- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

BOISE, Idaho — A blur of fire-spitting six-guns, rifles and shotguns transforms the quiet desert plinking ground at Blacks Creek Public Rifle Range twice a month. The dusty sagebrush desert makes a perfect backdrop for the more than 75 participants who get gussied up in 19th-century costumes to socialize and compete in Cowboy Action Shooting, a fantasy sport that combines a heap of historical flavor with rapid-fire target shooting.

For a few hours a month, ordinary people become steely-eyed lawmen or bad-news drifters. At least in their own minds, they become Jesse James or Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley or Belle Star.

“This is a chance to do what I was doing when I was 10 or 11 years old out in my back yard — only now I can do it with real guns,” says Ray Walters, a 55-year-old former firefighter who writes for the Boise-based Shoot magazine.

The competition, governed by the Single Action Shooting Society, has existed since the early 1980s. There are numerous styles of match competition, from mounted pistol shooting to short-range derringer competitions to long-range rifle shoots. Most common are medium-range pistol, rifle and shotgunning games.

Matches are divided into eight or 10 scenarios, called stages. Shooters fire through a doorway, around a corner or out a window at steel squares, circles or small cowboy silhouettes from five to 15 yards away. They use multiple combinations of pistols, rifles and shotguns. Sometimes an extra element is added, such as throwing a knife or hatchet into a target.

A timer keeps track electronically of how long it takes a competitor to shoot through the stage — which usually lasts less than a minute. Official observers watch for safety violations, gun-handling problems and target misses, which add time to the overall score.

Cowboy shooters are assigned aliases, which they prefer to their real names during competitions. Mr. Walters is “Smith ‘n’ Jones.” Deana Daniels is “Missy Marble.”

“Yeah, but they call me ‘Hagatha’ when I miss,” a frustrated Miss Daniels says after hitting 10 pistol shots and 10 rifle shots but missing one of five shotgun blasts — all in 38.9 seconds.

Competition is friendly because there are no prizes or cash awards — just bragging rights and belt buckles. Even at that, devoted shooters practice hours a day.

Dan Lopez is a 37-year-old nurse from Adrian, Ore. When he straps on his belt and guns, he becomes Sancho Ponza, a dashing desperado with a red sash, a black goatee and a long cigar.

Mr. Lopez is good — real good — for just his third year in the game. His compadres say he has the quickest gun and steadiest hand of all in the Oregon Trails chapter. He travels a few times a year to regional competitions and has his sights set on the nationals.

His performance secrets include good health, lean muscles and hundreds of hours of practice. It’s not uncommon for serious cowboy shooters to fire 700 to 800 bullets a week.

“You’ve got to be comfortable with what you are doing. Plus, we have a lot of friends, and we all learn from each other,” he says.

Just like in the Old West, women tote guns at the matches along with the menfolk. Sharon Wright, who shoots as “Six-gun Sam,” has won two state championships. Before she got involved four years ago, she had never fired a gun.

Participation by women “makes for a lot more harmony to get the wife or girlfriend out,” Miss Wright says.

You can spot a greenhorn in this sport a mile away. Beginners wear stiff cowboy hats and gun belts over jeans and sneakers. Old-timers who have spent some cash over the years have invested in chaps, scarves, fancy satin vests, pocket watches, spurs and leather cuffs.

Women sometimes make their own Victorian-style dresses.

“When I first started, I was not wild about the outfits,” says Brian D. Graham, aka “Doc Graham,” the Oregon Trails chapter president. “Once you get into it, you find yourself always trying to find just the right cowboy hat and just the right cowboy boots that make you feel good.”

The sport can get expensive. Ada County sheriff’s Deputy Brenda Glenn, who goes by “Dakota Star,” sports a custom-made gun belt and holsters that cost $1,500, including engraved American Indian artwork.

Some participants aren’t in it for the competition or the precise historic dress. They just want to have fun. That’s why Ryan Groves, an electronics professor at the College of Southern Idaho, showed up at one shooting match with a black mortar board on his head and sporting a full academic robe usually worn by professors only at graduation ceremonies.

Mr. Groves goes by the cowboy handle “Irving, the 142nd Fastest Gun in the West.” He gleefully blasts away with his huge original 1887 black-powder 10-gauge through the day’s stages.

“You get a lot of bang and boom and smoke,” Mr. Groves says, his eyes twinkling from his performance.

The entire field stops briefly and chuckles at Mr. Grove’s thundercloud.

“He should get points just for the percussion value,” one of the officials comments. “Next shooter up.”

• • •

Blacks Creek Public Rifle Range: 2420 E. Kuna-Mora Road, Kuna, Idaho. Phone 208/342-9614. Visitors are welcome at demonstration shootings; participants share their gear with newcomers. Regular attendees typically spend between $1,500 and $2,000 to be outfitted properly, including a rifle, shotgun, two pistols, ammunition, gun belt, hat, boots and clothes.

For more information on the Web, go to www.shootmagazine.com or www.cowboyactionshooting.com.

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