Cowboy Action Shooting

Cowboy shooting competitions draw out Nebraska's wildest western gunslingers near Valparaiso

(The story originally appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

"LOOK OUT, FLOYD!" A loud volley of rifle shots follows, punctuated by the ping ping ping of bullets hitting their mark. The cowboy puts aside the empty rifle and whips out his trusty six-shooter, firing several quick shots. His leather-gloved hands reach for the shotgun leaning at the ready against the storefront. Kaboom!

Partly hidden in shadow beneath his broad-brimmed hat, a look of satisfaction spreads across the cowboy’s face. Acknowledging the praise of his compadres, his hat brim dips ever so briefly in a modest nod of acknowledgment.

This isn’t a scene from an old Saturday morning Western or a penny dreadful. It’s cowboy action shooting. In our travels, we found that Nebraska is full of characters still laying claim to their Wild West heritage. Several groups around the state host events devoted to the hobby.

We joined the Blue River Regulators at their shooting range, tucked away in the rolling hills near Valparaiso. The path from the line of parked vehicles descended into a narrow triangular valley lined with ancient cottonwoods. The dense canopy would be ideal in the summer heat, but on that chilly morning we were wishing for sun. We could smell coffee brewing in a blue enamel pot on the campfire.

The “Regulators” had gathered for a brief meeting. Looking around, we felt underdressed. Everyone else was in late-19th century costume. In groups like this one, clothing and accessories must be as accurate as possible. Buttons replaced zippers; suspenders replaced belts. Shirt pockets were scarce, and spurs chimed musically as tab-topped boots pounded a path across the grass. Petticoats and pointy-toed lace-up boots peeked out beneath long billowing skirts. Elaborate holsters held pairs of revolvers and neat lines of cartridges. Carpetbag satchels lay open, displaying old-style print on ammunition boxes.

We spotted a familiar face in the crowd, formerly the most recognized face in the world – Col. William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. Terry Lane from Walton has been portraying Cody for 15 years. From his neatly trimmed white goatee, to buckskin coat and elk skin pants, Lane was the spittin’ image of the larger-than-life figure he portrays. “I feel like I am Buffalo Bill,” he said.

Major shooting events also have costume competitions. Lane told us that he has won the last five competitions he attended with his extensive Buffalo Bill wardrobe in both the working and banquet/evening costume classes. Lane has researched Cody well and loves to pass on intriguing trivia. “Colonel Cody was always in a three-piece suit because the public expected it, although they were somewhat taken aback by his buckskin pants,” he said.

Lane was quick to add that, for him, his clothes are not a costume. He’s serious when he says, “This is what I wear every day. I own no other clothing.” His full-time job at the Old West Shop at The Fort Western Outfitters in Lincoln offers him the opportunity to dress his passion. The shop is full of period apparel ranging from working shirts, boots and pants, to formal brocade vests and long coats, to elaborate gowns and bawdy saloon girl dresses.

Aliases – such as Reckless Rose, Toeless Dave and Gut Shot Don – are as colorful as the clothing. There are 65,000 registered aliases among cowboy action shooters nationwide, with no duplications allowed. Familiar western names have creative twists – like Mild Bill Hiccup and Black Bart Simpson. There are personal notes behind many aliases. Cathie Parrino, also known as Annie Noah, chose her grandmother’s maiden name for her alias. “My grandmother was a Nebraska farm wife,” Parrino said, “and I’m sure she knew how to shoot.”

Parrino has been shooting for three years. She watched her husband, Joe, shoot for a year before she joined in. “You’re never too old to try something new,” she said. She enjoys the friendliness of the group. In addition to the club’s nine monthly shoots and other regional matches, the group also meets during the winter months for social events and a chance to wear their evening costumes.

Lance Naderhoff, the club president, gave us a brief tour of the range and explained how the competition works. He stressed that gun safety is a major emphasis. Ammunition is carefully loaded with just enough powder to get the lead bullets to the target. The targets tilt at a precise angle and deflect the bullets safely to the ground and avoid ricochets. Shooters and observers must wear eye and ear protection, the participants’ only departure from their historically accurate garb. Officials at each station supervise each participant as he or she loads weapons, fires at the target and again when the shooter exits the station.

Shooters use original or reproduction firearms that were typical from 1860 to 1900. Guns must be single-action, meaning you have to manually cock the hammer each time before the gun will shoot. 

Through the years, members have designed and constructed a variety of “stages” depicting a bank, general store, gallows and most recently an outlaw’s cave. Shooters fire a rifle, revolver and shotgun at each stage. Their score is based on accuracy and speed, and follows a prescribed pattern. 

Short narratives set the stage. These can be based on real historical events or tall-tale scenarios such as: “That dimwit Floyd got hisself in trouble again. Seems he’s about to get the rope necktie for another foolish deed. With winter comin’, and since he’s such a good pardner (even if he does smell a bit), create a diversion an’ cut ’im loose so ya got someone ta play cards with when it gits snowy out.” Time starts when the shooter says, “Look out, Floyd!”

The shooter must fire at the targets in a set pattern and move quickly from rifle to revolver to shotgun. Electronic timers record the speed. The fastest time wins. There are penalties for each miss and for shooting targets out of order. Gender offers no advantage, so men and women usually compete on an equal basis. Both men and women are impressive shooters.


(The story originally appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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