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Bet you've never seen a Tenn. shooting contest quite like this


WARTRACE, Tenn. (OSBORNE)  --  Tennessee’s strong gun culture means you can find a shooting contest in some corner of the state any weekend of the year. But chances are good you’ve never heard a shooting contest start with a recitation quite like this.

“Caught in a bad spot during the shootout with Burdett’s men, Stumpy decided to take a box of dynamite off the wagon as he heads for better cover. Lofting a stick towards the warehouse where Burdett’s men are holed-up, he gets off a great shot to detonate the dynamite and rock the warehouse. Stumpy yells ‘Hey, dudes! How do yah like them apples.’”

That story introduced one of several stages of the 2018 Tennessee State Championship Cowboy Action Shooting contest held in October near Wartrace.

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Cowboy Action Shooting competitors spend thousands of dollars buying period accurate shotguns, rifles and six shot pistols, and then having gunsmiths make them competition ready.

The competitors listening to that story were decked out in authentic 1800s cowboy attire right down to the hats, chaps, spurs, gun belts and boots. Cowboy shooter Whiskey Hayes explained the sport got its start in California in the 1980s.

“It started just with some folks wanting to get together and shoot the old guns,” Hayes said. “They started what they called the single-action shooting society. It grew to be nationwide.” 

Cowboy Action Shooting has since gone international as well. Hayes said there are now clubs in Canada, throughout Europe, New Zealand, and Australia.

Aussie four-time world champion Cathouse Kelly and husband Jackaroo competed in the Tennessee State Championship match I attended.

“We just love it,” Kelly said. “We love it for the people and just enjoy it.”

“Once you start with it, it just hooks you in. It’s really hard to let go,” Jackaroo concluded.

As you have doubtless already guessed, competitors use their chosen cowboy names during a match. They spend thousands on authentic outfits that match those names, thousands more making period rifles, shotguns and pistols competition ready.

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Cowboy Action Shooting competitors line up for a group photo outside Stage One during the Tennessee State Championship match in Oct. 2018.

When I asked John Derringer about the sport’s appeal, his answer was one I heard throughout the day.

“I would say because some of us were raised on the cowboys,” Derringer laughed. “It used to be Saturday morning we watched the Westerns and that’s what you played outdoors.”

The Wild West motif of shows like Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger permeate the competition. Shooters work their way through “stages” that look like the movie set versions of the western saloon, general store, sheriff’s office, or corral.

Once the competition gets underway, the sound of gunfire is deafening and non-stop.

The targets are steel plates set at various distances from the shooter. Competitors have to hit each target in the right order with the right gun. That order changes for each stage. The weapons are the same throughout: a shotgun, rifle and two, six-shot pistols.

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A fellow competitor watches closely as Missouri Lefty clears his weapons following a round. Contestants can be ejected from the competition for violating the sports strict safety regulations.

The competitors are scored for time, accuracy, and safety. Anyone breaking safety protocols can be disqualified. Competitors watch each other closely as guns are loaded and unloaded.

The speed that some competitors achieve is remarkable. During the October competition, 18-year-old 2016 World Champion Missouri Lefty got off 24 shots in 16 seconds from three firing positions using four different weapons without a single miss, (see the video below)"

But fast, young competitors like Missouri Lefty are increasingly the exception, not the rule. The largest group of shooters are the baby boomers who can remember those Saturday morning cowboy shows. Some are now in their 80s. John Derringer says it doesn’t bode well for the sport.

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A competitor fires one of two pistols she carries during a round. Wartrace Regulator club officials say about one-third of Cowboy Action Shooting contestants are women.

“I’m sad to say that the sport is tending to age out. Every one of us is getting older and there’s not a lot of younger replacements coming in,” Derringer said.

The Wartrace Regulators Cowboy Action Shooting club holds a match about every two weeks. Spectators are welcome. Hearing protection is mandatory.