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.
- Ep. 1 Getting Started
- Ep. 2 Steel Challenge
- Ep. 3 USPSA Pistol
- Ep. 4 Shotgun
- Ep. 5 3 Gun
- Ep. 6 High Power Rifle
- Ep. 7 Cowboy Action
- Ep. 8 Shotgun II
- Ep. 9 IDPA
- Ep. 10 Bulls Eye Pistol
- Ep. 11 Smallbore Rifle
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.