Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody were among the most acclaimed rifle shots of their day. Later, cowboy heroes of the silver screen and television wowed us with their lever-action dexterity, even though they were actually firing Five-in-One blanks, and accuracy and recoil weren’t issues.
However, thanks to the growing sport of cowboy action shooting, today there is a new breed of western-style riflemen and women who can outshoot even the best of the old-time trick shooters and more than a few celluloid cowboys as well. And they’re doing it with live ammo and solid lead projectiles. What’s more, some of the top contenders in today’s Single Action Shooting Society competitions work the actions on their lever guns faster than the original manufacturers ever thought possible.
For example, Spencer Hoglund, who goes by the SASS alias “Lead Dispencer” and has won SASS world and regional championships, was filmed cranking off 10 shots with his Uberti 1873 short rifle in just 2.20 seconds.
And Steve “Deuce” Stevens, starting with a shouldered Marlin 1894 with the action closed on an empty chamber, fired 10 hits on a steel target in 1.73 seconds. No wonder he was top male shooter at the 2010 Winter Range SASS Nationals.
Unlike some competitive sports, these winners aren’t on steroids, although sometimes it appears as if their guns are. If there is a secret to the eye-blinking speed and unerring accuracy of these champion shootists, it is that there are no secrets. Many of the world’s top contenders are refreshingly candid about describing what it takes to become a top shot in cowboy action shooting.
One of the most celebrated of this group is Gene “Evil Roy” Pearcey, who holds numerous world and national titles and is current world champion in both traditional and modern categories.
He runs the Evil Roy Shooting School in Durango, Colorado, and has been shooting cowboy action for 17 years—even though he didn’t get started in the sport until he was 50 years old.
“There is no substitute for practice and hard work,” he says. “After all, that’s what your competition is doing. Tuned guns help. But at a high level, cowboy action is a big-time mental game. Cowboy action is like any sport in that someone with crappy gear who practices a lot can beat a person with the best gear money can buy but who never practices.”
That isn’t to say one should not put a lot of thought and time rifle choice, and many serious shooters have a main rifle and an identical backup or two, should one malfunction during an event.
SASS rules allow only original or replica centerfire lever or slide action firearms that reflect the period between 1860 and 1899. Guns must have exposed hammers, tubular magazines and barrel lengths longer than 16 inches to qualify for main and team matches.
Plus, they must be at least .32 caliber but no larger than .45 and should use cartridges that are commonly chambered in revolvers. That means traditional frontier cartridges such as .32-20 and .44-40 are okay—as are more modern cartridges such as .32 H&R Magnum, .44 Special and even .44 Magnum—but the .30-30, .32 Winchester Special and .250-3000 Savage are not.
What all of this means is that originals or clones of the Winchester Models 1873, 1892, Marlin 1894 and Colt Lightning are the primary guns. But which one do you pick if you want to be in the winner’s circle?
One would think, because of its smoother action, the Model 1892 would be a standout favorite. But for many of the top shots I’ve spoken with, that is not the case.
“The 1892 is a stronger action,” Pearcey says. “However, for cowboy action the 1873 is by far the better choice. That’s because the ’92 has an angle feed. That is, the cartridge comes up on the carrier at an angle to come into the chamber. This makes overall cartridge length a critical factor, as that can change the angle it enters the chamber. Plus the Model 1892 is much harder to take apart and reassemble for cleaning and maintenance.
“By comparison, nothing is smoother than a properly tuned ’73. The gun will feed quickly and smoothly as the rounds are pushed straight into the chamber by the bolt. No angle. Plus the trigger can be tuned to a light pull with no creep. And the ’73 is very easy to take apart and put back together and to do general maintenance work. Plus, the gun is very, very fast.”
Hoglund agrees and notes that the ’92 cannot currently be short-stroked, and no matter how smooth, it cannot compare to toggle-link actions.