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Shooting Tips

Cowboy Action Shooting Secrets

by Rick Hacker   |  April 2nd, 2012 9

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.

  • Craig

    I am a hunter and firearm owner, hate to say it but this "pastime" has always left me a little nervous as its grown men playing" cowboys and indians", and might give the "antis" a little more ammunition than they already have , when viewed by the general public…

    • Jerry H.

      I also am a long time hunter and firearms owner, and tho I haven't got into the Cowboy Action Shooting I have long followed it since it began and have a great admiration and respect for those who do it, and I know several of them. The "antis" don't usually single out any one particular shooting sport as they don't want ANYONE to have firearms, and the waco's running around shooting up schools, shopping malls, or neighborhoods more than give them their "ammo". CAS, and hunting, are well regulated sports that bring friends and families together and are great examples of responsible people owning and shooting firearms.

    • long branch louie

      Maybe you should go to a match and see what it’s all about. We wear period correct clothes, shoot period correct guns and shoot using old west appearing props. But there is NOTHING about this that is “playing” cowboys and Indians. It is a serious game, and top cowboy shooters have beaten some of the best in other speed shooting sports….

  • Bill K

    The wounding a game gives the Anti's more ammunition than shooting targets. SSAS is a great family sport and loads of fun.

  • Ray T

    You can't find a nicer group of guys and ladies than SASS, Single Action Shooting Society. The idea that anti gun folks would use Cowboy Action Shooters as ammo is laughable at best. It isn't cowboys and Indians, it is cowboys and targets, using 19th century type guns.

    Sure I own several AR's, 5.56 through 50 Beowulf, far more likely that the anti's would pick on these rather than my single action revolvers, '73 rifles and '97 shotguns.

  • Cisco

    It has always seemed to me that cowboy shooting is portrayed as gun friendly by the press.

  • Leon

    I wish I'd gotten into this when I lived in the States. Hopefully I'll be getting a lever action over here (UK) soon.
    I don't get off on the duds etc, its more the precision of controlled technique that puts me in awe.
    I'd feel rediculous with a Brit accent in cowboy getup. But those lever action rifles are pure class.

  • http://batman-news.com Gary Heaton

    You Said “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. ”

    With all due respect sir, NO ONE is shooting BACK at these guys. It is just my opinion that the BEST of the old time trick shooters and gun fighters like Wild Bill would still be the best, if they were still around. Like Bob L, who past last year, he was one of THOSE old guys..but he was still the fastest man alive with a six gun. And did actually shoot a .45 though a Flat Washer with tape over the whole!! just like in the movie support your local sherrif. I have never seen anyone else Ever do that in front of a crowd.
    That being said, thank you for the artical I found it very informing.
    I look forward to joining this fine sport when they open a place in my area to shoot, that I dont have to drive 3=8 hours one way to get to. We have a lot of gun clubs in the area..but none that I have found that shoots this fun sport.
    As for anti gun folks. it dont matter if you just shot black powder shotguns that took 2 min to reload..they would want THOSE TOO. Dont be fooled into thinking any different. Or fooled into thinking what you write will make a bit of difference in what they will do, or say in the future.
    So, go on and enjoy the guns you own, buy more of what you like, and then get out and shoot all you can. But mostly, get MORE people to do the same!! The power is in the numbers folks, so dont let those pr**ks win!!

  • SMITTY

    ALL well & good ,I tend to agree with the Fella saying J.B. HICKOK or more likely JOHN WESLEY HARDIN, would be BEST ,Today too,
    BUT we are really comparing oranges to watermelons…..
    CAS ; really is nothing more than IPSC or 3gun Match meets Silverado
    tuned race guns shooting practically “squib ” loads
    Load up with REAL COWBOY loads: 40grs. FFFg Black,250gr RN FPin.45Colt
    or the equivalent smokeless & have at it with a “STD” COLTSAA or S&W #3
    I predict the results will be different…….
    J.W. HARDIN practiced his DRAW , shot full power loads of the day ,fired groups on playing cards, and legend has him credited with 40 “notches” in face to face ,straight up encounters as “all his men went down facing him.”

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