When it comes to snapping targets with a bullwhip, Alvin Davis is a dead-eye. Every year since 2005, the Zephyrhills man has cracked first place in at least one of the three whip contests staged by Western showman Gordie Peer, who taught whip tricks to B movie cowboy hero Lash LaRue.
Peer holds the Ropers' Gathering at his Okeechobee ranch every February. A number of cowboy dreamers pay the admission fee just to soak up the atmosphere. Others go for the contests, which include knife throwing, rope spinning and draw-and-shoot target bouts.
In early February, Davis beat more than half a dozen other contestants by slicing Styrofoam targets to short stubs without knocking down the delicately balanced tubes that held them in place.
He won a certificate and the honor of prevailing over a field that included some regular performers like Winter Springs whip-cracking evangelist John Bailey, who travels the church circuit demonstrating his lash, knife and tomahawk prowess.
Peer, who specialized in rope and whip tricks and gun-spinning in a career that began in the 1940s, did live shows in later years with Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger. He taught Moore how to spin his guns.
At his Ropers' Gathering, Peer decided to narrow two of his whip contests to target snapping — rather than including tricks like rhythmic popping — to attract a range of contestants. He says Davis, who didn't think he stood a chance when he first started competing, just gets better every year.
"One of the guys this year, he thought he was going to walk away with it,'' Peer says. "Alvin doesn't have near as much experience, but he came in over him.''
The 68-year-old Davis, who grew up on a farm in Hillsborough County, honed his whip skills as a boy. In those days, a bullwhip was a tool. He used it to herd cows, a tradition among Florida cattle drivers who came to be called "Cracker cowboys.''
"Nowadays, they'd lock you up if they caught you hitting a cow with a whip,'' Davis says. "Buddy, back in my day and everything, if the cow wasn't going where you wanted it to go, you'd put this thing on it in the right place and it would go where you wanted it to go, I guarantee you.''
He practiced his hand-eye coordination on everyday targets. "When I'd be out riding a horse and bringing cattle up and be out by a tree, one little oak leaf sticking out past all the rest of them, I'd try to pop that leaf off.'' Or he'd snap at a dragonfly on a log. "After a while, you get to where you can do it pretty good.''
Raised by his grandparents, Davis quit school at 15 and spent 30 years as a fabricator for now-defunct Aetna Steel Fabrication of Tampa. He still does freelance fabricating, making things like handrails and stairs.
A hobby he started after his first Ropers' Gathering has turned into a side business. He makes bullwhips, having learned different platting styles from studying a book he got from the library. He often braids whips to relax while he's watching television.
He gives most of them away to friends, though three wholesale outlets buy his Diamond D brand whips at $14 per foot.
His grandfather long ago taught him how to make the popper, the thin knotted strip on the end that strikes the target. When put in action, it travels down the whip faster than the speed of sound, the experts say. The cracking noise is a tiny sonic boom.
Before Davis went to his first Ropers' Gathering, he says, he hadn't picked up a whip in 20 years.
As a young man, he would put on shows for friends. Frances, his wife of 48 years, would hold a match in her fingers, and Alvin would light it with a whip.
"He said hold it and I did,'' relates Frances, 65. "I was young and foolish back then.''