Cowboy Action Shooting

The fastest-growing shooting sport in the country is clearly cowboy action shooting and cowboy mounted shooting (the horseback segment of the sport). These fun-filled events are attracting shooters from all walks of life.

The single action shooting society (SASS), along with dozens of local clubs, have generated many cowboy action competitions throughout the country. Also called wild west extravaganzas, cowboy action sports are unlike any other shooting sports. They provide spectators an unusual taste of the Old West, with entire families dressing up in 1800s vintage clothing for events that often last the entire weekend. In keeping with the flavor of the period, participants adopt an alias like Dangerous Dave or Lawless Linda. Unlike most shooting contests, the emphasis of cowboy action sports is to enjoy the spirit of the game; competitors never shoot for money.

Cowboy action shooters face new challenges at each event, which could include shooting vintage pistols, rifles or shotguns from a buckboard, a horse or the top of a fence. Shooters have a large selection of categories because of the diverse styles of firearms used in the time period. To maintain historical authenticity, only originals and reproductions of 1800s firearms and traditional accessories are used.

Clubs throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe hold events that draw increasingly large crowds of families and spectators. The largest competition, the end of trail world championship of cowboy action shooting, is held every April in southern California. End of trail 2000 drew 1,100 participants and 19,000 spectators.

Shooting Events

Cowboy action shooters can compete in three dismounted events. Frontier black powder requires competitors to use ammunition loaded with black powder or a black powder substitute such as Pyrodex or black canyon powder.

The traditional class of competition is for those who want to use old west-type cartridge guns, but prefer using modern smokeless powder cartridges.

The modern category is for competitors who favor modernized frontier-type guns with the latest adjustable sights.

Courses of fire in this fast-paced sport are designed to simulate a western "shootout" such as a saloon gunfight. Scores are based on speed, accuracy and the ability of each shooter to follow the layout of the course. Instead of paper or metal plates, the targets are drawn or made up (sometimes using mannequins dressed in old clothes) to look like old west-type desperadoes.

Mounted cowboy action shooting is an exciting new equestrian sport that combines elements of old-time wild west show exhibition shooting in the tradition of buffalo bill and Annie Oakley, along with cavalry drills, barrel racing, historical reenactments, and Saturday afternoon westerns. Mounted cowboy action shooting is a direct outgrowth of sass and is a natural progression for those cowboys and cowgirls who want to bring horses into their fantasy of the wild west.

Contestants in the mounted shooting competition (men and women) use two .45 caliber single action revolvers, or "sixguns," loaded with five rounds each of specially prepared sass-approved black powder blanks to shoot ten reactionary targets (balloons) from horseback while riding a specified course of travel or an old west type scenario. All firing is performed in an enclosed arena. Unexpended granules of black powder exiting the barrel of the gun will ordinarily break a balloon out to a range of ten feet. Riders are timed through the course and each missed balloon adds five seconds to the riders raw time. The contestant who rides the fastest and shoots the straightest will win.

Both the mounted and dismounted events require contestants to have two revolvers. Many contestants reload to obtain the reduced power loads favored in the dismounted sport, although several major ammunition manufacturers have introduced cartridges specifically for use in cowboy action shooting. Many of the guns are also tuned for smoother, faster firing an important consideration in the timed events.



Only 19th century model firearms or reproductions thereof may be used for competition. Gun manufactures and equipment suppliers have recognized the need and tremendous market for pistol-cartridge rifles, single-action pistols and shotguns, and are now offering a growing array of cowboy action firearms.


  • Main, team, and side matches (not long range or precision rifle)
  • Any lever or slide action, tubular fed, exposed hammer rifle or carbine manufactured before 1899, or any reproduction thereof.
  • Centerfire, .25 caliber or larger.
  • Rifle must be in a "pistol" caliber (e.g., not .30-30, 30.06, or .45-70)
  • Only open iron sights or original style tang mounted peep sights are allowed.
  • Barrel must be BATF legal, over 16" in length.
  • Rifles with box magazines may not be used.
  • The .45 long colt and .44-40 are favorite caliber choices, especially since one can often team up a handgun and a lever action rifle in the same caliber-as was often done in the old west.


    Any side-by-side shotgun typical of the erawithout automatic ejectors, with or without external hammers, with single or double triggersmay be used. Any lever action or pump shotgun with an exposed hammer (e.g., Winchester model 1887 or 1897) also may be used. Military configurations are not allowed and many requirements are in place for those that do apply.

  • No larger bore than 10-gauge and no smaller than 20-gauge.
  • All shotguns must have a bureau of alcohol, tobacco & firearms legal barrel, over 18 in length.
  • Number 4-lead birdshot or smaller must be used in all events (no steel or plated shot).
  • Magnum and high-velocity loads are not allowed.
  • Pump and lever action shotguns are allowed to load no more than two rounds at a time in the main match stages unless specified in the stage description. Single loading pump/lever action shotguns are always acceptable. In team events, shotguns may be loaded to their maximum magazine capacity.


  • Cowboy action shooters are divided into six basic categories: modern, traditional, frontier cartridge, duelist, gunfighter, and frontiersman. A shooter's category is determined by the type of "six-gun," propellant, and shooting style he or she uses.
  • Although the .32 caliber revolvers and .36 caliber cap and ball pistols are legal, they may not be powerful enough to handle all reactive targets. To the extent possible, reactive targets are set to fall when squarely hit with a standard .38 special 158 gr. Factory load.


    Several ammunition manufacturers now make or import specialty loads required for the sport and more are being developed and manufactured as the sport grows. The most popular rounds are the .45 Colt and the .44-40.

    Firearms Restrictions

  • Firearms of all approved types should be maintained in as original exterior condition as possible. The firearm must look appropriate for the period.
  • No visible external modifications other than (non-rubber) grips, recoil pads on shotguns, and leather wrapping (e.g., rifle levers) are allowed.
  • Contemporary rubber grips, modern target grips, and grip tape are not allowed. Replacement grips of wood, ivory, pearl, stag horn, bone, and the like are perfectly acceptable so long as they are not severely customized to constitute a target grip. The grips must be of original shape and scale.
  • Minor exterior modifications and cosmetic engraving are acceptable so long as the overall outward appearance of the firearm is not altered. Cosmetic embellishment such as engraving is permitted to the extent it does not create a competitive advantage. For example, back strap checkering or stippling is not allowed. Engraving your alias on the back strap is permissible.
  • Modifying the stock length to fit the shooter or changing a barrel to a different legal length is acceptable.
  • Colored sights and sight inserts are not allowed. Sight outlines or inserts must be blackened or removed (e.g., marlins cowboy rifle factory sights).
  • Trigger shoes, compensating ports, counter weights, bull barrels and all other such modifications are prohibited.
  • A stage disqualification is issued for use of any non-legal sass firearm at matches above the club level.


    Often good used guns are available from retailers at favorable prices. Prices for guns range from $360 and upputting most new replicas within the price range of the average shooter. Prices for holsters and clothing vary.

    Clothing and Accessories

    Holsters, cartridge belts and other gear are now readily available. Clothes may be purchased at specialty shops or custom made.

    Clothing Guidelines

    Cowboy action shooting is a combination of historical reenactment and Saturday morning at the matinee. Participants may choose the style of costume they wish to wear, but all clothing must be typical of the late 19th century, a b-western movie, or western television series. Sass puts a great deal of emphasis on costuming because it adds so much to the uniqueness of the game and helps create a festive, informal atmosphere that supports the friendly, fraternal feeling encouraged in sass competitions.

    All shooters must be in costume, and invited guests and family are also encouraged to be costumed. Shooters must remain in costume at all match events: dinners, award ceremonies, dances, etc.

    It is neither difficult nor expensive to assemble a colorful and authentic costume. A little imagination and a dose of creativity can go a long way.

    The best way to develop a costume is to first decide on a character or profession you wish to portray. This is also a good way to decide on your shooting alias. Sass members have adopted the personas of bankers, blacksmiths, lawmen, gunslingers, railroad engineers, saloon girls, schoolmarms, East Indian British Cavalry, U.S. Army Cavalry, mountain men, trail cowboys, prairie women, American Indians and silver screen heroes.

    There are many commercial suppliers of traditional western clothing and accouterments. As well as many commercial costume rental companies that offer a good selection of authentic western wardrobes. Denims of the wrangler, Levi, and Lee variety are acceptable. Designer jeans (ones with colored piping and name embroidered on the pocket) are not allowed. Contemporary cowboy shirts with snap fronts are okay. Inexpensive cotton work shirts with button fronts are available and are much more representative of the type of shirt worn in the late 1800s.

    Visit with the other shooters at your local club. They have great ideas about how to assemble a cowboy action-shooting wardrobe.

    Clothing/Accessories Not Allowed

  • Modern shooting gloves
  • Short sleeve shirts
  • Modern feathered cowboy hats (Shady Bradys). Straw hats of traditional design (e.g. Stetson, bailey, sombreros) are acceptable.
  • Designer jeans
  • Ball caps
  • Tennis, running, jogging, or aerobic shoes (indian moccasins work well for relaxing after a long day in boots.)
  • Clothing displaying manufacturers or sponsors badges or logos.
  • Nylon, plastic, or Velcro accessories

    Further Information

    Single Action Shooting Society
    23255 La Palma Avenue
    Yorba Linda, California 92887
    Phone: (714) 694-1800
    Fax: (714) 694-1815

    (Material courtesy of the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Single Action Shooting Society)