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The Shooting Party 

Thursday, Dec 8 2005
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The gunslinger known as Petey requests a halt in filming so he can mosey over behind a gleaming white SUV and take a dump by its rear right wheel. While he does this, the crew scratch their necks and sip their coffee or look around at the scrub brush that surrounds the dusty canyon shooting range near the Angeles National Forest.

This is one of those re-enactment (or “re-cree”) documentaries made for the historically obsessed. Another old-time gunslinger sits in the shade in fringed yellow buckskin, green boots and a swooping white hat. His name is Hank. Next to him are 30 different antique pistols and shotguns laid out like a deli platter, warm in the desert sun next to bags of mini–Tootsie Rolls and ostrich jerky. Hank — ruddy face, puffed white beard in the fashion of Buffalo Bill Cody — works a long cigar as he fires off a series of time-killing jokes to the crew: “Didja hear about the dyslexic rabbi who always said ‘Yo’? How ’bout what they call a smart blonde? Golden retriever! An Italian guy with one arm longer than the other? Speech impediment!”

Petey, in striped trousers, a Black Bart hat and red neckerchief, re-appears, saying something about feeling much lighter, thank you. The director calls out, and Hank, sighing, stubs out his stogy and unrolls himself out of the chair. “Don’t sit down where you can’t lay down,” he grumbles. With their pant legs stuffed into their boots and cannon-size revolvers out in front, the cowboys approach the small white targets daintily, like portly Victorian matrons negotiating a rain-swept street.

They halt at the shooting line and eye the human-shaped targets some 60 feet away.

The director nods, and they begin.

“Well, Petey, you’ve got a .44-caliber Army Colt from 1860, and I’m packin’ a .45-caliber Navy Colt from 1851, the exact type of weapon used by Doc Holliday and Wild Bill Hickok!”

“Samuel Colt was left-handed, Hank, so most of the guns made by his company were designed for left-handed people.”

“Can you imagine trying to load one of these things on horseback while you’re bein’ chased by Indians? Not an easy thing to do!”

“No, it isn’t! The ’51 Navy shot a .375-inch ball. To load it, you make sure the powder and ball go into the front of the cylinder. Then you prime it by putting a percussion cap on the nipple.”

“Okay, let’s shoot!”

Hank misses his first three shots, which are announced by brutal cracks and white poofs of dirt behind the target. He grumbles and hits the next four shots in succession; each time, the bullets make a loud metallic tang! — like a carnival weight bell. Petey rolls out a dummy dressed in curled-toe cowboy boots and shoots it multiple times, speaking an easy flow for the cameras: “Looks like we got a couple just over the target and four more up around the neckline. Well, wherever they are: This man’s DEAD.” Then both men blast fat ripe pumpkins with .10- and .12-gauge shotguns. “Happy Halloween!” they sing.

“Are those supposed to be people’s heads?” asks the sound guy in wraparound Bono sunglasses.

The shoot is halted again when someone at the next range begins firing rapidly and swearing. As the sound guy rejiggers his vest mike, Petey tells of the time his now ex-wife pointed a 9mm handgun directly at his face from less than two feet away. “I grabbed her hand — actually, I grabbed the slide of the pistol and pulled it outwards so the bullet would go wide. She didn’t shoot. She was mad, though. She wanted to use my truck, and I wouldn’t give her the keys.”

Hank, meanwhile, collapses back into his deck chair and pops the Zippo under his cigar, so chewed that a wet dark stain extends halfway up its side. He muses on his success in the world of re-cree docs. (The History Channel, in particular, has been very good to him.) Although Hank is proud of his services to Hollywood as an expert, he has his complaints: “Hollywood doesn’t give guys like me an’ Petey the appreciation we deserve.” As if on cue, a skinny, cowed dog begins to circle Hank’s chair.

From behind comes the sound guy’s voice: “Are those targets shaped like children?”

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