Join the Single Action Shooters Society to explore family history and tune up shooting skills in the off-season.
By Gary Lewis
A couple of years ago, digging through a box of old family photos, I came on a newspaper clipping of one Paul Cunningham, my grandma’s uncle. A larger than life character, his visage had been carved on a totem pole on Whidbey Island and I remembered what grandma had to say about him.
He was a big game hunter, a lover of fine rifles and fast horses, a friend of Buffalo Bill Cody. He was a frontier policeman in the 1870s and 1880s and a poet. He wore his hair to his shoulders, a Van Dyke beard, a collar and a bowtie and wrote under the pen name, Peppercorn. It was easy to find information and pictures on Ancestry.com and when I searched back through other relatives it struck me; My ancestors, throughout the 1700s and 1800s, always lived on the frontier and always moving west when it got too crowded. And a lot of them were solid people who married for life, worked hard and went to church on Sunday.
I went to church on a Sunday with the Horse Ridge Pistoleros at the COSSA Park, east of my hometown of Bend, Oregon. The mission is really just a plywood façade painted up to look like the front of an adobe building. There is a wooden cross, a church bell and a plywood vulture perched on the corner of the building. A sign reads Espirtu del Juego, which means something like spirit of the game.
I introduced myself as Peppercorn to Palaver Pete, Big Casino, Whisperin’ Wade, Hoss, Dirt Digger and a bunch of other folks I already knew. You see, a cowboy is way better off coming up with his own handle than to let a bunch of ornery hombres come up with one for him.
I flashed my badge to prove my bona fides. I’d registered the nickname with the Single Action Shooting Society. I was probably the only one with a six-digit badge number. There are over 100,000 members in SASS and each has a unique nickname. Any SASS member can find a place to shoot any weekend in any state in the U.S. and in several foreign countries.
At the heart of SASS and cowboy action is 3-gun competition. Each participant assumes the identity of a character from the Old West or from a B-western. Most opt for an 1880s style with two six-guns, a lever-action rifle and a shotgun. Because I know a few of the guns my great-great uncle owned and I know how he dressed, I can interpret the rest.
For my armament, I have a matched set of Model 1873 single actions from Pietta and Traditions, a Winchester 73 and a side-by-side shotgun.
The sixguns are chambered for 357 Magnum and have 5-1/4 inch barrels. They ride in a Kirkpatrick Long Hunter rig with a three-inch tapered belt and sliding two-inch drop holsters with eight-degree forward cants. The holsters are cut down in the fronts for quicker draws and flare at the top for ease in reholstering.
My Winchester Model 1873 is a current production Short Rifle with a straight grip stock, a crescent buttplate and a 20-inch barrel. Of course, the rifle and the revolvers share the same ammunition. I keep the rifle safe in a red, fringed wool blanket sleeve. Someday I’ll take this rifle on a pig hunt or a deer hunt. For now, I’m learning to shoot it fast and smooth.
I actually have two shotguns, a 1930s Lefever 12 gauge that wants a bit of gunsmithing and a modern CZ Ringneck 20 gauge that could use a tune-up too. That’s one thing you find out about when you start shooting cowboy action. Every gun needs a bit of work. To make it smoother and faster.
At the mission, I was confronted by an array of steel bad guy targets. I rested my hands on my guns while Hoss held the timer. I shot each target, first with the left gun then with the right, shooting both empty. Then I picked up the rifle, hit each target again and picked up the shotgun. There was one shotgun target on the left and two on the right. The last one launched a clay pigeon, which I powdered. I wasn’t super fast and I wasn’t smooth, but I shot clean, meaning I hit every target. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
Cowboy action shooting is a combination of historical reenactment and cowboy matinee. There are a number of categories for competitors, including age-based, duelist, gunfighter, classic cowboy/cowgirl, B-western and blackpowder. Participants are supposed to dress in clothing typical of the late 1800s, a B-western movie or a western series. Short sleeve shirts, tank tops, long sleeve t-shirts, designer jeans, ball caps and tennis shoes are not allowed. The rules are posted at www.sassnet.com
There are about 15 SASS affiliated clubs in my home state of Oregon. Locally, I can shoot with the Horse Ridge Pistoleros, Pine Mountain Posse at COSSA Park (my home range) or the Old 97 Railroad Rangers.
Cowboy action shooting is a good way to connect with a family’s past and American history at the same time. All the clubs are happy to welcome new members and loan out gear to get a greenhorn started. They’re even happier to come up with a nickname for you. All in the spirit of the game.
To contact Gary Lewis, visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com