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Rest in Peace Joe Bowman

On the return trip home following his performance at the SASS 2009 ‘End of Trail’ Championship, Joe Bowman passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 84.  He was shooting until the very last day.

Joe Bowman - Gentleman Sharpshooter

Joe Bowman - Gentleman Sharpshooter

Funeral services for Mr. Joe Bowman were held Monday the 7th of July, 2009. I was glad to have had the opportunity to attend. Easily over a hundred people were in attendance to honor the life of a truly great man. His wife (Betty), children (Jan Bowman, Mark Bowman II) and his brother (Mark Bowman) were in attendance as were many friends from all walks of life. Members of the cowboy action community were present, many in costume (and wearing only one spur – a signature of Mr. Bowman’s performance outfit), to celebrate the life of a legend. Some long time friends gladly crossed the country to attend, notably including John Bianchi (Bianchi Leather, the Bianchi Cup) and Raj Singh (Eagle Grips). Michael Fifer (President of Ruger Firearms) and James Drury (the Virginian) both spoke eloquently of their respect and friendship for Joseph Lee Bowman, the Straight Shooter.

Dr John Morgan of Sagemont Church (Houston, Texas) led the service.  It was easy to see that Pastor Morgan knew Joe well from years of friendship and he shared a few personal stories of times spent with Mr. Bowman.  Stories like being given a Red Ryder BB Gun with the sights removed – the iconic tool of the Straight Shooter to teach instinctive shooting.  At one point the Pastor dialed Mr. Bowman’s answering machine and played the message over the speaker system for all of us to hear.  I know all present were glad to hear Joe’s familiar voice and charm again, although many shed another tear upon hearing it.

Overall, the service was an honest celebration of the life of a not only a great man, but of a friend.  We miss him dearly but can’t help but feel grateful for having known him.

For those who never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Bowman, many will recognize his name as a Western performer specializing in fast draw, fancy gun handling, instinctive shooting and marksmanship. Often he would display his skills with a lariat and bullwhip too. Many folks will remember the slight of hand magic that was a staple of his act; he was never without a deck of cards. For me, the true ‘magic’ was watching his skill with his nickel plated, stag handled Ruger six guns. His Rugers started life as .357 caliber Blackhawks (‘Old Models’ or ‘3 Screws’ as we call them now) rechambered to .45 Colt and had the top straps welded up and re-contoured to Colt-style fixed sights with matching front sight blade. Mr. Bowman’s engraving style is very distinctive and when nickel-plated catches every ray of light, reflecting it back and sparkles like a jewel.  I remember the speed from which they vanished from the holsters, how they glittered in the sun as they spun every which way, twirling and jumping, and most of all how they never missed.

Example of Mr. Bowman's custom work on a Ruger Single-Action

Example of Mr. Bowman's custom work on a Ruger Single-Action

As a spokesman for Ruger firearms and a driving force behind the production of the New Model Vaquero a promotional flyer lists a short bio:

Joe Bowman is a slice of the Old West come to life – a fast drawing, straight shootin’, larger-than-life Texan, who is one of the best men with a gun – anywhere. Joe’s accolades include two nominations for The American Handgunner Outstanding Handgunner Award, A Combat Infantry Badge, four Battle Stars, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Joe carries a special Texas Ranger Badge presented by the Governor of Texas, and he was appointed Ambassador of Goodwill for the state of Texas by four different Governors. Joe has been on longhorn cattle drives and served as a gun coach for movie and TV westerns. Robert Duvall engaged Joe’s shooting and western knowledge for his renowned role as “Gus” in Lonesome Dove.

Joe’s talents extend far beyond shooting. Roy Rogers commissioned him to make two different pairs of his famous “Boots of Roses” with sterling silver and gold trim. Joe has made gun leather for Johnny Mack Brown, Jock Mahoney (a famous actor and stuntman), and Sammy Davis, Jr. In fact, Sammy bought 2 pairs of Joe’s famous customized Ruger single-action revolvers*.

Years ago, Bill Ruger, Sr. asked Joe to star in the highly acclaimed national safety TV announcement for Ruger “old model” single-action revolvers…

*I had the lucky opportunity to hold one of those revolvers belonging to Sammy Davis, Jr. After the passing of Mr. Davis, Mr. Bowman re-acquired one revolver of the pair he had built for Sammy. He had it with him at an event to promote the Ruger New Vaquero and allowed me to inspect it.  The action was slick as glass. According to Mr. Bowman, Sammy Davis, Jr. was quite talented at fast draw and practiced diligently.

(Cell phone cameras aren’t great, but I have the pics)

Sammy Davis, Jr.'s custom Ruger built by Joe Bowman

Sammy Davis, Jr.'s custom Ruger built by Joe Bowman

Sammy Davis Jr.'s custom Ruger built by Joe Bowman (side)

Sammy Davis Jr.'s custom Ruger built by Joe Bowman (side)

I would add that Joe Bowman was your friend, even before you met him. My acquaintance with him began thanks to Cowboy Action Shooting. I had seen him perform a couple of times before we spoke and I knew of his talent. In the mid-90’s at the Plum Creek annual match hosted by the Tejas Pistoleros, I was making some headway as a young shooter. I had noticed him walking the shooting line, visiting with the shooters and watching the goings on. He stopped at the stage I was going to shoot just as I was called to make ready and I remember being nervous that he was watching. He must have noticed something resembling talent in me because after I shot he approached and greeted me. After complimenting me on the stage, he asked me pointedly, “Why do you hold your head like that when you shoot?” To which I replied, “I don’t know. How am I holding my head?” He informed me that I was leaning it far over to left. I thought about it and realized that I was. I am a cross dominant shooter; I have a right dominant eye but am left-handed. Usually, this is actually a blessing. Shooting handguns off the left side and long guns off the right makes for some very fast transitions between the two when on the clock. However, without noticing it I had developed a habit of rolling my head over to the left, bracing my cheek on my shoulder to get a line on the sights. Mr. Bowman told me how not keeping the head level interfered with my ability to track between targets and created problems I had to overcome in able to shoot accurately. His solution was simple: hold my head up straight and move the gun over to line up with the eye. That little piece of advice really helped me fine-tune my shooting ability.

We talked quite a bit more that afternoon and then that evening we shared a table at the awards banquet. I learned a lot that evening from him. For every question I asked, he had a ready and well-reasoned answer. Another thing that I changed as a result of our talk that evening were the grips on my guns. He taught me the need for a repeatable grip with a ‘physical index’ as to where the gun was pointing. To illustrate his point, he took a cola can from the table and explained, “Because this can is round you have to look at it to know where the mouth of it is.” Then he squeezed the can’s sides crushing it to an oblong shape with mouth at one edge. “Now with it thinner on the sides you can tell by feel where it’s pointing. Most pistol grips are too round.” He continued by drawing on a table napkin a teardrop-like shape resembling the outline of deer print. It was the cross section of the grip of his revolvers. They were wider and rounder at the front and tapered back narrowing to the backstrap of the frame. The next day at the range he offered me the chance to handle his personal six guns; he let me try the actions too. They were, of course, slick as glass. I made mental notes on how the grips felt and after returning home from the match I broke out the wood rasp and sand paper and modified the factory grips on my Vaqueros to match. In case you are interested, Eagle Grips markets ‘Gunfighter Grips’ for single action revolvers that were designed by Joe Bowman. Many SASS competitors consider them mandatory equipment.

We crossed paths several times in the years after that and always the gentleman, he asked every time about my family and how my shooting was progressing. Once, another friend recruited me for a one time ‘performance’ at a western themed corporate party. Being an experienced shooter, I was assigned to work the shooting gallery. The ‘gallery’ was a free-standing tent with Dixie cups hanging on strings from the ceiling along the back. In front there were a couple of tables with Red Ryder BB guns that had been modified to shoot corks. My job was to assist the guests operating the guns, periodically gather up the corks, tease the guys and cheer the ladies, and so on.

About the time dinner was called and the guests left, Mr. Bowman came around. I hadn’t realized he was there until then and we greeted each other and chatted for a bit. At one point he asked me how the guests were at shooting. I told him that most had probably never handled a BB gun before let alone a real gun but it was a good opportunity to teach, and that I was enjoying that part. Being a teacher himself, I think he appreciated that. Then I almost took it too far. I got a little cocky and knowing that I was speaking to a master of instinctive shooting I said, “But none of them are doing it right way.” I then snatched a loaded cork gun off the table, levered the action and shooting from the hip, launched a cork at a cup in the back of the tent… and (thankfully) hit it! In my mind, I panicked a bit, thinking I might have over stepped by showing off in front of the master but he just smiled, placed a hand on my shoulder and said, “Yep. That’s the way to do it.”

Beyond being a showman, he was a hero. He was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II. He was a patriot and loved his country dearly. He was a man of sincere Faith, and even though he was a performer he was a man of humility. You could tell at his shows that he was there for you (not the other way around). He was exceedingly generous, giving both his time and gifts to friends and those in need. It is reported that he never turned down a charity benefit. He was also 32nd degree Mason. He was an instructor for the Houston Police and the FBI. He performed worldwide, at times for royalty and other times for our service men, traveling as far as Kuwait to do so. There are many, many more accomplishments, stories and accolades that will be told for years in fond remembrance by those fortunate enough to have crossed trails with Mr. Joseph Lee Bowman. I count myself blessed to be one such person. Those who knew him were better for it.  Rest in peace, Sir.

Joe Bowman on horseback

Joe Bowman on horseback


Joe Bowman’s Website

Must See Video featuring Joe Bowman

Jim Shepherd of The Shooting Wire has a fine feature piece on his friendship with Joe Bowman.  It was posted on July 1st, 2009 but is not yet in the archives.  I will update this post when it becomes available


Houston Chronicle Obituary

Washington Post Obituary

New York Times (made the front page)

3 Responses

  1. I’m sorry to hear that. I think Joe Bowman is my hero and my legend.

  2. I have a pair of Ruger New Vaquero Montados with Joe Bowman grips. I also have a Bowman Roper saddle made by Alamo Saddlery. I never met him but I feel the loss of a friend to the cowboy world with such notables such as Roy Rogers and Montie Montana preceding him in the eternal Happy Trails.

  3. I am so glad to find your article. I was browsing online for a handgun and got to thinking about Joe and decided to Google him to see if he was still around.
    He was the greatest guy you would ever know.
    I was lucky enough to not only learn his technique but spend some “back yard” shooting time with him. I had to go pick up a new Red Ryder to mutilate but I taught my kids on the same gun.
    He made a set of stag grips for a friend of mine and helped him customize his Ruger.
    You mentioned him being one of the most decorated men of WWII. He was the second most actually, behind Audy Murphy. When asked why he didn’t advertise that, he told me that “Nobody pays to see second best.”
    I remember his little girl helping at some of his shows. Holding targets for him and never batting an eye. Just couldn’t wait until he was done shooting at her or swinging his whip, so she could break away to visit the mall. I often wondered as I raised my little girl, how the dating thing played out around he dad.
    I almost wish that I hadn’t found out about his passing. Even though we had lost touch many years ago, I always felt that I had a hero out there someplace.

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