The thunderous sound of pounding hooves and the staccato bursts of gunfire breaks the silence of the still air as the lone horseman smoothly guides his mount through the maze of carefully positioned opponents.
With his revolver now empty, this centaur of the open range spurs his mount into a full gallop, at the same time slipping his single action .45 back into its leather.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the lightning-fast hands of this mounted shootist draws a second six-gun.
Rounding the bend in an instant, he instinctively levels the hogleg on his first adversary, blasting it as his mighty horse digs his hooves into the soft earth, kicking up dirt clods as he plunges and bolts into a dead run.
Four more rounds, shot as quickly as the six-shooter—tuned silky smooth—can be worked, and, in a matter of just seconds, he races to safety, sliding to a dust-swirling, dead stop.
In a few moments, it is over. As the smoke clears and the dust settles, the cowboy looks around to see his score.
This isn’t a page out of the Old West. It’s just another fun ride at any one of the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association’s (CMSA) matches held all over the country.
During the past 13 years, an exciting new form of cowboy action shooting has grown under the guidance of the originating organization, the CMSA. This colorful Wild West competition attracts participants from both the world of firearms and the equestrian lifestyle. Called simply Cowboy Mounted Shooting, this equestrian/shooting event is designed for the stout hearted folks who are looking for a “gen-u-wine” cowboy adrenaline rush.
Competitors include Westerners who want to take cowboy action shooting to the next level of authenticity and excitement, and those who have been recruited from the ranks of non-shooting equestrians—horse enthusiasts looking for an exciting new sport to play with their horses yet have never before been especially interested in firearms. Regardless of each rider’s background, Cowboy Mounted Shooting offers these horsebackers the opportunity to take part in a challenging discipline that promises to hone the skills of both horse and rider to a fine edge. It is a wild and woolly sport that beckons to the Old West of yesteryear but at the pace of the 21st century.
The action packed, timed, arena-type event allows both men and women to compete with pre-1898-style, fixed sight, single-action six-guns (loaded with five rounds each for safety). Both genders compete against each other, but within their own class level. In these high-speed matches, riders gallop through a course that combines the skills of firing Old West six-shooters at 10 reactionary targets (balloons), rodeo-style barrel racing and speed racing, with time penalties for missed targets, dropped guns, knocked over barrels and procedural violations.
The first five targets are placed in random patterns, requiring reining and equine control skills, while the last five targets (called the “rundown”) require racing to the finish line at breakneck speeds, while blasting every balloon.
Because this sport was designed as a spectator sport, combined with the fact that mounted shooting is not precision target work, the rider relies on point shooting techniques. All competitors must fire CMSA-certified and match supplied .45 Colt caliber blank cartridges, which are effective at close range. Much of the shooting is done from horses running at about 25-30 miles per hour, however most of the courses require some shooting from an animal while it is reined through a pattern of targets.
Although all cardholding competitors are required to dress in traditional Western garb and use traditional gunleather and saddlery, Old West-style clothing is strongly encouraged, with awards given at some matches for the “Old West Best Dressed” competitors. Many riders have adopted the 19th-century frontier look or that of the silver screen cowboy, rather than a modern ranch appearance, which is the minimum acceptable look required. It’s this colorful Wild West show look that has given Cowboy Mounted Shooting such positive visibility in an all too often gun-unfriendly media. At any given match, an onlooker is liable to see a fringed buckskin-clad frontiersman, old-time bib-shirted cowman or split riding skirt wearing cowgirl, all competing stirrup to stirrup against a rider in chaps, jeans and other modern ranch duds.
Story Behind the Shoots
Chairman of the Board Jim Rodgers—I’m flattered to say—created Cowboy Mounted Shooting after watching several of this writer’s cowboy horseback shooting exhibitions over the years. As one of the founders of the CMSA, I have served as a board director, watching this cowboy pastime grow from an exhibition with a handful of riders to a truly national sport. In 2006, our World Championship match in Las Vegas, Nevada, featured more than 300 competitors.
With 166 affiliated clubs in virtually every state of the nation, as well as two clubs in Sweden and a growing interest in other foreign countries, the CMSA is the best recognized, most successful affiliation for horseback six-gunners. It not only serves as the official national membership organization, it also hosts championship matches, ensures the safety of its members and assists new groups in organizing.
The CMSA hosts local, state and regional matches at county fairs, historical observances and other community events where shooting sports are usually not otherwise welcomed. Cowboy Mounted Shooting is also gaining in popularity as a rodeo pre-show or halftime event.
The use of blank ammunition allows for arena-type competitions that are safe for spectators. Yet the live-action thrill of the running horses, showy Western outfits and rough riding cowboys and cowgirls combine to offer any venue that hosts a match a true Old West extravaganza atmosphere.
The new groups entering into the sport will truly appreciate the CMSA’s state-of-the-art records keeping, thanks to the technical and organizational skills of its president Frank Turben. The national cardholder points tracking system helps groups monitor the points members receive and shows how they match up against others competing for a spot at the world championship.
Saddling up with the CMSA is a rider’s best bet for linking up with a national program of points tracking, trophies and literally thousands of dollars in cash prizes. Last year, the CMSA “Big Four” events alone (the Eastern U.S., Western U.S., National and World Championships) awarded well over $228,000 in cash prizes, along with handsome rodeo-style trophy buckles, firearms and saddles.
The CMSA is open to competitors of both genders and almost any age—including youngsters and seniors—with a classification system that is based on the competitor’s riding and shooting abilities. For example, competitors start at Juniors, Mens, Ladies and Seniors’ Level 1 and work their way up through to Level 6, either by winning a prescribed number of class wins or by taking a national or world title.
Youngsters under the age of 11 are invited to compete in the “Wrangler Class.” These youths, who are too young to safely handle the full-sized, single-action, frontier-styled revolvers used by older competitors, ride the courses without shooting. Riders under 10 years of age only ride the course, while those 10 or 11 years old will fire five rounds (from a standing position on the ground, while under adult supervision and while wearing hearing and eye protection). It’s great to see these mini-cowboys and cowgirls riding their horses with the gusto of a veteran rough rider.
What’s Your Class?
Besides the lightning-fast “main match” revolver competition, which is truly a heart-pounding spectacle to take part in or to watch, riders may also compete in side matches held all over the country. Such ancillary mounted contests offer the contestant a chance to ride hell-for-leather, using a variety of different arms, or to pit yourself and your horse—your teammate—against other riders for jackpot cash and prizes. The matches include: R&D Gun Shop Cavalry Class, Taylor’s & Co. Rifle Class, the Futurity Horse Class, the Colt Eliminator and the Wrangler Pro Class. Each competition has its own requirements for competing, but all offer real Western excitement!
Contestants competing in the Futurity (which features young horses), Colt Eliminator and the Wrangler Pro Classes must use standard CMSA six-guns.
Since the R&D Gun Shop Cavalry Class combines historical re-enactments and horsemanship while paying tribute to the mounted cavalry soldiers of the Civil War period through the Spanish American War of 1898, this match allows for riders to shoot with either a standard CMSA revolver or one representing the era of the trooper’s uniform. Whatever gun they choose, cavalry competitors must carry revolvers that chamber the match-supplied .45 Colt ammunition. Civil War-era competitors may use cartridge conversion cylinders on cap-and-ball revolvers. Because of the variety of authentic military uniforms and historical military-type saddlery employed by shooters in these cavalry competitions, this is arguably the most colorful of the competitions, sparking much enthusiasm from any audience. Yank and Reb troopers ride in competition against each other and against horse soldiers of the Indian Wars-era and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
The fastest growing of these side jackpot matches with CMSA cardholders is the Taylor’s & Co. Rifle Class. Here, Cowboy Mounted Shooters hone their skills on horseback with lever-action and revolving rifles, firing at the first five targets with their six-shooters. Then, while still at a dead run, they draw their long guns from their saddle scabbards, round the “rundown” barrel and blaze their way to the finish line, adding a new dimension of action-stoked competition and historic authenticity. The match was largely created by Minnesota CMSA member Tom Jones, who has inspired many contestants to add rifles and saddle scabbards to their competitive arsenals.
This challenging class is not for the novice or faint hearted. The equestrian and firearms-handling skills required call for competitors from the advanced and expert level riders—regardless of classification. Anyone wishing to participate in mounted rifle competition must be proficient in the use of revolvers before attempting this aspect of Cowboy Mounted Shooting.
Rifles must be of the standard tubular magazine type, lever-action design or revolving rifle of any model made prior to 1899. Additionally, they must be chambered to take one of the following calibers: .45 Colt, .44-40 or .44 Magnum. Special blank rifle ammo, made with a bottlenecked case and a rounded bell-crimped nose (for feeding into the rifle’s chamber), is supplied. The most commonly used guns by mounted rifle competitors are the various Uberti-made, Italian imports of the 1866 and 1873 Winchesters with their simple lifter blocks, as well as more advanced ramp load models, such as the Marlin 1894, the 1892 replicas and Winchester’s 92/94 model. Of these, the shorter-barreled carbines are generally preferred over the longer, full-length rifles.
For sheer blood-rushing excitement, contestants compete in the Colt Eliminator and the Wrangler Pro Class matches, which pit the best of the best of these galloping six-gunners against each other. The courses for these matches have been designed for the maximum in speed and the minimum in time. Some incredible rocking runs have been made in these super fast classes. Imagine a horse and rider, galloping around 500-plus feet, firing a single-action revolver, then changing guns, turning a barrel and racing home while blasting targets with the second six-gun—all in around 10 seconds or less! Although these are times we normally think of as being attained with motorcycles, jet boats and other high-powered modern-day machinery, such records are being broken on a running horse, while firing, not just one but two, six-shooters designed more than 130 years ago—in the 1870s.
Cowboy Mounted Shooting has reached such dynamic proportions. It not only attracts the sponsorship of Colt, Cimarron Fire Arms, Scully Wah-Maker, Sturm, Ruger & Co., Sundowner Trailers, Montana Silversmiths and Purina (Feeds), it has also broken trails into the mainstream arena with corporations such as the Ford Motor Co. and Toyota. People are also demanding commercial manufacturing of Cowboy Mounted Shooting blank ammunition, specially designed saddles, gunleather and other related products. Some horse traders specialize in breeding, training, buying and selling mounted shooting horses, while equestrian arenas and other sports venues are regularly contacting Cowboy Mounted Shooting clubs to attract them to their facilities. All of these are signs of a growing enthusiasm for this Old West competition.
If you feel that you’ve got the gun handling and horse riding abilities for this sport—or would like to learn them—then step into the stirrup, skin that smokewagon, sink spurs and ride! Once you try it, I’m sure you’ll agree with other cowboys and cowgirls that Cowboy Mounted Shooting is among the most exciting competitions to gallop down the trail in a long time.