If you thought your days of shoot-'em-up games ended around the time you turned 12, it's time to think again, pardner. These parts are crawlin' with cowboys — and cowgirls — who like nothin' better than gettin' out their shootin' irons on a weekend and fillin' the air with hot lead.
The Old West lives again when the folks who call themselves "cowboy action shooters" get together. For a few hours, they put aside their real lives and daily routines, and transport themselves back to the days of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp and Ned Buntline.
Three local chapters of the Single Action Shooting Society have regular shooting matches in Ashland, White City and Merlin. New shooters are welcome, including people who have no experience with firearms, but those without experience should arrange an orientation session with a club member. Contact information for the clubs can be found on the website for the Single Action Shooting Society, www.sassnet.com. Click the button for "SASS Clubs" and then click "Oregon" on the U.S. map.
The Table Rock Rangers shoot on the first Sunday and second Saturday at the Jackson County Sports Park, 6900 Kershaw Road, Eagle Point.
The Jefferson State Regulators shoot on the third Saturday of each month at the Ashland Gun Club, off Emigrant Creek Road, Ashland.
The Merlin Marauders shoot on the first Saturday of the month at the Josephine County Sportsmans Park, 7407 Highland Ave., Grants Pass.
To see videos of the action, search for "cowboy action shooting" on YouTube.
"It's like playing cowboy," said Fred Arnett of Medford, a member of the shooting club that calls itself the Jefferson State Regulators. "I'm shooting guns, and Mom's not calling me in for dinner."
The Regulators shoot weapons that look like the ones you would have seen on the frontier: "single-action" pistols that must be cocked to fire each round, and long guns such as the Winchester model 1873, the lever-action rifle seen in hundreds of movies and TV westerns. They shoot in competition, firing at steel targets set at relatively short distance (often less than 40 feet) trying to hit the mark as many times as they can while emptying their weapons as fast as they can.
The steel targets make a distinctive "ping" when hit by a lead bullet, so there's no doubt when a shooter hits the mark.
"All you have to do is hit 'em," Arnett said, but at short distances, that's not easy when you're trying to shoot fast.
"There's a saying in shooting," he observed. "There's no target so big or so close you can't miss it."
Judges keep score, and the winners are those who hit the targets most frequently in the least amount of time. Each miss adds extra seconds to the shooters' total elapsed time.
"The faster you shoot, the better your score," Arnett said. "The person with the fastest time wins."
The Regulators are an Ashland-based outpost of the Single Action Shooting Society (yes, it's SASS), an organization created in 1981 by a couple of California shooting buddies who were looking for a different way to enjoy their guns.
These days it claims more than 75,000 members, including three chapters in Southern Oregon and far-flung outposts in Europe and Australia.
The guns themselves are mostly modern replicas of the original weapons. Antique guns of the time are treasured collectibles, Arnett said. Shooting as much as many people do "would tear up an antique gun," he said.
A major part of the fun for shooters involves creating a Wild West persona. Each shooter has a unique alias, registered with SASS, and all are encouraged to shoot in costume. Out on the range, Arnett becomes Checotah, a name he took from Checotah, Okla., the town where his mother was born.
The persona can be as elaborate as the shooter's imagination. Arnett says Checotah was born sometime in the 1840s. He came west with his family, but his mom and sister died of cholera along the trail, just like so many real immigrants on the Oregon Trail. Checotah's dad died during an Indian attack while passing through what would become Nebraska. Checotah served in the U.S. Cavalry in the Southwest and worked briefly as a lawman before he took to working cattle on the open range.
"He pretty much ended up a drifter," Arnett said of his alter ego.
Women shooters enjoy creating a persona just as detailed as the men's. When Heike Arnold of Merlin was searching for an alias, she read about a madam who went by the name of Molly b'Dam in the mining camps on the Idaho frontier.
"She emigrated from Europe," Arnold said, "and I emigrated to the States from Europe as a child. Her birthday was in December, and so is mine."
Arnold, who's president of the Merlin Marauders cowboy shooting club, claimed Molly's name after she searched the SASS registry of aliases, and discovered no one had claimed it.
"It was meant to be mine," she said.
Some shooters hold their real identity close to the vest.
"You can shoot with a lot of these guys for years and never know their real name or what they do for a living," said one shooter who calls himself Jed I. Knight on the range and prefers to keep his real identity a mystery.
Knight is president of the Table Rock Rangers, a club that shoots twice each month at the Jackson County Sports Park. He described himself as a "time-traveling gunfighter, basically," whose alias combines his affection for the "Star Wars" characters and the "Dark Knight" movies. When asked about his real-life occupation, he offered, "Let's just say I'm a mild-mannered government employee." Like many shooters, Knight has assembled an elaborate collection of costumes for his character.
"I can go from being a plainsman in leather pants to wearing a nice Victorian suit," he said. "My cowboy action shooting wardrobe is larger than my (real-life) working wardrobe."
While the shooters encourage period authenticity, some aspects of those bygone days are downright forbidden, such as quick-draw shooting.
"It's just too dangerous when you're shooting real bullets," Knight said.
Shooters may load their weapons only when they're getting ready to shoot, and after they finish they must empty the spent cartridges from their guns.
Cowboy shooting is not re-enacting, he stressed. There are no gunfights, of course, and shooters follow strict safety rules.
"You can't point a firearm at anyone," he said, "loaded or unloaded."
Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at email@example.com.