The Big Bear Leatherslap's Finest Hour
1961 was a big year for me. In June at Wes Thompson's range I became the first combat pistol shooter to oppose Jack Weaver and his two-handed Weaver Stance with my newly developed “both thumbs to the weak side” two-handed hold and stance. All other participants on that day, including Jeff Cooper, were using a one-handed hold and a target shooter's stance. It is my opinion that this shoot is one of the most significant and yet completely ignored combat pistol matches in history. Before I relate the complete story of this June 1961 Advanced Military Combat Shoot, I feel compelled to tell you the true story of another important but almost forgotten competition. It was the most unique Leatherslap in history and this is how it went.
In 1962 after I had won my third Leatherslap, Jeff Cooper asked me if I would consider sitting out the 1963 Leatherslap. Jeff was concerned that another entry by me after three straight wins might result in a lower number of participants. He further suggested that it would be helpful to him if I would agree to be the assistant match director.
After thinking about the request for a while, I told Lt. Col. Cooper I would do it, with the condition that we move the man against man balloon bust finals from the usual 21 feet to 15 feet. My argument was that the major Los Angeles police shoot-out study had determined that approximately 80% of police armed confrontations occurred at 12 feet or less in dim or no light. Jeff was not immediately enthusiastic about the idea but finally agreed to try the 15 foot
balloon shoot-off, while the timed qualification match would remain at the traditional 21 foot distance.
I was excited about the upcoming match because I believed that Thell Reed would bring his 45 Peacemaker and point shooting skills to the event. I also hoped that holding a match at the more practical distance of 15 feet might prevent one-handed point shooting from disappearing in favor of the two-handed hold and Weaver stance that was becoming more common at the 21 foot distance.
Thell and I have discussed at length the pros and cons of the one-handed point vs. the two-handed hold and we both agree that forced to choose we would stay with our one-handed point shooting skills. Several close range armed confrontations during my police career proved that I had made the correct choice, and had saved one innocent life in the process. But more on that later.
The August weekend of the 1963 Leatherslap finally rolled around, and just as I had guessed, Thell Reed came with his 45 Peacemaker. In one of my previous articles I told the story of the first time I met Thell. It was, of all places, at the Norco dump near Corona, California, where he and Ray Chapman often practiced their pistol shooting skills. I will never forget watching this fifteen year old kid do things with a 45 Peacemaker that I had never seen any quick- draw shooter do before ... or since! A few years later, in an appearance in a Hollywood film, Thell killed a rogue buffalo with one round from his 45 Peacemaker at full gallop from horseback! I hoped he would shine that day at the 1963 Leatherslap.
With a crowd of several hundred looking on, Thell stepped to the line for his turn at qualifying for the man against man finals. In order to qualify, a shooter must draw and hit a 12 inch round steel plate at 21 feet five separate times. Only hits stop the clock and the top 16 competitors with the lowest times advance to the man against man balloon bust finals.
Match Director Jeff Cooper told Thell to load and holster. I watched as Thell loaded the traditional 5 rounds into the cylinder of his 43⁄4 inch 45 caliber Peacemaker. Jeff gave Thell the usual sequence of orders, followed by the “draw and fire” whistle. Thell's first draw was easier heard than seen, resulting in what would have been a hit on a 6 inch diameter plate.
After the second “ready, draw, and fire” sequence resulting in another well placed hit on the plate, Jeff asked Thell, who had already returned his pistol to the holster, if he would like to reload. Thell politely declined and waited for the third firing sequence which came and passed with the same Thell Reed patented result.
At this point Lt. Col. Cooper reminded Thell that he had only two rounds left in his pistol and it might be prudent to reload. Again Thell, with his Peacemaker already in his holster, declined and stood amazingly relaxed and at the ready. Again the whistle sounded and again Thell proved that a 6 inch plate would have been a big enough target for him on this day.
By now all the spectators were caught up in the drama unfolding before them. With only one round left, Thell had to reload or he'd have no recovery shot should he miss his fifth attempt, thereby disqualifying him from the man against man finals. Lt. Col. Cooper at this point reminded Thell that he had only one round remaining in his pistol and that he should reload. Thell again replied that he was loaded, holstered and ready. For the fifth and final time Jeff
gave the preparatory orders followed by the whistle, and again a beautiful, fast, smooth draw and hit resulted. At this point the crowd went crazy. As for me I couldn't believe what I had just witnessed. The five shot group on the 12 inch qualification plate was the best I had ever seen – and from one-handed point yet! To add to the drama, Thell had also fired the fastest 5 shot average of the day.
The man against man balloon shoot finals was yet another display of Thell Reed's brilliant fast draw and one-handed point shooting ability with a 45 Peacemaker. Due partly to the “cone of fire” being smaller at 15 feet than at 21 feet, Thell was able to increase draw speed while maintaining accuracy. He needed very few recovery shots, which is important when all of your
adversaries are armed with rapid fire D.A. and auto pistols.
For me one of the most exciting aspects of the 1963 man against man shoot-off was watching Thell pace himself. When he would get comfortably ahead of an adversary he would dramatically increase the speed of his draw, breaking his balloon in what appeared to be record times. Unfortunately, in 1963 the man against man shoot-off still wasn't being electronically timed, but I know from long experience that the fastest couple of shots I've ever witnessed at the Leatherslap were fired by Thell Reed from his Peacemaker that August day in1963. They were probably in the mid to low 30's including reaction time.
My biggest disappointment with the 1963 Leatherslap was that the 15 foot man against man shoot-offs were not made permanent. If they had continued, perhaps one-handed point shooting would have survived, resulting in more options for the shooter, and in case of police officers possibly fewer suspects dying by mistake. The reason I say this is because while using a two-handed pistol hold, it is difficult to see effectively when you are looking at your forearms, wrists, clasped hands, pistol and sights. It also is more difficult to run fast and be able to point in multiple directions if necessary. In future articles I will illustrate this point by sharing some stories from my own law enforcement career.
Note from the editor:
In case you wonder if Elden Carl is qualified to judge Thell Reed's performance at the 1963 Leatherslap, remember, Elden and Thell are the only shooters to win 3 Leatherslaps from one-handed point with both revolver and semi-auto pistol. Elden also is the only known shooter to win major quick-draw events with all three action types: single action, double action and semi auto pistols.
Elden, who knew all of the top quick-draw shooters of the time, believes that Thell Reed is not only the greatest practitioner of the 45 Peacemaker, but the best live ammo quick-draw point shooter ever.