Charnes is a longtime re-enactor, bringing to life moments of Old West life that were punctuated with gunfire. He and his wife Dale, who shares his passion for violent times gone by, are among the co-founders of the Arizona Gunfighters, a group that has replica guns and will travel.
Charnes has been Doc Holliday and Virgil Earp and Wild Bill Hickock, and can portray any of 22 characters featured in the group’s three most popular Old West shows.
The 80-year-old retired deputy sheriff prides himself on how he and Dale have devoted themselves to the meticulous research of the frontier’s most memorable shootouts.
The long gray coat that hid Doc Holliday’s shotgun in the Gunfight at the OK Corral? He bought it the night before for $8, Charnes said.
And don’t get him started on how the gunfight was near, not at, the OK Corral, a historical error that doesn’t bother him nearly as much now as it did years ago.
Teaching and entertaining
Not long after he started shooting men just to watch them die (as long as the script called for it), he became interested in the history of gunfights, wanting to know the hows and whys.
Accuracy was important. Charnes wanted to teach as well as entertain.
That’s why, each time he pulls on black trousers and slides on his black coat, his next step is into the late 1800s, dressed to kill (or be killed).
“It’s a different mindset,” Charnes said. “You become that person, you’re in that time. There’s no audience, just people who happened to come by and want to see what happens.”
As Charnes and his fellow gunfighters give voice to the long dead, saying what was believed to have been said long ago, the play is not the thing.
It’s about reviving the Old West, if only for a few minutes.
100 years of the Gunfight at the OK Corral
It was Oct. 25, ’81. Night had fallen in Tombstone, where the next day the most legendary gunfight in the history of the American West would unfold.
The two factions had settled into their respective drinking spots along dusty Allen Street. Each knew the other was there and that trouble was brewing.
“The tension was so thick, you could cut it with a knife,” Charnes said.
He spoke not as a historian but as an eyewitness. This was Oct. 25, 1981, where re-enactors had gathered for the 100th anniversary of the OK Corral showdown.
Though Charnes was not there to shoot it out (deferring to others to play the precious parts, a regret he harbors like the time he played Doc Holliday in hiking boots), he wasn’t going to miss it, not by a long shot.
Everything was to play out in real time, culminating at about 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 26 when the lawmen (the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday) confronted the Cowboy gang (the Clantons, McLaurys and Billy Claiborne).
Charnes marveled at those who took the craft as seriously as he did, especially the morning of the gunfight.
“If a Cowboy and an Earp saw each other coming toward one another, one of them would cross the street,” Charnes said. “There was so much tension that if everyone used real bullets, there would have been a bunch of dead folks.”
But when it was over, all that separated the dead from the living was the dust on the clothes of the fallen.
It didn’t matter that the same gunfight played out at Tombstone’s OK Corral four times daily. This one, Charnes said, was special.
“We want to take people back to that place,” he said. “We want people to enjoy it, but we also want them to learn something.”
Forming the gunfighter group
Though Charnes didn’t know it at the time, historical accuracy was among his early victims when he first started gunning down friends and colleagues.
In the early 1950s, he was making good money driving sand and gravel trucks, until a strike temporarily put him out of a job.
He wound up tending stock at the Corriganville Movie Ranch in Simi Valley, California, hired at the same time one of the stuntmen from the Wild West show had broken his arm. Owners tabbed the lanky Charnes to fill in, leading to dozens of appearances in movie and TV westerns.
“Some of the worst ever made,” he said, happy to let that part of his life rest in peace.
The interlude sparked an interest in gunfighting and its role in the Old West. In the 1960s, after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, Charnes joined a couple of gunfighting groups, meeting re-enactors who prized accuracy as much as he did.
In 1991, he retired after 24 years with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and a year later moved to Arizona, in part following the siren call of Tombstone.
Loaded down with late 1800s weapons and clothing (replicas, of course), the Charneses sought groups of like-minded individuals. Finding none, the two joined with friend Corky Corkran to start the Arizona Gunfighters.
They recruited other enthusiasts, despite the utter failure of a classified ad that started, “Gunfighters wanted.”
“We got some real strange calls,” Dale Charnes recalled. “Lesson learned.”
The ‘Big Three’ shootouts
The husband-and-wife gunfighting team launched themselves into research, visiting libraries and museums to pore over historical accounts from newspapers and court documents. The two worked together on narration and dialogue, adhering to what they found in the records.
The group now performs what Charnes calls the Big Three — the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Wild Bill Hickock in 1871 Abilene (in which Hickock accidentally, and fatally, shot a deputy), and Doc Holliday in 1879 Las Vegas, New Mexico (Holliday’s first confirmed kill).
The Gunfighters, now with 55 members, occasionally put on a show written by Dale about a drunken father who sells his daughter into prostitution. It ends badly for the woman’s first customer as well as her father, a shout-out to the #MeToo movement long before it began.
Most shows go as scripted. Tensions rise. Disagreements lead to angry confrontations.
Then the murders begin.
It’s a successful recipe, combining historical accuracy with gunfire to achieve educational entertainment.
Things sometimes go wrong
Occasionally mistakes are front and center in the meticulously staged shows. Charnes remembers the gunfighter who forgot who he was portraying, briefly unsure if he was supposed to live or die. (He lived.)
And there was Super Bowl XXX in January 1996, when the Gunfighters were invited to perform during pregame festivities.
At rehearsal a few hours before the performance, a mistimed and errant shot set the gunman’s trousers on fire.
After treatment at a nearby hospital, Charnes said, the gunfighter returned in time for the show, upset that doctors cut off his performance pants.
These instances pale in comparison to the time in 2015 when a re-enactor in Tombstone fired a gun mistakenly loaded with real bullets, injuring a fellow actor and a bystander and leading to stringent rules for handling guns and blanks.
Though it was not a member of Charnes’ group who fired the shot heard ’round the re-enacting world, he still shakes his head in shame when it’s brought up.
“Should never have happened,” he said. “And never will with me.”
Staging a believable re-enactment
The secret to a successful gunfight, Charnes said, is aiming down and to the left or right, depending on the audience’s view.
“You never aim right at someone,” he said. “That’s how you get hurt.”
Even blanks can be dangerous, as guns fire burning powder and packing material. By aiming low and slightly off center, no one’s hurt and it still looks to the crowd that you’re firing right at the good/bad guy.
Here are more keys to successful re-enactments.
• Authentic-looking clothes. Dale Charnes has made dozens of 1880s-period dresses, blouses and shirts, often building off clothing she found in thrift and vintage stores.
• Inauthentic clothing. On rare occasions, performers dress to meet audience expectations. Saloon girls didn’t really wear lace and frilly layers in bold colors, but they do in shows because the reality would disappoint.
• Gun safety. Charnes preps each and every blank to be fired. Each shell casing gets 30 grains of gunpowder and a tiny circle of florist’s foam to pack it tight. Styrofoam is commonly used, but Charnes prefers the way florist’s foam disintegrates completely and efficiently.
• Rehearsals. There is typically one detailed run-through before each show. Some performances run nearly 30 minutes, though Charnes has shorter versions when occasions call for them. The OK Corral shows run six or 23 minutes.
• Relying on research. Bob and Dale Charnes no longer devote the time they once did to studying the gunfights they re-enact, but their shows continue to adhere to the facts they’ve studied.
• Physics of bullet impact. “If someone shoots with a .45, you’re not going to fall forward,” Charnes said. “It’s going to knock you back.” Unrealistic deaths mar a show, taking audiences out of the moment.
• Knowing when to dial back. While Charnes is less apt to pick up a six-shooter these days, he still performs, and occasionally dies, even if it takes a bit longer to get back up. “I will do this as long as I can,” he said. “And I still can.”