Introduction to Cowboy Action Shooting

Let me start off by stating that I am not an expert on this subject by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I am very much a greenhorn and new to sport/hobby of Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) or Western Action Shooting (WAS). Likewise, I am very new to many of the firearms from the old west period. My purpose here is to share what I have learned as I go along and maybe it will answer some questions and make it easier for others who are new to the sport or are interested in getting into it.

Cowboy Action Shooting is basically playing cowboy. We dress up in costumes representing the old west and shoot guns that are representative of the old west time period which is 1865-1899.

There are numerous ways people can enjoy CAS/WAS. There are organized shoots and competitions and numerous reenactments around the country. Reenactments often involve mock gunfights using blanks. Shooting competitions are done with real live ammunition shot at targets.

I have yet to participate in a reenactment so I am going to skip over that at this point.

There are also "Quick Draw" competitions and organizations where the participants shoot specially modified ammunition that shoots low power wax bullets. The cartridges do not even contain any powder and they are fired only by oversized shotgun primers. Again, not my area so I cannot tell you much more about Quick Draw.

For those who want to shoot in competitions, or just shoot for fun, these are several organizations that cater to old west shooters. The biggest organizations are the Single Action Shooters Society (SASS) and the National Congress of Old West Shooters (NCOWS).

In general, SASS tends to be more competition oriented and more forgiving about costuming. Between SASS and NCOWS, SASS is by far the bigger organization in terms of membership and local chapters. SASS allows B-movie costumes as seen in the old Hollywood westerns which often bear little resemblance to what was actually worn by people of the period. Competitions are timed and the fastest shooter who hits the most targets wins. Some are unbelievably fast and can shoot 15 or more targets with multiple guns in as little as 12-15 seconds. Many of the competitors use "race guns" that have been modified for faster shooting. SASS also has a "Wild Bunch" category where people can shoot 1911 Colt 45s and replicas.

In general, NCOWS is more concerned with historical accuracy and shooting for fun. They do shoot timed matches and scores are recorded but from my experience, many of us really don't care what the score is. NCOWS does not allow modified "race guns" and the targets are generally much farther than those in SASS so NCOWS puts more emphasis on accuracy than speed. They are more strict about costumes and guns being historically correct for the 1865-1899 time period and primarily of the old west. However, they do give you up to one year to get your stuff together. There are currently about 20 local chapters (posses) scattered around the country.

For more information about SASS see www.sassnet.com
 

For more information about NCOWS see www.ncows.org

For more information about CAS in general see www.cascity.com . The forums on CAS City are chocked full of good information. SASS, NCOWS and other cowboy action shooting groups have their won sub-forums on Cas City.

In either case, you will need some basics to get started. It is not an inexpensive hobby to get into. You can easily invest quite a bit of money in guns, clothing and accessories just to get started and, like any hobby, there is not limit to what you can spend on it. While it is expensive, many will point out that it is not really any more expensive than golf, fishing or any number of other hobbies. One difference is that much of the expense comes right up front to get started but then it is not that expensive to participate from that point on.

So what do you need? Really nothing to give it a try. Just show up at a shooting match. Most likely you find people very willing to lend you guns and ammo.

If you decide you want to gear up, basically you are at least going to need a period correct pistol, rifle, ammunition and clothing. You can expect to spend at least $1200-$1500. That is a pretty big pill to swallow. However, bargains can be found in all categories. Many shooters find cheap clothes that are acceptable, or can be altered to be acceptable at Goodwill stores or thrift shops. NCOWS gives you up to a year to get your outfit together so you don't have to rush out and buy everything at once. Bargains can also be found in used guns. They are often for sale at the shooting matches by people who have upgraded or moved on to other models. Reloading your own ammunition can save you a bunch of money in the long run instead of buying new ammo.

First, lets take a more in-depth look at the guns.

Guns:

SASS requires four guns for most shooting classes (two pistols, a rifle and a shotgun). NCOWS has a "Working Cowboy" class that only requires one pistol and one rifle (period correct of course).  Other classes may require more guns.

I am not a member of SASS. I am a member of NCOWS and I mostly shoot with the "Johnson County Rangers" in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I will be participating in the NCOWS National and regional events as well as visiting other local posses. Since all of my CAS/WAS experience is with NCOWS, my information will mostly be based on NCOWS guidelines.

Pistols

Pistols must be original or faithful replicas of those used in the old west 1860-1899. Among the most popular are the Colt .45 Single Action Army revolver, also commonly known as the Colt 45, SAA, or the Peacemaker. This is a cartridge revolver that may shoot either black powder in original models or modern smokeless powder cartridges in modern models and replicas. This pistol was made in several different configurations in different calibers, different barrel lengths, with different finishes and with different grips. Original antique Colt 45s and other original pistols are out there but they are pretty expensive, often going for several thousand dollars, and many who own them consider them too valuable to shoot although some do shoot them. The good news is that there are a number of faithful replicas manufactured by various companies.

Colt still makes the Colt 45 (3rd generation).

The Ruger Vaquero is an acceptable replica as it very closely resembles the Colt. Older models have a slightly larger frame than the original Colts but are still acceptable for cowboy action shooting. The newer models, marked "New Vaquero" have smaller frames and are closer replicas of the old Colts.

Other popular cartridge revolvers from the old west include the Smith & Wesson Schofield (reportedly used by Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Virgil Earp, Billy the Kid, and many others).

Remington and Colt cap & ball percussion revolvers converted for cartridge ammunition were also popular in the old west.

Besides the popular cartridge revolvers which quickly became the norm after they were introduced around 1873, many shoot the older cap& ball percussion revolvers that were used during the Civil War and later. Among these are the Colt 1851 Navy  .36 caliber and the Colt 1860 Army in .44 caliber. The Colt 1851 Navy percussion revolver was reportedly carried by Wild Bill Hickok, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, and Robert E. Lee. The Remington Model 1858 (also known as the New Army) was very popular and known to have been carried by William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. It was also popularized by Clint Eastwood in the movie  "Pale Rider" although, in the film, he used one converted for cartridge use. The Remington 1858 had some unique features such as a safety notch between each cylinder where the hammer could rest without accidentally firing a cylinder and a easily removable cylinder that could quickly be replaced with a pre-loaded spare cylinder.

The cap & ball revolvers are typically loaded by charging each cylinder with black powder or a modern black powder substitute (but NEVER smokeless powder). A round lead ball is then rammed into each cylinder on top of the powder using a ram mechanism located under the barrel of the revolver. A percussion cap then has to be fitted on a nipple at the rear of each cylinder to provide a small charge that ignites the larger cylinder charge when struck by the gun's hammer.

Because of the danger of accidentally firing the gun by a blow to the hammer, six-shot revolvers are typically loaded with five shots and the hammer rests on an empty cylinder until shooting begins. All stages, or rounds, of an NCOWS shooting match are designed for five pistol shots per pistol.

There are a number of faithful replicas of these revolvers available from several manufacturers and some very good ones can be purchased new for as little as $200.

Many of the original cap & ball revolvers were later modified to shoot metallic cartridge ammunition by changing out the cylinder for a more modern one. Even the modern replica cap & ball revolvers can be converted to shoot cartridge ammunition with readily available parts and conversion kits.

Rifle

There are a number of classic old west rifles that are popular in CAS shooting. These would include Springfields, Spencer, Sharps, Henrys, and of course Winchesters. Most popular and coveted is probably the Winchester 1873 lever action, known as "The gun that won the west". Winchester made hundreds of thousands of the 1873 model. It was available in the rifle model with a 24 inch barrel and carbine model with a 20 inch barrel. The carbine proved to be by far the most popular in the old west mainly because it was lighter and more portable. The 1873 was originally produced in .44-40 caliber although other calibers were later introduced.


Winchester 1873

The popularity of the Winchester in .44-40 led Colt to manufacture a version of the Single Action Army "Peacemaker" revolver chambered for the same round so people could use the same ammunition in both their pistols and rifles. At the time, they had problems getting the popular .45 colt pistol cartridges to feed properly in the lever action rifles. The colt 45 cartridge was eventually redesigned and the problem solved. Today, the most popular rifle reproductions are in .45 caliber so people can use the same ammunition as their Colt 45 pistols.

Other popular Winchester old west lever action rifle models used in CAS shooting include Henry and the Winchester models 1866, 1876, 1886, 1892 and 1894. Due to the rarity and value of the originals, most use imported replicas made by companies such as Rossi or Uberti.

Shotgun

Some classes of CAS shooting in either SASS or NCOWS require a shotgun. Rules and allowable shotguns vary but popular models include single barrel, double barrel, pump and even lever action shotguns. The most popular is probably the short double barrel "coach gun" as was often carried by the guards riding next to the driver on stage coaches, hence the term "riding shotgun". Various models may shoot black powder or modern smokeless powder. NOTE: Be SURE which powder your guns use. Modern smokeless powder is much more powerful than black powder and loading smokeless powder into a gun designed for black powder and can have explosive and deadly results.

Other Guns

There are a number of "classes" that you can shoot in under SASS, NCOWS or other organizations. These shooting classes may include derringers or pocket pistols.

As you can see, you have a lot of choices of guns suitable for Cowboy Action Shooting. At a minimum, you will need a pistol and a rifle to shoot in the "Working Cowboy" class of NCOWS.  New cap & ball black powder pistols can be found at larger retailers like Cabellas and Sportsmans Guide as well as many gun shops for around $200. Good new old west replica rifles usually start at around $800 with many costing more like $1200. New old west replica coach shotguns can be had for about $400 and up. Of course, used guns can be found for considerably less money than new guns. My first CAS gun was a Ruger Vaquero .45 in polished stainless steel (allowed by NCOWS because it looks like the nickel plated Colt 45). I paid $450 for a used model at a gun show.

Don't worry if you don't have the necessary guns. If you are interested in CAS, go to a match and check it out even if you don't own a gun. You will most likely find that there will be plenty of people very willing to let you use their guns. Some will even insist on it. You will also typically find a number of used guns for sale by shooters who have moved on to different models. At my first shooting match another shooter brought a Rossi 1892 replica to lend to me for the shoot. I loved it and he offered to sell it to me at a very good price.

Before buying your guns be sure to check the rules of the organization that you plan to shoot with. They usually have published specific lists of the guns they do and do not allow. I also highly recommend attend a match or two before buying so can can borrow and try different guns and get advice from experienced CAS shooters before investing in your guns.

You can also see the pros and cons of shooting black powder versus smokeless powder and what guns are suitable for each type. A lot of CAS shooters prefer black powder to be more authentic to the time period and they just like the big cloud of smoke when they shoot. Smokeless powder was not developed until the late 1800s but most CAS organizations allow the more readily available modern smokeless powders as well as modern black powder substitutes. True black powder is more regulated, harder to find, more expensive to ship due to hazardous material regulations, and requires more stringent storage procedures. Black powder substitutes such as Pyrodex and Triple Seven are less regulated and can be found in most gun shops and sporting goods stores. It is not black powder but has added chemicals to make it smoke like black powder. Beware that black powder and black powder substitutes are generally more corrosive than smokeless powder and you will need to be more careful and regimented about cleaning your guns soon after shooting them.

Ammunition

Finally, regarding guns, is the matter of ammunition. Ammunition will be your main ongoing expense after your initial investment in your guns. New ammunition can be fairly expensive and you will often shoot 75-100 rounds or more in a shooting match. Reloading your own ammunition can save you a considerable amount of money and nearly everyone who shoots frequently reloads their own ammo or buys reloaded ammo. Reloading is really not very difficult but it does require carefully following proper procedures and accurate measurements of powder loads of the proper powders. You can get everything you need to reload for under $200 and you can save as much as 50% off the cost of new ammunition. Brass cartridges can be reused several times, especially with the relatively mild "cowboy" loads generally used by CAS shooters. Mild "cowboy" loads produce less recoil which helps in accuracy and they they are easier on the steel targets generally used in CAS. In fact, CAS shoots require soft lead round nose bullets and specify maximum velocities for ammunition so as not to tear up the targets and to help prevent ricochets and flying debris.

The most popular cartridge ammunition for CAS is .45 long colt. It is correct for the time period and is readily available either in new or reloaded cartridges. Empty brass cartridges, primers and lead bullets are also readily available for those who reload their own ammunition as is smokeless powder and black powder substitutes. Some do shoot the common to the period .44-40 ammunition but it is considerably more expensive and harder to find the brass. Nearly all CAS shoots require the rifles to be of pistol calibers. High powered rifle ammunitions are generally NOT allowed. Most shooters buy rifles and pistols of the same caliber so one cartridge works in both and they only have to buy or reload one caliber.

For cap & ball pistols, most are .44 caliber and shoot black powder or black powder substitutes. The lead balls are generally slightly oversized, at around .451 or .454 so that they form a very tight seal in the cylinder. You will also need to buy the percussion caps which can be found at most gun shops or sporting goods stores for about $8-$10 per 100 caps.

Other Gun Stuff

Safety: You will need eye and ear protection. It may not be period correct but it is required.  Decent impact resistant shooting glasses can be easily found for as little as $10 and foam disposable ear plugs are even cheaper.

Don't forget your gun cleaning kits and supplies. You will need special wire bushes, solvents, cloth patches and oils to properly clean and protect your guns from rust and corrosion. Cleaning kits for specific caliber pistols, rifles and shotguns are readily available and not very expensive. There are lots of accessories like stands to hold your guns while cleaning them, special pads and covers to protect your table from solvents and chemicals, and dozens of solvents, oils and other supplies that you can buy but many are not necessary.

Finally, don't forget about your gun leather. You will need holsters and gun belts. These can be found at a number of stores or mail order houses that specialize in old west gear. Beware that some organizations do not allow the fancy Hollywood movie cowboy holsters as they are not really authentic to what was worn in the time period. Much of what you see in the movie and television westerns is NOT period correct. Groups like NCOWS are much more particular about being historically correct. A custom handmade gun rig by a well known leather worker can run hundreds of dollars. Less expensive commercially produced models are available but again, be sure it is period correct as many are not.


Period correct gun rig custom made by Cliff Fendley.

OK pardner, we got your guns covered. Now, lets move on to clothes. Click HERE.

 

 

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