Joe Bowman, 84

Texas Sharpshooter Joe Bowman Dies at 84

"So much of what I do is for the adults, reminding them of their childhood," Joe Bowman said in a 1992 interview.
"So much of what I do is for the adults, reminding them of their childhood," Joe Bowman said in a 1992 interview. (By Carlos Antonio Rios -- Houston Chronicle)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Joe Bowman, a nationally known Texas sharpshooter who could blast an aspirin to powder at 30 paces and split a playing card edgewise at 20, died June 29 in Junction, Tex.

He had been in Albuquerque, where he had staged a fast-draw and sharpshooting exhibition for the Single Action Society's annual convention, and was driving back to his home in Houston when he stopped for the night in the small West Texas town of Junction. He had a heart attack. He was 84.

Mr. Bowman, who called himself the Straight Shooter and the Master of Triggernometry, performed at gun shows, rodeos and conventions across the country. He taught gun handling to Robert Duvall ("Lonesome Dove"), James Arness ("Gunsmoke") and Jock Mahoney ("Yancy Derringer"), among many other Hollywood Western stars. In addition, he taught FBI agents and police officers the finer points of handling a gun, including what he called "instinct shooting" -- relying on the eye and aligning the body correctly rather than taking the extra few seconds to aim down the gun sight.

Always movie-cowboy resplendent in a 10-gallon hat, embroidered shirt and Western-style pants stuffed into ornate, hand-sewn boots -- attire he made himself -- Mr. Bowman performed thousands of shows, including command performances for King Hussein of Jordan and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Mr. Bowman also created portraits by shooting holes in thin sheets of metal.

"I've seen fast, I've seen faster, I've seen fastest, and then I've seen Joe Bowman," said actor James Drury, who starred in the television series "The Virginian" and who got to know Mr. Bowman in Hollywood in the 1970s. "He was incredible."

Drury described how the sharpshooter could fire three shots at 30 paces through the middle of a 50-cent piece, in one five-thousandth of a second. "It was all in such a blur you couldn't even catch it on film," he said in an interview.

Joseph Lee Bowman was born April 12, 1925, in Johnson City, Tenn., where he started shooting at age 6, and spent many of his formative years in Asheville, N.C., and Houston. He and his older brother Mark loved Westerns, and with their cap guns and cowboy boots the youngsters became Johnny Mack Brown, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the other cowboy idols they watched in gape-mouthed wonder during Saturday-morning matinees at the local theater.

He never forgot that experience. "So much of what I do is for the adults, reminding them of their childhood," he told the Houston Chronicle in 1992. "What I remember is the morality of the westerns and of the cowboys. That's all what westerns were: morality plays, where there was good and evil."

He honed his shooting eye by sitting on the back porch of his house and picking flies off garbage cans with a BB gun. During World War II, he served in the Army with a communications squadron in France. Injured when a land mine exploded while he was stringing wire, he received three awards of the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

After the war, he attended the University of Houston for two years but decided he would rather be a denizen of the Old West. He opened the Bowman and DeGeorge Boot Shop in a shopping village near Rice University, and his skill with finely detailed boots, belts, saddles and fast-draw holsters attracted clients including Roy Rogers.

For Rogers, known as "the king of the cowboys," Mr. Bowman created two pair of his trademark "Boots of Roses," with gold toes and heels and red roses on the side. The boots are now in the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum.

Mr. Bowman sold the boot shop in about 1960 and became a salesman for a drafting supply company. In his spare time, he performed at conventions and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The hobby soon became a way of life, and the Straight Shooter began touring the country as a one-man shooting exhibition. He also became a gifted magician and trick roper and frequently spoke to youth groups about gun safety.

In 1954, Mr. Bowman married Betty Fruge, who knew nothing about guns but learned so well under her husband's tutelage that she became the North American female fast-draw champion. The marriage ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 17 years, Betty Reid-Bowman of Houston; two children from his first marriage, Jan Bowman of Dallas and Mark Bowman II of Austin; and a brother.

Mr. Bowman still did leather work over the years, including a special metal-lined holster set with a pivot at the belt that allowed the wearer to draw a pistol at lightning speed. Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. bought two.

Warrenton screenwriter Alan Geoffrion ("Broken Trail") got to know the sharpshooter at an event in Oklahoma. "There was a lot of showmanship and a lot of self-promotion, but it was done in such a way that you didn't take offense at it," Geoffrion recalled.

Mr. Bowman told the Houston Chronicle in 2006 that among his greatest honors was the time he performed before John Wayne's family at a shooting exhibition in 1982. The family was so impressed with his shooting prowess that they gave him a bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded to Wayne shortly before his death in 1979.

"He was still shooting to the last day he lived," Drury said.

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