Fastest gun in the north

Fastest gun in the north

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Legs splayed wide and hand at his hip, Nick "The Quick" Nica of Montreal waits for the signal to draw and fire his revolver as he competes in the Canadian Open Fast Draw Championships.

The idea of Fast Draw – a sport born from the Hollywood myth of the western gunfighter – is to draw a single action revolver from a holster, and cock, fire and hit a designated target in the shortest possible time.

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. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Those who play the sport never use live ammunition, only blank cartridges or wax bullets. Their targets are either a metal silhouette used with wax bullets, or balloons that burst from the muzzle blast of the blanks.

. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Competitors get the signal to shoot from a light atop a timer that is rigged up to the target. Once the target is hit, it turns the timer off, measuring the speed. Top shooters can record times of 0.205 to 0.400 of a second - practically the speed of the blink of an eye.

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Slideshow

Competitors clean and check their single action revolvers before the start of the championships.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Competitors clean and check their single action revolvers before the start of the championships.

Gun-slinger Nicole Franks wears a World Championship belt buckle along with her gun.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Gun-slinger Nicole Franks wears a World Championship belt buckle along with her gun.

Eighty-year-old James Weatherby of Aldergrove waits to compete.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Eighty-year-old James Weatherby of Aldergrove waits to compete.

Joe Colwell of Loveland, Colorado, loads blanks into his single action revolver.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Joe Colwell of Loveland, Colorado, loads blanks into his single action revolver.

Competitors load their guns with black powder blank cartridges.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Competitors load their guns with black powder blank cartridges.

A row of competitors prepare to fire to signal the start of the championship.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

A row of competitors prepare to fire to signal the start of the championship.

Gunslingers wait for the timing clock to signal so they can draw and fire.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Gunslingers wait for the timing clock to signal so they can draw and fire.

Bob Nielson of Loveland, Colorado, draws and fires his gun at a balloon target.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Bob Nielson of Loveland, Colorado, draws and fires his gun at a balloon target.

Frank Lawton of Deadwood, South Dakota fires after cocking the gun with his left hand.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Frank Lawton of Deadwood, South Dakota fires after cocking the gun with his left hand.

A competitor draws and fires.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

A competitor draws and fires.

Frank Lawton fires his gun.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Frank Lawton fires his gun.

Bob Franks of Aldergrove competes.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Bob Franks of Aldergrove competes.

Diana Rosen of Edima, Minnesota, draws and fires as a colleague with his holstered gun watches from behind.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Diana Rosen of Edima, Minnesota, draws and fires as a colleague with his holstered gun watches from behind.

The names and times of the competitors are written out in a list.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

The names and times of the competitors are written out in a list.

Jon Rivera and Nicole Franks congratulate each other on becoming the men's and women's champions.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Jon Rivera and Nicole Franks congratulate each other on becoming the men's and women's champions.

A monogrammed gun belt and a pair of single action western style revolvers lie out at the championships.
. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

A monogrammed gun belt and a pair of single action western style revolvers lie out at the championships.

"These folks were not just fast, they were lightning quick in my opinion. Snap your fingers and it was done."
Andy Clark, Reuters Photographer

The hot mid-day sun beat down as the fellow nervously checked his Ruger Blackhawk single action revolver. Spinning the chamber and checking the hammer mechanism several times, he then slipped the gun smoothly in and out of his holster sitting low on his hips. Adjusting his Stetson he looked up and said: “I may be nervous, but I am ready”.

Stepping into position he slightly bent his knees and placed his partially open right hand over the holster, while his flattened left hand crossed over his stomach and balanced just above the hammer of the gun. Only yards away his opponent stepped into his position and took a similar stance.

A split second later there was a deafening and almost simultaneous boom as both guns spit fire, creating a large cloud of blue smoke that hung in the air. It was over. There lying on the ground was not some poor soul but rather the tattered remains of two yellow balloons, both gunfighters checked their guns, holstered them and prepared for the next round.

As you have gathered this was not some scene from the late 19th century in a dusty town of the American Wild West but rather, a modern day competition, taking place at the annual Canadian Open Fast Draw Championships in Aldergrove, about an hour west of Vancouver, British Columbia.

The present day Fast Draw competition was born from the Hollywood myth of the western gunfighter. The words “gunfighter” or “gun slinger” are actually movie and literary terms of the 20th century and were not used in the old west.

In the 1950s and early 1960s TV westerns were very popular with large audiences and the Hollywood studios began promoting some of their stars as the fastest guns. One actor, Hugh O’Brien, who portrayed Wyatt Earp in a television series even hired a coach and challenged other Hollywood actors. The beginnings of today’s modern competition are credited to a stuntman, a trick shooter named Dee Woolem who designed a timer to measure the quick draws and in 1954 the first Fast Draw competition was held.

My first impressions while photographing the competitors was the incredible speed they could draw and fire accurately. It was impossible to observe all the movements involved – their hands were that quick.

The top shooters can record times of .205 to .400 of a second with ease and when I began photographing the competitors I found it impossible to record their movements with satisfactory results. Focused on their hands and waiting for them to move only resulted in either pictures too early or too late.

I soon realiSed that if I positioned myself so that I could see the timer light come on, the image results improved. I set my shutter speed to 6400 or 8000th of second and once the light came on pushed the shutter button on my 10 frames per second still camera. If I was lucky I got two, maybe three, frames before it was over. These folks were not just fast, they were lightning quick in my opinion. Snap your fingers and it was done.

The competition was held over two days and attracted competitors from across Canada and the western United States. The event took place inside the boards of an outdoor, wintertime ice hockey rink. Hockey sticks and blades of steel replaced by cowboy boots and the smell of cordite.

Both men and women ranging in age from 15 to 80 years old faced the balloon timer. Strength in Fast Draw plays a minor role. Quick reflexes and dexterity are a must and therefore the sport is as popular with women as it is with men.

There were six women competing and at least two of them have been World Champions more than once. I was fascinated however by how fast the two 80-year-old men competing actually were. If given the chance and with some practice I believe I could be reasonably quick on the draw, but against these two octogenarians? I am convinced I wouldn’t have had a chance.

Though all the gun-slingers taking part were in close competition for prize money and top honours it’s also a tight-knit group of friends with plenty of jokes between one another, such as: “if you were any slower you’d have a bird’s nest in your hat”.

On the other hand, like in many competitions, ego and confidence play an important role in winning. As one veteran quipped: “Everybody here believes they are the fastest gun.”

. Aldergrove, Canada. REUTERS/Andy Clark

Nicole Franks fires her single action revolver during the competition.