A steely-eyed man with a five o’clock shadow squints his eyes across the saloon. He’s just come to town, and he doesn’t want any trouble. How can he prove to this crowd of rough customers that he’s not to be trifled with?
He draws his pistol and proceeds to spin it round and round—first forward, then back. Now flat atop his hand. So fast you can hardly see it. Then in a flash, the gun is safely back in its holster. The rest of the toughs got the message. Don’t mess with this guy.
Gun spinning, also called gun twirling, is a skill that only a rare few can still perform today. And we’re lucky to welcome one of the best American gun spinners, Pistol Packin’ Paula, to Barton Hill Farms!
On Sunday, October 9th, you can catch this world champion gun spinner in action. She’ll be twirling and tossing her pistols and cracking her whip, American-frontier style. But where did the legend of the Wild West gun spinner come from?
Gun Spinning in the Old West
Our romantic notions of the Old West are probably rooted in Hollywood more than in reality. But it is true that there was an atmosphere of lawlessness at the time, and that private gunslingers were a part of life. These crack shots varied from thieves and bandits to lawmen and guns-for-hire.
What they probably didn’t do was spend their time practicing fancy gun twirling moves. In a time when your trigger finger was your lifeline, shooters were much more interested in a quick draw and careful accuracy. And sorry to burst your bubble, but the infamous “stand-off” where two “shootists” shot at each other duel-style probably didn’t really happen either.
In fact, there are only two recorded instances of that kind of one-on-one shootout in history. One was between “Wild Bill” Hickock and Davis Tutt. These two former friends had a falling out over money that led to a shootout. Goodbye, Tutt. The other saw gambler Luke Short kill lawman and extortionist Jim Courtright. Short refused to pay Courtright’s fee for “protection,” so Courtright wished to make an example of him. He failed.
So if gun spinning and duels weren’t popular in the Wild West, where did they come from? From show business!
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
By the 1880s, the West had been somewhat (although not entirely) tamed. But the public’s appetite for the cowboy content was being stoked by wildly popular pulp novels at the time. Buffalo Bill (born William Cody) saw an opportunity to bring the Old West, and a few of his real experiences, to the public and make a tidy profit.
He founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1883, and brought in big names like Annie Oakley, Frank Butler, and Calamity Jane to attract attention. Even Sitting Bull participated, along with a large roster of Native Americans. The performers reenacted historical events, including Custer’s Last Stand. And to keep things exciting, they introduced trick performances like sharpshooting and gun spinning. This cowboy-style gun show was immensely popular in the late 1800s, and had a profound impact on the way future generations would visualize the Old West.
And that’s why Hollywood’s version of events throughout the 20th century includes feats that were nearly unheard of in the real West. But just because it may not be historically accurate, that doesn’t mean it’s not a ton of fun!
The Best Gun Twirling in Film
The golden age of Hollywood and of westerns fixed the gun spinning idea firmly into our imaginations. From the 30s and 40s through the 1970s and into modern day, nearly all Westerns include at least a bit of this amazing skill.
In 1993’s Tombstone, a showdown over a poker table leads to Johnny Ringo amazing the crowd with his gun spinning prowess. In response, Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday repeats the moves with a small metal cup instead of a gun, relaxing the tension and preventing a shootout. The famous cup-spinning scene is part of what makes Tombstone such a legendary film.
1953’s Shane has great gun spinning moments as well. After the big bar shootout, the titular Shane does a few beautiful spins before re-holstering his gun.
Modern Westerns use the same trope. Django Unchained (2012) sees the title character do some fancy spinning. As a bit of an Old West parody, you get the feeling that the filmmakers are well aware that they’re having fun with cowboy cliche. And in the Korean “Kimchi Western”The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008), character Chang-Yi shows off his spinning skills after a shootout.
Pistol Packin’ Paula: World Champion Gun Spinner
You don’t have to travel back in time to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West or watch a western to catch some fancy gun spinning. You can come out to Barton Hill Farms to see Paula Saletnik, aka Pistol Packin’ Paula, doing what she does best.
Paula’s entry into the world of gun spinning and whip tricks was a bit of an accident. Her brother went to stunt school at a western theme park in Connecticut called Cattletown, and introduced Paula to the rest of the stunt team. She was added on as a cast member for one of their weekend shows, and got the opportunity to attend stunt school as well.
That’s where she was introduced to the magic of gun twirling. And she had something to prove, too. The guys didn’t think she could twirl guns with her smaller hands. But she was determined to figure it out and be the best.
With her stunt training, Paula moved to Arizona where she got to portray Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane at Rawhide Wild West Town. And it was there that she got the opportunity to create her own show and her own character. Hence, Pistol Packin’ Paula!
Now, this two-time world champion gun spinner hails from the Lone Star State. And we get to welcome her and her pistols to Barton Hill Farms on very special occasions.
Pistol Packin’ Paula at the Fall Festival, Pumpkin Patch, & Corn Maze
Paula will be performing her amazing feats at the Fall Festival on Sunday, October 9th. All tickets to the festival must be purchased in advance online to prevent overcrowding.
So get your tickets now to make sure we don’t sell out!
Richard Slotkin, ‘Gunfighter Nation’