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Journey Into Competitive Shooting: Ep. 7 Cowboy Action

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Lena Miculek, shooting a Cowboy Action stage at the 2014 Trijicon World Shooting Championship.

Lena Miculek, shooting a Cowboy Action stage at the 2014 Trijicon World Shooting Championship.

Introduction

Cowboy Action’s story starts with a couple of friends who shared a love for competitive shooting, a novel idea on how to make it even more enjoyable, and a conversation on how to bring it all together. More on this in a moment.

For the uninitiated, Cowboy Action is the common name for matches run by the Single Action Society (SASS). SASS is an organization dedicated to preserving the history of the Old West within the discipline of competition shooting.

Cowboy Action began in 1981 when a shooter by the name of Harper Criegh who had been active in the SOF — Soldier of Fortune matches I talked about in our 3 Gun article — called up his friends Gordon Davis and Bill Hahn after watching a bunch of Westerns on TV. He had a great idea: why not exclusively use Western-themed guns in their next match?

It really was a great idea and it didn’t take long for it to catch on. By 1982, the first “End of the Trail” world championship was held with 65 registered shooters taking part. By 1987, a governing board, “The Wild Bunch,” was put together and SASS became official.

Once it took hold and its popularity began to spread, the founders even bought a ranch and built a replica Western town to use for matches and you can read about that here in the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s article on SASS.

The Series

Stoeger Coach Gun Supreme. Pistols: Ruger SASS New Vaquero. Rifle Rossi 1892.

Stoeger Coach Gun Supreme. Pistols: Ruger SASS New Vaquero. Rifle Rossi 1892.

Choosing Your Alias

Cowboy action is a shooting discipline that hits on the nostalgia of an era that was short-lived but an iconic part of American history.

 Randi Rogers, AKA Holy Terror, shooting her Cimarron Firearms Model Evil Roy pistol at End of Trail SASS World Championship. Photo Credit: Wicked Feline, AKA Karen Pearcey

Randi Rogers, AKA Holy Terror, shooting her Cimarron Firearms Model Evil Roy pistol at End of Trail SASS World Championship. (Photo: Karen “Wicked Feline” Pearcey)

Well-known Cowboy Action shooter Randi Rogers hints at something other shooters see. “Cowboy Action Shooting was started because people wanted a chance to play cowboys and Indians as adults, they wanted to use the guns, wear the clothes” and take on the personality of their childhood heroes like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. The shooters do this with the old school guns and gear and by adopting monikers or aliases for matches.

Former SASS shooter Brian Nelson says that he “chose ‘Molasses Kid’ for irony” since he tried to shoot at USPSA Master Class speed in a discipline he had never competed in before. At first, he said that his “times would be up there with the match winner, but with an extra 15 seconds in miss penalties tacked on.”

Regardless of your goal with your moniker, it’s part of the game, so have fun with it. You can even check to see if someone’s using your desired alias on the SASS website.

Scoring

In a typical match you shoot several different stages or scenarios. For a local club match you might have five or six stages, and for a major match, eight to 12 stages. The targets you see in the photo of Randi “Holy Terror” Rogers are the sort of targets you will shoot including steel and reactive targets.

Scoring is a combination of your time plus any penalties incurred. Penalties are incurred with any misses or procedural violations for not following the match guidelines. Like other action shooting disciplines there are similar rules when you are on the clock. For example you must keep your guns safely pointed downrange at all times while shooting.

Some of the rules depend on the category you shoot in and there are many! That’s part of the appeal of the discipline, a person can shoot Duelist, Classic, Modern and Gunfighter. There’s a list and all the specifics on the SASS website. And a shooter can choose at the start of a match to shoot in a specific category, provided their guns and ammo fit that category. So if you wake up feeling pretty badass one weekend you might decide to shoot Duelist, firing black-powder rounds from your pistol one-handed!

 Author, Becky Yackley, shooting Cowboy Action stage during the 2015 NRA World Shooting Championship, shooting a Winchester 1873.


Author, Becky Yackley, shooting Cowboy Action stage during the 2015 NRA World Shooting Championship, shooting a Winchester 1873.

Where Can You Participate?

Cowboy action runs year ’round but clubs where the weather can impact shooters often relax the dress code to keep competitors shooting without compromising safety.

The best place to find a match is on the SASS website under match listings and they are all over the country, separated by region. Rogers says that the SASS Nationals in February often sells out with over 700 competitors participating. Compare that to other shooting disciplines’ national matches and I think you’ll be surprised at how many SASS shooters are out there.

One of the prominent events is Bordertown. Brian Nelson tells us that when the match was held in Tombstone, Ariz. on Halloween, “the atmosphere in the town alone is awesome,” and “the match prides itself on giant targets at the absolute minimum distance.

“In a sport that is itself a hosefest, this is the hosefest among hosefests,” said Nelson. Bordertown is about up-close shooting, fun, and maximum speed, all essential parts of SASS shooting.

How to Get Started:

Besides finding a match you are going to need some guns and gear.

 Stoeger Coach Gun Supreme. Pistols: Ruger SASS New Vaquero set. Rifle Rossi 1892.


Stoeger Coach Gun Supreme. Pistols: Ruger SASS New Vaquero set. Rifle Rossi 1892.

Cowboy action requires a rifle, a pistol and a shotgun. You’ll also need a holster and belt. And if you haven’t gone all-out for a costume to fit your moniker, don’t worry, the rules allow you to shoot in 21st Century attire.

Obviously, if you are lucky enough to own any guns that are originals and can shoot them, you get style points for cool gear. When it comes to the pistol, common choices are a Ruger Vaquero or Blackhawk or one of the Colt Single Action Army and replicas like Uberti or Pietta.

Some commonly used shotguns are the Stoeger coach gun, Cimmaron coach gun or Winchester 1897 pump action shotgun. And for a rifle, something like a Rossi 1892, Henry 1860, Winchester 1886, Marlin cowboy rifle or Colt Lightning slide action will fit the bill.

After you have your guns figured out, you need to assess your skill set. As we’ve suggested in other articles in this series, go watch a few matches. Economy of motion (moving through a stage and shooting targets with as little back-and-forth or unnecessary movement) is one part of the game. Another skill you’ll need is the ability to load quickly, as well as re-holstering a pistol, sight alignment, and transitioning between targets.

Randi Rogers, AKA Holy Terror, shooting her Cimarron Firearms 1873 rifle at End of Trail SASS World Championship. Photo Credit: Wicked Felina AKA Karen Pearcey

Randi Rogers, AKA Holy Terror, shooting her Cimarron Firearms 1873 rifle at End of Trail SASS World Championship. Photo Credit: Wicked Felina AKA Karen Pearcey

Rogers has some good advice that will take you to the starting box of your first match and her SASS name “Holy Terror” should tell you something about how aggressively this woman can shoot! I’ve shot with her a good bit and I know her tenacity and fury with a pistol is nothing short of epic.

She’s also the granddaughter of Evil Roy and Wicken Felina which should make you laugh a little because once you know Randi and her sweet disposition and smile, you know she’s not terrifying — except when she shoots! 

“There is so much you can do to start shooting cowboy action,” said Rogers. “I would definitely say that you need to go and watch at least one match before you just show up. You want to make sure you are familiar with the safety rules, so check out the rulebook.

“Once you have your gear you can start practicing. You are trying to hit steel targets at seven to 25 yards so you need to be able to line up the sights and squeeze the trigger.

“Your pistols are only loaded with five rounds — you need to know how to draw, cock, fire and reholster — all can be practiced live and dry fire.

“Rifles are loaded with anywhere from six to 10 rounds. The rifles start the stage with the hammer down on an empty chamber and your tube loaded with the correct number of rounds — you need to know how to pick the gun up safely, level, aim, pull the trigger and repeat until empty. Rifles are put down with the action open and empty of all rounds.

“Shotguns, either double barrel or pump action, are staged open and completely empty. You need to know how to safely pick up the shotgun, load it (the max you can load at one time is 2) and aim fire … when you are finished set it down completely empty.”

Most of what Randi suggests you can do with dry fire practice and learning the manipulations is going to leave your mind free to line up your sights and execute your stage plan.

Why you should try it:

Like any shooting discipline Cowboy Action helps you think on your feet, manage multiple tasks at one time, without modern optics and deepens your understanding of the principles of sight alignment and trigger control. 

You could call Cowboy Action the grandma and grandpa of today’s 3-Gun events — and some within the shooting community believe that Cowboy Action is aging. Former competitors have said that the old guys who watched John Wayne and the Westerns of their day modeled their sport after something kids today aren’t apparently all that interested in, tales of the Wild West. Cowboys and Indians have been replaced by “Halo” and “Call of Duty” and the pastimes and stories that are nostalgic to one generation do not always carry the same emotional weight with future generations.

When I heard this it made sense to me because I grew up somewhere between Wyatt Earp and Master Chief. My generation was “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” maybe mixed in with Doc Holiday in Val Kilmer’s character in “Tombstone.”

But it’s tough to miss what the shooter who told me that the SASS shooters are a dying breed meant. The guys and gals who started the discipline are getting older. Maybe Cowboy Action’s reign is like the Wild West — it didn’t span generations, it only lasted 30 years, from 1865 to 1895. That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate its spirit and continue to share the stories of American history highlighted in Cowboy Action shooting.

In fact, I think recognizing the aging shooters, the guys and gals who’ve worked to grow a love for the Second Amendment in one of the most American legacies that I can think of — the Old West, with all its self-sufficiency and personal responsibility — is a truly admirable thing.

The Single Action Shooting Society’s place in shooting history will only motivate newer shooters to find their own version of the Wild West, with all the heroes, villains and stories that speak to them. This way they, too, can celebrate shooting in a way that’s meaningful while carrying on the traditional values of gun culture. And if they can’t create anything as fun as Cowboy Action, then they should go watch a few Clint Eastwood classics, borrow some SASS guns, and learn something from the old guys while they still have a chance.

***

About the author: Becky Yackley has been shooting competitively since she began as a teenager with service rifle and smallbore. She’s lived near the typical Marine Corps bases and spent 10 years near DC while her husband was active duty, but has settled into Wisconsin and shooting 3 Gun, USPSA and NRA National Action Pistol with her three boys and husband. An avid runner and outdoorswoman, she shoots guns and photos and sometimes her mouth … which her friends often remind her keeps them alert at late hours on road trips. Never known for being quiet, she’s bringing her brand of humor our way this year in hopes of sharing her love for shooting sports with our readers.

{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Big Iron Ranger September 10, 2016, 12:43 pm

    Thank you for doing the article on Cowboy Action Shooting. I am relatively new to SASS, as a matter of fact I have yet to shoot my first match, even though I have my full compliment of equipment. I have attended several local club meets and recently attended the Alabama State Championship meet, Ambush at the Cove. You will never meet a more hospitable group of folks. Everyone is exceptionally friendly and willing to help in every way. I followed one particular group (posse) around all day with a video camera and had a wonderful time. I plan on attending the upcoming Tennessee State Championship at Wartrace, Tn. in a few weeks and do the same. It is an entertaining day and you meet some really interesting characters and nice folks. I would highly recommend that anyone who is interested in this period of our history or who loves the Hollywood Western movies, join SASS and by all means attend a local match. I do not think anyone with an interest in the period will be disappointed. So, come on!! Have some fun.

  • J-Bar September 10, 2016, 9:18 am

    Hi Becky;

    Thank you for your article. You presented our sport in a positive light, and I hope your readers will visit a nearby Cowboy Action Shooting and check it out for themselves. They will find a friendly bunch of folks of all ages who enjoy each other’s company and share an interest in shooting. I think the comments about inaccuracies in the article are well intentioned…shooting sports in general come under so much criticism these days, we may be a little oversensitive to getting all the details right. I hope you will continue to write these articles and perhaps revisit cowboy action shooting again someday.

    • Becky September 12, 2016, 11:01 pm

      Thanks J-Bar!

  • James H Jasinski September 9, 2016, 1:31 pm

    I grew up with the old western’s and own a SA .45 pietta with a gunslinger holster. My question is: “Can you join the SASS without getting into actual compitition? I live in CT and don’t have a lot of money to spend on ammo or compition matches but would like to be a part of history’s old west.

    • Boulder Canyon Bob September 9, 2016, 2:56 pm

      You are more than welcome to join SASS or one of your local clubs. A finer group of people you’ll never meet, but you’d be missing out on a lot of fun if you don’t shoot. If you don’t have all of the equipment find a local club and show up, someone will be more than happy to loan you the items.

    • Jason Blessing September 9, 2016, 3:01 pm

      You can certainly join SASS without having to shoot any matches.

    • Abe E.S. Corpus September 9, 2016, 3:21 pm

      We have plenty of cowboy shooters who have no previous experience with competitive shooting. If you enjoy owning an Old West gun, I bet you would really enjoy clanging some steel targets with it! Visit a local match and you might be surprised how much fun people are having. SASS is not a “historical reenactment” organization, though. There is certainly some costs involved, same as with any other hobby. Most of us handload our own ammunition; I can make better ammo than I can find on the gun store shelf and save money doing it. It’s cheaper than playing with motorcycles which is my other hobby.

  • Creeker September 9, 2016, 12:30 pm

    This article also misses some of the reasoning behind cowboy.
    It is a simple “Game”. Simple rules – simple equipment – Simple scoring.
    Older designed firearms and limits on modifications limits the arms race mentality often present in other games.
    Cowboy is not a game where you will find practical, tactical experiences, but not everything has to be a lesson.
    Sometimes – you are supposed to do things just because it is fun. And Cowboy is FUN.
    It is family friendly shooting game where you commonly see grandparents and grandchildren, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters shooting together.
    As long as a shooter is safe – they are never judged or disparaged by their score.
    It is a game where a broken gun or bad ammo does not end your day – but results in a plethora of fellow shooters offering you their equipment to finish your match.
    It is a game where the very best in the world will put their arm around you and pull you to the side for an impromptu lesson, not to sell you a membership to their website or hawk DVD’s, but simply because they saw something that would help you and they truly want you to better enjoy the game.
    Cowboy is not about self defense, terrorist attacks or carrying concealed.
    Cowboy is about stepping out of the world where ISIS hates us – politicians lie and betray us – taxes are too high and time is too short.
    But instead stepping into a time that is a combination of history, Hollywood revisionism and our own imagination.
    Where rugged, but honorable men wore stars on their chests while protecting the schoolmarm.
    Where wide open vistas stretched out in front of us and just over the next hill laid untold riches.
    A time and a place, where good guys wore white hats – bad guys wore black and regardless of the color – you tipped it toward a lady.
    Aging? Perhaps – tho our game still has a strong core of youth and new shooters join our game everyday.
    Hosefest? I guess so – when compared to some other games. But fast almost always puts a smile on a shooters face.
    I’ve shot nearly every shooting discipline that exists.
    I have bought and sold guns and equipment to support all of these various endeavors.
    Cowboy is the only one that has held my interest and kept me involved.
    My name is Creeker and I’m a cowboy.

    • Becky September 12, 2016, 11:06 pm

      Thanks for the comments Creeker! I concur that the discipline comes across as something done for pure enjoyment and to remenisce values and heroes that speak to people. It’s one of the big differences from other shooting disciplines: monikers and costumes aren’t at all practical and nobody would advise carrying single shot revolvers for personal protection, but in Cowboy Action, they’re just fun. It’s part of what people can miss about guns, that they’re just plain fun!

  • Dave September 9, 2016, 9:18 am

    Your Article has some seriously flaws and should be pulled until it can be updated.
    The Shooters handbook you link to is from 2003. The current handbook was released in February 2016.
    A lot has changed in 13 years You can be commended for exposing people to Cowboy Action Shooting but you really should get the facts correct.

    • Becky Yackley September 9, 2016, 9:56 am

      Dave, thanks for your thoughts, can you point out what the flaws are? The handbook link is updated, thanks for pointing that out. SASS hasn’t replied to my requests for info for 2 weeks…I was trying to verify several things with them.

      • Abe E.S. Corpus September 9, 2016, 11:58 am

        I have been shooting cowboy action for the past six years and have been looking forward to this installment in your series of articles. I also noticed a couple of things in the article that are not 100% accurate (for example, a rifle need no longer be open when discarded, it need only be cleared, and the “Modern” category was eliminated several years ago). Also, I would recommend using photos of shooters in clothing required by the Shooters Handboook since costuming is as much a part of the sport as is using Old West style firearms. That said, the article accomplishes the goal of introducing the reader to cowboy action shooting and I appreciate your making the effort to write and publish it. A couple of additional observations about the sport: cowboy action shooters tend to be very friendly and welcoming. My local club offers Three Gun but the matches sell out quickly. Almost every cowboy club I know of has room for new shooters and will bend over backwards to help them get started. Also our matches are “doable” by shooters who are not top athletes. There is some movement but no “running and gunning”. A little less intimidating for new shooters. We have lots of couples and families in the sport. You won’t find any 200 yard rifle targets; if you have the basic marksmanship skills you will hit targets and feel successful as a new shooter, and if you have a competitive streak you will find keeping up with the top shooters to be plenty challenging.

        • Becky September 9, 2016, 12:05 pm

          Thanks for sharing Abe!

          • Tombstone Tex September 9, 2016, 4:23 pm

            The only other thing I would add to it is that you actually need 2 pistols, and an 1873 rifle is well within the rules. Solid article though, I, like others, appreciate that you are exposing people to an awesome shooting game. I have shot other competitions, and they fit the “competition” moniker, everyone looking to get the edge on you in one way or another, even to the point of collecting your brass and dumping it into their pockets. You won’t find that attitude in cowboy, which is why I stay. And I also think it is more of a multi-generational sport, sure the founders are getting older, but the new generation is stepping up. Companies like Uberti and Pietta are making a good amount of clone guns and I dare say it is because of the interest in cowboy. You said it yourself about the nationals having 700 people and being sold out. This is such a fun sport, thanks again!!

      • Dave September 9, 2016, 3:34 pm

        Be glad too. First let me say Thanks for including Cowboy Action Shooting and SASS as one of your articles.

        Several other posters have already pointed out a few of the areas in need of updating. Pictures of shooters in Costume as this is as much a part of the game as the shooting. Anyone thinking about getting into Cowboy Action Shooting should attend a match first as it will save the beginner a lot of money. Not all period replica firearms are suitable for CAS and several categories have caliber and other firearm restrictions. Come to a few matches and see what categories you might be interested in first.

        To attend a match the first time all you really need to bring is eye and ear protection. CAS shooters are some of the friendliest people you will come across. Before everyone goes home for the day you will be offered several opportunities to try out various firearms. Take them up on it. Nothing worse than buying a gun and then finding out you don’t like it. Wanting to get started but lacking one or more of the necessary firearms or gun leather is usually not a problem as almost all shooters have extra gear that they will loan if prior arrangements are made.

        The categories have changed. Classic and Modern are gone. The Shooters Handbook explains the categories a lot better than I can here. Several categories do have firearm restrictions and two categories ( Classic Cowboy/Cowgirl and B-Western ) have dress requirements and holster design requirements beyond those of the other categories.
        Revolvers with adjustable sights are falling out of favor as many categories require revolvers to have fixed sights. Clones of the Winchester 1873 are probably the most popular rifle. AFAIK the Winchester 1886 is only chambered in rifle calibers not pistol and would not be legal for CAS except in side matches. Colt lightning rifles are pretty finicky and I wouldn’t recommend one for a beginning shooter unless they understand what they are buying.

        Many of the firearms used in CAS require a little tuning by a gunsmith that understands CAS. This is yet another reasons to go to a few matches and before you buy any guns or leather. Speaking of leather, while most will do buying quality leather made for CAS will save a person a lot of money in the long run. There are many leather smiths that make custom gear that can set a shooter up with a properly fitted rig. Again you can learn a lot by asking questions at a match before spending your hard earned gold dust.

        Cowboy Action Shooting and SASS are far from dead. While we tend to have older shooters than other shooting disciplines we also have a good crop of younger shooters. Maybe one reason CAS shooters tend to be older is that CAS is only as competitive as you want it to be. Many shooters myself included are drawn to CAS because it is more than a competition. It is a sport the entire family can participate in where having fun is way more important than finishing first.

        • Becky September 12, 2016, 11:12 pm

          Thanks for the thoughts Dave.

          …as for pictures of people in costume, some big matches, such as Trijicon World Shoot and NRA World Shoot, have a Cowboy Action stage at their matches – if you read the captions, you see that’s where they are from. Writers are often limited to what photos they have and not everyone has a local cowboy action match they can get to for photos. As for the tuning of guns, yes, my son’s Rossi has an action job done to it. But as others have pointed out, you don’t need a lot of specialized gear and guns to attend. And the goal of this series is to share with people an introduction to many different disciplines, and hope that one strikes a chord with the reader and they feel compelled to participate.

  • robert September 9, 2016, 9:06 am

    I’m loving this series! Thank you so much for this. I’m now seriously wanting to get myself a six-shooter and the other necessities to get into this. I’ve always had a love of the Old West; what a great way to indulge it!

    • Becky September 12, 2016, 11:25 pm

      Thanks Robert! Definitely try it. I’ve shot stages at big events where they incorporate many disciplines, and Cowboy Action is so fun. The guys who come with their guns to those events truly want to bring people into their world.

  • Tom Horn September 9, 2016, 8:50 am

    There’s nothing like the fun of lever actions, or a handgun that shoots as sweet as a single action revolver. Just plain fun. If you don’t own one yet, it should be on your bucket list. You won’t regret it.

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