CALVERT CITY – It was a mild day, with a heavy overcast lending a somber, almost ominous tone. The cowboys milled around the unpainted shack, some words were exchanged and within minutes, guns were blazing and the acrid smell of burnt powder filled the air.
It wasn’t a historical occasion, nor a reenactment of one. It wasn’t a scene from a movie.
And no one was hurt.
It was a session of cowboy action shooting, held May 12 at the weapons range of William A. Doyle American Legion Post 236 south of Calvert City.
Or, as Nathan Freeman put it, “It’s a chance for grown men to play cowboys.”
Freeman is head of a local chapter of SASS, the Single Action Shooting Society. The organization’s motto is, “Where the West can still be Won.”
More pertinently, it can still be fun.
A dozen shooters were on hand for the first match to be hosted by the local club. All participants – including one cowgirl and one young man in his early teens – were very much into their characters, complete with period-correct late-19th century revolvers, lever-action rifles and shotguns.
All were dressed the part, with only a few variations that would have earned the disapproval of a historical advisor on the set of a Western movie – things such as safety glasses and ear protection devices worn by all shooters, and some other anachronisms such as wristwatches and a wireless phone that interrupted the atmosphere once with a 21st-century ringing.
Their mission was to spend a good bit of the day blasting away at metal targets in contests that are a blend of convention marksmanship contests and movie scenarios.
Freeman credits his father, Steve, 59, a long-time Western aficionado whose heroes include John Wayne, Gene Autry and others, for getting this activity started when he learned of a monthly session held at Shooter’s Supply in Paducah.
There were a half-dozen or so participants taking part in an event there in 2007, Nathan Freeman said.
“Since then,” Freeman said, “it has kind of exploded.”
The sport has a longer history than might be imagined. Next month, the 31st annual End of Trail World Championship of Cowboy Action Shooting will be held.
That event, a three-day celebration of cowboy culture in Founders Ranch, N.M., will celebrate the 100th year of statehood for New Mexico.
In this area, there are now shooting events on the first Saturday of each month, in Boaz, in northeastern Graves County; on the third Saturday, in Paducah; and on the fourth Saturday, in Union City, Tenn.
A session is held on the second Saturday in Bowling Green, but Freeman has set up a series of events on those dates at the Calvert City range so enthusiasts from the Jackson Purchase region won’t have to drive so far.
Much like Civil War reenactors, cowboy shooters embrace the lifestyle and the culture of the historical period. Freeman’s answer to a query about his day job included not only the explanation – that he’s a metal fabricator for Pebco Inc. of Paducah – but an in-character line tacked onto the reply: “When I’m not slingin’ lead, I’m slingin’ steel for Pebco,” he said.
Cowboy shooters, just like Old West characters, go by nicknames, or aliases. Freeman’s is Lone Valley Kid.
Timing is important, but this is much more than just a fast-draw contest. Matches take all forms. Freeman’s technique is to set up a requisite sequence of shots to be made by each participant, using a spectrum of weapons, shooting as close-range, with judges monitoring the accuracy and a timekeeper tracking the progress of each shooter.
Participants with proper training and certification take turns as observers to monitor loading and unloading of weapons and provide general supervision to safeguard participants and spectators.
Freeman creates shooting scenarios in which participants repeat a line from a movie to signify they’re ready to commence firing. For one scenario Saturday, the line was, “It’s like playin’ cards with my brother’s kids,” by Billy Bob Thornton as the faro dealer Johnny Tyler in “Tombstone.”
“Surely, we enjoy running water and air conditioning and other things like that,” Freeman said. “But we appreciate the Old West.”
They relate to the simplicity of life in an earlier time. They have a regard for those who survived those times and they all have a fascination with the firearms that helped provide that survival in an often lawless era.
It’s a specialized skill, if not an art form, to combine dexterity, accuracy and lightning-fast fire.
“It’s not easy to make a lever-action rifle or a revolver sound like an automatic weapon,” Freeman said.
Not easy, but really a lot of fun.