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The Guns of Cowboy Action Shooting: Part 1

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By Trampas Swanson

Perhaps one of America’s most storied times in U.S. history is that of the fabled “Old West.” Wrapped in gallant tales of both fact and fiction of the 1800’s North American frontier, legendary figures such as Tom Horn, Wyatt Earp and Jessie James span both sides of the law to capture the attention of not only Americans but worldwide. Much like how children across the Atlantic Ocean grew up slaying imaginary dragons and the evil Black Knight, American children of my era and many before grew up watching TV shows such as “Have Gun Will Travel” and “Gunsmoke” while pretending to square off with their six-shooter in a fast draw to the death!


Given this day and age of society, one would worry this sort of childhood would bred generations of gang bangers and serial killers. The REAL truth is, this sort of childhood did more for teaching boys and girls how to be men and women of high moral character, work hard and fight for justice in the world than anything other social influence available. Not until these movies and TV shows faded from mainstream did the concept of “man” start to get soft, “pretty” and start to show large scale mental issues leading to mass killings and overly sensitive society. I am willing to bet, the John Wayne aka “the Duke” wouldn’t have cried about his skinny decaf mocha latte not having enough foam on it and started shooting up a church!

Thankfully, there are a few very positive groups of gun enthusiasts not only in America but worldwide, who share a passion for the “Old West” and its cast of characters, real and make-believe. In the early 1980’s, these folks were fed up with the local competitions getting overrun with newer technology and higher capacity magazines taking the social aspect out of shooting. A new sport was born referred to as Cowboy Action Shooting. Given today’s social alignment in the United States, some readers may be surprised to learn this movement to cowboy only firearms in competition came from Southern California. The thing some may need to realize, at this time, most of the cowboy related TV shows and movies were filmed in and around Hollywood, CA. Throughout the 80’s, these small groups started to spread like wild fire!


Membership into these clubs involved having to creating a cowboy alias, such as a person by the name of John Smith, couldn’t just go by his real name that is associated with light bills, professional career or any other day to day burden. On the “Old West” range, John Smith could be “Clint Steel,” notorious outlaw and ladies’ man or “Handsome Jim Dandy,” river boat gambler and gunslinger! Proper attire to one’s assumed character was also required for those competing such as boots, jeans, ten-gallon hats, bandanas and everything in between.

Only the firearms typical of those used in the taming of the Old West (mid to late 1890s) were allowed in competition. This basically laid the foundation for the more modern sport of 3-gun competition by way of its requirement for a brace of multiple firearms used in conjunction to move from stage to stage. Cowboy action shooting still to this day requires two single action pistols, a pre-1899 style shotgun and a lever action rifle in order to participate.


As these small upstart cowboy action organizations grew in size entering the 90’s, the rising costs of guns, gear, props, and such caused many of these groups to combine resources to ensure their sport’s survival. Three major clubs emerged bigger and stronger as cowboy action shooting reached their 20th year of operation, these being the Western Action Shootists Association (WASA), National Congress of Old West Shooters (NCOWS), and my personal favorite, the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS).


As a college student in the 1990’s, I read as much about these organizations as possible as a huge fan of the cowboy action style firearms. After entering Law Enforcement as a young Deputy Sheriff, I wanted a break from constant tactical training and decided to join the Single Action Shooting Society and participate in a few local shooting events in my hometown. With the birth of SASS #61943 aka the Tinstar Kid, my education into what true community and shooting sports was all about.

It never fails when my gun loving friends and readers discover that I participated in cowboy action shooting and find out how much fun I had compared to other competitions I have shot in over the years including SWAT competitions and Sniper Division shoots, everyone starts asking questions. The most common of which is how to get started and what is the best gear and guns to start with. For this article, I have compiled a look at some of the top options in the sport and what to look for in the club you chose as far as accepted firearms.

Single Action Shootin’ Irons: The New Model Ruger Vaquero

First and foremost, you can’t be a true gunslinger without a pair of six guns aka single action revolvers. The overwhelming favorite to fit this category by beginner and top competitors alike has proven to be the Vaquero by Ruger in either .38 / .357 or .45 Long Colt. For those not familiar with cowboy action shooting, this may come as a bit of a surprise due to the classic Colt Peacemaker being the figure head of the American West. As the early cowboy action shooters discovered, classic Colt pistols were not only expensive, but could not hold up to the abuse put on them by competition shooters. In order to use a Colt pistol for cowboy action shooting, an expert gunsmith such as the late Bob Munden would have had to basically rebuild the gun from the ground up only leaving the roll marks the same. As you can imagine, this process with add almost double your initial investment just to get started!


Seeing the need for a heavy use cowboy style single action revolver, Ruger released the well overbuilt Vaquero series in 1993. With is slightly larger cylinder and safety transfer bar system, the Vaquero uses a floating firing pin system to make it one of the safest and strongest cowboy action pistols on the market. Ruger also replaced the traditionally fragile leaf spring design of the Colt with a much more robust coiled hammer spring system. Another improvement Ruger instituted into the traditional single action was the wider trigger and hammer spur allowing for a faster acquisition during competition.

The Ruger’s durability and accuracy quickly launched the Vaquero to the top of the cowboy action market. The traditionalist who appreciated the modern safety features of the Vaquero but not the larger size had basically only that to complain about with its design. Much to their delight, Ruger heard their calls and decided to launch the New Vaquero also known as the XR-3 in 2005 with the same safety features, over built chambers and robust hammer springs, but this time in a smaller, more Colt-like size. The newer redesign was an immediate hit and so closely resembled the traditional Colt Peacemaker that with a slight bit of modification, some grip panels could actually be fitted to the new Rugers. Again, this brought cheers from many shooters.


Primarily offered in 5 1/2- and 4 5/8-inch barrels and chambered in 45 LC, .357 and 44-40 to stay in step with the original Colts of the latter 19th century, there have been special runs featuring items like bird’s head grips, longer and shorter barrels. The Vaquero ships standard with plain, straight forward wood grips with the Ruger logo embedded on each side, but imitation ivory and black Micarta grips have also been used in some of the specialty and standard production pistols. As with any firearm, the urge to customize the Ruger Vaquero is a very common instance. Luckily, the industry for aftermarket products is quite large for what some would consider cowboy action shooting to be a niche market.

When I decided to upgrade my brace of Vaqueros chambered in .357 with a new set of grips, I decided to go with something that would really catch the eye and while still complementing the leather rig they rode in. I contacted the owner, Lance Schofield ( how much more cowboy does a name get than that?) and ordered two sets of the Copper Pearl Vaquero grips. In order for them to be fitted perfectly to each grip frame, I had to disassemble both my Ruger Vaqueros and mail the grip frames to him. A couple of weeks later, my frames returned with a perfectly fitted and gorgeous set of unique grips.


Once the grip frames were re-installed I decided to test them out on the range. I could tell the pistols fit both my right and left hands better due to me having relatively small hands and the grips being slightly thinner feeling than factory panels. I felt more in control of the pistols during recoil with both reduced cowboy action .38 loads and even full power Buffalo Bore .357 loads. Retailing for $60 a set, these grips were easily the best investment I could make across the board for any of my cowboy action tools.

Retailing for around $850, they are regularly found on the secondary market in very good used condition for closer to $600 in both blued and stainless steel finishes. This may seem like quite the investment starting out in cowboy action shooting considering you are required to have two of them but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, this is one product you can buy as a great entry level gun and use throughout your journey into the sport. The Vaquero’s over built construction and dump truck-like toughness will definitely outlast most shooters. Secondly, as your skills and level of competition increases you can tweak and upgrade springs, grips and parts to enhance your performance accordingly without the extreme cost of having to invest in stock Colts at over $2000 and then another $1000 – $2000 in performance gunsmithing. There are much cheaper options on the market than Colts or Rugers but you will find yourself buying new guns after replacing several parts which may break during your best run in a competition. Simply put, if you want a great set of shootin’ irons for cowboy action shooting that will last you a lifetime, get a brace of Ruger Vaqueros!

Slapping Leather

To carry my beautiful shootin’ irons, I reached out to the biggest name in the cowboy action shooting for quality leather rigs, Mernickle Holsters. Aim high or don’t aim at all right? Just to be able to work with leather master and World Champion Fast Draw shooter, Bob Mernickle was an honor by itself. For most of his adult life, this living legend has been involved in shaping the cowboy action shooting sport and the gear and accomplishments that revolve around it. World Champions and World Record holders across the sport use Mernickle products as well as beginning shooters wanting to invest in rigs that will last a lifetime. Renowned shooters like Holy Terror and Quick Cal are both famous for using Bob’s rigs. For those who may not recognize the alias’s, let me give you a little quick info on these two in particular that I have been very fortunate enough to meet.


Holy Terror aka Randi Rogers, is currently a member of Team Smith and Wesson and the Sales and Marketing Manager for Comp-Tac Victory Gear. Randi has over 50 World and National Titles in 7 different shooting disciplines including the 2011 IPSC Ladies Standard World Title.

Quick Cal aka Cal Eilrich, a Professional Fast Draw shooter who has won more major fast draw championships than anyone in the over 50-year history of the sport. Aside from fast draw, Cal has also competed for the US team in the IPSC circuit of modern pistol competition with great success.

The rig Bob was gracious enough to build for me is listed as a HP1R1 Rig featuring dual holsters, dual cartridge slides and a clip point squared buckle. Matching this rig would be a beautiful shotgun belt which is designed to ride higher above the gun belt near your midsection. Both wonderful leather creations were done in Bob’s signature “gunfighter brown”, as if he would name it anything else? Wearing this rig is like sliding on your favorite slippers. The way Bob cuts the leather and takes into account where the belt will ride, it holds the weight of two fully loaded single action revolvers without prolonged stress or discomfort after a long day of shooting action.


The quality of the Mernickle holster rig and shotgun belt is second to none. I have dealt with hundreds of holster makers over my years as a shooter and writer, but no one pays more attention to the details and stitching as Bob’s company. Drawing the Vaqueros from their holsters and getting shots on target was lightening quick and smooth. This is due mostly to the rigid structure of the holster body allowing the cylinder of the revolver to rotate as I begin to thumb cock the hammers as I establish a master grip and begin the upward motion of presentation.

Like most things, the cost of a solid cowboy action rig can cost as much as you wish to put into it. With Mernickle Holsters, you will get what you pay for and more. The average rig starts around $350, the quality, fit and finish exceed those of rigs twice the price. When I invest in equipment for serious competition, I want it build by experts who understand the needs of that sport. Bob Mernickle is not only an expert but one of the founding pioneers of the modern sport of Cowboy Action Shooting. I trust Mernickle Holsters to do their part in helping me get into the winner’s circle and so should you.

Trampas Swanson

Born and raised in eastern NC, started shooting firearms at age 6, and life long hunter. Retired Deputy Sheriff serving as a supervisor and SWAT sniper unit with a background in narcotics and crime scene investigations task forces. Now living in Florida as a husband, new father, local gunsmith, firearms instructor and freelance writer for various firearms publications.

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