Never too old to play cowboy
GYPSUM ” The old-west town of Tumbleweed is facing dangerous times. An outlaw, fleeing from Denver, has stumbled onto the little settlement, and figures he can hide out there. He’s all over town ” at the saloon, the train station, sneaking around behind the livery stable.
Have no fear. The citizens of Tumbleweed ” including Old Squint Eye, Princess Fallsdownalot, Billy Two Hares, the Salt Creek Shootist, and Black Irish ” are ready for action. They are all armed with pistols, rifles, and shotguns; and their aim, for the most part, is accurate. Just moments after the outlaw arrives, the shooting begins.
A scene from the Old West?
Actually, it’s a once-a-month scenario at the Gypsum shooting park. Every third Sunday, men, women, and sometimes even entire families decked out 1890s-style western outfits turn out for a “Cowboy Action Shoot.” They have guns strapped on their hips, and belts that hold their shotgun shells. It’s a fast-growing sport for people who enjoy competitive shooting, and who also have an affection for the Old West.
The sagebrush hills of the gun range, northwest of Gypsum, took on the look of a Western movie set when the group assembled Sunday for the contest.
“Everybody wants to be a cowboy. This is their chance,” says Dan Barber of Gypsum, whose cowboy name is “Old Squint Eye.” He’s the “Territorial Governor” of the Castle Peak Wildshots club. He and his wife, Sheila (Princess Fallsdownalot ” reference to her horse riding adventures), are the organizing force behind the local club. They spend hundreds of hours at the gun range, building the false-front western town with lots of doors and windows to shoot through. Sheila writes the scenarios that set the tone for each shoot.
The local group is an affiliate of the Single Action Shooting Society, an international organization boasting more than 150,000 members worldwide. SASS rules require that participants adopt shooting alias appropriate to a character or profession of the late 19th century, then develop a costume accordingly. Hence, John Oleson of Salt Creek becomes the “Salt Creek Shootist;” and Billy Joseph of Gypsum morphs into “Billy Two Hares” on shoot days. The costumes have some great details. Billy Two Hares has two rabbit’s feet decorating a pouch on his gun belt. Old Squint Eye keeps time with a silver, 1886 timepiece that he pulls out of his vest pocket. Princess Fallsdownalot varies from Native American garb to a western skirt with straw hat and a lacy parasol.
“Half the fun is dressing up,” Sheila Barber says.
The competition rules require that the weapons used be either originals or replicas of firearms patented before 1896. The firearms are typical of those used in the 1800s ” single action revolvers, pistol caliber lever action rifles, and old time, old-style shotguns.
Most competitors use replicas. However, at Sunday’s shoot, Oleson was using a couple of black powder pistols that left the Colt factory in 1877.
“They shoot better than modern guns “I can out-shoot some people who have a brand new Colt,” says Oleson.
The actual shoot is a timed competition in which the competitors must use four different weapons ” shotgun, rifle, and two pistols. The sequence is dictated by the script. The shootists aim through the cut-out doors and windows of the faux Western town, shooting at a variety of steel targets.
Billy Joseph (“Billy Two Hares”) says the competition encourages people to use guns that would otherwise just sitting in the closet. And, he insists, “old and slow” people can compete just as well as younger shooters.
The competitors are friendly ” joking with one another, lending weapons to the newcomers. Some of them know each other only by their adopted cowboy names.
“The No. 1 rule is safety. The No. 2 rule is to have fun,” Dan Barber says.
The Gypsum club is small, but on this Sunday, the club event draws 14 competitors from the Eagle Valley, Parachute, and Fruita. Michigan resident Brian Murray, who shoots under the alias “Black Irish,” was passing through on his way to a family reunion in Estes Park. He checked the SASS web page and discovered the local shoot.
He’s a trap shooter, who found the cowboy competition added another element to the sport he loves. He also gets a kick out of “playing cowboy.” The Cowboy Action Shoots often have an element of fun.
For example, on Sunday, the competitors could gain a point by roping a plastic steer’s head at the start of a sequence. Murray has been at shoots where people earned bonus points by limping like Chester, Marshal Matt Dillon’s sidekick on the old “Gunsmoke” television show; or by taking on the persona of an old-time western movie star, like Roy Rogers, or Hopalong Cassidy. Sometimes, the competitions have specific themes, such as “B Movie Westerns.”
“It’s a whole lot of fun ” it’s more than just shooting. It’s about making friends,” observes Murray. “It helps if you’re crazy.”
And yes, sometimes the scenarios require contestants to shoot from the hip, John Wayne style at close (and large targets).
“There’s no target so big you can’t miss it,” Dan Barber says.
Dean Mann of Edwards and a couple of his buddies stumbled on to the cowboy shoot last month, when they came to the gun range to practice. Intrigued by what they saw, and encouraged by the club, they came back this month. They managed to scrounge up some guns and rifles, but are still working on the cowboy gear. They had a great time.
“After you try it, it’s addictive,” Mann says.
“Some people never grow up ” they’re still playing cowboy,” Dan Barber adds.
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.