A Gang That Won't Shoot Straight Draws a Bead on Tourists and Puts the Wild Back in the West

updated 07/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The chartered bus speeds through the Arizona twilight, its load of conventioneers bound for dinner at a distant road-house. Suddenly up ahead a band of horsemen thunders into view, handguns drawn and bandannas covering their faces. As pistol shots fill the air, the ambushed coach pulls to a stop and three desperadoes board, forcing the driver outside and roughly pushing would-be resisters back into their seats. "We're taking the women," barks one of the gunmen. Recalls passenger Diane Elder, 26, "I was never so scared in all my life."

Happily, Elder's fright proved shortlived. Like thousands of other visitors to Arizona, she was merely a victim of Guns for Hire, a Phoenix-based troupe of actors, stuntmen and fall guys dedicated to giving tourists a taste of the Old West. "When you go to Hawaii, you want to see hula girls. When you go to Arizona, you want to see some real bad guys," explains Lee "Weasel" Wilson, 40, a Phoenix gun shop owner and the partner of Guns for Hire founder Frank James Outcalt, 41.

The pair's rent-an-outlaw business began 20 years ago when Outcalt, a Scottsdale barber and judo enthusiast, was approached by a resort owner hoping to liven up a cookout for some visiting tenderfeet. Asked if he and some buddies could stage a fake cowboy fistfight in exchange for a steak dinner, Outcalt obliged. Two weeks later the resort owner called him again, and this time the burly 5'10", 225-pound barber demanded $50 as well as a steak dinner for his pains.

These days Outcalt and Wilson keep up to 100 hired hands on call, performing at conventions, dinner parties and even bar mitzvahs. Fees range from $175 for a simple three-man gunfight to $15,000 for a Hollywood-style extravaganza complete with settlers, Indians and cavalry riders in full costume. Although Outcalt will stage more than 500 shows this year, he doesn't mind all the organizing and planning: "Can you think of anything more fun than playing cowboys and Indians?" he says.

Not everyone has shared the pair's notions of a good time, however. Once the Phoenix police, alarmed by the sounds of shooting (the troupe uses blanks only), descended on a performance with a helicopter and a dozen officers. Ironically, that time Guns for Hire was appearing at a law enforcement convention. On another occasion, an inebriated onlooker tried to join the action with a loaded pistol and ended up shooting himself in the foot. Outcalt administered first aid, then summoned the legit lawmen.

Apart from such occasional misfires, the greatest hazard to Guns for Hire's hired hands is the group's rough-and-tumble style. Although their performances are carefully scripted and rehearsed, "the stunt fighting we do is live. It's not like on TV or in the movies, where the camera angles make things look real," notes Outcalt. "You gotta kick a guy in the face, and sometimes you miss. Or I should say, you don't miss. So you can get hurt." Even so, Guns for Hire will field some 300 job applications this year, figures Outcalt, who expects to take on eight or 10 new bad guys.

Like the firm's head honchos, most Guns for Hire employees bolster their $20-to-$200 fees (plus extra for stunts) with regular 9-to-5 jobs elsewhere. "We have to do something besides this so we can tell our friends and families we work for a living," jokes Wilson, who became Outcalt's partner six years ago and whose downtown gun shop serves as Guns for Hire headquarters.

A Michigan native who moved to Arizona in 1960, Outcalt puts in 40 hours a week at his barbershop, as well as the 50 hours he spends gunning down varmints for visiting tourists. He shares a large Spanish ranch house in Scottsdale with Mary Lou, his wife of 24 years, and concedes that his share of the $250,000 taken in by Guns for Hire annually has left him "very comfortable." But not to worry. As long as folks keep paying to see his badman revues, says Outcalt, it'll be a spell yet before he and his compadres ride off into the sunset.

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