Cowboy Action Shooting: Getting Started

By Jim Taylor (J Bar T)
SASS #53379

I suppose almost all shooters have heard of Cowboy Action Shooting by now.  One the fastest (if not the fastest) growing segments of the Shooting Sports, Cowboy Action continues to attract new shooters even though it has been around for a long time. Inspired by the movie “The Wild Bunch” a group of shooters in California began shooting “cowboy style” on a regular basis in the 1970’s.   The idea continued to grow and spread and the result was the formation of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), the original and largest of the Cowboy Action organizations today with over 50,000 members. 

The firearms used are limited to firearms or replicas thereof, of the kind produced before 1899.  Handguns are limited to single action revolvers.  Rifles can be either lever action or slide action but both must have exposed hammers and must be in “pistol” calibers.  Shotguns can be either double barrel (external hammers or “hammerless”) or slide action (with a hammer) of the types made before 1899.  They cannot be larger than 10 ga. nor can they have barrels shorter than 18”.  Ammunition for the handguns and rifles are limited to lead bullets at very moderate velocities.  Shotguns are limited to “low brass” lead shot loads with #4 birdshot or smaller. 

The various Cowboy Action organizations may have slightly different rules in some area, but those are the basics.  There are Side Matches for Buffalo Rifles or “Long Range” rifles as they are called.    There are also Side Matches involving Pocket Pistols and Derringers.  The combinations and how they are used in a match are almost endless and always entertaining.   One thing about Cowboy Action that makes it attractive to new shooters, it’s fun to watch! 

The rules also call for contestants to adopt a “handle” (a “Cowboy” name) and to wear period clothing.  Some groups are stricter in this area than others, especially on the National level.  You usually will find that the local clubs encourage you to dress western, but especially if you are just getting started, jeans, boots and a cowboy hat will not be looked down upon.  Any new shooter that shows up at a local match will not be turned away or snubbed, whether he or she has all the “proper” attire. 

I included “she” for this is one area of shooting that is attracting women shooters faster than any other area of the sport.  I have seen women really get into the Cowboy Shooting scene who before this never seemed interested in firearms.  A big part of the credit for that has to go to the friendliness of most all the cowboy shooters out there.  That and the “fun” aspects of playing cowboy. 

The matches are broken up into various shooting stages with different western-theme scenarios.  They range from the simple to the complex.  For instance, we are just getting a Cowboy Action Shooting club started in our area.  We have targets but not many props, but our shoots have been fun and are stirring interest.  I have shot at matches where the club that sponsored the match obviously spent much time, money and thought in putting together the props.  They ranged from stagecoaches to saloon fronts and stationary as well as moving “horses”.   A little thought on the part of those putting the match together keeps things interesting for shooters as well as spectators. 

The classes of shooters that SASS has set are as follows:

Modern:  single action pistols .32 caliber or larger with adjustable sights.

Traditional: single action cartridge, percussion, or black powder cartridge conversion manufactured before 1896 or a replica thereof.  Fixed sights.

Frontier Cartridge: percussion or cartridge single action pistols or replicas thereof of a type made before 1896.  .32 caliber or larger, firing black powder only.

Duelist: traditional styled single actions, cocked and fired one-handed, unsupported.

Gunfighter: two traditional style single actions, one held and fired in the right hand, one held and fired in the left hand.

Frontiersman: same as Frontier Cartridge but limited to .36 caliber or larger and fired Duelists-style.

There are additional rules that go with some of the above but these give you the general over-view.  Local clubs may make minor changes/allowances. 

I have been shooting with various Cowboy Action groups off and on for a few years but I had never gotten serious about it.  This last year I decided I wanted to do this on a regular basis and began gathering things that I needed:  guns, ammo, wardrobe … all the essentials.  Sure, I had guns, but I figured that if I am going to shoot matches several times a month I ought to use something other than my 1st Generation Colt SAA’s… they are just too valuable to be using that hard… at least to me.  And I wanted another levergun.  I had a Marlin 1894CL in .32-20 that worked pretty well.  The action is slick and the gun is accurate.  But I wanted a Model 92 Winchester or a copy of one.   I had the shotgun, an old Stevens 311 12 gauge with 18 ½” barrels that would work fine.   And I wanted some of those neat clothes I saw folks wearing.  The old-timey ones.  My wife liked the Victorian-style dresses and said she would help me with the clothing, so I started on the guns. 


For the levergun I picked up a copy of the Winchester 92 by Rossi in .357cowboy6a.jpg (9313 bytes) magnum.  These are pretty neat guns just out of the box and this Rossi was no exception.  Accuracy was excellent and it would feed both .357’s and .38 Specials.  I use the .38 Specials for the matches so that was great.  I smoothed up the action some and shot it a lot. Using it helped worked some of the stiffness out of it. The more I used it the more I liked it.  It has become my main Cowboy rifle.  To personalize it I removed the Carbine stock and replaced it with a rifle stock that has the crescent buttplate.  I removed the ugly black finish that the Rossi’s have on their wood and simply oiled the stock and fore-end, making its appearance quite a bit different.  Sights have to be original or replica open iron sights or tang-mounted peep sights of the 1860 – 1899 period. I have left the sights on the Rossi that came on it and they work just fine for me. 

You are not limited to the 1892 copies.  Shooters use replicas (and sometimes the originals) of the Henrys, the Winchester 1866, the Winchester 1873 (one of the more popular ones), and the Winchester 1892.  Winchester makes the 1894 (modern made) in “pistol” calibers and designed for use by Cowboy shooters. In addition to the replicas and the Winchester rifles, Marlin has given the Cowboy shooters a wide range of choice.  Not only are the old guns out there, but new Marlins can be had in Cowboy configuration, made especially for the Cowboy Action game. 


For the sixguns I decided to go with Ubertis.  There are any number of good single action revolvers available today. For the person starting out they would never go wrong buying a Ruger.  The Ruger Vaquero is one of the more popular ones and it is an excellent choice.  There are also great cowboy guns from Cimarron Arms, from USFA, from stores like Cabela’s and from quite a few other sources.  

Replicas of the Colt Single Action Army are not the only guns used of course.  There is the Smith & Wesson Schofield which is quite popular with some.  You can also use the Smith & Wesson Russian or the Remington Model 1875 or Model 1890.  And there a number of “cap and ball” revolvers to choose from if that is your preference. 

The reason I chose Uberti was this:  I wanted guns that were close replicas of my Colt SAAs.  I had a limited budget. And I got a deal that fell within what I was looking for and took it. 

For those who want to tune up their single action revolvers so that they run smoothly and to help the reliability there are several options.  One is to send the guns off to a gunsmith and have them tune them up.  For those on a limited budget or who just like to Do-It-Yourself, one of the easiest things to do is install a reduced-power spring kit.  These help lighten the force needed to cock the hammer.  They can also reduce wear on internal parts.

[Ed. Note: do-it-yourselfers, see Jim's article, Slicking Up an Uberti]

Kits are available for Rugers, Colts, and replicas of Colt from Brownells, MidwayUSA, Qualite' Pistol & Revolver and a large number of  other online sources.  I ordered the springs for the Ubertis online from Brownells.  For the bolt/trigger spring I chose the Heinie spring. This is a “wire” spring, not the flat-type normally used in Colt’s and Colt-types.  Not only does it lighten the trigger pull, it lasts indefinitely.  

In addition to the springs I personalized the sixguns by removing the varnish on the grips.  Under it I found nice wood on one gun.  That grip I gave an oil finish.  The cowboy1a.jpg (29058 bytes) other gun had wood that could be best described as “blah”.  On that gun I installed a set of Grip Maker’s one-piece imitation Stag grips.  The grips from Grip Maker are made oversize and you must fit them to the gun yourself.  It takes some time, but if you follow the directions they come out pretty nice.  I was pleased with how mine turned out.   


Now that I had the sixguns I needed some way to tote them around.  I had carried the Colts in a “strong side” holster along with a crossdraw holster.  I did not care for the crossdraw and decided I would go with left-hand and right-hand conventional carry holsters.  I contacted Big John Delavan in Florence, Arizona and had him make me 2 holsters, one left-hand and one right-hand.  I told him I wanted them plain, no stampings or embossing on them.  Just a set of plain, Mexican Double-Loop holsters.  cowboy2a.jpg (44472 bytes)

John’s prices are extremely reasonable and his holsters are made the old-timey way. Cut by hand, sewn by hand (no machines .. just two needles) and they reflect the way things were done over 100 years ago.  They are done with care.   The leather used is like it came off the cow.  If it has a scar in it, so does your holster.  It gives them a unique and distinctive quality. 

John is a cop who was retired by gunfire.  He was ambushed and shot while on duty and it ended his Law Enforcement career.  Thus was born his holster business.  If you are looking to get into Cowboy Shooting and need some holsters, give John a call. 


I needed a good belt to hang the holsters on but I did not want to spend a bunch of money for it.  Mr. Prairie Lightning suggested going to the supply store and buying a Klein Tool Belt.  The one he suggested is the Model 5415 (Embossed Heavycowboy8.jpg (5205 bytes) Duty) that is a nice sturdy 2” wide belt made for carrying heavy tool pouches.  They have a double-tongued buckle and they are American-made!  The price is just over $20 here in Missouri!  I did not want a belt with cartridge loops and since the Klein belt does not have them it was just what I was looking for.  The belts have a nice basket-weave pattern on them and work just fine. 


The Stevens shotgun needed more work than any of them.  The old shotgun worked, but it was difficult to work it!  The opening lever was very stiff.  Breaking cowboy7a.jpg (10193 bytes) the barrels open you almost had to put it over your knee.  When you are shooting against a clock that is not a good thing!  Again, Brownell’s came to the rescue.  They offer a reduced-power spring kit expressly for the Stevens 311.  It consists of a reduced power opening lever spring, 2 reduced power trigger springs, and 2 reduced power hammer springs. This makes the double-barrel gun much easier to open.  It also helps it hang open while reloading.  The original hammer springs are very strong and with a short-barreled gun actually tries to close the action some, hindering reloading.  If you are not a DYI-er then you may want to get a gunsmith to modify your shotgun.    Doing-It-Myself on the shotgun has given me quite a few frustrations.

Any side-by-side double barrel 20 gauge to 10 gauge may be used as long as it does not have ejectors.  A number of shooters like the old “outside hammer” shotguns for their authentic looks.  These can be used quite competitively.   Quite a few shooters prefer the Winchester 97 pump shotgun.   The Winchester and the early Marlin pump guns can be used, but you are only allowed to load 2 shells.  Some Cowboy shooters are using the old lever-action 1887 Winchester shotguns also.   As with the pump guns, only 2 shells may be loaded. 

Choosing your firearms is going to be according to your budget of course. Let me encourage you to start out with whatever you have.  If you are like most of us you will not be able to begin with everything you need or want.  The neat thing about Cowboy shooters is, they want to help!   I cannot tell you how many times I have gone to a match with my 6-shot Marlin 1894CL.   On a 9 or 10 shot stage I would have to stop and reload my Marlin.  Over and over again I have had shooters come and offer me the use of their rifle.  And these were guys I was trying to beat!  

I have seen new shooters come to a match with only one pistol, a rifle and no shotgun.  And yet through the generosity of the Cowboys and Cowgirls there, they were able to shoot all the stages and have a great time.  It’s “The Spirit of the Game”.   Sure you want to do well.  And yes, it’s neat to win.  But over all that is the fact of enjoying yourself. 


Some Cowboy shooters reload their own ammo and some do not.  If you do not reload there are a number of companies offering Cowboy loads in a large variety of calibers.  These loads are at the reduced velocities required.  For instance, cowboy3a.jpg (18359 bytes) Black Hills Ammunition Co. offers Cowboy loads in .32 H&R, .32-20, .38 Long Colt, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .38-40, .44-40, .44 Russian, .44 Colt, .44 Special, .45 Schofield, .45 Colt and several rifle cartridges such as the .45-70 and .38-55. 

For those that want more authenticity, Cor-Bon offers black powder loads in .38 Special, .45 Colt, .45-70 and 12 gauge.  I use these from time to time when I shootcowboy4a.jpg (26805 bytes) black powder class and I have to say they work just great!   The shotgun shells are loaded in paper hulls and look just like the old shotgun shells.  They are loaded with an ounce of #8 shot and full load of powder.  I know the smoke cloud from these is very satisfying. 

Almost all manufacturers now offer some cowboy loads.  Winchester, PMC, Hornady, CCI, Ultramax, 10-X, and Magtech are offering Cowboy loads in different calibers, just to name a few.  Shop around and you will find whatever you need. 


You need not spend outrageous sums of money on clothing in order to get started either.  I mean, you can if you want to.  There are a number of fine clothing makers today who specialize in and produce period clothing.    But you can do this yourself also. 

Fungus Sam went to a used clothing store and bought an old suit that had stripes very much like many of the old Western clothes.  His wife removed the belt loops and sewed buttons on the pants for the old-time suspenders.   He has less than $5.00 in the pants. 

Button-fly jeans can be used the same way.  Remove the belt loops.  Sew on buttons for suspenders and you have a pair of Old West cowboy pants.   You can buy the blue work shirts from Sears that come without a collar.  They are still made like they were in the old days.   Or you can remove the collar.   Presto!  An old-timey shirt.  Along with a pair of boots and a cowboy hat and you are in business. 

As time goes by you can make or purchase other clothing.   Be warned.  You will spend more than you thought and you will buy things you never thought you would.  And you will thoroughly enjoy yourself. 


Last I would suggest you join SASS, the Single Action Shooting Society.  You don’t need a membership in SASS to get started in Cowboy Shooting but it is a good thing to do.  This is the founding group of Cowboy Action Shooting.  For your entry fee you receive a year’s membership, a badge, an identification/membership card, a decal, the SASS Shooter’s Handbook, and a years subscription to the Cowboy Chronicle.  You won’t be sorry you did. 

For an in-depth look at Cowboy Action Shooting pick up the book, “ACTION SHOOTING, COWBOY STYLE" by John Taffin.  You will find it a great addition to your library.  Much of the research you will need to do has been done already in this book.    

[Ed. Note: also check out Gary Kieft's book, "BEYOND THE WILD BUNCH", available from Dillon Precision)


23255 La Palma Ave.
Yorba Linda, CA 92887

If you have Adobe Acrobat you can download the SASS Shooter's Handbook from the SASS website.  It will give you all the information about guns, ammo, clothing etc.   It is very informative.


Black Hills Ammunition Co.
PO Box 3090
Rapid City, SD  57709


311 Industry Road
Sturgis, SD  57785


Big John’s Handmade Leather Goods
PO Box 2224
Florence, AZ  85232


$48.00 postpaid:

John Taffin
PO Box  45072
Boise, ID  83711

Include a note with your check and have John Taffin autograph the book for you.


Brownells Inc.
200 South Front St.
Montezuma, Iowa  50171


Grip Maker
17401 State Highway 96
Carthage, MO  64836


Dillon Precision


There are a large number of other suppliers available who offer ammunition, guns, clothing, gear, accessories, gunsmithing, parts, holsters, belts … you name it is out there.  This short list is intended to help those who want to get started.   Once you begin you will find a huge number of resources.  The cowboys and cowgirls of Cowboy Action Shooting will share their ideas and resources with you.  I guarantee it.

Jim Taylor


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