GUNS OF THE WILD WEST: OREGON TRAIL REGULATORS HOLD TWO-DAY SHOOT
entury-old sounds were easy to hear last weekend at the La Grande Rifle and Pistol Club range.
Old vinyl records of popular 1800s songs were not being played, but the sound of Old West gunfire could be heard all around.
The marksmen brought the past alive the way the phonograph once energized the music world.
The La Grande Rifle and Pistol Club's Cowboy Action Shooters put on the event. The group puts on shooting competitions that simulate days of the western frontier.
Blasts from the past were heard all weekend as more than 150 competitors fired replicas of guns used during the wild west era of 1860 to 1890. The competition is among many Cowboy Action Shooting events conducted in the Northwest each year.
"We have more fun than we should be allowed to have,'' said Tim Mahan of La Grande.
At each cowboy action event, the shooters, dressed in western garb, test their marksmanship with the guns of the Old West: double-barreled shotguns, single-action revolvers, and lever-action rifles.
Participants are encouraged to dress like a character from the Old West or like one from a television series or movie. Mark Smith of La Grande poses as Paladin, Richard Boone's character in the old "Have Gun Will Travel'' television series.
Paladin is Smith's registered cowboy name. About 50,000 cowboy action shooters in the United States have registered names, all of which are different. At events they go only by their Wild West alias.
"A lot of people don't know their real names,'' said Stan Stevenson of
La Grande, whose name is Grey Wolf of the Blues.
Many cowboy action shooters are intrigued by the days of the Old West, but not to the extent that they all believe they were born 130 years too late. They appreciate the amenities people have today.
"If you wanted butter for your bread you had to milk the cow first and then churn. ... Living is best now,'' said Jim Kauth of Baker City, whose cowboy name is German Jim.
Kauth said he has great respect for the character of people who lived in the Old West. Those were days of handshake contracts and a spirit of self sufficiency.
Bob Bork of La Grande shares this feeling.
"Men were honorable. Everyone took care of each other,'' said Bork, whose alias is Beaver Bob.
Cowboy Action Shooters with family links to the Old West include Robert Smith of Hermiston. One of his great-great-grandfathers was a sheriff in a western town from 1880 to 1891.
"If I could go back in time I would like to spend one day with my great-great-grandfather,'' Robert Smith said.
He believes he would find that basic human nature has not changed.
"We are just like them only with more technology,'' Smith said.
The top cowboy action shooters of today are better shots than most of the gunmen in the Wild West, Kauth said. One reason is that it is easier for shooters to practice today since bullets are more affordable.
"A box of ammunition (in the Wild West era) cost you a week's wages,'' Kauth said.
He noted that shooting was not a recreational activity in the Old West.
"They didn't wear firearms for fun. We wear them for fun,'' Kauth said.
At last weekend's shoot, situations that individuals encountered long ago were simulated. For example, at one station a stage coach guard had to shoot at robbers. The bad men are represented by metal targets.
Single-action hand guns need to have the hammer pulled back before each shot is fired.
At cowboy action events, competitors can take one shot at each target. Their scores are based on how many targets they hit and how long they take.
A key to being successful in competition is developing a rhythm, said Karen Jennings of Kent, Wash. Patience is another virtue shooters need because it takes time to learn the art of cowboy action shooting.
Jennings is one of a growing number of women involved in cowboy action shooting. She said that many women are drawn at first by an interest in Old West dress, not firearms
Jennings has been fascinated by what she has learned about fashion in the Old West. She noted that belt loops were not developed until the 1920s, which explains why many cowboys wore suspenders.
Jennings also discovered that pants did not have pockets in the old days. Cowboys relied on the pockets in their vests to carry personal items.
Real Old West cowboys, unlike those in the movies, never wore holsters because wearing a holster while riding is uncomfortable, Jennings said.
Cowboys only put their holsters on when they went into town and felt they were in danger of being shot at. Not surprisingly, the most dangerous cowboys were often those who had been drinking. Jennings noted that alcohol in the Old West made people particularly crazy because it sometimes contained things like arsenic.
Jennings believes that people sometimes overly romanticize the cowboys of the Old West.
"In actuality, the cowboy was a gruesome dude,'' Jennings said.
Safety was not a major concern in the Old West but it is among cowboy action shooters. Safety rules at competitions are strictly enforced. For example, each competitor must load and unload under supervision.
Things such as fast draws and trigger fanning are not allowed because of the danger they present.
In addition, cowboy action competitors must keep the first chamber of their six shooters empty. This prevents a gun from discharging if it is dropped.
The emphasis on safety permeates every competition.
"Number one is safety. Number two is fun,'' Kauth said.
The Cowboy Action Shooters of
La Grande are officially known as the Oregon Trail Regulators. Regulators were people hired in the Old West days to guard against cattle rustlers.
The Oregon Trail Regulators are part of the national Single Action Shooting Society. Their range is on Highway 244 between Hilgard State Park and Starkey.
Cowboy action shooting is one of the fastest growing shooting sports in the nation, according to Stevenson.
The sport's newcomers include Ron and Linda Mudie of La Grande, who joined the Oregon Trail Regulators almost a year ago. Like many others, the couple have have been struck by the people involved in the sport and their willingness to reach out to others.
"So many people are willing to help,'' Ron Mudie said. "We have developed so many new friends.''