A tsunami of fond memories hit me with the full force that nostalgia can offer: the clang of steel, the mechanical click clack movement of levers and hammers falling, and the wash of sulfuric-tinged smoke. All of this filled my head while I re-watched the classic film: The Wild Bunch. This timeless Western movie, directed by Sam Peckinpah, is also one of the direct inspirations of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS)—the premier governing body of Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS).
Some of the guns and gear the author uses for Cowboy Action Shooting matches.
For those not completely familiar with CAS, it involves shooting 19th century Old West-style firearms at steel targets against the clock. You have two single-action revolvers, a lever-action pistol caliber rifle, and typically a Remington Model 1897, or side-by-side shotgun. Each match consists of four to six stages, and each stage has four to six shotgun rounds, 10 pistol rounds and 10 rifle rounds. A typical match usually will take an afternoon to complete.
While the firearms portion is fun, it’s just a part of the whole experience. Another aspect to the game are the categories, costumes and your cowboy “handle.” The SASS categories describe which firearms are best suited, and what shooting style might be best (Duelist and Gunfighter are very popular). The costume can be a late 19th century U.S. Army cavalryman, sheriff, or even a Hollywood B-movie star. The handle is simply your cowboy nickname—my previous handles include “Doubly Odd Buck” and “Breckenridge Elkins.” Handles can be as simple—or as odd—as you want to make them.
If one wants to go more traditional and shoot black powder (lovingly referred to as “The Holy Black”), they won’t be alone. I describe it as wonderfully addicting. I’ve come home from many matches with a soot-covered smile covering my face after shooting 12-gauge black powder shells.
People love this game The fun part that makes the game worth it is the people. If there is a friendlier set of people in the shooting sports, they must have been cloned from the Cowboy Action shooters. New to the game? No problem. Need to borrow a firearm? There will be a line to assist you. Short on ammo? You will be helped. It’s this supportive community—combined with the chance to make steel ring again—that brought me back to this entertaining sport.
Two revolvers for Cowboy Action Shooting.
I initially got involved in CAS with a good friend of mine. Prior to our first match we scraped up two rigs—two revolvers chambered in .357 Magnum, a Spanish 12-gauge side-by-side shotgun, and a lever gun chambered in .357 Magnum. We didn’t make it through the first stage before three of the guns failed. The revolvers were inconsistent, and the lever-action was jammed open hard as we discovered it wouldn’t cycle a .357 Magnum lead semi-wadcutter. The only gun that ran flawlessly for both of us was the Spanish 12-gauge side-by-side.
This is where the kindness and friendliness of the CAS community came alive. Before the first stage was over, someone loaned us some very nice 1873 Colt SAA Revolvers, and a slicked-up lever gun. A fellow cowboy, who happened to be a gunsmith, offered to fix my lever-action rifle, missing his turn to shoot while doing so. I offered payment, but he wouldn’t accept it. As for my shooting, I finished next to the bottom in the rankings, but had a fantastic time. The best lessons learned that day were that nice, friendly and helpful are the way of the Cowboy Action competitors.
My gear has come a long way from what I started with: two stainless steel Ruger New Vaqueros in .357 Magnum, Marlin 1894 lever-action rifle in .357 Magnum, and a Stephens 311 in 12-gauge that has been shortened to 20½ inches. Consistent gear helps in shooting. My leather was purchased in a rush—after my return match it will be upgraded.
The NRA HQ range configured for Cowboy Action Shooting.
So, combine a lazy Sunday afternoon, the wonders of The Wild Bunch, and reading a quote from Robert Duvall about how the Western is “America’s Shakespeare” and the next thing you know, I’m looking up local matches. As I write this, I’ve just finished shooting at the Virginia City Marshalls—the local club hosted at National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, VA. Racking up of procedurals for each stage gave me a last-place finish, but I don’t mind. I’m not a speed demon, but I’m also probably the only cowboy shooting an 1895 SA Nagant revolver. I’ll allow myself some style points as my cowboy persona will be based off that “Crazy Parmalee” in True Grit. I wouldn’t have it any other way.