Cool Hands, Hot Lead

Gunpowder smoke filled the air at the 2016 Headquarters cowboy action shoot. Photo by Rick Garrick

On the outside looking in at a cowboy action shooting event, at first, you might think it’s just a bunch of folks playing dress-up, like a leather and satinswathed ComicCon for die-hard Westerners.

There are some similarities; most participants do extensive research into the clothing worn from the era they’re portraying to recreate a persona — both for on the shooting range and for the formal soirées afterward. Most, if not all, of the outfits are custommade, but there is one glaring difference: unlike at a ComicCon, these hombres’ firearms are real and so is their ammunition.

Inspired by old western movies, cowboy action shooting was created in 1981 by Harper Creigh a.k.a. Judge Roy Bean, SASS #1. After watching a couple of old westerns on TV on a rainy Saturday afternoon, he had an idea. An avid shooter in Soldier of Fortune and International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) shooting matches, Creigh called his shooting buddies, Gordon Davis and Bill Hahn, and presented the idea to shoot their next match using western-type guns. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today there is over 700 cowboy action shooting clubs around the world. In this exclusive atmosphere, folks are known by their moniker and there are some that are awfully familiar — names such as Wyatt Earp, Judge Roy Bean and Wild Bill Hickok from American history. Meanwhile in Canada, the monikers are just as grounded in our own colourful past — Grey Fox, Kootenai Brown and Wild Horse Jack, just to name a few.

Riding herd over the whole outfit is the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), the governing organization of Cowboy Action Shooting worldwide. Today, with over 97,000 members, SASS is represented in all fifty states and 18 foreign countries.

The area around Kamloops, B.C., is the perfect staging ground for this sport. Sagebrush, sand, dry gulches and Ponderosa pine dot the sun-baked hills. Plenty of high clay banks creates a naturally safe shooting range, absorbing the hot lead and completing the aura of the Old West of movie lore.

Gunfighter Jim (yellow tag on his vest) with his posse, 2014 Palmers Gulch


To say that Jim Sloper, a.k.a. Gunfighter Jim (SASS Badge #31412), can shoot is an understatement as he’s been cocking a hammer for over 25 years. Once a highly competitive shooter in IPSC, a demanding, high-speed combat-style competition (he was one of the top five Canadians at both the ’82 and ’83 Canadian National IPSC Championships, plus Section Coordinator for B.C., a Black Badge Instructor, and Chief Range Officer. He also beat the eight-time Canadian Champ at a match in Vancouver) Sloper “made a personal decision” and threw in with the cowboy action shooters.

“Cowboy action shooting is live-action, no horses — and you’re shooting scenarios,” explains Sloper. “Cowboy Mounted and Cowboy Action are two completely different sports, the only similarities are the pistols and rifles, but Mounted uses black powder (blanks), and Action uses live fire (bullets).”

The biggest match is End of Trail, held at Founder’s Ranch outside of Albuquerque, NM. The Ranch is three-quarters of a section with 17 shooting bays, an arena, an old West town and chapel, and a sporting clays course.

There are many categories in Action shooting: dress, firearm — even age. “When you get to one of the big shoots you can win a prize for just about anything,” he laughs. “Even just for showing up. The Yankees are great for that. It’s just a lot of fun.

“The atmosphere is unbelievable,” continues Sloper. “There’s a Sutler’s Camp [Sutler: a person who followed an army and sold provisions to the soldiers] and each vendor is in a canvas wall tent. You can walk through there and get completely outfitted, right down to the firearms — for merely thousands of dollars,” he laughs. “When I competed there last there were 915 entries. It’s a big show.”

On the range, shooters (often a group as large as 21) travel in a Posse, and each Posse is under the supervision of a Posse Marshall (Chief Range Officer). There are Timers, Spotters, (“you’ve got to watch for misses”) and everybody pitches in to help pick up the brass.

“You go from each bay that is its own scenario — it could be a bank, a saloon — and at each bay, you shoot four firearms: two handguns, a shotgun, and a rifle. At a large shoot there are about 12 stages,” he says.

It’s fast-paced; only 45 seconds per shooter to shoot 25 targets (five and five with pistols, 10 with the rifle, five with a shotgun.) “There’s lots of shooting,” says Sloper. “It’s run with military precision so you’ve got to hustle it up. At a smaller club shoot, there isn’t as much pressure.”

Safety is paramount with each bay having its own Marshall (Range Officer) enforcing safety rules.

Heading to the evening soirée; 2014 SASS Regional

The social aspect after the match also comes with its own rewards. “Great visiting and there are prizes for everything ranging from Best Dressed Saloon Girl to Best Dressed Couple.”

Sloper is a member of the Kamloops Target Sports Association. “We’ve hosted the Canadian Nationals in 2013 and 2014, and will again host the 2017 Nationals August 30 – September 3,” he says. Sloper is the Match Director.

His experience on the action range (he has competed in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, at Winter Range which is the U.S. Nationals in Phoenix, Ariz., at End of Trail which is the World Championships, the World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, and at the Australian Nationals at Milmerran, Queensland). Savvy and likable, this all makes him the “go-to guy” for shooters interested in the sport. He holds Range Officer 2 certification for both SASS Cowboy Action Shooting and Wild Bunch shooting (1911 semi-auto pistols, lever action rifles, and 1897 pump shotguns), so if there’s anything you want to know, he’s a good guy to ask.

At 72, Sloper now aims for a “clean shoot” rather than speed. “All those old injuries are catching up with me now.” He grins. “I leave the speed to the young folk.”

Next issue: Cowboy Mounted Shooting