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JAUNTS : Top Guns Face Off in Test of Aim, Grit--and Balloons : Some of the quickest gunslingers around will gather at Ojai's Lake Casitas for the Western States Fast Draw Championship.


A quarter of a second. The blink of an eye. That's how long it takes today's competitive gunslinger to draw his gun, cock it, aim and fire fast enough to most likely whip the top guns of Wyatt Earp's day.

The sport of quick-draw shooting is flourishing, and some of the fastest guns around will gather at Ojai's Lake Casitas this weekend for the Western States Fast Draw Championship.

It's all part of the American Country Celebration, a two-day ode to the Old West and other periods in history. Modern-day cowboys will perform gunfighting stunts and compete in gunfighting skits. The shore of the lake will be transformed into encampments of authentically costumed fur traders, mountain men, soldiers, cowboys--even pirates.

The competition will give fast-draw pros a shot at $2,500 in prize money and a chance to qualify for the World Championships next month at the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville.

When these gunslingers face off, it's not at all like the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. First, they don't use real bullets. Second, they don't shoot at each other. Their fearless foe is usually a small balloon they must pop in a fraction of a second.

Still, for the shooters, it's a tense moment. "I'm a bowl of jelly," confessed Tom Wentz, a competition organizer and teacher of the fast-draw sport.

He explained how it works. The competitor waits for a light to go on, signaling him to draw his gun and fire. The light, timed randomly between two and five seconds, kicks on a timer that stops when the target is hit from varying distances of up to 15 feet. The world record is .207 second--just about a fifth of a second.

The gunfighters are coming from as far away as Deadwood, S.D., for this weekend's competition, Wentz said. They'll be duded up in western attire and will wield modern-day revolvers, most likely the Ruger .357 Magnum with a .45-caliber barrel. The newer guns are lighter and the holsters of today slide more easily.

Today's top guns would easily outshoot those of yesteryear, Wentz believes. "They didn't practice that much," he said, "and their guns were difficult to cock fast and hit accurately."

The sport of fast draw boomed during the late 1950s and early 1960s when television Westerns were hot. At that time, there were 10,000 shooters in the United States. It was a hobby for celebrities like Clint Eastwood. But the numbers dwindled to about a thousand in the 1970s.

"A lot hung up their guns," Wentz said. Today, there are about 500 shooters worldwide--many in Japan--who belong to fast-draw organizations. But those numbers are now growing because of a flurry of recent Western movies like "Tombstone."

The weekend competition won't be all serious shooting. The gunfighters will also compete in the "Shootout at Lake Casitas," a quick-draw test that might find them shooting from a card table or at the bar. And wanna-be gunslingers can test their own quick-draw reflexes at a special booth.

John Wayne impersonator Ermil Williamson will perform his one-man show on both days at noon, and rodeo legend Montie Montana, 84, will do rope tricks and sign copies of his book, "Not Without My Horse!" The 15-member Ghost Town Drifters from Vacaville will stage shootouts and do stunt falls from a 14-foot water tower.

Country-music bands will perform from two stages on both days, and anyone who wants to learn line dancing can pick up a few tips.


* WHAT: American Country Celebration

* WHERE: Lake Casitas, near Ojai

* WHEN: Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to dusk

* COST: $6 for adults, $5 for students with IDs, $4 for seniors and children 12 and under, free for kids 3 and under. Parking is $2.

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