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When Grownups Play Cowboys

Cowboy Action Shooters compete in Vermont
Erica Heilman
Contestants in the Single Action Shooting Society's Vermont State Cowboy Action Shooting Competition.

Cowboy Action Shooting is a sport that attempts to relive the time of the "Old West". And every summer, cowboy shooters converge on the Northeast Kingdom for the Single Action Shooting Society’s Vermont State Cowboy Action Shooting Championship.

Erica Heilman stopped by to catch some of the action.

Here's Scott Lambert. At cowboy action shootouts, he’s Dillon Van Cleef.

Me: What’s your alias?

Dillon Van Cleef: "Dillon Van Cleef." 

Me: "Where did that name come from?"

Dillon Van Cleef: "Van Cleef is named after Lee Van Cleef, the famous western actor. I named myself that because he’s missing his trigger finger just like I am." 

Me: "What happened to your trigger finger?"

Dillon Van Cleef: "Motorcycle chain."

Most of the people I met at the shootout were over 50 and dressed as cowboys, saloon bartenders and preachers. Costuming is not optional. Minimum requirements are cowboy hats, boots, button-down shirts and jeans.There were some corsets.

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The event is a shooting competition based on speed and accuracy, using period revolvers, rifles and shotguns. But no one seemed be too worried about the score. Mostly they were there for fun, and a lot of the shooters were staying the night in campers they’d circled up on a grassy site on the gun club grounds.

Shootouts usually start with a story that ends in a gun fight.

Two people in period clothing, with one shooting a gun
Credit Erica Heilman / For VPR
As Doc McCoy says, shootouts usually start with a story. Here, contestants toe the line.


Meet Doc McCoy

Here’s match director Andy Squires, AKA Doc McCoy:

Doc McCoy: "This is the first time I’ve written a match and not put a story in it. Because it’s the first time we’ve been able to do anything since COVID came up."

Me: "Can you give me an example of what a story would be?"

Doc McCoy:

"It’s 1882. You’ve wandered into town, gotten into a poker game in the saloon, realized that you’re playing with the wrong bunch of guys. They’re going to take any excuse they can to call you a cheat, kill you and take your stakes, and you’re going to have to fight your way out. You’re sitting at the poker table with a poker hand and when the timer goes off, you throw down your deck, grab your gun, shoot five targets, get out of your chair, kick the table over, pull your second pistol, shoot five more, go over to the bar — there’s always a shotgun at the bar at any saloon, right? Soyou go over, grab the shotgun off the bar, shoot a couple more, go out through the swinging doors to your packhorse, grab the rifle and shoot ten more.

"There’s no continuity to the story after the first reading." 

Me: "Well, there are a lot of dead people."

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Doc McCoy: "That’s the undertaker’s problem. He’s gotta go clean up the street.

"Sometimes we call this 'playing John Wayne for the weekend.' And we know that we’re playing a fantasy game. The westerns we grew up with in the fifties and sixties, they weren’t very realistic. Because we grew up with it as entertainment and the games we played as kids out in the back yard…it just allows us to go back.

Like there's a character, Eyesa Horg:

"I’m EyesaHorg, so one time they said, ‘EyesaHorg’s riding into town with his gang! We’re gonna get ready for him. They’re gonna rob the bank! Let’s get ‘em before they get to the bank!’

And then the starting line might be:

‘Let’s get ‘em!’

But ultimately, it is a game. At some point the match director calls out to the shoot-out contestants, "We want to make darn sure that when you walk away from that table, there’s nothing in your gun because you’re gonna be going back into public…"

Here's Doc McCoy again:

Doc McCoy: "My real name’s Andy Squires. My alias is Doc McCoy. My character’s kind of a cross between Doc Holliday and Doc Adams from Gunsmoke. And it crosses into my other fantasy, of course, of Star Trek. Sometimes I claim to be Leonard McCoy’s ancestor. Other times I am Leonard McCoy, stuck here in another transporter accident."

Meet Tyler Tornado

Then there's Tyler Tornado:

Tyler Tornado: "My alias is Tyler Tornado. My mom always called me Tyler Tornado as a kid, so that was my nickname. And then my mom passed away from cancer when I was younger, so I was like, if I ever get into a cowboy action shooting, that’s going to be my name. When I finally got the chance, I used the alias my mother had given me as a kid. 

Me: "Why isn’t anyone wearing spurs?"

Tyler Tornado: "There’s people wearing spurs. I got someone on my posse wearing spurs."

In the background someone yells (good naturedly), "Are you shooting ‘38s? Make it fair!"


Woman shoots gun in period clothing.
Credit Erica Heilman / For VPR
A contestant shoots a period gun at the shoot-out this summer.

Meet Preacher Ben Prayin'

There was also a preacher on the scene.

Me: "So what is your handle?"

Preacher Ben Prayin’: "Preacher Ben Prayin'".

Me: "Are you a preacher in real life?"

Preacher Ben Prayin': "I was, yes. I’m retired now."

Me: "And I notice that on all your guns, there’s an inlaid crucifix…"

Preacher Ben Prayin': "It’s a cross, not a crucifix."

Me: "What’s the difference?"

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Preacher Ben Prayin': "Crucifix is Catholic. It shows Christ still hanging on the cross. Mine shows Christ has risen from the cross. I’m a preacher, a real preacher. See the bullet is caught in there. 

Me: "So is part of the excitement here that you live your way into the feeling of what it would’ve been then?"

Preacher Ben Prayin': "Yeah. I’ve done weddings and funerals and stuff like that for people. I’m Reverend Don Heath - that’s my name. So I do weddings and funerals and stuff like that, but I also do it for cowboy family friends. They want a cowboy wedding, a funeral…"

Me: "Does that impact how you deliver a service?"

Preacher Ben Prayin': "Oh yeah. I use the old western flair... throw in a lot more cowboy stuff, euphemisms, stuff like that."

Meet Gunny Bear

Gunny Bear: "I’m Mike Gianni. And my alias is Gunny Bear. I’m dressed more casually than I normally would be. I’d usually have a tie and a vest on and I shoot, normally, in a top hat. I shoot kind of a modified townie type persona."

Me: "But a top hat is a banker... right?"

Gunny Bear: "Yeah."

Erica: "So you’re a person of means."

Gunny Bear: "Mm hmm."

Me: "What are you trying to feel?"

Gunny Bear: "Just feel the time frame. We’re all a bunch of kids who refused to grow up. We’re still playing cowboys and Indians. That’s the reality."

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