Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
Cowboys
on the range

The modern day gunslingers of the Single Action Shooting Society relive the Old West

by Bob McEowen

“The entire tightknit community of Red Rock is having a real crumby day and kneads some uplifting as that veteran of the Indian wars, the Pillsbury Doughboy died yesterday of a yeast infection and trauma complications from repeated pokes in the belly.

“Doughboy will be buried in a lightly greased coffin. The funeral will be held today at 3:50 for about 20 minutes.”

Dylan Royster, a 14-year-old from Fordland, fires his single action revolver from a stagecoach window during cowboy action shooting match at the Southern Missouri Ranger’s facility near Willard. The sport, organized by the Single Action Shooting Society, is popular at six active clubs around Missouri. Royster, known as “Fiddler Dylan,” is the reigning junior champion in both Missouri and Oklahoma.

And so begins the “Undertaker” stage at the monthly cowboy action shoot hosted by The Moniteau Creek River Raiders on a private shooting range near Fayette. Sponsored by one of six active cowboy shooting clubs in Missouri, the match combines the skill of a marksmanship competition with the frivolity of playing dress up.

With the scene set, a procession of gunslingers, territorial marshals and even the occasional schoolmarm step up to a wooden façade. Participants — each armed with two revolvers, a rifle and a shotgun — lower their head in respect and speak a line from the Western classic “Once upon a time in the West.”

Few competitors keep a straight face as they say the required prompt: “People scare better when they’re dying.” With those words a tone from an electronic timing device pierces the air and the firing begins. By the time the smoke clears and the last target clang has ceased, the shooter is grinning from ear to ear.

“There are a few guys here that when they step up to that firing line they are literally playing the way they did when they were kids — especially some of the older guys. It’s hysterical,” says Bart Ballew, a leather worker from Fayette who hosts the monthly contests on his property.

Dan Waters, aka “Big Muddy,” reloads his shotgun during a cowboy shooting match near Fayette while a range officer checks an electronic timer. Cowboy shooters compete against the clock in a three-gun event, firing pistols, rifle and shotgun at steel targets.

“They’re just reliving their childhood and shooting live rounds.”
Strict attention is paid to safety, but fun is definitely the name of the game in cowboy action shooting as participants relive the Old West, both with the guns they fire and the costumes they wear.

Worldwide, more than 60,000 people belong to the Single Action Shooting Society, or S.A.S.S., the governing body of cowboy action shooting. The sport, which tests a shooter’s skill with three types of firearms, began in 1981 when a group of world-class pistol shots from California grew frustrated with the competitiveness of so-called “practical pistol” matches and decided to bring fun back into shooting.Instead of tricked-out firearms that are practical for nothing but competition, cowboy action shooters fire old-fashioned, single-action revolvers, which must be cocked by hand before each shot. Whether originals or modern-made reproductions, these pistols are similar to the old Colt .45 “Peacemakers” — guns immortalized in countless Western movies and TV dramas. Rifles and shotguns used in the competition must be of a type common prior to 1900.

Hanging metal targets bear the marks of shots fired during competition.

In Missouri, six S.A.S.S.-affiliated clubs hold regular cowboy action shooting matches. With clubs in Willard, St. Robert, Fayette, Higginsville, St. Louis and now Cassville, there’s a cowboy shooting match somewhere in the state nearly every weekend when weather permits.

Cliff Day, the reigning state champion, lives near Chafee in southeast Missouri and belongs to S.A.S.S. clubs in Illinois and Kentucky. He traveled to Willard in March to compete in a match hosted by the Southern Missouri Rangers, the S.A.S.S. club in the Springfield area.

A former police officer and competitor in a number of shooting sports, he says cowboy shooting promotes friendliness and good sportsmanship over top performance — an emphasis formalized in the sport’s rules as “the spirit of the game.”

Dan Waters, president of the Fayette club, cycles his rifle, an original Winchester from the 19th century. Cowboy action shooters compete with single action revolvers as well as a shot gun and rifle chambered in a pistol caliber in use prior to 1900.

“It’s really about the people more than anything. Everybody is trying to help each other out,” says Day. “I’ve loaned my rifle to people who’ve beat me before. That’s just part of ‘spirit of the game.’”

A full-time pastor, Day is known as Dr. B. H. Carroll at S.A.S.S. matches. Every cowboy shooter adopts a persona and assumes an alias, a name he or she uses in all matches and club activities. Day’s alias honors a former member of the Texas Rangers who later served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “He’s always been a hero of mine,” says Day.

Not every shooter is as attached to their persona. Rod Berg, a member of the Southern Missouri Rangers from Fair Grove, calls himself “Durango Rod,” the closest name he could claim to his first choice, The Durango Kid, a character from classic B-movie Westerns. “It’s hard picking a name that isn’t taken,” he says. “This is probably my 50th choice.”

Multiple shooting stations at the Willard range offer a variety of shooting scenery at S.A.S.S. matches.

According to S.A.S.S. rules, each competitor must adopt a unique alias and persona appropriate to a character of the late 19th century or a Hollywood Western star. Some shooting cowboys look like they just rode in from the range. Others dress in the gaudy style of a B-movie singing cowboy. Still others put on a pair of western boots, jeans, a long sleeve shirt and a cowboy hat and call it done.

“We’re pretty laid back. You can do pretty much whatever you want to as long as you’re safe,” says Jeff Dunaway, AKA “Smokie,” a charter member and secretary/treasurer of the Willard club.

With his three-piece suit, watch fob and Tom Mix hat, Dunaway could pass for a banker in an 1870s Old West town. But, like most cowboy shooters, Smokie takes the dress code in stride. “I’d say about 70 percent of the boots out here are not authentic, but we don’t get bent out of shape about it.”

Ken Buckingham of Waynesville, dressed as “Fingers McGee,” examines a newly acquired shotgun owned by the “Rootin’ Tootin’ Range Bum,” Roger Brogue of Republic.

Allowances are made for authenticity in firearms, as well. S.A.S.S. groups competitors into seven categories, based on their choice of weapon. The Frontiersman class requires blackpowder cap and ball revolvers while shooters competing in the Modern class may use adjustable sights.

The various S.A.S.S. categories reflect the rapid changes in firearms technology in the latter half of the 19th century as modern cartridges were introduced and manufacturers produced a flurry of new rifle and pistol designs. Each of these innovations has its adherents within the cowboy shooting community as competitors embrace various stages of firearms and ammunition development.

“I don’t put with that modern smoky-less stuff,” says Ken Buckingham, a member of three S.A.S.S. shooting clubs who fires reproduction Confederate-issue 1851 Navy blackpowder revolvers.

The need for historic firearms and authentic Western clothing has created a thriving market, says Bart Ballew, whose Circle Bar T Leatherworks supplies belts and holsters to cowboy shooters nationwide. “It’s huge,” he says. “It’s given a rebirth to the whole shooting industry.”

Indeed, cowboy action shooting is the fastest growing firearms sport in America. Recently, the Outdoor Life television network launched a weekly broadcast to feature the sport.

Every competitor in cowboy action shooting must adopt a persona and unique alias inspired by a person of the late 19th century or a Hollywood Western character.

“The greatest thing about this sport for me is that I see 12-year-old kids to 87-year-old men and women of all shapes and sizes. Everybody competes,” Ballew says. “It allows people to shoot and enjoy firearms.”

One avid competitor that seems to break the mold is Christina Brogue, one of a handful of women who compete in Southern Missouri Rangers matches at Willard.

“I am so much into this. It’s unreal,” says Brogue, a firefighter from Republic. Brogue was born in Madrid, Spain, but has embraced the lore of the American West — at least in the form it’s presented in cowboy action shooting. “If I could do this every day, trust me I would.”

For more information, or to find a cowboy shooting club in your area, log onto www.sassnet.com, or write to the Single Action Shooting Society, 23255 La Palma Ave., Yorba Linda, CA 92887.

Cowboy Shooting Clubs in Missouri
The Ozark Posse, Cassville — (417) 847-0018
Moniteau Creek River Raiders, Fayette — (573) 687-3103
Rocky Branch Rangers, Higginsville — (816) 524-1462
Central Ozarks Western Shooters, St. Robert — (573) 765-5483
Gateway Shootist Society, St. Louis — (636) 464-6569
Southern Missouri Rangers, Willard — (417) 759-9114

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