Out in the New Mexico desert, there is a home for folks who never could quite shake their dreams of living in the Wild West. The road there is dusty and dirty. Longhorn steers amble around in the scrubby grass. There’s a church, a saloon, a hotel and a few other relics from the 1800s. And there are guns. Oh boy, are there guns. Ride your horse down the well-worn trails going through this town, and you’ll soon notice that nearly everyone has one.
That’s part of the point here, anyway. Founder’s Ranch is not a real Wild West town, but for a few days every June, it sure does look like it. The Single Action Shooting Society’s annual End of Trail event is perhaps the biggest meeting of cowboys, cowgirls, wranglers, frontiersmen, buckaroos and buckarettes you’ll find outside an old-time Western movie. The society, called SASS for short, counts nearly 100,000 members, many of whom come to the southern Rocky Mountain foothills in New Mexico to try their hand at quick-draw shooting competitions—properly called Cowboy Action Shooting—of all sorts.
Speed is just one piece of the puzzle, though. In contests like the Texas Surrender event, shooters need to bring their revolver and shotgun, and be able to shoot the right targets within a short time. In another event, cowboys and cowgirls need to handle a shotgun, two pistols and a rifle. Handling each and knowing which firearm to switch to at which time can get confusing quickly. If speed was the only thing to worry about, then anyone could do this. Shooters have to be accurate as well, knocking down particular targets in a particular order—and if they don’t, there’s a penalty of a few seconds added on to their total time.
The targets are metal contraptions, some shaped like buffalos, and others in less-fancy shapes (like, uh, circles). This means that, when the brass starts flying, the sound is something like a thousand tin cans all getting destroyed at once. Add to that a few hoots and hollers, and you get the idea that this is not a normal day at the shooting range.
Oh, and then there’s the dress. It looks like everyone out there is trying to out-cowboy the next guy (or girl) next to them. You’ve never seen so much fringe leather, embroidery and Stetson hats in your life as you would here at End of Trail.
Of course, if you’re going to look the part, you’ll need to act the part as well. You might as well just take on another name entirely, as everyone who participates in Cowboy Action shooting does. You’ll find names like Evil Roy, Slinky Loco, Honey B. Quick and Max Montana walking around the ranch. You might even hear them before you see them—the sound of boot spurs clinking against the ground is everywhere.
One of the names I came across was Morgan Ann Ammo, a 12-year-old buckarette who lives near Modesto, Calif. She came here to shoot alongside her dad, Doc Burwood.
“Somewhere around 10 years old, she got strong enough to hold the long guns,” Doc says. “She’d been shooting with handguns a little bit before that.”
The pistol competition is Morgan’s weakness. And why shouldn’t it be? The young lady is barely taller than her rifle. And, because kids here are often seen shooting side-by-side with grown-up shooters, they aren’t using guns that are specially made for younger shooters. For just about any 12-year-old, holding a heavy revolver for long periods of time tends to get exhausting.
But that doesn’t stop her from trying.
“My grandpa lives on the same road as me, he has a lot of property and orchards,” Morgan says. “He can’t plant trees in this one big area, so we made a range right there. My dad made all the targets. We have two tombstone racks, two duelling trees, three throwers, probably about 10 lollipops, and some really cool looking targets, like some buffalos. And cowboys.” (That’s cowboy targets, mind you.)
Doc, a mechanical engineer when he’s not on the range, got involved with Cowboy Action Shooting three years ago. In that time, he’s learned a bit about what separates the good shooters from the great ones. “Lots of people assume that one gun is faster than the other, or one technique is naturally faster,” he says. “But it really comes down to how much practice that person has put in, and what technique works better for the individual. The only way to figure out which technique is best for you is through trial and error.”
There are a few kids here, some from as far away as New Zealand. But if the golden age of Western films—The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, True Grit, A Fistful of Dollars, etc.—came out decades ago, what’s getting young people interested in Cowboy Action Shooting?
I found a shooter, named McCabe, who looked like he’d been to a few rodeos already. Under a cloudless sky where the temperature was hovering right at about 102 degrees, he was barely breaking a sweat.
He says, “A lot of young people are getting involved with it. That’s our goal, to get young people here. It’s a family thing. Some people are in it strictly for competition. Some are in it for dress. Most are in it for the historical end of it. A lot of people in my age group came up watching Westerns.”
McCabe’s been impressed by young shooters like Morgan Ann Ammo, some of whom are competing with seasoned adults on the range. Another older shooter, when asked about the buckaroos and buckarettes here, says, “They don’t know that this is actually hard. They just come out here and shoot, like it’s a natural thing.”
Even better, McCabe says, are the friendships that result from the competition. Some people drive out to the ranch in RVs and stay for the entire competition, which spans eight days. Being out here in the lonesome high desert, people bond. “You see people on the range display excellent manners,” he says. “A lot of ‘yes sir’s’ from the young people, and personal conflicts are not permitted. It’s a hobby, a game, and it just happens to involve firearms.”