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Relive Old West Gunplay and Period Dress, with Your Own Cowboy Alias

DAVE SOUZA: Saddle Up for a Return to Cowboy-Style Shooting

cowboy action shooting souza gun

My Colt open top .45 revolver and my handmade Gary Ferguson revolver. The loops make it easy to carry a few extra rounds including the three large 45/70 for my big bore Marlin 1895. These rifles are used for long range side matches. The badges are from SASS and the Lincoln County Lawmen. – Herald News Photo Dave Souza


Quite a few years ago, I used to shoot like a cowboy. I was involved in cowboy action shooting, a sport sponsored nationally by the Single Action Shooting Society.

By Dave Souza, Herald News Photographer

Quite a few years ago, I used to shoot like a cowboy. Well, not a real cowboy. I was involved in cowboy action shooting. This style of shooting was sponsored nationally by the Single Action Shooting Society. SASS was group of men and women who loved shooting old western-style firearms and formed a club to compete using single-action revolvers, lever guns and exposed-hammer shotguns. I was a member of SASS for a few years as member No. 26,452. They even give you a badge like deputies wore in the 19th century. I was also badge No. 25 with the Lincoln County Lawmen, a local affiliate of SASS. To add to the fun, part of the rules were you had to dress like a cowboy.

I liked the idea of shooting old-style firearms, but dressing like a cowboy at first felt like Halloween with live ammunition. I assembled the firearms I needed and kept the cowboy clothing to a minimum. I dressed down as much as possible in cowboy boots, jeans, a collarless shirts, a jean jacket for the summer, a barn coat for colder days in the spring and fall, and my wide-brim Confederate officer’s hat.

At the time, my firearms included a pair of Ruger Vaqueros in .45 caliber, a Martin 1894 lever gun in .44 magnum and a Winchester model 97 pump shotgun in 16 gauge. I also own a Marlin big bore 1895 in 45/70 that I hunt with, but it could be used for long range side matches. As you can see, there wasn’t a lot of planning when I acquired these sidearms and rifles. I just bought what I could that would fit the rules. While these were all fine firearms, the only one I still own is the big bore 1895, and I should have kept the Marlin 1894 lever gun.

A lot of time has passed since I gave up on cowboy shooting, but the thought of competing never completely left my mind.

My Ruger Vaqueros, which I rebuilt with very light triggers, were nice shooting guns. No matter how much I modified the handles by thinning them, they never really fit my hand as well I would have liked. This didn’t mean I couldn’t shoot them. I practiced and did very well with them and the Marlin lever gun.

What bit me on the backside was reloading the pump shotgun quick enough during any given stage of the competition. I was too slow. No matter how much I practiced, I never got the knack like other guys of reloading fast. Lack of speed on my reloads was my first problem. Cowboy shooting was also hitting a big peak in popularity, which meant there were so many shooters at an event that you would shoot a stage in seconds, then have to wait an hour or so before you had a chance to shoot another stage. At that point, I dropped out to rethink things. I got involved in other aspects of the shooting sports and never went back.

A lot of time has passed since I gave up on cowboy shooting, but the thought of competing never completely left my mind. I figured if I ever got into the game, I would only buy handguns that were on my short list. There are only three. I was looking for a conversion of a Colt Army 1860, a conversion of a Remington 1858 or a Colt 1872 open top. Except for the Colt open top, the other guns were originally made for muzzle-loading of powder and a bullet. They were then converted into breech-loading guns. The Colt open top was built that way from the start.

One day, I walked into Shooting Supply in Westport just to look around. In the large display case I saw a gun on my list that I have wanted for years. It was a reproduction of a Colt 1871-1872 open top revolver in .45 Colt. They are called open tops because they didn’t have a strap over the cylinder like the Remington 1858 and some other guns of the time. These guns are rare. The real ones, made between 1871 and the beginning of 1873, only numbered around 7,000 pieces and are major collectors’ items for people who understand their history.

The reproductions are also scarce. Most gun shops around here never stock these guns. Mark Bouchard had it in the shop on consignment. I had him take it out of the case, and because it had the same handle as a Colt 1851 Navy, it fit my hand far better than my old Vaqueros. I pulled back the hammer one click and opened the loading gate to make sure it was clear, a good habit to get into if you handle any firearm. I closed it and, without thinking, I curled my thumb around the hammer while bringing the gun up to my sight picture. It felt perfect in my hand. A customer in the store noticed the way I handled the gun. He said it looked like I knew what I was doing with a single-action firearm. I gave Mark a deposit, and two days later I returned to the store to pick it up. I couldn’t wait to shoot this gun. Step one on my way back to shooting like a cowboy.

Now I needed a holster. You may think this is a simple thing to buy, but finding an authentic holster is hard. Many of the new reproduction are beautiful but they have very fancy leather engraving. These holsters sometimes cost as much as the gun. I didn’t want a holster like that. I wanted a plain old leather belt and holster. I feel a plain rig is more authentic. I’ve looked at hundreds of old photos of cowboys at work, and most of them had plain and simple holsters.
Cowboys were the laborers of the day. The pretty much owned what they could carry in their saddlebags on their horse. They got paid anywhere between 60 cents to a dollar a day for a top hand. They could make a few extra dollars breaking bucks, but that was a very dangerous way to earn their keep. A bad fall and they could be injured too badly to work, or could even be killed. With that small salary, they bought what they needed to exist, including a rifle and a sidearm for defense, but they probably skimped on a holster. What are the bets that none of these regular cowhands had fancy leatherwork on their holster? They owned the best but least expensive rig because that was all they could afford on 18 bucks a month. That meant most of these guys only afford a plain but sturdy leather holster.

After looking at some of the many gun leather companies online and in catalogs, I never saw what I really wanted. The plainest holster I found was a John Wayne rig, and even that was embellished with edge work. These companies embellished all the holsters with some degree of fancy leather tooling, and that made them way more expense and less authentic. They did have fancy holsters back in the day. El Paso Saddle Co. is one of the firms that produced holsters back in the 1889 right up until today. Beautiful leather work, but too expensive for the average 60 cents a day cowboy back then and too expensive for me today.

One day, just for fun, I did a search on eBay for western holsters. The third rig I saw was just what I was looking for. A guy named Gary Ferguson from Beaumont, Texas, builds sturdy but plain holsters that can handle just about any single-action handgun. These holsters have a slight contour and they hold the firearm well. On top of that, he also makes the original-style tapered belts, with or without ammo loops, to match the holster. I sent him a message and asked him about making a rig for me with a right-hand draw holster on the right and right-hand cross-draw to wear on the left. The price was right, and in a week and a half the box from Texas was sitting on my porch.

The unlined leather holster is just what I had hoped it would be. Gary sews a separate piece of leather to the back of the hold to slide onto the belt. He keeps the tolerance tight so the holster can be moved but it doesn’t slip around like holsters I’ve owned in the past. The cross-draw holster fits very snug, something you need when you are carrying a sidearm at that 45-degree angle. Both holsters also came with adjustable hammer loops. These loops ensure the gun won’t fall out while you walk or work while wearing a rig. Back in the day, they prevented the gun from falling out while riding a horse. I had Gary dye my rig in tan. Over the years, it will age and probably get a little darker. If you are considering a holster for a single-action gun, you can reach Gary at 409-782-7664. They are extremely well made and best of all look very authentic. It matches up to those old photos I have seen.

So now that I have the bug again, I guess sooner or later I’ll be back competing. I’ve found one of the two firearms I’ll use and hopefully find a second one on my list soon. I’m checking around all the time. I have the perfect leather gear to carry my single-action revolvers thanks to Gary Ferguson. I’ll buy another used Marlin 1894 lever gun so I won’t have to break it in and save a few bucks. This time I’ll get a side by side “coach style” shotgun with a short barrel that I can quickly reload … on the fly.

Merry Christmas to all the shooters, hunters, anglers and outdoorsmen and -women everywhere in Southern New England.

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