A blur of fire-spitting six-guns, rifles and shotguns transforms the quiet desert plinking ground at Blacks Creek Public Rifle Range twice a month.
The dusty sagebrush desert makes a perfect backdrop for the more than 75 participants who get gussied up in 19th-century costume to socialize and compete in Cowboy Action Shooting, a fantasy sport that combines a heap of historical flavor with rapid-fire target shooting.
For a few hours a month, ordinary people become steely eyed lawmen or bad-news drifters. At least in their own minds, they become Jesse James or Wyatt Earp, or Annie Oakley or Belle Star.
"This is a chance to do what I was doing when I was 10 or 11 years old out in my backyard — only now I can do it with real guns," said Ray Walters, a 55-year-old former firefighter who now writes for the Boise-based SHOOT! magazine.
The competition, governed by the Single Action Shooting Society, has existed since the early 1980s. There are numerous styles of match competition, from mounted pistol shooting to short-range derringer competitions to long-range rifle shoots. Most common are medium-range pistol, rifle and shotgunning games.
Take an Alias
Matches are divided into eight or 10 scenarios, called "stages." Shooters fire through a doorway, around a corner or out of a window at steel squares, circles or small cowboy silhouettes from 5 to 15 yards away. They use multiple combinations of pistols, rifles and shotguns. Sometimes an extra element is added, such as throwing a knife or hatchet into a target.
A timer keeps electronic track of how long it takes a competitor to shoot through the stage — which usually lasts less than a minute. Official observers watch for safety violations, gun handling problems and target misses, which can add time to the overall score.
Cowboy shooters are assigned aliases, which they prefer to their real names during competitions. Walters is "Smith n' Jones." Deana Daniels is "Missy Marble." "Yeah, but they call me `Hagatha' when I miss," a frustrated Daniels said after hitting 10 pistol shots, 10 rifle shots but missing one of five shotgun blasts — all in 38.9 seconds.
Competition is friendly because there's no prize or cash award winners — just bragging rights and belt buckles. But even at that, devoted shooters practice hours a day.
"There's no pressure in cowboy action, you compete against yourself," Graham said.
Nurse Becomes Dashing Desperado
Dan Lopez is a 37-year-old nurse from Adrian, Ore. When he straps on his belt and guns, he becomes Sancho Ponza, a dashing desperado with a red sash, a black goatee and a long cigar.
Lopez is good. Real good, for just his third year in the game. His compadres say he's got the quickest gun and steadiest hand of all in the Oregon Trails chapter. He travels a few times a year to regional competitions and has his sights set on the nationals.
His performance secrets include good health, lean muscles and hundreds of hours of practice. It's not uncommon for serious cowboy shooters to fire 700 to 800 bullets a week.
"You've got to be comfortable with what you are doing. Plus, we have a lot of friends and we all learn from each other," he said.
Just like in the Old West, women are toting guns at the matches along with the menfolk. Sharon Wright, who shoots as "Six-gun Sam," has won two state championships. Before she got involved four years ago, she had never fired a gun.