Sharp Shooter

Richard Young knows it takes a lot of practice—and a little natural ability—to be a proficient cowboy action-shooter.

May 2002By Comments

A GREEN-AND-WHITE STRIPED SHIRT, a red garter belt hugging the right sleeve just above the elbow, cream-colored, button-fly pants tucked into black custom-made boots, a battered black cowboy hat. Richard “Tequila” Young is looking good today at the regional Range War tournament at Tin Star Ranch, which sits in the shadow of Enchanted Rock in the Hill Country. And he’s shooting even better, the retort from his nineteenth-century replica guns and the sound of ammo hitting metal targets producing perhaps a dozen bang-plink bang-plink bang-plink successions in about eight seconds.

Tequila is the moniker of the 43-year-old Young, an industrial engineer and father of three who lives in Flatonia and happens also to be a cowboy action-shooter. Each of the approximately 45,000 members of the Single Action Shooting Society [SASS] takes a different alias. As cowboy action-shooters, the members dress in vintage duds and fire the same kind of single-action pistols, rifles, and shotguns that were used in the Old West. Cowboy action-shooting is the least competitive of the seven major categories of shooting sports, and it is the only one that doesn’t offer cash prizes. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the fastest-growing category and arguably the only one with much of a spectator following. Tequila, who has won five world championships in modern shooting (in the modern classification the gun has adjustable sights while in the traditional the gun has fixed sights) and one overall crown, was unsuccessful in defending his 2001 modern title at the competition in Southern California in mid-April. His 1897 shotgun broke. Prior to that, Tequila had dominated the sport like nobody had since “China Camp,” a Southern California pharmacist named Dennis King who won five traditional and overall titles in the eighties.

Cowboy action-shooters compete for fun and fantasy, and on one level represent just another segment of the many Americans who participate in nostalgic, historical reenactments of some sort. Or so it appears. Tequila talks of the Industrial Revolution breakthroughs he studied in college, such as Frederick Turner’s time-and-motion efficiency theory and Henry Ford’s assembly line, and how he applies them to his shooting. It quickly becomes apparent that this can also get to be serious stuff in its own way. And it can cost a pretty penny: Tequila figures he spends anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a year on guns, ammo, clothes, travel, and entry fees.

Competitive shooting, which doesn’t normally get warm and fuzzy public relations, couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador. Tequila, who has been married to his wife, Tammy, for 21 years, is fresh-faced, polite, and perpetually cheerful. The only hint of a wild streak he exhibits is his SASS name, which, depending on his mood, he’ll tell you he took either because he enjoys an evening shot of the stuff with orange juice or because the cactus from which it is derived symbolizes the Old West. In 1999, when his oldest daughter, Tara, was the high school homecoming queen, he cut back on weekend competitions so that he could perform fatherly duties such as pulling her float during parades. He’s a member of the National Rifle Association and a Second Amendment absolutist.

While organized cowboy action-shooting is more than two decades old, Tequila first learned about it in on a hunt in 1994 when he read a magazine article in a deer blind. “I said, ‘This is absolutely wonderful,'” he recalls. “As a child, my highlight was my hair slicked back right out of the shower, sitting in my undies before the TV at seven on Sunday evening with my double six-guns, quick-drawing to Matt Dillon.” He went to watch a match in nearby Columbus and quickly began procuring replicas of guns manufactured before 1900 (actual pre-1900 guns are too valuable as antiques and can’t stand up to the repeated firing of competition). Though he was drawn to the camaraderie and looseness of the competition, cowboy action-shooting came naturally (unlike woodworking and marathon-running, his two previous hobbies). It didn’t hurt that he also had become somewhat obsessive, shooting up to forty thousand practice rounds annually, until the sheer repetition of pointing and shooting came automatically, almost subconsciously. He quickly began winning local tournaments, and in 1996 he became an SASS member and won the moderns—he finished second overall—at the End of Trail, the annual world championship held in Norco, California. Tequila failed to defeat the defending overall champ only because he missed a shot on the last stage (a series of targets) and was penalized crucial points. That performance marked the beginning of the end of California’s stranglehold on SASS championships. Two years later Tequila took the overall crown.

SASS, which was founded in Southern California and is still based there, has Texas roots. SASS was co-founded in 1987 by Houston-area resident Harper Hale “Judge Roy Bean” Creigh, who lived in California at the time. Judge Roy Bean and a group of friends had been firing cowboy guns competitively since 1980 and had launched End of Trail in 1982 before starting SASS as a way, Creigh says, “to get everyone shooting by the same rules.” After registering more than seven thousand members in its first nine years, SASS boomed. “It started out as western shooting, but now it’s turned into a lifestyle thing,” he notes. “There’s so many closet cowboys out there.” About 35 percent of its members have never shot anything except cowboy-action and another 10 percent of its members don’t shoot at all. In fact, 25 percent of its members are women. The End of Trail competition has grown from a two-day match of 65 local shooters to a five-day festival—complete with heavy merchandising, live music, and a Wild West Show—attended by about 12,000 spectators, many of them likewise dressed in period garb, who watch almost 700 shooters from 35 states and five foreign countries. Cowboy action-shooting is now almost a $700 million industry, according to SASS research.

Through all the growth, the group has retained its original mandate as a “family sport,” one in which wives and children are also welcome, explains Judge Roy Bean. “This is the sandlot baseball of shooting sports. The only thing we’re serious about is safety,” he declares, a fat stogie sticking out of his white beard as he mans a recruiting table during Range War, the competition at Tin Star Ranch. “The other shooting sports are getting so physical you have to be young to do it; you have to climb ladders, hang from beams, shoot through windows.” Winners of tournaments like the Range War take home only a plaque, while End of Trail champs receive a trophy buckle, a special $2,000 bronze belt buckle, and bragging rights for a year. A tournament always concludes with a dressy banquet, where the most flamboyant women have been known to show up in gowns and jewelry worth a combined $25,000 and there are random drawings for guns and other paraphernalia. Cash prizes to winning shooters are banned. “Money kills most sports; you’re either an amateur or you’re not,” Judge Roy Bean explains. “Tequila is a good example of a world champion. Any other sport, he’d have people following him around. Here he’s setting out targets, helping other shooters, just like everyone else.”

And he is. At a typical SASS competition such as the Range War, shooters are divided into posses of ten and must shoot twelve stages over two days. The stages are mock storefronts of western buildings such as banks or saloons, behind which several targets are spread out. At each stage, shooters are given scenarios explaining which targets they must hit in what order with their three firearms. The person who does so the fastest—without any misses or safety or procedural violations, for each of which time is added to the score—receives one rank point, the second-fastest receives two, and so on down through every shooter. Competitors don’t know what the rankings are from stage to stage, so they’re shooting against only themselves. At the end of the tournament the lowest score wins. Posses police and score themselves; it’s democracy in action, with the most respected shooters and the lowliest first-timers equally responsible for something. Between stages, as he hauls his gear in a child’s red wagon, Tequila critiques or advises rival shooters who ask advice, tips his hat to the ladies, introduces himself to the rookies, and back-slaps with the veterans. At night he often passes up a hotel to camp out on the grounds with other shooters, sitting around a campfire debating the history and mythology of the Old West, where Hollywood creations like quick-draws, fanning of pistols, and two men facing each other down on the street simply didn’t happen.

When he steps up to shoot, though, Tequila puts on his game face, closing his eyes and visualizing the stage and scenario three times. In competition he usually shoots at only about 90 percent the speed of which he’s capable, but his hand-eye coordination is stunning, his pauses practically indiscernible as guns sweep from target to target. “Everything I do is to try to be as efficient as possible. When I actually shoot the stage, I’ve already done it three times in my mind, so I simply go through the routine. This allows me to shoot the stage much faster, much safer, and in an expeditious chronological order. No wasted motion, no wasted time. Like a race car, you want to go as fast as you can without crashing. The ultimate goal is to hit all the targets; this is not a game of speed, but a game of concentration—and you have to stay focused through all ten stages.” And nobody makes it looks easier, or appears to have more fun.

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