Ron Agostini

At fast-draw competition, don't dare blink

They're faster than the traffic light switching from red to green.

Faster than an eye-blink.

Faster than Usain Bolt.

Faster than a hockey puck zipping into the net.

Faster than a post-Christmas bill.

From holster to hand and finger to trigger, they fire. Hitting their target counts, too, but how they get there is a quarter-of-a-second blur.

If you're not alert, you miss the whole thing. Count yourself lucky. Those who weren't alert 150 years ago ended up dead.

"It's a good clean outdoor sport and family-oriented," Dan Qualls said. "We love the camaraderie and the competition."

Qualls refers to the world of fast-draw. Yes, he's talking about the grim business from the Old West that made John Wesley Hardin infamous, Clint Eastwood famous and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid unforgettable.

Only now, fast-draw is a niche sport of sorts, a hobby with a down-home feel and a grassroots attraction. What decided cattle wars and settled horse thefts during the 1800s is done for fun these days. All they seek now is to identify the fastest gun.

Much like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp, only the stakes aren't as high.

Qualls coordinates the Mother Lode World Fast Draw Championships, which will be Saturday and Sunday at the Mother Lode Gun Club in Jamestown. About 40 competitors, some from as far away as South Dakota and Canada, will gather in western attire ("but not period-correct," Qualls qualified) for their salute to yesteryear. Action begins both days at 10 a.m., including a dinner Saturday night.

They'll carry a single-action revolver and shoot wax bullets at either steel targets on Saturday or balloons on Sunday. Standing anywhere from 5 to 15 feet from their aiming point, they'll wait for an ignition light — not unlike funny cars at the starting line — and then "Boom!"

It's over. Just like that. Quicker than a karate kick.

It was easy to tell the winners from the losers after the Gunfight at the Corral, and so it is in fast-draw. The fastest times win. Time penalties are enforced for missed targets. The best blend of speed and accuracy takes the prize.

The event, sanctioned by the World Fast Draw Association, is one of six staged each year throughout the country. Qualls, the vice chairman of Area 5 (from the Grapevine to the Oregon border), will distribute about $8,000 in cash and prizes to the winners. Points are accrued and world champions will be crowned by year's end, which is a better result than duels to the death at high noon just because you just didn't like the look in his eye.

Today's practitioners love the togetherness almost as much as they approve the Second Amendment. This weekend marks the third straight year the gun club will welcome the quick-draw crowd that has built an annual stop in the Mother Lode. And, by the way, they'll already have finished the job before you've even relayed the thought from brain to hand.

"The average person's reaction time is about 18- to 20-hundredths of a second," Qualls said. "We don't allow for any shortcuts. We have to reach, pull and shoot."

First-rate performers do not require four workouts a week at Gold's Gym. Shootists come in all ages and sizes. Qualls, 64, who's enjoyed some high finishes over the years, will compete despite having both knees replaced.

"This guy in Montana hobbles up there with an oxygen mask and a cane and put a whipping on me," Qualls said. "You would think the reflex time gets worse as you get older, but I'm not sure of that. These guys will smoke you."

There's former world champion Tony Williams of Atwater, confined to a wheelchair. There is Anita Burnham of Colorado, the women's Mother Lode champion of 2008. There is the Franks family of Canada — Bob, Peggy and daughter Nicole, all former champions. There is Greg Danielson of South Dakota, a winner at Jamestown last year, and he can't speak or hear.

"He goes by the light," Qualls said.

And there is Oakdale's Colby Qualls, 13, Dan's grandson. He says he's been shooting since he was 4. He pulls double duty as both an entry and an assistant range officer.

"I like the pressure of going against older people. I don't let them intimidate me," Colby said. "Beating them is exciting."

And they share one more thing in common — they all shoot from the hip.

Bee sports writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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