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.
"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.
There are a number of cowboy action-inspired short-stroke gunsmiths who can do this modification, including Cowboy Gunsmiths in New Hampshire and the Cowboys and Indian Store in California.
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.
"I've since gone through four generations of steadily improving short-stroke kits, each one getting better," he says. "I currently use coil springs from Pioneer Guns Works, along with their firing pin extension and aluminum shell carrier for faster lock time, and a stainless steel magazine spring and follower to prevent rust that could result in feeding problems."
Pearcey also can customize your 1873-style rifle, adding a short stroke kit, tuning the action and getting the trigger pull down to just under two pounds, as well as installing a flattop rear sight and Marble's 3/32 bead front sight for better visibility. In addition, he can lighten the mainspring and add a nonslip leather lever wrapping and butt cover.
You can also buy a competition-ready short rifle from Cimarron, which offers its highly-finished Uberti 1873 Brush Popper 1973 Short Rifle, with optional leather "Butt Tamer" and Custom Comp sights by Marble's. In addition, Taylor's & Co. has its 1873 Comanchero, a short-stroked short rifle with leather-wrapped butt and lever plus slicked-up action and competition sights.
While it makes sense — and saves money in the long run — to buy the best competition rifle you can afford, that in itself will not make you a winner. It takes practice, both dry firing and live, and lots of it.
Hoglund currently fires 600 rounds a week, and when he was training for competition, he dry-fired for 15 minutes a day and worked on speed shooting by firing 6,000 rounds a month. The year Pearcey won the overall world championship he was practicing five to seven days a week, often twice a day, in between working out at the gym and reloading ammunition.
"How well you shoot is totally dependent on the time you put in," he says. "A typical shooter interested in just shooting club matches and a few larger matches can have fun and do well by dry-firing once in a while and doing live-fire practice when they can. But if you want to win, you have to work hard on your worst skills, not your best. The difference between a great shooter and all the rest is that the great shooter recognizes his weaknesses and works on improving them."
As for new shooters, Hoglund offers this advice: "Decide what it is you would like to do in cowboy shooting. For an activity and a weekend sport, it is great fun, with great people. Shoot at, and invest in, whatever level makes you comfortable. But if you want to win, you need to start with competitive and reliable equipment, reliable ammunition, and a lot of repetitive practice."