When he was a child, Joseph James's father took him to see Gorgeous George wrestle. The young James was impressed and intrigued by the flamboyant performer. As a young man, James served in the Marine Corps of the United States armed forces and was stationed in Korea. During his recruit training in Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island on Parris Island, South Carolina, James was named Honor Man. After leaving the military, he began working for the Marietta Fire Department as a firefighter in 1962.
He debuted as a wrestler in the same year, adopting the ring name "Bob Armstrong". By 1966, Armstrong had become a popular face in the Savannah, Georgia area, and in 1969 he ceased working as a firefighter and began focusing on his wrestling career.
Armstrong achieved considerable popularity in the Southeastern United States, particularly in Alabama and his home state of Georgia. He frequently wrestled for affiliates of the National Wrestling Alliance, and on October 9, 1974 in Miami Beach, Florida, Armstrong unsuccessfully challenged Jack Brisco for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.
While bench pressing a dumbbell weighing upwards of 180 lb (82 kg) in a gym in Huntington, Georgia, the bench that Armstrong was lying upon broke, leading to the weight falling on his face. Armstrong's face was severely damaged and his nose was torn entirely off, and he required $38,000 USD worth of plastic surgery to repair it. While undergoing surgery, Armstrong donned a wrestling mask to conceal his disfigured features and began using the ring name "The Bullet". As "The Bullet", Armstrong feuded with the Stud Stable in Continental Championship Wrestling. He eventually discarded the mask after his surgeries were complete, but retained the nickname "Bullet" for the remainder of his career.