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The Cowboy Way

Local Gunslingers Take a Shot at the Wild West

Jefferson Jackson Steele
PEW PEW PEW: "Chilliwack Buck," aka Bernie Polischuk, takes a turn on the shooting range.
A LADY'S GUN: "Snapshot Sandy," aka Sandy Snapp, rips off shots in rapid-fire fashion.
I SEE BY YOUR OUTFIT...:"Chuck-a-roo" lays down the laws of the Cowboy Shooting competition.
BIG IRON ON HIS HIP: "Snake-eye Skulker," aka Mark Twarowski, readies his arsenal.

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By Chris Landers | Posted 5/21/2008

Tom Toben stares out the window at his quarry, his rifle idle on the sill in front of him. "You coward!" he yells, breaking the silence. He picks up his Winchester and gets off 10 quick shots, emptying the rifle. He moves to the other window, where his trusty shotgun waits. Another four blasts. Now he's in the doorway, pistols drawn. Ten more shots ring out.

They never stood a chance. After all, wasn't it Toben who took on the Espinoza gang alone, and only considered the job finished when he came back to Fort Garland with the outlaws' heads in a sack? Toben who became a scout for Kit Carson as a teenager? Toben the cattle rancher and friend to the Ute Indians?

Well, sort of. That Tom Toben was laid to rest in 1904 out in Colorado. The Tom Toben who turns from his targets, guns empty, and heads for the unloading table has another name--Tom Ouellette--the name he uses during the week at his job with the National Cancer Institute. On the weekends, though, when the 43-year-old straps on his six-shooters with the rest of the Single Action Shooting Society, nobody calls him anything but his cowboy name.

According to legend (and the society's web site), cowboy action shooting got started back in the 1980s by a group of friends and avid target shooters out in Coto de Caza, Calif. Shooters use period guns and clothes to re-create the Wild West for a day of competitive target practice. The Single Action Shooting Society boasts more than 75,000 members, broken into territories that span 19 countries and every state in the union. The society describes cowboy action shooting as "a combination of historical re-enactment and Saturday morning at the matinee."

Out in front of the Izaak Walton League's conservation center in Mount Airy, a group of Boy Scouts race up and down the gravel road. A stranger pulls up and asks the troop leader whether he's seen any cowboys around. "I'm surprised we can't hear them yet," he responds, and points the way down a long stretch of gravel leading into the woods. About a mile down hill, the clang of bullet on steel becomes clearer. A sign at the end of the road admonishes whoever's been shooting up the period horse-drawn cart, presumably while horseless. Past that, the gravel road opens up into a field. Around 50 people take turns shooting, watching, and dragging around their wooden cowboy carts carrying rifles, shotguns, and maybe a cooler. Some of them, like Toben, take the names of historical figures and research accordingly. Others just come up with any Western-sounding name and create their own characters. It isn't role-playing, exactly, more like a grown-up version of playing cowboy. With real guns.

That's a large part of the appeal for Ron Thomson, known around these parts as the Highland Ranger. It's nostalgia not so much for the Wild West but for the movies of his youth. "I grew up with that generation," he says. "Cowboy movies on Saturdays. That was part of what you did growing up. This is an extension of that."

On this sunny April day, the Damascus Wildlife Rangers are playing host to the match, and territorial governor Chuckaroo (aka Chuck Crooks) is keeping the peace from the saddle of a decidedly noncowboy golf cart. Each stage is slightly different-- the windows Toben shoots through are connected to a wall, but the wall itself isn't connected to anything else--and it looks like a fake Western town, seen from the back. Most of the scenario takes place in the imagination. The shooters are sticklers for accuracy when it comes to guns, a little more lenient on clothes. Pretty much everyone has a cowboy hat, but the rules are a little vague on the rest--"all clothing must be typical of the late 19th century, a B-western movie, or Western television series," according to the official Single Action Shooting Society rule book, but it outlaws T-shirts, designer jeans, athletic shoes, and ball caps.

Hired Gun is 60 years old. He went by Jack Kurtz before he joined up with some cowboy shooters about 10 years ago in New Cumberland, Pa. Now he's the territorial governor for the Westshore Posse there. Like a lot of the shooters, he makes the rounds of the area, getting in at least one match a weekend, whether it's in Thurmont, Damascus, New Cumberland, or wherever. "I'll do it every weekend until it gets hot," he says, fingering his gun belt and peering down over a waxed moustache. "I don't do well in the heat."

"I've always been a shooter," Hired Gun says. "I do a little hunting, but I just like shooting targets. You shoot a lot more rounds in this game. And there's a lot of camaraderie out here."

Cowboy shoots are divided into stages; Chuckaroo put the finishing touches on them yesterday. Metal targets (and in one case a plastic skeet-shooting bird) need to be hit in a certain order, with a certain weapon--all the stages involve a combination of shotgun, rifle, and pistol. The shooters are timed electronically from their first shot, under the watchful eyes of a set of spotters, with time added for missed shots. Posses of about a dozen cowpokes rotate through a series of stages. It's a serious competition, but most folks are in it for the fun.

"It was a good excuse to buy a cowboy revolver," Highland Ranger says. "I come out here to have a good time. And I do. I really enjoy the people here--they're serious competitors, and I like to watch them shoot." As Highland Ranger speaks, his words are almost drowned out by the sharp reports of the nearby gunfire and the almost instantaneous clang of shots finding their way to the metal targets.

"I find it very relaxing," he says, comparing the cowboy shoots to more conventional bull's-eye target shooting, "because you're not worried about `did it hit the white line?', you know, or `is that a 9 or an 8?'--that sort of thing. This is just `did you hit it or not?'"

Stealing some time in between shoots, Tom Toben shows off his guns--all pre-1900 design, as per Single Action Shooting Society rules. "That's an 1873 Winchester," he says, pointing to his rifle. "I've had this for about eight years." He's had the gun worked on by a gunsmith in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., who specializes in cowboy shooting. "What they do," Toben explains, "is smooth out the action so it feeds reliably. They shoot very fast."

"This," he moves down the table, "is an 1897 shotgun. It's a pump action, and it's the only pump action that's allowed in cowboy. This is one of the more common ones--there are also some Winchester model '92s. That's a Ruger Blackhawk pistol. As you see, there's also Uberti-type pistols that the fellows are shooting as well. Rugers seem to fit me quite well, so that's what I use."

It's not a cheap hobby for the beginner, but Toben says most of the expense is up front. "Initially, you're in for a couple grand," he says. "You could get by a little cheaper to start out with. But that's typical of a lot of hobbies. There's a certain amount of initial expense, but then once you have it, that's all you need. . . . Everything after that is just ammunition . . . some shot shell and some clothing articles. Overall, it's not too bad."

Time for the next stage. Trooper Steve (Steve Shoemaker, from Springfield, Va.) lays out the rules of the course for the shooters and range officer (RO). "On the command of the RO," he begins, "load two rounds in your shotgun." Someone in the crowd interrupts: "Throw his ugly hat downrange and shoot it!" After each shooter is done, Devil's Bliss, sitting behind them with a clipboard, takes down the official times. Bliss (nee Pam Goetz, from Catonsville) is wearing a corset with butterflies on the back over layered skirts and blouse. The wooden handle of a knife protrudes from a belt at the small of her back. As she loads her guns, she says she got involved in the sport three or four years ago, along with her partner, Chilliwack Buck, who's stationed at the unloading table.

"I found a flier for [a cowboy action shoot]", Bliss says. "I thought he'd be interested, and then he made me get into it, too." She had never shot a gun before that, but now she says they go to matches once a week during the warmer months.

"I'm not as good as any of these people, but I just come to have a good time," she says. "I just do this to release some tension. Or cause some. I'm not sure which." And with that, Devil's Bliss is off to take a shot at the next stage.

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