Cowboy action shooting 101: If you’re not catering to modern-day cowboys, you’re making a costly mistake! This basic primer will get you started

Cowboy action shooting 101: If you’re not catering to modern-day cowboys, you’re making a costly mistake! This basic primer will get you started

John Taffin

John “Sixgunner” Taffin

The fastest-growing shooting sport continues to be cowboy action shooting. With over 100,000 participants, it shows signs of slowing as more shooters sport. This is good news for the gun dealer.

Perhaps you have ignored this lucrative segment of the market because you don’t understand what makes it tick. Well, we’re going to take care of that. By the time you’ve read the following pages, you’ll have a basic knowledge of the sport and what products you should inventory. You’ll also know how to get started in selling to today’s cowboys.

High-Fun Factor

Cowboy action shooting started informally about 25 years ago when a group got together to shoot and have fun. Their guns of choice were the great firearms of the 19th century. Out of that humble beginning, the sport grew, spread across the country and over much of the free world.

The sport is based on accuracy and speed, however, the targets are normally large and up close. The vast majority of shooters, 95 percent or more, are not driven by how fast they can shoot, but rather how much fun they can have doing it.

It is one of the few sports that is extremely low on stress and extremely high on enjoyment. It is a way to escape everyday life, to gather with good folks and return to the days of the Old West. It is a chance to be a kid again.

Know The Basics Of Cowboy Action

First let’s look at the basics of cowboy action shooting. A shooting match consists of several stages in which competitors normally engage metal targets with a pair of sixguns, a levergun and a shotgun. This means you have an opportunity to sell a minimum of four firearms to a new cowboy competitor. Plus, seasoned competitors are always adding to their cowboy arsenal.

The firearms used in competitions, with a few exceptions, must be the originals offered before 1898, or replicas. Since originals are rare, you’ll sell a lot of replica firearms.

A normal stage requires shooting 10 rounds from two sixguns, 10 rounds from a levergun and two to six from a shotgun. This can vary, but does not greatly. In all matches, the number one requirement is safety. These and other rules are laid out by the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), the sport’s main governing body.

Shooters may compete in several categories. Some of the categories require different firearms. However, the standard firearms are fix-sighted, single-action sixguns; lever actions of the type available before 1898, and a pump, lever or double-barreled shotgun from the same era.

Here are the competition categories:

Modern–Revolvers must have adjustable sights such as the Ruger Blackhawk.


Frontier Cartridge–Cartridges and shotgun shells must be loaded with black powder. Pump shotguns are not permitted.

Frontiersman–Same as Frontier Cartridge, except percussion revolvers must be used and they must be shot Duelist style.

Classic Cowboy is a new class. It requires two traditional revolvers, a 1evergun of the 1860 Henry, 1866 Winchester or 1873 Winchester type, and a double-barreled shotgun with outside hammers that must be cocked.

There are other details, but this provides the basics so you can speak the language. You can also see that if a shooter competes in more than one category, he often needs more than four firearms. Competitors often use eight firearms to compete in two categories. No other shooting sport requires the competitor to purchase so many firearms. This, of course, is excellent news for the gun dealer.

The Firearms Of Cowboy Action Shooting

Because of the rapid growth of cowboy action shooting, there are replicas of almost every revolver and levergun from the 19th century. Plus, there are modern firearms that are certified “SASS legal” for competition.

Revolver replicas include high-quality copies of cap-and-ball sixguns produced by Colt and Remington. Cartridge-firing revolvers include the Colt Cartridge Conversions, 1871-72 Open-Top, and Single Action Army. Also permitted are Remington Models 1875 and 1890, and Smith & Wesson’s Model #3 Russian and Schofield model.

The modern sixguns allowed are Ruger’s Blackhawk and the traditionally styled Vaquero. Two other high-dollar choices are the Colt Single Action Army, which is still produced; and the Freedom Arms Model 97 chambered in .38 Special/.357 Magnum.

There are also many levergun choices. Excellent reproductions include the 1860 Henry and Winchester’s 1866, 1873 and 1892 Models. They are joined by the current Marlin 1894 and Winchester 94s. For competition, all leverguns must chamber a revolver cartridge such as the .45 Colt or .44-40. Competitors are not required to use the same cartridge in both sixgun and levergun.

Replica shotguns have recently become readily available. They include the lever-action 1887 Winchester, the pump-action 1897 Winchester, and several double-barrel models in concealed-hammers and outside-hammers styles.

The Right Inventory

Most shops, especially those just starting to cater to the cowboy action shooter, cannot stock all of the firearms available for the sport. The smart thing to do is to carry the most desired cowboy action firearms.

During my years of participating in cowboy action shooting, I’ve noted that the most popular revolvers are the Ruger Vaquero and replicas of the Colt Single Action Army as imported by AWA, Cimarron, EMF and Navy Arms.

United States Fire Arms offers a totally American-made Single Action Army. Their Rodeo model is made to compete with other replicas, while their standard model is snapping at the heels of the price tag found on the Colt Single Action Army.

For competitions, my favorite revolver barrel length is 7.5 inches. However, I am in a very small minority. Ruger reports that less than 5 percent of their Vaquero sales are of the long-barreled version. This means it’s best to inventory replicas or Rugers with barrel lengths of 5.5 or 4.75 inches.

In leverguns, the majority of shooters prefer the Marlin 1894 or one of the “the originals,” such as the 1866 Yellow Boy or the 1873 Winchester. For your beginning inventory of shotguns, stock 12-gauge double barrels since they are used most frequently.

Currently, revolvers for cowboy action shooters are offered in .32 Magnum, .3220, .38 Long Colt, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .38-40, .44 Russian, .44 Colt, .44-40, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 Schofield and .45 Colt.

Leverguns are available in .32-20, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .38-40, .44-40, .44 Special, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt. The most popular chambering seems to be the .45 Colt, with the .38 Special gaining ground. A third choice is the .44-40.

A good inventory is the Marlin 1894 in .45 Colt and .38 Special, the replica 1873 Winchester in .45 Colt and .44-40, and a replica Model 1892 Winchester in .45 Colt, .44-40 and .357 Magnum.

Outfitting The Modern Cowboy

Cowboy shooters also need leather. However, this is a tough item to stock since everyone has different ideas of the ideal rig. A number of companies offer cowboy leather, including Galco, Kirkpatrick, Hunter Co., and El Paso Saddlery.

Also, consider using a local leather maker who is willing to place belts and holsters in your shop on consignment, plus, take custom orders.

Clothing is a big-budget item for cowboy action folks. Many shooters will spend as much for hats, boots and Western clothes as they do for firearms. However, this is an expensive area to stock in quantities, especially boots and hats. The basic clothing should include 1880s type shirts and vests.

Clothing companies to consider are Wahmaker Old West Clothing, Classic Old West Styles and Tombstone Outfitters.

As with leather, work with a local tailor who can make authentic 19th-century clothing. I have purchased several items for my wife from local gun shops that offers consignment clothing from a seamstress. My wife has also ordered custom dresses from the same woman. It is not unusual for an authentic, handcrafted dress to cost as much as two revolvers.

This is another plus for the gun dealer. Once women get involved, to shoot or simply wear historical clothes, the more sales you’ll enjoy. My wife has her own guns and is now starting to compete in black powder, requiring two new revolvers, in addition to her Modern category Blackhawks.

Many other accessories enhance cowboy action sales. There are grips, gun carts, knives, targets, timers, books, tapes, badges–well, the list is almost endless.

Stocking Ammunition For Cowboy Shooters Cowboy action has created a new segment of the industry to meet the ammunition needs of the competition shooters.

In cowboy ammunition, muzzle velocities must be under 1,000 fps in revolvers, and 1,400 fps in lever guns. Bullets must be lead or lead alloy without gas checks. For safe use in leverguns, bullets should have a flat nose, or as they are known in cowboy circles, RNFPs (Round Nosed Flat Points).

Companies currently offering a large selection of cowboy action loads include Black Hills Ammunition, Ten-X, PMC and UltraMax. Cor-Bon, Black Dawge and Wind River also specialize in black powder loadings. As with the caliber choices for firearms, the main ammunition to stock is .45 Colt, .38 Special and .44-40.

A large number of cowboy action participants are reloaders. RCBS offers special cowboy action loading dies for lead bullets. Lyman has made loading black powder with a powder measure safe with a modified version of their #55 Powder Measure.

Most cowboy shooters who reload prefer to buy machine-cast bullets in bulk quantities. They are offered by a number of companies. A popular choice is the Laser Cast line from Oregon Trail. They work very successfully with the new Triple Seven black-powder substitute from Hodgdon.

In shotgun ammo, stock standard birdshot in 12 gauge. Ten-X and Cor-Bon offer 12-gauge black powder shotshells.

Round-Up Cowboy Profits

Cowboy action shooting is not just about enjoying and appreciating the guns and clothing of the 19th century. There is one other very important ingredient. Cowboy action shooting is definitely a family sport. Wives and girlfriends shoot, and kids and grandkids shoot.

In our local club, 25 percent of the shooters are women. They want their own guns and their own leather rigs. Many women who are involved do not take part in the shooting events. They simply enjoy the clothes and getting together with others at competitions. Cowboy action women actually encourage their men to buy more guns!

The market is there. Is it time for your shop to get involved? There are local matches all over the country, probably one within easy driving distance of your shop. Attend one of the events. Once you do, you’ll likely get involved in stocking cowboy action gear–and participating.

Contact SASS for information on becoming a SASS-affiliated store, which includes a lot of benefits. Visit SASS’s Website,, for more information, and to locate a cowboy action event near you.

It’s time to join the fun and increase your business.

Single Action Shooting Society 1-877-411-SASS

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