“I think the true question should be about a preference between the Winchester replica 1866 and 1873 and the 1894 Marlin,” he says. “The Marlin allows for a fast reload should you need one, and the length of throw when short-stroked is very close to that of a ’73. It really comes down to personal preference. Plus, Marlins are half the price of a ’66 or ’73 replica.”
But no matter what the rifle, every winning shooter customizes it to varying degrees. The most common improvements involve polishing internal parts and lightening the trigger pull.
As for the types of sights that may be used, the SASS rulebook spells this out in no uncertain terms: “Sights must look like sights available during the cowboy era. Bead, blade, simple post or otherwise approved front sights (such as the XS Cowboy Express) made of materials such as steel, iron, ivory, faux ivory, brass, gold, pewter, copper or silver are allowable.”
While rear and front sights may be “blacked,” fluorescent colors or fiber-optic inserts are not permitted. Receiver-mounted sights or modern click-adjustable rear sights are likewise prohibited.
Within this framework, winning shooters often widen and deepen the notches of factory rear sights, while front sights usually get a highly visible gold or white bead for fast acquisition. It should be noted that SASS shooting distances are very close—seven to 50 yards—with most of the large, western-themed steel targets around 20 yards from the firing line.
Any shooter who can place his shots within a four-inch circle at these ranges can conceivably shoot a “clean” match if he takes his time. But if you want to win, you can’t really take your time, and that’s where the short-stroke action comes into play. Ironically, for all of its adherence to Old West authenticity, SASS allows short-stroke actions, even though they are a relatively new innovation, born by the desire to win.
Basically, a short-stroked gun will reduce the lever throw of a toggle-linked Winchester clone or a Marlin by approximately 15 degrees, which means you can cycle rounds much faster than Tom Horn or Bill Tilghman ever thought of doing.
As for ammo, without exception all champion shooters use light loads, which means less recoil and, consequently, less recovery time. Hoglund shoots .38 Specials in his rifles because they are the same caliber as his revolvers, thus eliminating confusion while rapidly reloading during a stage, which typically involves shooting rifles and revolvers—plus a shotgun—against the clock.
Like almost all winners, he handloads. He shoots 125-grain flat-nosed bullets at 900 to 1,000 fps (SASS rules require rifle ammo to be 1,400 fps or less). Likewise, Pearcey shoots revolvers and rifles chambered for .357 Magnum but stokes them with mild .38 Specials for competition.
“They’re cheaper to shoot, and the lighter the recoil, the faster you can run the gun,” Pearcey says. “Long-range side matches for rifles are usually shot with heavier loads than the main matches. But I usually want my main match bullets coming out of the pistols at about 650 fps, however that translates for rifles.”
One might think that longer barreled rifles, with their greater velocities and longer sight radius, have the advantage, but short rifles with octagon barrels often get the nod. The short length translates into faster pointing when the stage or scenario calls for you to “sweep” a row of steel targets while working the lever as fast as you can, and the slightly extra weight of an octagon barrel helps steady the rifle in the support hand.
Hoglund has won his numerous championships using both Marlins and Model 1873s, but currently competes with a Navy Arms 1873 Deluxe Border Rifle with a “Jim Bowie” action job.
Rob “Saw-Yer-Wood” Musso, proprietor of Gun Kings Armory in California and winner of the 2007 Northfield Raid 100-yard match (and the only contestant to shoot it “clean,” without a single miss), went a different route. He started with a Winchester 94 Trapper in .45 Colt but switched to a Uberti 1873 Short Rifle (which he’s pictured shooting in the lead photograph) in .45 Colt to gain extra ammo capacity.