Home on the (Firing) Range: Gunfight Reenactments, Old West Competitive Shooting, and the Myth of Authenticity

Jennifer Tucker
A picture of an elderly man taken from behind. He is wearing a cowboy outfit and firing two revolvers at a series of targets shaped like human torsos in a sandpit.

First match of a black powder match at Founders Ranch, opened in 2005. SASS competitor shown here shooting Frontier Cartridge Gunfighter with “full house” black powder loads under 250 gr. .45 bullets, similar to “Old West” cowboys. Reproduced with permission of the Single Action Shooting Society.

With their origins in Southern California in the early 1980s, Cowboy Action Shooting events, sponsored by the Single Action Shooting Society (or SASS), the sport’s governing and sanctioning body, invite participants to compete in live-round target shooting for accuracy and speed with period or replica firearms. The competitions take place in sets and scenarios inspired by TV and movie westerns, with characteristic props, clothing, and food. By engaging in shooting, social events. and costume contests, participants seek to directly experience “what it was like” to be a “cowboy” or “cowgirl” in the frontier West. Although these historical “Old West” target shooting competitions now take place in several places worldwide, they have contemporary political importance today in the United States, where history has moved to the center of the nation’s gun debate.

The critical examination of Cowboy Action Shooting provides a rich example of how history can be transformed into rituals that shape contemporary social and political life. Reenactments of the frontier west, complete with cowboy shootouts on main streets, reproduce a narrative of history that is widely accepted by millions of people. Yet the historians, curators, and librarians who preserve and interpret the history of the West in accordance with the disciplinary standards of their fields concur that the shootouts and their corresponding narrative of rugged outlaws, vigilante justice, rugged individualism, celebrity guns, and the inevitability of gun violence obscure the realities of western history. In fact, the West was a hotbed of gun regulation activism, not just “shoot-em-up” justice, and the iconic gunfights pale in comparison to the scale of carnage, casualties, and shots fired in today’s mass shootings.[1]

These reenactments do, however, tell us a great deal about historical memory by offering opportunities to explore why the scripted contest between “good guys” in white cowboy hats and “bad guys” in black ones still resonates so strongly with Americans. Unfortunately, white triumphalism and a celebration of American imperialism undergird this popular misremembering of the Old West as a place where the person with the fastest draw was necessarily heroic. How and why do appeals to “authenticity”—a common value in a variety of popular historical reenactment traditions—matter in the particular domain of popular “Old West” shooting sports? What role do “Old West” shooting competitions play in America’s gun debate?

The rise of competitive shooting sports overall dates back to the 1970s, when business leaders in the gun-manufacturing industry met with representatives of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the National Shooting Sports Federation, the American Shooting Sports Council, and the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute about ways to stimulate flagging consumer gun sales.[2] But Cowboy Action Shooting is more than a sport: It is a practice of engaging a mythic past that combines craft, performance, and role-play, and often provides a platform for gun-rights advocacy.[3]

Founded in 1987, today the Single Action Shooting Society boasts a community of around 60,000 members and publishes a monthly magazine, The Cowboy Chronicle.[4] Its mission is to foster a common interest in “preserving the history of the Old West and competitive shooting in a safe, fun, family friendly environment.”[5] Competitors are encouraged to wear “Old West” clothing as well as engage in 1880s social activities such as saloon drinking and square dancing.[6] Elaborate sets are constructed, including replicas of gallows and brothels. Some of the sets are permanent fixtures, such as the SASS’s World Premiere Cowboy Action Shooting Range, a 480-acre ranch 20 miles east of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

As one participant put it, “Like Cowboy Action Shooters around the world, we Americans love our Western guns. We love to hold them—we love to shoot them, and we like to ʻstrutʼ with them strapped to our hips. And as we strut, and as we shoot these guns of the New West, we marvel at the ingenuity of our forefathers who invented these works of art.”[7]

The scenarios for the shooting competitions draw heavily on fictional Western movies, from classics like Stagecoach (1939), through 1960s hits such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) or The Wild Bunch (1969), to more recent movies such as Young Guns (1988) or Unforgiven (1992).[8] One participant even recalled an SASS event in Pennsylvania modeled on the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles (1974).[9] TV Westerns such as Bonanza, Maverick, and Gunsmoke are also a popular source.[10]

“Old West” reenactments have their origins in the shows staged by celebrities like “Buffalo Bill” Cody in the 1880s, who brought the imaginary landscape of the Wild West to audiences in the eastern United States and abroad. Many historians have argued that the “Old West” is a landscape known through, and identified with, the fictions created about it.[11] One example is the myth that the “gun won the west.” According to leading historians, during the 1870s and 1880s.—the era that the Cowboy Action Shooting competitions primarily commemorate—the leading domestic gun manufacturers struggled for domestic sales after the Civil War. Their greatest sales were to military markets outside the U.S..[12]

Those fictions, moreover, do not reside only in cultural products, such as movies and novels—they are consumed and recycled through social practices such as reenactments. Reenactments create a sense of immediacy and authenticity, while blurring the boundaries between history and fantasy. Today, for example, hundreds of thousands of people each year attend reenactments of the “Old West” across the United States. Apart from the tourists who watch professional shows, such as the daily reenactment of an iconic 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, there are thousands of people for whom re-creating episodes of cowboy life—centered on gunplay—is an immersive pastime.[13]

It is not just that the movies are used as a source of ideas about the historical past, however; rather, contestants seek to experience what it is like performing different “Old West” scenarios themselves.

A smiling blonde woman in a black and maroon Old West-style dress standing on the porch of a couch wooden cabin holding a rifle on her hip.

Costumes are part of the attraction of this “Old West” game. “Cat Ballou,” a SASS member and a co-editor of The Cowboy Chronicle, realized that costuming was one of the things that made Cowboy Action Shooting unique, and established the guidelines for successful costume contests. She is shown here in c. 1880s dress. Photograph reproduced with permission of the Single Action Shooting Society.

Historian Jonathan Obert writes in “The Six-Shooter Marketplace: 19th-Century Gunfighting as Violence Expertise,” that the incorporation of the West—especially in the cattle frontier of Texas and Kansas—was constructed around a market in violence expertise, such as gunfighting—one in which “specialists both sold their skills as employees to public or private corporate actors and worked as independent entrepreneurial opportunists.” He continues, “Gunfighters—those American icons such as Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickock, and scores of others—were in actuality an organized class of violence experts, operating in a context where extraordinarily macro-level forces were incorporating the region into the national economy. These experts, in turn, used fighting to develop reputations for excellence in a much coveted and remunerative skill. Whether they were the ‘bad men’ or ‘white hats” of popular mythology, late 19th-century gunfighters operating in the Southwest shared a commitment to using skills, cultivated through fighting, to make money however they could by working as local law officers, serving as cattle detectives or stagecoach or railroad guards, or by going into business for themselves as bandits or thieves.”[14]

Authenticity is a key concept in the practice of reenactment, and a paradoxical one.[15] The SASS proclaims itself a place for learning “hidden history,” the experiences of everyday life on the frontier.[16] The participants interpret the history themselves, often based on fictional source material and often, as with many historical reenactments, minimal involvement by professional historians, museum curators, or other conventional guardians of historical fidelity. As one reenactor, discussing an event in Williams, Arizona, put it, “The tourists think we are part of the show, and many shooters are asked for photographs.”[17]

Historian Stephen Gapps explains, “Self-styled historical reenactors literally began to take history into their own hands,” even sewing their own costumes and making replicas of historical objects.[18] The SASS website and its members share sources of information about authentic fashion, books such as Authentic Costumes and Characters of the Old West and I See by Your Outfit: History Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains.[19] At SASS events, shooters and their guests are required to remain in costume at all times, and modern attire is prohibited (with the exception of required safety glasses and hearing protection).[20] There are competitions for best-dressed in various categories. Some participants continue wearing their costumes at home and adopt an “Old West” fashion lifestyle year-round.[21]

In his book Playing Indian, historian Philip J. Deloria shows how performative uses of “Indianness” has been a central feature of American history, from the Boston Tea Party to the Cold War.[22] Imagined interactions and armed conflicts between settlers and Native Americans are a common theme in Cowboy Action Shooting events. Yet the realities of genocide, territorial dispossession, and settler colonialism are lessened in scenarios that center white-settler narratives of individual predicaments and lethal threats.[23]

Gunfight reenactments also have complex but tangible contemporary political implications.[24] SASS events offer an easily retrievable past that enables enthusiasts to express a contemporary social identity within a community of like-minded people. One member reflected, “I find the common denominator among all Cowboy Action Shooters is not only the love of the Old West, but the lifestyle as well . . . hard working, honest folks who make up the meat and potatoes of this great country.”[25]

Cowboy Action Shooting also encourages a lively commerce in the purchase of revolvers, ammunition, and other merchandise. The National Rifle Association and Cowboy Action Shooting engage in mutual promotional and fundraising activities to benefit their shared interests in stimulating gun sales and broadening the constituency for expanded gun rights.

Beginning in the 1970s, around the same time that the industry began promoting shooting sports, national legislators such as Democratic Michigan Representative John D. Dingell served as leaders of the NRA, often urging it to mobilize its members.[26] Gun-rights issues often surface in the articles and letters page of the organization’s magazine, The Cowboy Chronicle. A few months after a 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut left 20 children and six adults dead, for example, one author wrote, “It sickens me that the anti-gun crowd in America insists on capitalizing on tragedies such as this and use them as a political soap box from which they attempt to strengthen their argument for stricter gun control laws.”[27] Another lamented “a sinister campaign to destroy our Second Amendment rights. . . . Hitler did it in Germany. Stalin did it in Russia. Mao did it in China. Castro did it in Cuba.”[28]

Despite being a niche recreational sporting pastime, Cowboy Action Shooting competitions are a notable part of a broad set of cultural and political institutions in the U.S. that reproduce in successive generations a powerful narrative of American identity focused on individualism, citizen-protection, and gun violence.[29] Hollywood movies, Broadway musicals, museum displays, gun shows, reenactment societies, and children’s shooting clubs are central sites where Americans craft specific positions on the role of guns in contemporary society. The untruths inherent in the story told by so many of these media lead to modern beliefs shaped more by fiction than America’s traditions related to firearms. Scholar Lindsay Livingston cites the 2014 standoff between Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management over access to federal lands, arguing that it “followed discernible scripts of white masculine privilege and drew on scenarios of conquest in the US American West.”[30] With their re-created sights and sounds of a mythic frontier past, SASS tournaments reflect a national debate about the present and the future trajectory of American society.[31] They remind us of the power of popular culture at a time when “historical tradition” itself is now, more than ever, at the center of legal debate over gun rights and usage.[32]


Endnotes

[1] On gun regulation in Texas as a bipartisan response to violence (and especially racial violence), see Brennan Gardner Rivas, “An Unequal Right to Bear Arms: State Weapons Laws and White Supremacy in Texas, 1836-1900,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 121 (Jan. 2018), 284–303. See also Adam Winkler, Gun Fight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (New York, 2011), 149–73; and Joan Burbick, Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy (New York, 2006). On homicide rates in the “Old West,” see esp. Clare V. McKanna, Jr, Homicide, Race, and Justice in the American West, 1880–1920 (Tucson, AZ, 1997); McKanna, Race and Homicide in Nineteenth-Century California (Reno, NV, 2002); Randolph Roth, American Homicide (Cambridge, MA, 2009); Roth, “Why Guns Are and Are Not the Problem: The Relationship between Guns and Homicide in American History,” in A Right to Bear Arms? The Contested Role of History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment, ed. J. Tucker, B. C. Hacker, and M. Vining, (Washington, DC, 2019), 113–36; and Roth, M. D. Maltz, and D. L. Eckberg, “Homicide Rates in the Old West,” Western Historical Quarterly, 42, no. 2 (2011), 173–95.

[2] See, among others, Toby Diaz, Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America (New York, 2002).

[3] Diaz, Making a Killing, 175–77.

[4] “What is Cowboy Action Shooting?” Fish and Game Association, https://toptonfga.com/cowboy/about-the-sport-2/, accessed July 31, 2023.

[5] SASS, 2020; “30 Years at End of Trail/Shooting USA,” 2017. In addition to the SASS, other “Old West” shooting organizations include the Western Action Shootists’ Association and the National Congress of Old West Shooters.

[6] John Taffin, Action Shooting: Cowboy Style: An In-Depth Look at America’s Hottest New Shooting Game 2018 [1999], 21.

[7] “Guns of the New West: A Close-Up Look at Modern Replica Firearms,” The Cowboy Chronicle, Dec. 2005, 84–85, quote on 85.

[8] Zack McGee, “Jailhouses, Outhouses, and Cathouses: Florida State Championship,” The Cowboy Chronicle, Jan. 2018, 10–12, quote 10.

[9] Mattie Hays, “Smoke-n-Fire at Indian Creek,” The Cowboy Chronicle (Jan. 2009), 66–67. This article is richly illustrated with color photographs by participants.

[10] “Palaver Pete,” “Scheduling Summer Annuals Getting Tough? Try Combining Shoots!” The Cowboy Chronicle (May 2013), 56.

[11] See, for instance, Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, OK, 1998); and Pamela Haag, The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture ( New York, 2016); and W. Wright, The Wild West: The Mythical Cowboy and Social Theory (London, 2001).

[12] The post-war decline in firearms sales is best analyzed by Felicia Deyrup in her 1948 thesis and Russell Inslee Fries in his 1972 dissertation. It was due to several factors—over-expansion in productive capacity during the war, the entry of a large number of new firms into the market (many of which folded or reoriented production following the war), and the sudden availability of a huge number of surplus arms supplied by the U.S. government. Many firms (including Remington) ended up going bankrupt or having to reorganize. But the situation changed by 1900 as the civilian market was transformed through a combination of new national retailers and the availability of new, high-circulation magazines and periodicals that actively tried to cultivate and shape this new market through specific appeals to frontier individualism. Either way, by the end of the century domestic consumption was a very crucial element of the surviving arms market in the U.S. Thanks to Jonathan Obert for the references.

[13] As Pierre M. Atlas writes: “Reenactments of Old West gunfights, such as at tourist attractions, “are part of the mythology underpinning the United States’ gun culture.” See “American Gun Culture is Based on Frontier Mythology but Ignores How Common Gun Restrictions Were in the Old West,” in The Conversation on Guns, ed. James Densley (Baltimore, 2023), 26–32.

[14] Jonathan Obert, “The Six-Shooter Marketplace: 19th-Century Gunfighting as Violence Expertise,” Studies in American Political Development 28 (Apr. 2014), 49–79, quote 50.

[15] Vanessa Agnew and Juliane Tomann, The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies (London, 2020), 20. See also Vanessa Agnew, “History’s Affective Turn: Historical Reenactment and Its Work in the present,” Rethinking History11, no. 3 (2007), 299–312.

[16] For just one of hundreds of examples in the magazine, see Joe FastHorse Harrill, “Little Known Famous Gunfighters on the Western Frontier,” The Cowboy Chronicle, Mar. 2014, 57.

[17] Larsen E. Pettifogger, “Railhead 2012,” The Cowboy Chronicle (May 2013), 44–45, quote 45.

[18] Stephen Gapps, “Practices of Authenticity,” in Agnew and Tomann, eds., The Routledge Handbook of Reenactment Studies,183–84.

[19] T. Lindmier and S. Mount, I See by Your Outfit: Historic Cowboy Gear of the Northern Plains (Glendo, WY, 1996).

[20] Taffin, Action Shooting 2018 [1999], 119.

[21] A photograph of a man who enjoyed “old style” every day is among many examples discussed in the group’s magazine. See The Cowboy Chronicle (Mar. 2014), 5.

[22] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven, CT, 1998).

[23] J. G. Sweeney, “Racism, Nationalism, and Nostalgia in Cowboy Art,” Oxford Art Journal 15, no. 1 (1992), 67–80.

[24] Mads Daugbjerg, “Patchworking the Past: Materiality, Touch and the Assembling of ‘Experience’ in American Civil War Re-enactment,”International Journal of Heritage Studies . 20 (2014), 724–41; and Matthew Hulbert, The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West (Athens, GA, 2016).

[25] “Tequila,” quoted in “SASS Hall of Fame,” The Cowboy Chronicle (Oct. 2007), 72.

[26] Mike McIntire, “The Secret History of Gun Rights: How Lawmakers Armed the N.R.A.,” New York Times (July 30, 2023). Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/30/us/politics/nra-congress-firearms.html; and Patrick J. Charles, Vote Gun: How Gun Rights Became Politicized in the United States (New York, 2023).

[27] “Letters,” The Cowboy Chronicle (Feb. 2013), 14: “We, the gun owners, know that any new gun law or bans on firearms such as high capacity magazines are only successful in crippling our own ability to defend ourselves and others.” See also Maggie Astor, “Newtown Wasn’t an End for Gun Control. It Was a Beginning,” New York Times, Apr. 29, 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/us/politics/newtown-parkland-guns.html, accessed Oct. 19, 2023.

[28] “El Alacran” (guest editorial), “The Whitewash of Gun Violence,” The Cowboy Chronicle, May 2013, 6–7, quote on 6, arguing in favor of armed guards in schools and mental health surveillance systems.

[29] Joan Burbick Rodeo Queens: On the Circuit with America’s Cowgirls (New York, 2002); Saul Cornell, “Bearing Arms v. Hunting Bears: The Persistence of a Mythic Second Amendment in Contemporary Constitutional Culture,” The Panorama, June 4, 2018, thepanorama.shear.org/2018/06/04/bearing-arms-vs-hunting-bears-the-persistence-of-a-mythic-second-amendment-in-contemporary-constitutional-culture/, accessed Oct. 19, 2023; and Lindsay Livingston, “Brandishing Guns: Performing Race and Belonging in the American West,” Journal of Visual Culture 17/3 (2018), 343–55.

[30] Livingston, “Brandishing Guns,” 343. See also Livingston, “Picking up the Gun: Spectacular Performances of Firearm Ownership in the Long Civil Rights Movement,” in Performance in a Militarized Culture, ed. S. Brady, and I. Mantoan (New York, 2017), 255–68; Jennifer D. Carlson Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (Oxford, UK, 2015).

[31] On the potential importance of sound in this story, see esp. Sarah Keyes, “ʻLike a Roaring Lionʼ: The Overland Trail as a Sonic Conquest,” Journal of American History (June 2009), 19–43; and ibid., 23.

[32] Brian DeLay, “The Myth of Continuity in American Gun Culture,” (Aug. 19, 2023), https://ssrn.com/abstract=4546050 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4546050; Carol Anderson, Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America (New York, 2021); Jacob D. Charles, Time and Tradition in Second Amendment Law,” Fordham Urban Law Journal 259 (2023),https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/ulj/vol51/iss1/7; and Saul Cornell, “Constitutional Mischiefs and Constitutional Remedies: Making Sense of Limits on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in the Founding Era,” Fordham Urban Law Journal. 25 (2023), https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/ulj/vol51/iss1/2; Robert J. Spitzer, Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights (Oxford, UK, 2015); Tucker, “Gundamentalism”; Tucker, “How the NRA Hijacked History,” Washington Post (Sept. 9, 2019). https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/09/09/why-accurate-history-must-guide-coming-debate-about-guns-second-amendment/; Jennifer Tucker, Bart Hacker and Margaret Vining, eds., A Right to Bear Arms? The Contested Role of History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment (Washington, DC, 2019); Darrell A. H. Miller, “Conservatives sound like anti-racists when the cause is gun rights,” Washington Post (Oct. 27, 2021)

https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/10/27/gun-rights-anti-racism-bruen-conservative-hypocrisy/; and Jonathan Lowy and Kelly Sampson, “The Right Not to Be Shot: Public Safety, Private Guns, and the Constellation of Constitutional Liberties,” Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy14, (Winter 2016).

15 November 2023

About the Author

Jennifer Tucker is professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Guns and Society at Wesleyan University.

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