14 minute read

The Shootists

“LET’S PLAY COWBOYS!” Those three words drove my childhood. As a kid growing up in Queens, NY, I lived and breathed everything Cowboy. From going to the local movie house, which we lovingly, and laughingly, called “The Dumps,” on Saturday afternoons to see the latest B-Western, to chasing each other around the local park acting as our favorite Western stars, we were as much cowboys as was possible in our circumstances and in our neck of the woods.

Then I grew up, and, sadly, that all got stuffed into the background. Jobs, military service, more jobs, a career and a family all took precedence. Fast forward through life to when I moved from Illinois to New Jersey to live with my daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter. Over those years, I’d still kept up my interest in The West and in period guns and shooting but never had the time to do anything but daydream about them. Imagine my delight when, now in retirement, I found out there is a gun range about thirty miles from home and that they host a group known as the Wiley Coyotes, a Cowboy Action shooting ensemble.

Naturally, I joined both.

But you might wonder what Cowboy Action shooting actually is. Well, it’s probably the most fun a shooter who loves the Old West can have. Take a group of like-minded guys and gals, dress them in Old West costumes, up to and including authentic outfits and period guns and leather, and put them in front of steel targets. Then explain a scenario and shooting sequence and sound a buzzer in their ears. What follows is a kid’s fancy, as well as the dream of a kid-at-heart like me.

If that interests you, come along with us to a match as we shoot our way through five different action stages, while my daughter follows us with a camera. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

The Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), the organization which supervises Cowboy Action matches world-wide, puts forth rules that govern each shoot. Failure to adhere to these edicts will result in a shooter being penalized by anywhere from loss of score points to ejection from the shoot, depending on the severity of the offense. They don’t mess around. Safety is primary, secondary, and all encompassing and is strictly enforced by trained and SASS certified Range Safety Officers.

We start arriving at Shongum Range, just west of Hackettstown, New Jersey, around eight a.m. on the designated Sunday. Shooting doesn’t start until ten a.m., but there is a fair amount of setup involved. Our personal gear, guns, and ammo need to be unloaded from our vehicles. The host range, besides providing space for the shoot, also gives us storage space for all our props, and there are quite a few of them. We have revolver targets, rifle targets, and shotgun targets, all steel, each a different shape and color. Then there are prop horses (made of wood) to hold our weapons; wagon wheels, doors to kick in, and bushes to hide behind, just like in the movies. All this has to be taken out and set up for each shoot. Afterward, they must be broken down and stored, as if we were never there.

For safety’s sake, there is a loading table, the only spot where the weapons can be loaded in preparation for each stage. No one carries a loaded weapon on this range, except for the walk between the loading table and the firing line. An RSO oversees the loading and checks to make sure each revolver hammer is resting on an empty chamber to prevent accidental discharge. This was a standard practice in the Old West, making every six-shooter a five-shot weapon that would not go off unintentionally if it was accidentally dropped.

After the stage is completed, and all live ammunition has been expended, the shooter returns to a nearby unloading table to eject empty cartridge casings from his/her revolvers. This is supervised as well by an RSO. The shooter leaves the unloading table only when cleared to do so after the RSO has assured that revolvers, lever guns, and shotguns are empty.

Once the stages are set up, we fill in the sign-up sheet with our aliases—mine is The Old Gunfighter Bob—and we pay our entry fees. We have all manner of Old West aliases, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Names like Colt Paterson, Kalmar Kid, and Cactus Red, mingle with Bad Shot, Buffalo Bad Bob, and Victoria Barkley, rounded out by Dead Eye Deb. Deb has been at this for only two years and is determined to shoot every stage in under a minute. She’s well on her way to accomplishing that goal. We talk among ourselves about nothing in particular while the sign-up progresses as if it hasn’t been at least a month since we last saw each other. There is a standard orientation, during which the boss of the outfit—this month it’s Grumpy Gramps—cautions safety and the consequences of ignoring it. Then we turn our attention to the flag flying over the range. Old Glory beckons. We snap to attention and recite the pledge. By then it’s time to start the shoot.

The events are timed by the RSO/timer using a standard shot timer. Each stage has a scenario and sequence to which the shooter must conform. It might be revolvers first in a prescribed pattern between several targets, then switch to the rifle and another pattern on those targets, and then the shotgun. Or there might be a switch-up to keep the shooter’s head in the game. The trick is remembering each sequence while keeping an eye on safety.

Now, there are two types of shooters involved in this game. There are guys like me, who are in it just to have the fun of shooting, caring naught for how fast they are, reliving Old West history, and hearkening back to our childhood. Then there is the competitor, who is concerned with his speed, who strives to be the winner at each shoot. What I love about Cowboy Action is, there is room for both types at these firing lines. Everyone is welcome.

It’s cool this late September morning, but clear, with no hint of rain and a promise of warmth but not the oppressive heat to come later in the day. When I and my daughter, who has kindly agreed to photograph the shoot, arrive, the range is already set up. Targets are out, loading and unloading tables are set up, and the sign-up stand is in the center of the end of the rifle range where we conduct every match. Beyond that is a berm, high enough to catch any stray lead. A section in front of the firing line contains the individual shooting carts which carry members’ equipment. Besides the ammunition to go with them, it includes single action revolvers, lever action rifles, and double barrel or pump action shotguns, all period correct. Whether they are replicas or actual historic pieces, which is rare—if the original wasn’t made before 1900—it’s representation here is not allowed.

Grumpy Gramps tells us he expects about ten shooters. That’s a light turn-out for our group, the average being between fifteen and twenty members per match, but there is a competition shoot in South Jersey today which has drawn most of our competitive shooters. It actually works out better for the photographer because it will be easier to keep track of the participants. We set up our equipment and chairs as others arrive to do the same.

Wanted—Dead or Alive. Grumpy Gramps and Old Gunfighter Bob stand for photos during a break in the action. 
Photo by Jessica Grassi

Because of the fewer number of participants, movement of targets between stages has been kept to a minimum. There’ll be less hands to accomplish the many tasks required, so we’ll keep it simple. For the first stage, a plate rack pistol target sits at about seven yards from the firing line. Behind that and off to the left are three rifle targets resting at about ten yards. Off to each side of the revolver and rifle targets, four shotgun targets, two on each side, complete the array.

Grumpy Gramps reads off the scenario for the first stage. The shotgun is first. Two rounds on two of the four SG targets. Then the plate rack. The object is to knock over each plate with a revolver round, then empty the revolvers on the dump target to the rack’s immediate left. Pick up the rifle and fire a prescribed pattern until empty and finish up with the shotgun, one round on each of the remaining targets. Any misses on the plate rack can be made up on the final SG targets. It sounds simple enough, until you get up there and the adrenaline starts pumping, and you start to forget what you just committed to memory. That happens more often than you’d think. You step up to the firing line, shout off the tag line that starts your time—in this case, it’s, “Are you just going to stand there?”—and listen for the buzzer through your ear plugs. Then you’re either as clear as a bell on the procedure, or it’s, “What do I do first?” Somehow, we get through it, either well or just barely, but safely, always safely.

Dead-Eye Deb on the rifle targets.
Photo by Jessica Grassi
Buffalo Bad Bob and the pump shotgun.
Photo by Jessica Grassi
Kalmar Kid Mows 'em down. 
Photo by Jessica Grassi
Bad Shot throws down. 
Photo by Jessica Grassi

I move to the loading table wearing my Ruger Vaquero and my Italian-cloned Schofield breaktop—both safely holstered—and carrying my Henry rifle and Stoeger double barrel 12-gauge shotgun, both with actions open, muzzles pointed up. Sound like overkill? Safety never is. I place the long guns on the table and proceed to load the revolvers with five rounds each, under the watchful eye of the RSO. He checks to see daylight through the portion of the cylinder where the rim of the round should be visible, assuring the hammer is resting on an empty chamber. Then I load the Henry to its ten-round capacity. The shotgun remains empty at this point. I wait to be called to the firing line, watching the previous shooter to reinforce the sequence of the stage in my head.

“Next shooter.” I pick up the long guns and stride to the firing line, depositing them on the appropriate horse-table according to the previously read instructions. I move to the ready position and give my holster belt a final adjustment. So full of confidence, I suddenly realize I’ve forgotten the tag line, so I ask Moss, the RSO/timer. He feeds me the line, I repeat it, the buzzer goes off, and the game is on.

Shotgun first. I cradle it in my left hand, balanced at the break, shove two shells in the breech, snap it shut, shoulder it, lean in to stabilize myself, and pull the triggers. Two perfect hits. Off to a good start. Now, the revolvers….

Plate rack targets are smaller than the standard revolver targets, lighter in weight. They’re designed to fall over when hit by a lead bullet, provided they’re hit slightly above center and the slug has been driven by a sufficient powder charge. Most Cowboy Action shooters reload their own ammo for two reasons: they can load light powder charges to reduce recoil, and reloading is cheaper than buying new rounds. However, lighter loads might not be enough to knock the plates over, even if the shooter is accurate enough to make the hits. These are my two problems. As I roll through the ten rounds in my revolvers, it becomes evident to me that I need much more practice at hitting smaller targets. After ten shots, two plates are still standing.

Oh, well….

The rifle is next. What was that sequence? Oh, yeah, double tap sweep. Right. In layman’s language that means two rounds on the first target, two on the second, two on the third, then back to the first for two more, and on to the second for the last two. My Henry is super accurate and easy to aim. I ace this and move on to the shotgun again.

I can still pull this out because I can make up the plate rack misses on the shotgun targets. I have four rounds left in the belt—all I need. I load up, shoot, kick out the empties, reload, and hit both target again squarely. Done. Was I accurate? Not really. I need way more practice. Was I fast? No way. Never intended to be. Was I lucky? You bet I was.

Grumpy Gramps kicks out spent shells from his double-barrel scattergun. 
Photo by Jessica Grassi

Remember I mentioned there are two types of shooters in Cowboy Action? Here’s the difference in a nutshell. I just described how I made my way through the first stage. My time was 116.48 seconds. Moss, one of our top shooters, and a competitor in his own right, shot the stage much more accurately and in 39.17 seconds. Now, did we both have fun doing it? We sure did, and that’s the whole point of the exercise. We both got out of it what we were looking for. Each to his own.

The progression of the next four stages goes about the same as the first. Different scenarios present different problems, but no major difficulties are encountered. There are no penalties rendered, and no equipment malfunctions are experienced. In every case, we have the fun we sought as we bounce lead off steel targets and hear that unmistakable ping. There’s nothing like it. Nothing can take its place.

While all this goes on, Jessica quietly snaps photo after photo, recording the action as well as the periphery occurrences. She blends in so well, she is there, but not so you’d notice, never disrupting, never distracting. The result is a well documented but uninterrupted course of events topped off with a group shot, sort of a rogue’s gallery of Cowboy Action.

Well, I said at the beginning of this piece I doubted you’d be disappointed. I hope I was right. I tried to show you through my personal experience at the match just how enjoyable it can be. And that doesn’t even include the laughing and scratching we do between stages. It’s like meeting old friends you haven’t seen in a while. You pick right up where you left off last time. These are a great bunch of people, the kind you want to be with.

If you’re interested in looking into Cowboy Action, check out the Single Action Shooting Society’s website, sassnet. com, for the location of the affiliated club nearest you. Find out when they shoot and show up with ear and eye protection. Talk to them. They’ll be happy to give you chapter and verse on what you’ll need in order to join. And, most likely, if you ask, somebody will loan you a rig and some weapons and ammo, and you can try it out. I guarantee you’ll find it an absolute hoot, and you’ll be hooked. And, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, if it takes you back to your childhood as it does me, and I find precious little to do that these days, that’s all the more reason you’ll want to pursue Cowboy Action Shooting.