In this age of enlightenment—global warming deniers and Jersey Shore cast members aside—we tend to agree that women can do anything men can do. However, in most parts of the good ol’ US of A, that means wear a button-down shirt or pay for dinner. In Texas we like that too. But try this lady on for size: Paula Saletnik, a.k.a. Pistol Packin’ Paula, the only female gun twirling champion in the world. At Enchanted Springs Ranch out in Boerne, Paula dazzles toddlers and tourists alike with her bull whips, her ranch-savvy sass and—of course—her spinning pistols. We sat down with Paula to find out exactly how a mild-mannered girl from Massachusetts became a modern-day Annie Oakley and a world champion.
Who were you before you were Pistol Packin’ Paula?
I was born in Greenfeld, Massachusetts. My parents were divorced when I was two. It wasn’t a very good marriage from the beginning. When my mom got divorced the second time, we had to leave the house that we were living in, because the gentleman got the house, so we had to move. And, of course, she had to work three jobs. I never saw her much. It was hard, but I still went to school. Soccer and softball kept me going. Sports made me feel important; I was good at sports, but I had to keep my grades up so I could play. I had to work hard at my grades; I wasn’t one of those ones that’s just [snaps] smart. After high school, I knew I didn’t have the money for college. I went straight to whatever job I could find, which was at an insurance company. I left after about a year because I couldn’t take that job anymore. I was bored. I’ve done so many different jobs—milking cows, checking eggs before they go in the carton. I managed a dog kennel for a year. I worked for a bank for a little bit, and then I was a mail sorter. I tried starting my own business designing plants in people’s homes and offices. I have a bit of a green thumb.
But they don’t call you Petunia Paula or, heck, Pesticide Paula. How did you get into this neck of the woods?
My brother was going through stunt school, and I started doing community theater—I don’t know why, but I did. My brother went to stunt school at this town that was built in Sterling, Connecticut, called Cattle Town. My brother helped this guy build the town, and they tried to do movies, commercials, trailers, and whatever they could to make money. On the weekends, they’d open up and do shows for the public, and that’s how I got introduced. I played a grandma character. As time went on, I wanted to do stunt school. My brother was owed a lot of favors from the owner for helping to build the town, so I went through stunt school for free.
I learned how to fall off buildings, do 25-foot falls, 30-foot falls. You had to get over your fear of heights. After a while, it was fine. You learn how to roll off of buildings, off a rooftop, anywhere. Stage fighting—you know, the punches. It’s just fun, beating up people and not hurting anybody and getting paid for it. Horse stunts—falling off a horse, if you get shot falling off a horse, or being dragged back by a horse. Car stunts—precision driving or you’re hanging on top of the car while someone else is driving around in circles. Motorcycle stuff, blood packs.
After stunt school, I went to Rawhide Wild West Town, in Arizona, and I worked there for twelve years. I portrayed Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley, doing stunt shows, beating up the guys, shooting the guys. I got beat up, I got shot, I got killed—I did a little bit of everything when I was there. It was fun, and that’s where Pistol Packin’ Paula was born. At Raw Hide, they said, “Hey, if you can design a show, we’ll use it.” That was in 1991. I was trying to think of what I could name myself, and Pistol Packin’ Paula just rolled off my tongue.
Your specialty, gun twirling, is considered a man’s sport. What made you want to take that up?
When I was in high school, I was working for a place called Bart’s, a hot dog stand that also had hamburgers, homemade shakes, fried onion rings, and fried clams. I was a cook. They didn’t like women in the grill area, but they liked me. Also, in the sixth grade, I was the first girl to be on the boy’s basketball team.
I started twirling in stunt school. I saw the guys doing it, and I said, “Hey, I want to do it.” They said, “Nah, your hands are too small.” You get the male egos and them thinking they can do better than you. When I did it in stunt school, I was only trying to prove a point. I’m the type of person who, if someone gives me a challenge, I’m going to do it. What I’m doing, strength-wise, you have to be really strong. I taught my body. I spent hours and hours practicing, getting blisters on my hands. Why? I don’t know. I was doing it for fun, to prove a point. The guns are heavy, and I dropped them. I’d be over a mattress in the basement, and they’d fall straight down. So when I started working at Rawhide, I could only do so much. I couldn’t twirl the gun into my holster. I was still practicing twirling in and twirling out, just spinning it in my hand.
Does that male ego still bother you now?
I just blow it off. I enjoy what I do. I don’t try to be better than anyone else, and if someone is better than me, I congratulate them. Everybody has their own knack of doing things. In this business, there’s not many people who do what I do. Actually, there aren’t any women that I know of who twirl real guns for a living.
That must feel pretty good, huh?
I know I have something that there isn’t much of out there, so yeah, I have the opportunity. I mean, there are guys out there who twirl guns for a living and do a really good job compared to what I can do, because they’re stronger—but they can’t wear a skirt.