Cowboy Action Shooting Turns Ordinary Folks Into Weekend Westerners

With guns, costumes and settings straight out of the 19th century, participants build skills and friendships.

By Emma WhalenMay 18, 2017 10:50 am

When people who aren’t from Texas think about our state, they often have images of gun slinging cowboys in western wear. Of course, most of us don’t exactly fit that image. But some do – at least on the weekends.

It’s 8 o’clock on an overcast Saturday morning at a ranch in Blanco. Fifty or so men, and a few women, are donning 19th-century western wear – think chaps, cowboy hats, spurs and suspenders. They’re also taking on aliases.

Kirk Chappelear goes by Kickshot. Glenn Jordan is known as Far Ranger. Jared Anderson calls himself Bust a Cap.

They’re not period actors, impersonators or historical reenactors. They’re competitors.

The men and women – most middle-aged, a few younger and one close to 90 years old – are participating in a Cowboy Action Shooting match. They break into small groups or ‘posses,’ and compete to shoot different sets of metal targets as quickly as possible.

Cowboy Action Shooting got its start in the mid-1980s in the not-so-wild west of Southern California. The sport has grown into an international community. Authenticity is key. After suiting up in their cowboy regalia and taking on their aliases, the shooters load guns that are replicas of firearms that were actually used in the old west.

“A lot of them are new reproductions, so a lot of them are actually made in Italy, but the quality is extremely good nowadays,” says Kirk Chappelear, aka Kickshot.

He explains that the competition takes place across several ‘stages,’ designed to look like scenes from an old western. There’s a saloon, complete with swinging doors, an old bank and a livery. There’s even a mine shaft where competitors must shoot at targets while riding down a track in a rolling cart. The row of targets at every stage is split into three sections, each of which the competitors must shoot at with a different firearm.

There’s the pistol, the rifle and the shotgun.

As they go through the stages, competitors are assigned points for both speed and accuracy. Three counters follow them through each stage to verify the number of shots made, and the order they were made in. A timer also follows along. The fastest and most accurate shooter will receive the most points.

Emma Whalen/Texas Standard

Some of the guns used by Cowboy Action Shooting participants.

“Cowboy action shooting is just a nice fun sport,” Kickshot says. “It’s a competitive sport, there’s no money in it. It’s a family sport, all ages of man and woman are shooting and we can be competitive but we can still be friendly about it and enjoy ourselves with real competitive spirit.”

For some, it’s a weekend hobby. A UT-Austin professor, a former professional pool player and even an internationally-renowned engineer and scientist are just a few of the cowboys and cowgirls that leave their weekday identities behind when they come to the ranch. At each monthly match, there’s a steady group of regulars and handful of newcomers.

“There are some shooters, some of the older, slower shooters, they don’t even care about placing in their category, they just wanna beat their buddy Bob and they’re happy,” Kickshot says. “So there’s different levels of competition and it makes everybody happy it just depends on what you’re shooting for.”

Many of the serious competitors started training as soon as they were strong enough to hold a gun steadily. They’re well-known in the community. Kickshot says shooters trade stories about them like they’re old western legends.

He talked about a young prodigy, Dylan Holsey, aka Matt Black, who was formerly known as Rattlesnake Wrangler.

“He’s like the Michael Jordan of our shooting sport,” Kickshot says. “I’ve heard tales of him going out to the range with 900 to 1,000 rounds of ammo in a practice session and he is fast and quick.”

So exactly how fast is fast? Try 24 shots with three different guns in less than 10 seconds.

“…and I’ve heard, at the world championship that he’s done 10 pistol, 10 rifle and 4 shotguns in nine seconds,” Kickshot says. “And that was in a competition at the world championship with 800 of the best shooters from around the world and he beats everybody on every stage.”

Across all levels of competition, there’s a sense of community on these ranches, and there are even niche industries built from it. There’s a clothing shop in Fredericksburg that supplies competitors with authentic attire, an online newsletter and even sponsorships from gun companies for the more competitive shooters. Kickshot says he and his wife have invested in some of the more elaborate clothing.

“She’s kinda dressed down today,” he says. “just down to shirt and pants but she shoots in those full ballroom gowns. At the Texas state championships, that’s what she was shooting in.”

From welcoming newcomers to forming lasting friendships, the competitors look out for each other. Barbara Nurick, aka Barb Steele, is a newer addition to the sport and she says she’s felt nothing but support and kindness.

“Cowboy action shooters are the best,” she says “they care for you, they wanna make sure that you’re doing things right and they want to help totally.”

When the match wraps up, scores are tallied, chaps and spurs are taken off – but the camaraderie remains.

“Everybody’s sitting around a table, they’re having a nice cool drink and some snacks and we all sit around everybody discusses ‘what the heck were they thinking about that stage?’ It’s a fun thing. It truly is,” Barb Steele says.

As the work week starts up again, Barb Steele will return to her life as Barbara Nurick, Kickshot will once again be Kirk Chappelear and Far Ranger will be Glenn Jordan. But their bond will stay intact until they meet again in the wild west.

Emma Whalen/Texas Standard