Elden Carl

A trend-setting “Original Combat Master”

Elden Carl in his salad days, demonstrating his Isosceles
stance with “stacked thumbs” grip.

Elden Carl was one of the handful of original Combat Masters to whom the legendary Col. Jeff Cooper dedicated his classic book Cooper on Handguns. Cooper called Carl “the best overall pistol shot I ever knew.” He and Thell Reed are the only “original masters” still with us. Mutual friend Jay Hohenhaus was kind enough to put the two of us together and give me a chance to pick the brain of a man I had grown up reading about in gun magazines and books.

Completing his service in the Navy in the 1950s, Elden Carl became a lawman, first with the El Cajon, California Police Department then serving most of his career with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, retiring in 1980 after being injured in a motor vehicle accident. As partial as he was to the 1911, the guns he carried on duty were Smith & Wesson revolvers: the Model 19 .357 Combat Magnum with 4″ barrel or the Model 29 .44 Magnum with 6.5″ tube, the latter loaded with 240-grain lead Keith bullets at 950 feet per second in .44 Special cases.

Elden Carl was on the cover of the November 1977 GUNS with a Detonics .45.

The Champion

Elden Carl won Cooper’s Leatherslap contests, the precursor to IPSC (the International Practical Shooting Confederation) and USPSA (United States Practical Shooting Association) today. In one match at 100 yards, he tied with fellow Combat Master Jack Weaver (as in “Weaver Stance”), and they had to shoot off. Elden won with five shots from his Model 29 landing in a 3″ group from 100 yards. Cooper called it an unofficial world record — to Elden’s knowledge, this record still stands.

Elden Carl’s time in competitive shooting lasted for only a few years. The sheriff under whom he served — a pro-gun boss who carried a .44 Special S&W himself — had Elden doing firearms safety seminars and shooting demonstrations all over the county. Elden’s major hobby, motorcycles, took over his leisure time. He would log more than a million miles on motorcycles and become famous for customizing the bikes.

On the job, Elden’s skill with a handgun was such he never needed to fire a shot in the line of duty. Each time danger threatened, he had his gun on the other person so fast they decided to surrender rather than die. In one of those cases, Elden had to reinforce the suspect’s learning experience by applying his Smith & Wesson .44 upside the individual’s head, Wyatt Earp-style.

Elden Carl stands between two other great champions of their time — Bill McMillan and Ray Chapman.

Today, 86-year-old Elden is best known for his custom motorcycles like this DR650.

The Innovator

Carl appears to be the first to win a major practical shooting match firing from the Isosceles stance, two-handed with both arms extended as opposed to the bent elbows/push-pull stance of his contemporary, Jack Weaver. He remembers today, “I deliberately built up triceps and lats, lifted weights all my life. I could curl my body weight, 195 lbs., and could bench over 300. When I locked my elbows out my triceps and back would lock in together. I didn’t need to bend my elbows. I was the first one to enter a match against Jack Weaver shooting two-handed like him, Jeff Cooper’s Advanced Military match in June 1961. Jeff himself was still shooting one-handed then. Ray Chapman came in within a year of me, probably 1962.”

The straight thumbs grasp of the pistol is currently the choice of most of our practical pistol champions today. Few realize the first man to use this in major matches was Carl. He started his .45 time with a $15 surplus 1911A1 bought through the DCM. Discovering the hard way the support hand thumb would be lacerated upon recoil if behind the slide, he found by trial and error both thumbs straight on the same side of the pistol worked best for him. “I called it ‘stacked thumbs,’” he told me.

Bumper pads on the floorplates of magazines appear to be another Elden Carl innovation dating back to the very early 1960s. He had lent his .45 to Jeff Cooper at a match, and Cooper had a reload where the flat-bottom GI mag failed to seat; the pistol gave him one more shot and then dropped the magazine to the ground. Elden told me, “I soldered some metal onto the bottom. I gave one to Jeff and still have a couple of those early ones.” Today, of course, the bumper pad on the bottom of a 1911 mag is all but standard equipment.

The muzzle-forward holster cant may be another Elden Carl innovation. “I had Don Hume make me a custom duty rig, with the muzzle canted forward 12 to 15 degrees. It let me start the draw with my wrist already locked. I was the first to win the Leatherslap with a 1911 in 1961 out of a metal-lined holster with that cant, made for me by Alfonso Pineda,” Elden said.

Now 86 years old, Elden Carl still builds and rides custom motorcycles — and still keeps a cocked and locked 1911 .45 handy. He has shared some of his history in the art of the practical pistol with Jay Hohenhaus and editor Pat Rose, who graciously provided the photos you see here. You can read more about those foundational days at his website, EldenCarl.com. Some of us are encouraging him to write a book. I sure hope he does.

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