Gun Digest

Getting Western with Cowboy Action Shooting

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Authenticity plays a large role in Cowboy Action Shooting, with competitions held in Old West settings and competitors donning the garb of the day.
Authenticity plays a large role in Cowboy Action Shooting, with competitions held in Old West settings and competitors donning the garb of the day. (photo by Sara Norman)

Many years ago a few IPSC shooters came up with an idea to shoot a competition using only outdated Old West-type guns.

They thought it would be fun shooting stages with six guns instead of using the new fangled eight shooter. Then they thought, why not take it a step further and get dressed up into clothing of the period? From there, the idea of shooting stages built to resemble old saloons and jails and using additional guns from the period such as a lever rifle and old double-barreled shotguns came about.

In the end, they had developed one of the newest and fastest growing sports today. They had created Cowboy Action Shooting. I don’t know if it came together precisely in that order but, the end result has been an action-packed series of events that are all about having fun, and in that department, they certainly deliver.

What is Cowboy Action Shooting?
Cowboy Action Shooting is organized by SASS (Single Action Shooting Society) and offers many shooting categories that differ from the types of guns used to the styles of clothing worn. It even offers the opportunity for participants to have an Old West alias.

The first main rule is the only firearms permitted for use must be guns of 1898 vintage or earlier and includes two single-action revolvers, a lever-action pistol caliber rifle and either a side-by-side shotgun or a pump or lever shotgun.

The side-by-side can be hammer or hammerless with no ejectors, but the pump must have a hammer like the Winchester 1897. Pumps are only loaded with two rounds at a time to eliminate any advantage they might otherwise offer over those using double shooters.

The six guns are loaded with five rounds so that the hammer rests on an empty chamber. This is the way they were carried in the Old West because they didn’t have safety bars as we do today in the Ruger Vaquero and other reproductions.

Shooting styles range from Traditional, which is shooting each pistol one at a time with a two-handed hold to Duelist, holding one pistol at a time one handed, or even Gunfighter, which is a pistol in each hand being fired using alternating shots.

Cowboy Action competitions often demand precise shots, such as this one where a competitor attempts to hit a target through two doorways. (photo by Sara Norman)

Getting Started
I started shooting in the Gunfighter Division many years ago thinking it would give me practice with my weak hand. As a result, I now shoot much better with it as far as lining up the sight and trigger control are concerned.

Again, beyond the practice it provides a person’s shooting skills, it is so much fun shooting guns like the cowboys of the old movies, a six gun in each hand, and actually hitting the targets.

There are two ways to shoot Gunfighter. One is cocking both pistols at the same time and shooting both rounds (one at a time) and cocking them again until the stage is shot, or the way I started out, cocking the pistols one at a time. In that fashion, a shooter ends up cocking one pistol as they fire the other.

Whichever style of shooting you choose, there is also the option to go over to the dark side: black powder. The Frontiersman category, for instance, requires the shooter to use black powder in all the guns shot.

These are fun matches that take the smokeless folks out of their comfort zone. There is a lot of smoke, and with any luck, a small breeze so you can see the targets. As a course of competing in the Frontiersmen category, competitors get pretty good at knowing where target are through the smoke.

Making a Name for Yourself
Costuming and an alias are mandatory to a cowboy action shoot. They go hand in hand as you might dress to fit your alias.

Thinking up an alias can be easy or hard. You might pick up an alias because of your conduct, like a lot of the cowboys of old did, or you can pick a name from one of the characters of the Old West and integrate it into your name. The name can also not have anything to do with the West but is an interesting play on words.

Some of the names people come up with are extremely witty and SASS keeps a record of the registered names so there are no duplicates. Your name is your name throughout the SASS world so pick a good one.

Minimum cowboy dress includes a hat, boots, western shirt, bandana and pants, but you could easily go overboard with the costume and are actually encouraged to do so.

Working a Stage
Stages are set up much like a 3-gun match only Old West-style.

We shoot through windows and doors, off of wagons and horses (not real horses unless your mounted shooting), and move from spot to spot between firearms.

A typical cowboy stage will start out with some kind of scenario like you’re tending cattle on the range and the bad guys are going to rustle your cows. There may or may not be a line that you have to recite to start the timer, and when the timer rings you go.

Firing pistols may be first, and you have to shoot them in the order mandated by the scenario. Usually it will be 10 shots on steel targets then you might move to another spot to shoot the rifle, then the shotgun. The rifle targets are usually a bit farther out and the shotgun can be stationary steel, knockdowns, or clay flyers.

Misses are a 5-second penalty added to the time from start to last shot and failure to shoot the stage in the manner of the scenario is a procedural error, which adds 10 seconds.

Scores are added up by overall raw time, which starts at the buzzer and runs to the last shot.

It’s amazing the stress the timer puts on the shooter. The idea is to finish in the fastest time, which isn’t always attributed to shooting faster. A bunch of time can be made up by smooth transitions from gun to gun and moving from position to position.

Always Welcome
New shooters, especially new female shooters are always welcome and every shooter will help them break into this new sport. Even veterans will get the cowboy helping hand. If your gun goes down, there is always a cowboy who will loan you one to finish the match. He or she will even keep the friendly cowboy smile when you shoot a bit faster than they do.

If you really want to have a good time, dust off that old wheel, lever and shotgun and get out to a cowboy match. It’s extremely addictive and loads of fun. If you don’t have all the guns go to a match anyway I will bet someone will loan you a gun and encourage you to shoot a stage. Take the opportunity and get a little western.

Editor's note, this article appeared in the June 17, 2013 Gun Digest Magazine

Recommended Resources

Find Cowboy Action Shooting right up your alley? Then you're certain to enjoy the Handbook of Modern Percussion Revolvers. This richly illustrated volume is perfect if you own a percussion revolver, want how-to on percussion revolvers or would like to learn more about historic percussion revolvers. Also check out our Blackpowder books, as well.

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