The Good, The Bad And The Costumed: Western Movie Buffs Find Fellowship At Shooting Competitions

Dec 4, 2017

Dannette Ray is standing inside a re-created train depot, wearing cowboy boots, leather chaps and two six-shooters in holsters at her waist. Before she draws her pistols to fire at a row of targets, she calls out: "You get back inside, I'll cover for ya!" — a line spoken by Jimmy Stewart in the 1957 western Night Passage.

Ray, who goes by the nickname Marie Laveau, competes in cowboy action shooting, a brand of target shooting with historically accurate guns and costumes. There's yet another dose of theater: In each round, the shooters play out a movie scene.

She and her husband both competed this fall in the annual Iron Hero competition in Grand Island, Nebraska. It drew people from eight states this year, all of them part of the Single Action Shooting Society, or SASS.

The organization started in California in the 1980s and has spread throughout the U.S. and into Australia, Europe and South Africa. The national championships are held in Phoenix every February; last year's drew nearly 800 competitors of all ages.

Here are a few scenes from the Iron Hero competition: 

Each SASS member competes under an alias and in western wear. Their aim is to be the quickest shooter.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The shooting sets, including this rickety-looking jail, are modeled after Hollywood movies. If you're looking for a movie recommendation, there was a crowd favorite: Winchester 73, a 1950 flick starring Jimmy Stewart. But unlike how grudges were settled in the movie, cowboy shooting matches use a rulebook, not guns.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

"When you strap on the holsters and you've got all the other getup to it, it's like you've forgotten about the outside world at that moment," Nebraska SASS coordinator David Sayers (above) says.
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

The winner of the Iron Hero match gets a medal. At nationals, the winner gets a trophy and a belt buckle. But for a lot of the participants, it's really about dressing up and hanging out. Pit Mule, aka Tracy Thorpe of Des Moines, grew up in the 1950s and says: "It's what you did, you played Cowboys and Indians ... Still playing cowboy, you betcha."
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

Grant Gerlock is a reporter for Harvest Public Media and NET News and is based in Lincoln, Nebraska. You can find him on Twitter: @ggerlock.