The Gun-Slingers

Grab your six-shooter and come slap leather at End of Trail, the biggest gathering of cowboys, desperados, and old-time gun nuts west of the Mississippi.

Dave Lauridsen

See more photos: Click here to see a gallery of photographer Dave Lauridsen's images from the End of Trail gathering.

Wild Bill Hickok's last gunfight took place in Abilene on an October evening in 1871. When a shot rang out in the streets, Hickok rose from his seat in the Alamo saloon. He had taken the job of marshal after the last one, refusing to carry a gun, had been shot dead. Hickok had told the 50 or so rowdy cowboys celebrating the end of a cattle drive that no guns were allowed in town. Obviously, somebody hadn't heard. Or didn't care. The marshal also knew, as did everybody else in town, that Texas gambler Phil Coe had vowed to kill him "before the first frost." This was on his mind as he moved toward the door.

One hundred thirty-six years later, Spur Roberts stands under the blazing New Mexico sun at the firing line, readying himself to shoot a stage in the Single Action Shooting Society's World Championship at a ranch outside Albuquerque. The 12 stages that will be shot over the course of the four-day End of Trail event are modeled on historical confrontations involving the likes of Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Wild Bunch.

Roberts is armed with historically accurate reproduction firearms: two single-action revolvers, a rifle, and a double-barreled shotgun. And Spur (Jason Dominy in real life, an electrician from Watauga, Texas; all competitors are required to select cowboy aliases) is not just wearing cowboy "style" clothes. He's accurate to the stitch. From the black town hat (a cross between a derby and a cowboy hat that was popular with working men in the 1870s) to the leather chinks (shorter than chaps and therefore cooler on long rides) to the knee-high boots, everything is right, down to his handlebar mustache.

But it's doubtful that any cowpuncher of the day ever looked this spiffy, his outfit sparkling with a constellation of nickel-plated "dots" on his chinks, gun belt, and shotshell belt. There are 875 dots in all, he says. "Embellishment is the key to my stuff. My theory is that even if you shoot bad, you oughta look good." The gun belt also carries a pouch of rosin (to keep his hands sticky during competition) and a sheath for a handmade knife with an elk-antler handle. Like everybody else shooting, he also sports futuristic-looking Oakley shades and bright yellow earplugs. Authenticity does have its limits, after all. Besides, you think the cowboys wouldn't have worn such protection had it been available? Damn straight they would.

If he's accurate with clothes, Spur, like all these guys, is obsessed with authentic guns. Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) rules stipulate single-action revolvers typical of the Old West, revolver-caliber lever-action rifles, and 19th century¿¿¿style shotguns. He is packing two Taylor's .38 special Smoke Wagon revolvers, which are modeled after Samuel Colt's second-generation Model 73. His .38-caliber repro 1866 lever-action Winchester "Yellowboy" rifle, also by Taylor's, has the details right, too, from the shiny brass receiver to the short, 20-inch octagonal barrel. And the stubby, double-barreled Ithaca SKB 12-gauge, which is no longer made, projects a certain brute utility typical of the "stagecoach guns" of the day (whence the term riding shotgun comes). These guns may look like the old ones, down to the uneven streaks of color in their case-hardened frames, but peek under the hood and you'll find the best of 21st-century technology. The revolvers, for instance, come from the factory highly slicked up: custom tuned, with low-profile hammers, wider sights for quicker target acquisition, triggers set at precisely 3 pounds, and slightly slimmed-down handles for better control, with all metal-to-metal parts polished to a mirror finish. Some of the tolerances are measured in fctions of a thousandth of an inch. When Spur breaks open one of his pistols to load, the cylinder ticks with the precision of a Rolex. Eat your heart out, Wyatt Earp. [pagebreak] When Hickok stepped out in the night air to confront the crowd, he encountered the gambler. Coe, pistol in hand, claimed to have fired at a stray dog, for which the town paid a 50-cent bounty. Suddenly producing a second pistol, he fired twice at Wild Bill, one round passing through Hickok's coat and the other raising dirt between the marshal's boots. (This was nearly a century before Miranda rights gummed up the legal system.) Hickok simply reacted, drawing two Colt Navy revolvers (much esteemed on land and sea for a rapid rate of fire and light recoil) and fatally shot Coe in the stomach. Then Hickok sensed another man emerging from the shadows. He turned and fired again, this time killing Michael Williams, a friend coming to help. After carrying his dead compadre's body back into the saloon and laying him on a billiard table, Wild Bill headed back outside and warned everyone present to leave town. Within an hour, the streets of Abilene were deserted.

This was to be the flamboyant gunman's last recorded fight. Hickok lost his job as marshal within the month. Five years later, in 1876, he would be shot dead from behind while gambling in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

The problem with historical gunfights is that they don't pass the nostalgia test. They were quick and dirty and often involved considerable collateral damage. So, for cowboy action purposes, they've been tidied up and expanded to 25 shots or so per stage.

Under the watchful eye of the range officer at the loading table, Spur places five rounds in each revolver, the hammers resting on empty chambers. He loads 10 into the rifle. The rifle will be "staged" in a prop buggy for him to pick up during his turn. Shotguns must be loaded with the clock running. As he waits for the shooter ahead to finish, Spur moves to the next range officer, the expediter, whose job it is to make sure each shooter is ready, understands the details of this particular stage-the order in which the metal silhouette targets are to be engaged, the order in which firearms are to be used, when and how he is to move from one prop to another. The mental rehearsal ensures safety by guarding against the "brain fade" shooters are prone to in the heat of competition. With hundreds of shooters each firing hundreds of rounds, safety is an omnipresent concern. The "170-degree rule," for example, states that you will be disqualified if the muzzle of any loaded weapon points more than 85 degrees to either side of dead downrange. Under the "basketball traveling rule," you're disqualified if one foot does not remain in place when you have a loaded, cocked firearm in hand. You will be disqualified if you drop an unloaded firearm, disqualified and finished for the match if you drop a loaded one. Only a range officer may pick up a dropped firearm. At least four designated range officers are posted at each of the 12 stages of the match. Every competitor is a deputized range officer as well, expected to immediately point out any unsafe actions observed. [pagebreak] As Spur steps to the line, a framed "doorway" of the saloon, he holds his empty double-barreled shotgun at port arms. He is now under the control of the timer operator, who holds an electronic box next to the shooter's ear. (It records both time and each shot in case there is a dispute as to how many rounds were fired.) The timer says, "Whenever you're ready," and Spur exhales a last breath, then utters the setup line that starts the clock: "I said no guns in town!"

At the beep, he loads the shotgun with shells from his belt and sends two quick blasts into metal knockdown silhouettes 10 feet away, reloads deftly, and fires two more, generating an acrid cloud of blackpowder smoke. With unhurried motions, he steps to a "buggy," stows the shotgun, and picks up the staged rifle. Now he's jacking and firing so fast that at any one moment there are three empties suspended in the air. He shoots 10 rounds at five targets. The rifle joins the shotgun in the buggy, and he slaps leather: five rounds from each six-gun-ba-ping, ba-ping, ba-ping. The report of lead against steel comes so fast it sounds as if he's shooting a machine pistol. He uses the Cooper grip, two hands, supporting hand under the trigger guard, arms extended and elbows slightly bent to absorb recoil. He cocks the hammer with the thumb of his off hand. Later he will tell me that he can fire five rounds in one second and that the black powder creates so much smoke that he has trained himself to fire at the memory of targets rather than at the targets themselves. Some shooters can identify others shooting nearby by the cadence of their shots alone.

"Twenty-four ninety-seven, clean!" bellows the timer, meaning he hit all targets in 24.97 seconds. It's a good time-the best so far. Spur is decidedly hot today. He comes off the line almost dripping adrenaline, shaking the tightness out of his hands and smiling broadly as another shooter takes his place. "Good round, Spur," somebody calls to him. "Smoking 'em!" another says. "Yeah, Dad!" calls his daughter Little Star (a.k.a. Sydney Dominy). She is 14, still eligible to compete as a junior, but has chosen to compete against adult women. She started cowboy shooting at home when she was 5. The smoke wafts into the crowd of shooters waiting their turns. A range officer escorts Spur to the unloading table, where he will eject the spent brass from his revolver and stow his empty guns under more supervision. "I'm doing real good so far," he says. "Just hope I can keep it up."

Sydney tells me this is a welcome respite from the cutthroat competition of school sports. "I play volleyball and track: cross-country, shot put, and discus. But school sports are supercompetitive. The coaches are hard on you, and any team will do whatever they have to do to win. This has some stress, too, but it's a fun kind of stress. You have your family and friends instead of a coach, and they're just really pulling for you. Everybody is here to have fun. Guys at school are sort of blown away when they find out I do this." Me, I'm just glad I'm not 14 myself. She is the kind of girl half the guys in school have a crush on. [pagebreak] The Weekend Gunfighter
Cowboy action shooting was started by Harper Creigh, who holed up one rainy Saturday in 1981 with a bunch of Western movies. He regularly shot in International Practical Shooting Confederation matches, and when he finally turned off the TV, he decided to enter his next match using Western-style guns. Soon some friends joined him, and he began dressing like a cowboy as well, adopting the alias of Judge Roy Bean. The SASS was a "buggy," stows the shotgun, and picks up the staged rifle. Now he's jacking and firing so fast that at any one moment there are three empties suspended in the air. He shoots 10 rounds at five targets. The rifle joins the shotgun in the buggy, and he slaps leather: five rounds from each six-gun-ba-ping, ba-ping, ba-ping. The report of lead against steel comes so fast it sounds as if he's shooting a machine pistol. He uses the Cooper grip, two hands, supporting hand under the trigger guard, arms extended and elbows slightly bent to absorb recoil. He cocks the hammer with the thumb of his off hand. Later he will tell me that he can fire five rounds in one second and that the black powder creates so much smoke that he has trained himself to fire at the memory of targets rather than at the targets themselves. Some shooters can identify others shooting nearby by the cadence of their shots alone.

"Twenty-four ninety-seven, clean!" bellows the timer, meaning he hit all targets in 24.97 seconds. It's a good time-the best so far. Spur is decidedly hot today. He comes off the line almost dripping adrenaline, shaking the tightness out of his hands and smiling broadly as another shooter takes his place. "Good round, Spur," somebody calls to him. "Smoking 'em!" another says. "Yeah, Dad!" calls his daughter Little Star (a.k.a. Sydney Dominy). She is 14, still eligible to compete as a junior, but has chosen to compete against adult women. She started cowboy shooting at home when she was 5. The smoke wafts into the crowd of shooters waiting their turns. A range officer escorts Spur to the unloading table, where he will eject the spent brass from his revolver and stow his empty guns under more supervision. "I'm doing real good so far," he says. "Just hope I can keep it up."

Sydney tells me this is a welcome respite from the cutthroat competition of school sports. "I play volleyball and track: cross-country, shot put, and discus. But school sports are supercompetitive. The coaches are hard on you, and any team will do whatever they have to do to win. This has some stress, too, but it's a fun kind of stress. You have your family and friends instead of a coach, and they're just really pulling for you. Everybody is here to have fun. Guys at school are sort of blown away when they find out I do this." Me, I'm just glad I'm not 14 myself. She is the kind of girl half the guys in school have a crush on. [pagebreak] The Weekend Gunfighter
Cowboy action shooting was started by Harper Creigh, who holed up one rainy Saturday in 1981 with a bunch of Western movies. He regularly shot in International Practical Shooting Confederation matches, and when he finally turned off the TV, he decided to enter his next match using Western-style guns. Soon some friends joined him, and he began dressing like a cowboy as well, adopting the alias of Judge Roy Bean. The SASS was