If you’ve never tried Cowboy Action Shooting, you don’t know what you’re missing. The targets are generally large and typically close. The stages are fast and fun. And then there are the people, a finer posse you’d be hard-pressed to find. Bespangled in period regalia and accouterments, appearing to have stepped out of the past. And what a time!
Getting Into Cowboy Action Shooting on a Budget
After a day or two of dressing the part, toting six-guns, and dragging longarms around in a custom gun cart while blasting bank robbers and claim jumpers to Perdition, you won’t be able to wait for the next showdown. But wait, guns and gear and carts and clothes, all purchased at once, expensive, right? Not necessarily.
Yes, you need guns. Four of them, to be exact. Two handguns, one rifle, and a shotgun. These will be the largest investment. But it would behoove a new shooter to attend an event or two before buying guns.
All CAS events are governed by a stringent set of rules involving firearms. In short, all must be authentic pre-1899 firearms (with some category-based exceptions) or a modern replica thereof.
At most any event, you will see the breadth and depth of what is allowed for firearms. Some hold steadfastly to the .45 Colt cartridge as the “only cowboy loading,” while others continue to win with .38 Special.
Likewise, some wouldn’t own anything but a C-O-L-T even when they are four times the price of almost every other requisite revolver. Some insist the only acceptable lever guns start with a “W,” while others clear the stage fastest with a Marlin or “one of dem dare eye-talian copies.”
Additionally, some don’t like side-by-side shotguns, preferring the 1897 pump. However, I personally don’t remember John Wayne dusting any dude with any scattergun other than an SXS. To others, “Blackpowder Rules!”
You see, CAS is full of strong opinions. Ultimately, it’s Fords versus Chevys, and most everyone is happy to have you shoot their selections. Soak up the opinions and test each offered to you.
Learning From Experience
Cowboy Action Shooters are also a gregarious lot, never met a stranger and are always willing to share knowledge and gear. Most bring spare equipment after experiencing failures previously.
Guns break, often at the worst possible moment. I broke my SXS on the first stage of the first day of the Wisconsin state match in 2020, a two-day event. Three competitors offered me their shotgun on the spot. A fourth drove home at the end of the first day to retrieve one for me to use the next day. It would not surprise me for a new buckaroo to be offered a variety of “spares” to choose from as “loaners” at any CAS Event.
There are two distinct benefits to “shooting first, buying later.” One, you will get to handle and shoot a variety of models that subscribe to the rules. Two, it’s FREE, though I would recommend bringing some of your own CAS-approved ammunition in the common calibers of .38 Special, .45 Colt, and 12 gauge. Ultimately, “trying before you buy” avoids the costly mistake of choosing the wrong guns—wrong for you.
Buying Your Cowboy Guns
Recent events have triggered a shortage of firearms nationwide. However, the firearms least affected by the shortage are, you guessed it, cowboy guns. Our shops were never out of Ruger New Vaqueros or some variation of the Colt Single Action Army, manufactured most often in Italy. Lever guns and double-barreled shotguns were similarly stocked, and many had used offerings.
One of the truest money-saving methods of acquiring cowboy guns is buying used. Build a solid relationship with your local dealers. Visit gun shows. Don’t forget online resources like Gunbroker.com, Guns.com, GunsAmerica.com, GunsInternational.com, Armslist.com, and Gunauction.com.
Some listings on these sites are significantly underpriced when compared to your local market. And if it’s got some scratches and scrapes, even more authentic! I know several shooters who spent hours aging their new firearms to “look the part.”
It would be a tall tale if I told you high-grade CAS leather was cheap. It’s not. But it’s also not required. You will need a couple of holsters to tote your pistolas. But they don’t have to be the Sidewindin’ Slim Super Speed Rig. Many gun shops have used leather taken with trade-ins. Prowl around eBay, Shopgoodwill.com, and other online resources for used holsters.
And remember, you don’t need the fancy-dancy cartridge belt to start. Home improvement stores, fleet/farm/tractor supply stores, and various online outlets offer inexpensive, heavy-duty tool belts. Look for a solid leather belt in the 2¼- to 2½-inch width variety to support your shooting irons.
You are going to need a basic outfit, a hat, boots, long-sleeved shirt and pants typical of the time period. Though several clothiers specialize in authentic, period-correct and expensive western-wear, most of us have at least some of the basics already in the closet! If not, a right suitable starter rig can be had for pennies on the dollar.
When it comes to cowboy shirts and pants, a fantastic resource is Goodwill or similar thrift stores. A simple long-sleeved, button-down shirt and a pair of jeans will suffice and often fall under $20 in total.
Before selecting my “Goodwill Outfitters Cowboy Duds,” I spent several hours online searching images of 1880s cowboys. I also visited several CAS websites to see what others were wearing and bought something cheap to match.
One thing I’ve learned from most Cowboy Action Shooting events is the Costume Police are noticeably absent. The general good-naturedness of the average participant discounts accuracy in attire while acknowledging the attempt.
John B. Stetson designed a damn fine hat. And nothin’ says cowboy like a beaver felt Stetson. But before splurging on hot headgear, as most CAS events are in warmer weather, consider a good straw hat for a fraction of the cost.
Or, if authenticity is your thing, check other brands. Sashay through your local antique mall or second-hand store. Likewise, search auction and specialty sites online or hit the yard sale circuit. Because a new 100X Stetson El Presidente hat might exceed the cost of all four of your guns!
The Finishing Touches
Boots also can be high-ticket items. While a good pair will last a lifetime, and properly fitted are a joy to wear, it’s a painful pill to swallow when some outfit wants $400 for a pair of plain ropers.
A quick search on eBay and Poshmark.com netted several pairs in my size for under $40. Remember, it’s a starting point, not an end. As you develop your interest in the sport, your tastes will change, as will your budget.
“What in the H-E-double-hockeysticks are galluses?” Belt loops were not common in the 19th century. Also known as suspenders or braces, galluses held up a cowboy’s britches. The belt was just for the gun and other cowboy tools. Galluses are optional.
Should you wish, an inexpensive means of adding galluses to your outfit is to remove the belt loops from your inexpensive thrift store pants and install a set of no-sew suspender buttons for as little as $6 for a set of 20 from Amazon. Then get you some galluses!
Steel on Wheels
Navigating the fields of fire with guns, ammunition, personal safety equipment, water and other essentials traditionally carried by a horse, requires a wheeled contraption of some sort. Kits are available for cowboy gun carts, but they aren’t necessarily inexpensive.
You can certainly devise a gun cart out of a simple two-wheeled handcart. Another popular option for replacing the saddle horse is to “saddle up” a jogging stroller. These are often seen at giveaway prices at yard sales.
The jogging-type strollers usually have larger wheels. Note: Not all ranges are flat, and events don’t always occur in sunny weather. Larger wheels equal easier to roll up hills and through the mud.
A quick search on eBay turned up several for under $50 and one for $20! Other online resources for such items include Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and independent local or regional online classifieds.
Several companies manufacture bolt-on or clamp-on rifle holders. Searching for ATV rifle racks should render results adaptable to the handcart or stroller. Remember, when mounting your racks, SASS rules, and most local CAS event rules, require muzzles up and actions open.
You’ll find this also places the center of gravity lower, resulting in far fewer tip-overs on uneven surfaces. After that, add a mesh cargo carrier bottom or other more waterproof cargo bags for ammo, water, etc. Then, you can roll off into the sunset with the best of them.
As a beginner, check out the Single Action Shooting Society (sassnet.com) and Cowboy Action Shooters (cascity.com) websites. Both forums are valuable resources for information, and each has a “Classifieds” section.
The SASS Wire has a specific forum under Classifieds tagged “Free Stuff,” showcasing a smattering of Cowboy Action Shooting gear listed for free using a pay-it-forward principle.
Once having the foundation, upgrades, and extras can come at a more leisurely pace. I know several CAS shooters who are still running their “starter kits” after years of enjoying the sport. I’ve also met a few who have invested more than my annual salary in the tools of the game.
If I were to tell you I stopped with my Goodwill Outfitters attire and just four guns, I’d be stretching the blanket a bit. But it was my inexpensive introduction to the sport and the wonderful folks I found here that fortified my desire to divert funds from other hobbies into this one. After all, does the world really need one more crappy golfer?
This article was originally published in the Guns of the Old West Spring 2022 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions at OutdoorGroupStore.com. Or call 1-800-284-5668, or email email@example.com.