lead. I was working the pm shift one evening when I received a call to return to the station to take a report from two men claiming to have been assaulted by a man with a shotgun. Upon arriving at the station the desk officer introduced me to the middle aged white males who were not drunk but smelled of booze and had a bit of slurred speech.


The men claimed to have been walking eastbound on the south side of El Cajon Boulevard in the 200 block, when an older man who was allegedly standing inside his screened-in front porch, and holding a shotgun, ordered them to get away from his property. They claimed to have told the man that since they were on the public sidewalk they didn't have to leave until they were ready. The man on the porch allegedly opened the screen door and stepped out onto a small concrete outer porch from where he allegedly fired two rounds at them from what they believed was a shotgun. The men said they immediately left the scene and walked about four blocks to the police station. After obtaining all the necessary information, I asked the two men to remain in the business office so they would be available after I arrested the suspect and brought him to the station.


I asked the desk officer to radio my beat partner Roland Madeiros, and request a meet not far from the scene of the alleged crime. The plan was to have Roland cover the rear of the house while I attempted to get the suspect to come out the front entrance which was a screened door. After trying unsuccessfully several times to get the suspect to leave his firearm behind and come out onto the well lit front porch, I decided to go around to the rear of the house while Officer Madeiros observed the side of the house and the front porch. Similar to the front, the rear of the house also had a large well lit screened porch with a screened door. But attached to the rear porch was a rather large walled room with an open side door. Although the house, front porch and the rear porch were well lit, we could see no sign of anyone being present.


Officer Madeiros was well positioned so he could see anyone passing through the front porch and door. He also had a pretty fair view of other parts of the house through the windows. Since we were having no luck getting the suspect to respond or come out of the house, I decided to go into the fairly large, walled rear shed using the side door. In the faint light I could see a narrow path to the back of the shed between some 50 gallon trash containers. Standing to the left of the open door with my unlit flashlight in my left hand and thumb on the switch, I unholstered my .44 with my right hand but did not cock the hammer. After listening for a few moments and hearing no sounds I charged through the door from the left side. As I passed the door sill a figure nearly my size appeared in front of me. I instantly and simultaneously turned on my flashlight and with a couple of pounds of pressure on the double action trigger, I thrust my pistol forward, striking the now lit up male figure in front of me near the center of his chest area. I knew before his back hit the ground that he had nothing in either hand. I can still hear my senior citizen suspect pleading, “Please don't shoot me, Officer, please don't shoot me!” I holstered my pistol and helped the man to his feet. After assuring ourselves that the man had no weapons on him and assuring the old gentleman that he was no longer in any danger, I asked him if he had a shotgun or any other weapons in or around his house. He replied that he did have a double barrel 12 gauge shotgun in the house. I asked him to take us to it but not to go within reach of it or attempt to pick it up. He guided Roland and me from the rear shed through the back porch and house to the front room and pointed to the firearm lying on a large table. I picked the shotgun up and opened the breach ejecting two birdshot type shotgun shells, one spent and the other unfired.


Once the area was secured I asked the gentleman if he had, in fact, engaged two men with his shotgun, and if so, what were the circumstances. The homeowner responded that he was sitting on his front screened porch, when two men who were walking eastbound on the sidewalk in front of his house, suddenly made a right turn, went to a tree in his front yard, and began to urinate on it. When he yelled at them to “button up” and leave his property, he claimed they responded by uttering threats and expletives as they began advancing toward him.


The homeowner told us that he grabbed his shotgun, which he always kept nearby, and again told the two men to leave his property. When they continued to advance on him he said he stepped on to the outer porch and fired one round into the ground approximately one half the distance from where he was standing to where the men were advancing toward him. He claimed at this point the two men quickly turned around, went back to the sidewalk and left the area eastbound.


While I was interviewing the homeowner, Officer Madeiros went out into the front yard and located what appeared to be birdshot splash and remnants of some liquid at the base of the offended tree. Madeiros called me over to show me the evidence and said, “Looks like we have a crime, but not the one we thought!” I replied, ”Yeah, we've gone from an assault with a deadly weapon to filing a false report.” The best part was that the real victim (despite some bruises) did not die during our encounter with him. His survival also assured that he could take a ride to the station with Officer Madeiros to identify and file a complaint against the two men who had not only filed a false complaint against the real victim, but had nearly caused his death had I applied another 6 or 7 pounds of trigger pressure, thereby completing the .44 Magnum firing stroke.


I have to admit that I can't remember another arrest that was more satisfying than this one in 1962. Officer Roland Madeiros, one of El Cajon's best police officers, had the pleasure of taking the two crooks to jail while I got stuck with the paperwork. Oh, well, it was my call after all.


Editor's Note

The late Roland Madeiros and Elden Carl were classmates at the San Diego Police Department's July 1960 Academy. Elden was Honor Man of that class.


© Created by Danielle Crawford