Cowboy action shooting

Cowboy Action Shooting, also known as Western Action Shooting, is a competitive shooting sport which originated in California, USA, in the early 1980s. Cowboy Action Shooting is now practiced world wide with several sanctioning organizations including the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), Western Action Shootists Association (WASA), National Congress of Old West Shooters (NCOWS) in the USA as well as others in the USA and in other countries.

The sport requires shooters to compete using firearms typical of the mid to late 19th century including single action revolvers, lever action rifles (chambered in pistol calibers) and side by side double barrel shotguns or pump action shotguns with external hammers.

Competitors are required to wear an Old West costume of some sort during events. Depending on the standards of the sanctioning organization, costumes may be historically accurate for the late 1800s or may just be suggestive of the Old West. Some might even look like something out of an old western B-movie featuring Hopalong Cassidy or a television series like Gunsmoke. Participants must also shoot under an alias out of the Old West or having an Old West flair. Many shooters get creative in selecting an alias (such as the banker who shoots under the alias "The Lone Arranger") which is registered with the sanctioning body who will prohibit any other shooter from using that alias at a sanctioned event.

The competition involves shooting a number of separate shooting scenarios known as stages. Stages are always different and each stage will typically require ten pistol rounds (shooters generally carry two single action revolvers), nine rifle rounds, and two to eight shotgun rounds. Targets are typically steel plates that ring when hit. Occasionally reactive targets such as steel knockdown targets or clay birds are used. Shooters compete against the clock. To each shooter's 'raw' time for the stage is added five seconds for each missed target and ten seconds for any procedural penalty incurred. The fastest time wins the stage. The winner of a match is determined by adding up each shooters ranking for each stage with the lowest score winning. For example, if a shooter places first in every stage in a 10 stage match the shooters score would be 10 (a 1 for each stage) and would be the lowest score possible. More likely the shooter would not place first in every stage and might have scores such as a 1st place, a 3rd, a 6th, a 2nd, a 1st, a 1st a 2nd, a 3rd, a 1st and a 4th which totals up to 24 stage rank points for the match. If this shooter is in first place all other shooters will have a higher score.

Shooters are timed using electronic timers which record the time for each shot to one hundredth of a second. In a typical stage the shooter who is next in line to compete will load his guns at a loading table under the supervision of another shooter. Although popularly known as "six shooters," for safety reasons western style six guns are always loaded with only five rounds with an empty chamber under the hammer. The shooters rifle will be loaded with the requisite number of rounds with the hammer down on an empty chamber. Unless the stage requires the shooter to start with the shotgun in hand it will be left unloaded until the shooter uses it in the stage.

When he comes to the line he will stage his long guns as required by the stage description (for instance he may stage his rifle on a hay bale to the left of where he starts and his shotgun on a hay bale to the right of where he starts the stage). When he steps to the starting position, the Range Officer who is conducting the shooter through the stage will ask if the shooter understands the course of fire and clarify any questions the shooter may have. The Range Officer will ask if the shooter is ready then will tell the shooter to "Stand By" and will start the timer within 2 to 5 seconds. When started the timer gives an audible electronic tone and the shooter will begin the stage.

An example of a stage might have the shooter draw his first pistol and engage five steel targets, then holster his first pistol and move to his left to where his rifle is staged. He will retrieve his rifle and engage the rifle targets set further away than the pistol targets. These might be nine separate targets or perhaps three targets which the shooter will sweep three times. He then lays his rifle back down on the hay bale open and empty and runs to the right where his shotgun is staged. Since shotguns are always staged open and empty, the shooter will retrieve his shotgun and load it with a maximum of two rounds (regardless of type of shotgun) and engage two knock down targets, reload and engage two more knock down targets which must fall to score. The shooter will then lay his shotgun back down on the hay bale open and empty and draw his second pistol, this time engaging three pistol targets in what is known as a "Nevada Sweep" (left, center, right, center, left for a total of five rounds).

After the shooter is finished shooting the Range Officer will tell the shooter to take his long guns and go the unloading table where another shooter will supervise the unloading and verify that his guns are unloaded. The shooter's time is then recorded and any misses or penalties recorded. Targets are scored by three observers who count misses. The Range Officer is responsible for safely conducting the shooter through the stage and so his attention is not on the targets but rather on the shooter and specifically the muzzle of the shooter's firearm. The example of a stage above is representative but every stage at every match is different. Sometimes only two types of gun are used or perhaps even only one. Occasionally a shooter is required to reload a firearm on the clock.

In addition to requiring shooters to wear Old West attire, the Old West flavor of the matches is enhanced by having suitable targets and props for the stages. For example, a stage may be set in a bank and the shooter will be required to shoot through a barred bank window, then perhaps retrieve a sack of gold from a safe and carry it in one hand while shooting with his other hand. Another stage may have a shooter rescuing a baby (doll) and having to carry the baby through the entire stage while engaging the targets. Other props may include buck boards, chuck wagons, stage coaches and horses as well as jail cells, oak barrels, hitching posts, swinging saloon doors etc.

Traditionally, cowboy action shooting matches are trophy matches and the prizes are not based on ones shooting but are awarded based on drawings so even the worst shooter has a chance to win the best prize.

Socializing is a big aspect of the game and major matches often have dinner dances, costume judging and other social events. The sport is family oriented with wives and children taking part in the shooting competition and other events. Men and women may compete together or women may opt to enter in women only categories. As with all the shooting sports, men have no inherent advantage over the women and many women are top competitors.


While various sanctioning organizations have differing classes, typically such classes would include the following:

  • Traditional - Shooters use pistols with fixed sights.
  • Modern - shooters use pistols with adjustable sights.
  • Black powder - shooters use black powder rather than smokeless powder in all their guns.
  • Frontiersman - Shooter uses cap and ball revolvers and side by side double barrel shotguns with exposed hammers.

In addition there are often classes based on how the shooter fires his guns such as:

  • Duelist - Shooter uses only one hand to fire pistols
  • Gunfighter - Shooter uses two pistols at once when the stage allows other wise shoots his right side pistol with his right hand only and his left side pistol with his left hand only.

All of these classes may also be shot as womens classes or junior classes or senior classes. There is generally no "mens" class per se and women may shoot in the same class as the men.

There are many other classes, especially at the local level, but the above are representative of the main types of classes one finds at cowboy action shooting events.

Firearms are center fire .32 caliber or larger with pistols and rifles chambered in .45 Colt being very popular. Ammunition is generally loaded at medium to full power levels although some very competitive shooters prefer to shooter lighter calibers (such as .32 and .38) with light loads to improve their times.

For information on where to go to watch a match or take part in a match simply do a web search on "cowboy action shooting."

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