NR Digital

‘The Old West in Your Mind’

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Guns and getup at End of Trail

Edgewood, N.M. — Down in the valley, the festivities are well under way. Main Street teems with men, women, and children — some dressed in buckskins; others in leather waistcoats, chaps, spurs, and bandanas; yet more in the gaudy, ersatz dress of the 1960s B-western. Everyone is in hats and boots, with revolvers on most hips. A trio of steers amble past, and, for a brief moment, everybody stares.

Here, the stores have evocative names. The main drag boasts the Copper Queen Hotel, SASS Mercantile, River Crossing Leather, Long Hunter Shooting Supply, and Texas Jack’s Wild West Outfitter. Cimarron Firearms has an emporium, too, as do both Ruger and Taylor’s. There is a Spanish mission, its iron bell and white adobe-and-stone cross pushing upward into the afternoon sky. And littered chaotically around 480 acres of brush and sand are a host of abandoned wagons, half-finished wooden fences, and sun-bleached skulls — rams, longhorns, you name it. On the outskirts of town, a “No guns after 5 p.m.” sign does its part to keep the peace.

I am at Founders Ranch, a few miles outside of Edgewood, and this is End of Trail, the Single Action Shooting Society’s annual meet-up. Here, for ten action-packed days, everybody is a cowboy, and the outside world all but disappears. In my jeans, T-shirt, and boat shoes, I look embarrassingly out of place. This is kindly pointed out to me by “Alvira Sullivan Earp,” a veteran of the gathering. Earp takes me to one of the many independent traders that are dotted around the site. Our first stop: the hatter’s, where I try on a few options before settling on a molded straw number with pushed-up sides and a leather band. “You look a bit like Walker, Texas Ranger!” Alvira tells me as we leave, which gratifies me no end. I’ve always wanted a cowboy hat. Next, I need a shirt. I pick out an old-timey-looking plaid one, with no collar and sleeves that roll up nice and thick. For now at least, my Sperrys will have to do for shoes. At a stretch they’re moccasins, and I’m passable.

Returning to Main Street, I meet Alvira’s husband, “Virgil Earp,” sitting outside the saloon. He sports a handlebar mustache and an intricate getup that wouldn’t look amiss on George Montgomery, and he seems to know everybody — except, for a brief moment, me. “I don’t recognize you!” he exclaims, with delight. “You look great!” Then he notices my name badge, which simply says, “Media.” “That your real name?” I confess that it’s not, and that I am here just to cover the gathering. “Well, you need a better one. Something like ‘Charlie Dead-Eye Cooke.’”

As we talk, the pop-pop-pop of gunfire echoes incessantly in the distance. Nearby, guests smoke cigars and chat about their day’s shooting. “Pleasure to shoot with you, sir.” “Nice to see you again!” “Need any sun lotion?” “Did you hear that Holy Smoke shot a perfect game?” From half a mile away, the Gatling gun starts up. Nobody flinches. “It was a more gracious time back then,” Earp tells me, when I ask what brings him to Founders Ranch. “We all like to escape to something.” Apparently so. Earp, who has come from Australia, has been to every world championship since 1994, and has become so keenly involved that he was inducted into the society’s hall of fame in 2009. “It’s maybe the greatest sport in the world,” he tells me. “It requires everything: concentration, habit, practice.” “And luck,” another fellow adds, with a wry smile.

Over the course of the event, 615 shooters will fire about 275,000 rounds of ammunition across 18 stages, each one representing a gun-fighting scenario (favorites include hostage situations, stagecoach robberies, and shootouts at the cantina) from the Old West. The best of the competitors will go on to the Top Gun Shoot-Off, held on the final morning before a packed crowd. Some of the club’s shooters are utterly remarkable — quicker and more accurate with their vintage weapons than I would be with a modern machine gun. As we reach the final rounds, the competition becomes fierce, and everyone moves onto the edge of his seat.

Still, it strikes me that End of Trail is as much a social club as a genuine sport: a retreat in the desert for history buffs who enjoy living out their fantasies with their friends. The attendees come from far and wide — not just from every state, but from 35 other countries, too. I meet competitors from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, England, and beyond. Few are here for the first time. Many come every year. I chat with a retired couple who spend all their time taking an RV around the country visiting shoots. The purchase of the Old West upon the world’s imagination is considerable.

I encounter one of the organization’s four founders, 80-year-old “Judge Roy Bean,” and I ask him what gave him the idea. “I used to watch the Saturday-morning matinees — Roy Rogers and all those guys — and every now and then I’d think, ‘Boy, I’d love to be up there,’” he recalls, as we take a golf cart around the facility. “I shot trap and skeet and rifles and clays and IPSC [International Practical Shooting Confederation]. A friend of mine belonged to a sword-fighting club. And I noticed that all of these clubs skipped over the period I liked. They went from Mountain Man to Civil War to Modern. It was quite short — about 1865 to 1880 — but the Cowboy era was possibly the most exciting period in history. I go to Europe and to Africa and I wear my Stetson and the only words they know are ‘Texas!’ and ‘Cowboy!’”

“This is not a historical shoot,” he says. “It’s not like Mountain Man or Civil War. It’s fantasy — the Old West in your mind. You can be Silver Screen; you can be Historical; you can be a TV cowboy. You can be what you like.” And what about the guns? “You can only really use the guns that John Wayne used in the movies, but we’ve pushed the era up to about 1899 so people can use their ’97s and their ’94s [Winchester 1897 riot shotgun and Winchester 1894 lever-action rifle]. We especially wanted people to be able to use the ’97s because we loved the movie The Wild Bunch. It’s come a long way.”

Indeed so. The Single Action Shooting Society now boasts nearly 100,000 members and has 700 affiliated shooting clubs worldwide. Its members are almost perfectly split between men and women. There are plenty of young people, too. The current female world champion is a 16-year-old girl nicknamed “SASS Kicker.” One of the most accomplished among the men is “Last Chance Morales,” of Redmond, Ore. — a 19-year-old “Wild Bunch” shooter who has made a name for himself since he won his first world title in 2011. The membership is largely middle-aged, but there is plenty of new blood.

“Have you shot yet?” I am asked. I have not. So I’m taken over to an open area and a Henry lever-action rifle is put in my hands. Around 40 yards away stands an old-style moving target, with steel ducks, squirrels, and rabbits that traverse slowly from left to right on a conveyor belt. I don’t do too badly, and resolve to purchase one of the Henrys when I get a chance. Afterward, I am driven to the top of the hill and given a couple of shotguns — one an old-fashioned short-barreled side-by-side, the other a more modern over-under — and a box of shells. We play a little five-stand, my first time.

To my right, competitors are shooting black powder, yielding that low, resonating, full-on boom that modern firearms lack. In the valley, there is the sound of plinking and laughter. The sun beats down, dry and hot. I could get used to this.

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