by Doug Wicklund, NRA Museums Senior Curator - Monday, June 26, 2017
He was the “Shooting Teacher to the Stars” and Arvo Ojala starred in a firearm role himself in many films over his 85-year career in Hollywood. But perhaps his most memorable and repetitive on-screen presence was as the “badman” shot down in the streets by James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke.”
For the 635 episodes of the twenty seasons of this western TV series, the opening was always the same with Arvo being beaten in the fast draw by the lawmen and crumpling down onto the dusty surface of the street. It has been said that comic versions of the opening were also done where Arness missed and Ojala had a prop hat yanked off his head by a stunt cable for dramatic effect.
In Hollywood, appearance is everything. While working for the studios, Arvo Ojalo decided that the key to a fast draw lay with the holster rig used by the actors. Too many times the popular low-slung leather holsters of the 1950s were just too tight in holding the Colt six-shooters. Ojala decided to create a metal-lined rig that would allow for a smooth and fast extraction. As a side benefit, if a Colt misfired during drawing and the blank cartridge went off in the holster, the metal lining would mitigate the powder charge burning through the leather. In 1958, he received U.S. Patent 2832519 for his holster design. One issue with metal-lined holsters in Hollywood was that if an actor or stuntman fell on an empty holster, the metal component could bend inwards, preventing the firearm from being returned into the holster.
It was in the fast draw world that Arvo excelled, but with full-charge ammunition – not the weak powder charges behind wax projectiles that were the more general rule for competition.
One stunt he pioneered was to drop a silver dollar at belt level before drawing and hitting the coin before it made it to the level of his knee. To make this shot, Arvo Ojala had to draw, fire, and hit within 1/6 of a second.
As a teacher, Arvo Ojala was responsible for instructing firearms safety, fast draw, and general gun handling to many Hollywood figures - often within a two-week time period. Who did he teach? Here’s a partial list: James Arness, Hugh O’Brian, James Harner, Ty Hardin, Dale Robertson, Wade Preston, Kevin Kline, Michael J. Fox, Kevin Koster, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Marilyn Monroe, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Raquel Welch, Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase.
Housed in the Robert E. Petersen Gallery at the NRA’s National Firearms Museum are two handguns intimately associated with Arvo Ojala. Elaborately scroll engraved and completely gold-plated, these two Ruger New Model Blackhawk revolvers are chambered for .45 Colt cartridges, a favorite round for Ojala. For grips, carefully hand-fitted mother-of-pearl panels complement the dazzling metal. Over the years, many commemorative Colts and Rugers were created for Arvo Ojala to honor his involvement in coaching film and television stars and it is believed this set was given to Mr. Petersen for his publicizing Arvo’s skills as a Hollywood gun coach regularly in the pages of Guns & Ammo magazine.
See these magnificent pieces in person at the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, today!