Provo • It’s a hot, summer afternoon, and a posse of cowboys and cowgirls with aliases such as Lonesome Hart, Tamarack, Anita Gunn and Colt Colton are gathering at the mouth of Hobble Creek Canyon in Springville. Dressed in Old West attire, with single-action six-shooters, rifles and shotguns in hand, they’ve come to see who has the keenest eye and fastest trigger finger of the bunch on this side of the Wasatch.
No, this isn’t a rerun of some old Western movie, this is a modern-day club shoot for the Hobble Creek Wranglers , Utah County’s only Cowboy Action Shooting Club.
“Of all of the shooting sports I’ve done, this is by far the most fun,” said Springville resident Bob Marshall, who is the group’s president.
Cowboy Action Shooting is a sport that incorporates firearms and costumes from the Old West (typically the period from 1860-1900) and aims to bring people together through a mutual love of firearms and preserving the history of the Old West. Cowboy Action Shooting is governed by the Single Action Shooting Society, or SASS, an international organization founded in 1987.
“I think it’s the hardest shooting sport and the most fun because you don’t just master one gun, you have to use four of them in every stage,” explained Marshall. “It’s the best people that I’ve ever shot around.”
In Cowboy Action Shooting, each shooting sequence is called a scenario, where participants use two pistols, a rifle and a shotgun to hit a series of metal targets in a certain order as fast as possible.
“The trick to doing this, at least for me, is counting,” explained Michael Snelson, a Springville resident and also the secretary and treasurer of the group. “Some people look at the shapes of the targets and they do it by shape, some people count by how many shots have to go on each target. “One of the most used scenarios is called a Nevada sweep. There will be four targets set up, we’ll start on target one, sweep the four targets, and then come back and sweep them again.”
Each scenario begins with a spotter hitting a timer, and as soon as the scenario begins, shooters pull out their first pistol from their holster and shoot five rounds into the targets, then they pull out their next pistol and shoot five more rounds. Upon shooting all the pistol rounds, the shooter then moves a few feet to the next selection of targets where a rifle is sitting on a table. The shooter fires on the targets until the rifle is empty, then heads to a central table where a shotgun is waiting. The shooter shoots two rounds, loads two more, and then time is called.
For a fast shooter, the whole sequence is usually completed in about a dozen seconds.
“It’s challenging; it is not easy to go out and do this,” said Karen Doty, 79, a resident of Hemet, California, who stopped by the Hobble Creek Wranglers’ June shoot with her husband, Ron Doty, 82, while in the county visiting family and attending a baby blessing. The two are graduates of Brigham Young University, and go by the aliases “Spokane” and “Colt Colton,” respectively.
For Cowboy Action Shooting, it’s not only about shooting like a cowboy, but also dressing and playing the part, too.
In addition to only using guns designed before 1900, all members of the Single Action Shooting Society are required to make an effort to dress like a character from the Old West period. Their choice of who to role play is up to them. Along with the costumes, every shooter also has a unique alias.
For many, their alias says something about themselves, or their family’s history. For others, it’s an homage to their favorite Old West gunslinger, or even just some silly wordplay or a name that simply sounded cool.
For Karen “Spokane” Doty, her alias pays tribute to her hometown of Spokane, Washington. “I dress like an old schoolmarm from prior to 1900,” said Karen with a smile, gesturing to her long, black dress, black vest with a long-sleeved white button-up underneath and a black, flat-brimmed hat atop her head – all of which are made from heavy, durable materials.
“You kind of come here in a make-believe state, and it kind of stays through the day while you’re shooting,” said president Bob Marshall, who goes by the alias “Hobble Creek Marshal” because of his last name, and the fact that he lives in the mouth of Hobble Creek Canyon.
Though the cowboy and cowgirl costumes are a bit of role playing, the camaraderie between shooters is quite real. Several shooters explained that it’s the people that keep them coming back the second Saturday of each month from March through November for the club’s shoots. Be it some good-natured horseplay or a rivalry, the people of Cowboy Action Shooting keep each shoot fresh and fun.
“The second time I shot in the state championship shoot, I won it,” said Marshall. “The next year, there was a guy that was kind of my nemesis at the time. The day before the shoot I was having problems with my rifle, and he came over and said, ‘I’ve got this extra rifle and I’d rather you shoot this because if I beat you I want it to be because I outshot you, not because you had problems with a rifle.’ I didn’t shoot good anyway, but that’s not the point,” he said, with a laugh. “That’s the kind of people the sport’s made up with.”
Winter Range is the name of the Single Action Shooting Society’s national championship, and End of Trail is the name of the group’s international championship. Winners don’t win any cash prizes, but receive cowboy gear along with trophy-like belt buckles, and of course, bragging rights. Utah’s SASS state title is also an annual contest, which cycles to different shooting ranges in the state. According to Michael Snelson’s last count, there are 16 clubs in Utah, all holding their club shoots on varying days of the month. “If we wanted to, we could shoot every week,” said Snelson.
Like any shooting sport, gun safety is as integral a part of Cowboy Action Shooting as any of its theatrics.
“There are a lot of rules with Cowboy Action Shooting to make sure we stay safe and people don’t get shot,” said Snelson. “There has hardly ever been anyone since the 1980s injured in Cowboy Action Shooting. Everybody understands the safety rules, and they’re watching out for infractions.”
For example, guns point into earthen berms when loading and unloading, rifles and shotguns are carried uncocked, vertically with the barrel up, when on range, guns cannot be pointed any wider than 170 degrees from downrange, and only five rounds are loaded into six-shooting pistols so if the gun did fire accidentally, there’s an empty chamber up first. Along with missing targets, safety infractions also add time to lower a shooter’s score. If the safety infraction is egregious enough – like dropping a loaded gun – the shooter is disqualified from the shoot for the day.
“I’ve been a shooting cowboy with this club for 14 years, and I’ve traveled around to other places, but I’ve never seen anybody hurt,” Snelson said.
Though Snelson admitted that many of the club’s shooters are older men – primarily because of the high cost of buying four firearms, ammo and an outfit to be a regular with the club – Cowboy Action Shooting values diversity in its shooters and their skills.
“The beauty of this game is that there’s something for everyone,” said Kirk Ekins, who goes by the alias “Rusty Razor,” due to his aversion to shaving his long, thick beard. Ekins, and his wife, Lisa, are both Utah state champs in Cowboy Action Shooting. “I’m pretty competitive and I do fairly well,” he said. “There’s one shooter where he’ll shoot a stage in 80 seconds and I’ll shoot it in 20 seconds, and he tells me he had four times more fun. It’s whatever you want to be. There are people who just love the costumes. We’ve got wives that show up for banquet that never shoot a gun, but they love to dress up in Victorian gowns, and then there’s the collector that likes his old Colts and original guns. You can be competitive, you can just cheer for the crowd, whatever; there’s something for everyone in this game.”
However, one common thread among shooters is an appreciation for the Second Amendment. “We love our country, and this is one thing that we do to show that support,” Snelson said.
“We really wish that people who would like to see the Second Amendment not be what it is today, we would like to get them out to the range and let them try this so they can get a feel for it,” explained Snelson. “For people that haven’t done it or don’t like the Second Amendment, we’d like to have them shoot with us and see what it’s all about. We’ve had people come up who think they were afraid of guns because of what they’ve seen, and we actually get a gun in their hand and they shoot, and they have a great time doing it.”