So You Wanna Be A Cowboy
Welcome to the wide, wide world of Cowboy Action Shooting, the fastest growing shooting sport in the world. Founded in the early 1980s by a group of competitive shooters in California who were tired of the escalating equipment race in the “walk’n & run’n & shoot’n” types of competition and who thought it might be fun to start something up using the guns our fore-fathers (and mothers) used during the heyday of the Old West, the idea has caught on so well that the organization created by its founders, the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), has grown to the point where membership is now numbered in excess of 60,000 worldwide.
At local club matches usually held once a month, larger regional matches held annually, and the great world championship event, End Of Trail, held each year at Founder's Ranch, Edgewood New Mexico, just 20 miles east of Albuquerque, shooters bring the old style guns back with a blast while wearing appropriate clothing styles and shooting their way through an endless variety of staged scenarios inspired by movies, TV, legends, historical fact, and the limitless imaginations of the people who write the stages.
Each stage represents a story, an incident or a problem to be “solved” or shot through, and most are four-gun scenarios requiring a shotgun, two handguns, and a rifle. The guns used and the basic rules of the game are determined by SASS, and at the local level most clubs follow most of the SASS guidelines while allowing some leeway in the guns themselves and how they’re used. All SASS-sanctioned regional matches put on by SASS-affiliated clubs are required to follow the SASS guidelines to the letter, and the same goes for End Of Trail, which is organized and produced by SASS itself.
You may have seen something on TV, or you may know somebody who’s a cowboy action shooter, and maybe it sounds interesting but you don’t know that much about it. Getting into the game will cost you some money, but don’t let that scare you off. Here’s what you’ll need:
Alias: This is the easy part. SASS requires each member to come up with an alias, a name that you’ll enter matches under and be known by among the cowboy crowd. In many cases people shoot with each other for months (or years!) without even knowing their real names, the alias is what defines you and the “character” or persona you decide you want to be when you play the game. Many of the best known cowboy names are based on famous real or fictional characters, such as Matt Dillon, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Billy The Kid, and so on, and are already taken (you register your official alias with SASS if you join and from then on it’s your alias), but there are some very imaginative aliases out there like Bat Blasterson, Dirty Dancing With Wolves, Kid Shane, Will Shootem, and Sixgun Shorty, to name a few. Generally, the alias reflects either a type of character the shooter wants to use as his or her alter-ego, and many people dress to match their alias.
Clothing: The game was originally based on the cowboy stars of the silver screen, but many participants like to carry it farther and dress more authentically to the real West of the late 1800s. Hollywood’s images of the way people dressed back then are what many of us grew up with, but they’re not the most accurate images. Recognizing that there’s a wide variety of people who play the game, SASS allows both styles- Silver Screen, and Period Correct. The Silver Screen fans tend to show up with fancy Hollywood-style low-ride drop-loop Buscadero gunbelts with engraved pistols, highly tooled multi-colored boots, and 1940s western-patterned outfits, while the Period Correct crowd will step up to the line in more authentic high-ride Cheyenne-style Mexican loop rigs, plain square-toed “stovepipe” boots, and reproductions of the actual clothing styles worn over a hundred years ago.
There’s such a wide variety of personal tastes that many people mix and match some of each style, and some spend a lot of time and a lot of money in dressing right down to the smallest detail, such as carrying a pocket watch made in 1883 in the vest and actual coins from the 1890s in the pants pockets. You can spend as much as you’d like on your getup, but you can also shoot in a modern straw cowboy hat, Levi’s or Wranglers, a long-sleeved denim shirt from Sears or Walmart, and modern cowboy boots or leather lace-up logger boots. SASS sets a minimum dress code to keep the Western flavor alive, and no ballcaps or sneaker-type shoes are allowed. Don’t let the dress code throw you though, local clubs will usually give you some leeway when you’re just starting out and understand that sometimes it takes a while to get everything together. For your first three or four matches, you can slide through without the whole getup, but by your fourth shoot you really ought to not still be showing up in fluorescent Reeboks and spandex shorts.
Guns: Here’s where the money starts to add up, but again, don’t be discouraged. SASS sets the boundaries on calibers and styles, but there’s a wide range of authorized equipment to choose from. Guns must be of the types used from about 1850-1900, and that includes originals and replicas, and you’ll need two. Basically, for main match stages, this means Colt Peacemakers, Smith & Wesson single-action revolvers from the period, Remington single-actions, and the more modern Ruger single-actions (which are definitely not replicas of anything but were “grandfathered in” long ago). There’s a booming market in imported and domestic reproductions of these guns for those who like either the looks or the history but don’t have the budget to buy the originals, and the same goes for the percussion cap’n ball crowd. Calibers must be .32 or above, and velocities are kept low for two reasons- light loads are easier on the shooter and they’re easier on the steel targets used. No magnum loads here, the targets are up close to be easier to hit (although there’s no target too close to miss!) and the loads are light to encourage more people to shoot.
Lever-action or pump-action rifles of the correct era that chamber pistol cartridges (.32-20, .38 Special, .44-40, .45 Colt, etc.) are used for targets placed a little farther out, and again here velocities are kept low for the same reasons. Lead bullets only, to reduce target damage and bullet particle splashback, just like the pistols. These usually run from 1866, 1873, and 1892 model Winchesters through several Marlin models, with the occasional Colt Lightning pump rifle, and again include originals alongside replicas in the case of the older guns.
Shotguns are usually double-barreled types in a wide variety of styles (you can use a single-barreled shotgun, but it’ll take twice as long to finish shooting a stage), and the Winchester Model 1897 pumpgun, with an older Marlin scattergun showing up here and there, and in rare cases a Winchester Model 1887 lever-action shotgun. The double-barreled shotguns must be in a gauge that’s 16 or above, no .410s allowed, and they run the gamut from originals through modern versions both with external hammers and without. The Winchester ’97 is a very popular shotgun for cowboy use, but to avoid giving ’97 shooters an unfair advantage with its six-shot magazine shooters are restricted to loading no more than two shells at a time. Most cowboy shotgunners use light target loads that don’t tear up the shoulder too much.
Leather: This is another area where you can wear a basic rig, or spend a month’s pay if you like lots of hand tooling and silver trim. You’ll need a sturdy belt (with or without cartridge loops), and two holsters. There are two approved methods of carrying your holsters, the old standard one-on-each-side like Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger, or one strongside holster and one crossdraw holster. With a standard double rig, you can stand square to the target and draw with either hand to shoot (most shooters use the two-handed Modern style, but there are specific categories for those who like to shoot either one-handed Duelist style like our Western heroes did on the screen or those who like to shoot with a gun in each hand Gunfighter style), with the crossdraw holster you’ll be drawing and firing one-handed, one pistol at a time and the crossdraw requires a little swivel of the hips during the draw to avoid pointing the gun at somebody standing behind you while you draw it. Both types have their proponents, and it’s a matter of individual preference. There are several leather companies that make very simple entry level rigs and several custom makers that can build you something that’ll blind everybody within 30 feet on a bright day.
All of this comes together at a stage under the direction of the Posse Marshall or Range Officer. You’ll start out at the Loading Table (you can wear your pistols around when you’re not on the line, but the only time any gun is loaded is when you’re actually shooting or getting ready to shoot). Somebody will be assigned to stand there, under his or her watchful eye you’ll load five rounds in each of your pistols (leaving an empty chamber under the hammer for safety sake) and holster them. You’ll load ten rounds in your rifle, leaving it with an empty chamber and the hammer down. When the person running the electronic timer yells “Next shooter!”, you’ll take your loaded rifle and your unloaded shotgun to the starting point for the stage, and you’ll lay or lean your rifle and shotgun down at the spots designated by whoever wrote that stage. The timer will ask if you understand the course of fire that was read to everybody before that stage was declared active, and when you say “yes” he or she will hit the Go button. When the electronic timer buzzes, you’ll start with whatever gun the stage requires, usually loading the shotgun when you come to it, and work your way through the scenario (saving the stagecoach from marauders, defending the fort, rescuing the local schoolmarm) with all four guns until you’ve finished shooting however many rounds the stage requires. When you’re empty, you (and a helper, depending on the situation) will carry your guns to the Unloading Table where you’ll clear them and demonstrate to the person assigned there that each one of your guns is actually unloaded and safe. From there, you put your long guns down somewhere and get back to encouraging the next shooter up with helpful advice like “If you’d quit closing your eyes and sticking out your tongue when you pull the trigger, you might actually hit something!”
You’ll be scored against every other shooter by calculating the total time you took to shoot each stage and deducting any penalties (which are assessed in terms of adding five and ten-second increments to your stage times for target misses and safety or procedural violations). Shooters with faster overall times are ranked higher, and he or she with the fastest time is declared the match winner.
This just covers a very broad overview here, there are also optional long range rifle and short range derringer and pocket pistol side matches to add more variety. If you’re interested in pursuing the matter further the best way to do it is to look up a local club in your area and visit when they’re having a cowboy shoot. You’ll find a very friendly bunch of people who’ll be happy to see you, happy to answer any questions you might have, and happy to help you get started. Don’t worry about trying to show up with your full gear & garb on the first visit, just go take a look and see how things work. Also, don’t be in a hurry to buy your first guns. You may already know what types you like to shoot, and you may already have one or more that would fit right in, but it never hurts to see what others are shooting, what works for them, and what’s available that you might not know about yet. Cowboy action shooters are uncommonly willing to let new shooters try out their gear, so don’t be surprised if you get a couple offers to loan you something to help out if you’re running short. It is a competition, but it’s a very low key competition at most local clubs, and your fiercest rival will probably be the first to loan you a gun if one of your own breaks down in the middle of the action.
There are a number of ways you can get started, there’s no rule that says you can’t start out with the minimum approved attire and borrowed equipment, and there’s no rule that says you have to show up with brand new gear, either. Bargains can be found in all areas with a little ingenuity and patient checking around.
For more information, you can call SASS headquarters at www.sassnet.com . SASS provides the idea, the framework, the guidelines, and the worldwide membership that allows you to shoot at SASS-sanctioned regional events and End Of Trail, but you don’t have to join SASS to shoot at local clubs or be a part of Cowboy Action Shooting in your area.
Now, what are you waiting for?