From the vault: Our coverage of Cowboy Action Shooting’s Winter Range 2003, held in January and February of that year at the Ben Avery Shooting Range in Phoenix, Arizona. As published in the May 2003 issue of Shooting Sports USA.
Winter Range 2003
Story and Photos by Gary Paul Johnston
The shooting at Winter Range 2003 seemed as fierce as the old gunfights of the Old West, as the competitors switched from six-guns to rifles to shotguns while moving between western props. Timers beeped, guns smoked, empty brass filled the air, and steel plates range with more than 15,000 spectators watching safely behind the firing lines. In the end, an estimated 200,000 bullets were fired at steel targets.
Bigger than ever in 2003, just how much more Ruger's Winter Range will grow is anyone's guess. Winter Range 2003, hosted by the Arizona Territorial Company of Rough Riders, is second only in size to the grandaddy of all Cowboy Action Shooting events—End of Trail. Winter Range 2003 attracted more than 600 of the world's best cowboy and cowgirl shooters from the United States and around the globe, including Canada, Europe and Australia.
Conducted January 29 through February 2, 2003, at the famous Ben Avery Shooting Range, north of Phoenix, Ariz., Winter Range 2003 brought the Old West back to life in the beautiful Sonoran Desert. Jam-packed with a myriad of nationally known vendors of historically correct replica firearms, clothing, leather and other regalia, Winter Range has become a true Old West festival.
However, the event's main attraction was the five-day live-fire and mounted-shooting competition that embraced the entire family of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS)—the governing body of Cowboy Action Shooting. Consisting of 12 main stages, Winter Range 2003 also included specialty events, cowboy trap, skeet and clays, posse and team events and the Top Gun shoot-off. The results of these matches determined the national champions of the Old West shooting sport and set the stage for the world championships at End Of Trail in California in April.
Describing the Cowboy Action Shooting fraternity as a family is no exaggeration. Being extremely close knit, this group has more than just shooting in common and holds great mutual admiration within its membership. Doing their best when competing against each other, even the best shooters encourage one another just as strongly, and when it comes to lending a helping hand there is equal competition, especially with junior shooters. Recognizing that these youngsters are the future of this and all shooting sports, SASS members eagerly take kids under their wing to help them compete better and boost their self-esteem.
For those not familiar with Cowboy Action Shooting, a word about the classes of competition is in order. Most allow shooting a pistol using a modern two-hand hold. In the Traditional class, the pistol must have factory-fixed sights, but in the Modern class the gun can have an adjustable rear sight. In the Frontiersman class, black powder percussion revolvers are used. In the Frontier Cartridge class, the ammunition is also loaded with black powder. As in the Frontiersman and Duelist classes, the pistol is held with one hand in the Gunfighter class, but here both pistols are held at the same time.
In the SASS Mounted class, thousands of blanks were fired with nearly as many balloons biting the dust. As riders spurred their horses around barrels to head for little inflated colored bags of wind at a dead run, they cocked their single-action revolvers while holding the reins with the other hand. Blasting each balloon as they galloped by, they left only a puff of white smoke and rubber fragments in the air. After 10 shots, it was all over but for recording times, misses and mistakes.
As always, Winter Range 2003's grand finale was the Top Gun shoot-off on the final day of competition that included the top 20 finalists from all live-fire shooters. When the smoke cleared from this event, Lefty Longridge reigned supreme and Winter Range 2003 was over.
As usual, the calibers favored by most shooters were .38 Special and .45 Colt in pistols and lever-action rifles, and 12-gauge in their side-by-side or pump shotguns. However, any Old West center-fire pistol caliber is permitted, as are 16- and 20-gauge shotshells with the latter preferred. Cartridge revolvers aren't the only ones allowed. The Frontiersman class, with its percussion revolvers, is fast gaining in popularity. Only lead bullets are allowed in Cowboy Action Shooting competition, and eye and ear protection is required to be worn by all shooters.
Among the firearms used, the Ruger Vaquero seems to hold the lead in revolvers with the Colt Single Action Army and its clones running a close second. In lever-action rifles, the Marlin and Winchester have long been favorites, but the Uberti Model 1873 is quickly catching up, along with the Navy Arms Model 1892. Among shotguns is a myriad of double-barrel guns, but the venerable Winchester Model 1897 slide-action remains the frontrunner.
Few if any of these guns are as they came from the factory. Gunsmithing provides firearms with the smoothest and fastest actions available in this sport speed and accuracy. Shotguns present a special challenge, particularly the Winchester 1897, which has never been known for smoothness in operation.
Showing up for Winter Range's five days of live-fire competition this year, the men, women, boys and girls who competed were all vividly dressed in authentic Old West costumes. Many competed on horseback breaking balloons with blank cartridges as they galloped by in a sport combining barrel racing with shooting. Here, not only were the riders in costume, but their horses were also adorned with period saddles and bridles.
Almost as unique as the costumes found in this melting pot of yesteryear portrayers are the SASS nicknames they go by—names such as Wild Bill Hikock, Johnny Concho, Miss Fire, China Camp, Buffalo Chip, Hopalong Cassidy, Camptown Lady, Paladin, Arizona Calamity Jane and of course the man who is considered the father of SASS, Judge Roy Bean, who like many, takes on the persona of famous Old West characters.