Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Aiming for the Old West

Gun and history hobbyists re-create the Cowboy Way

By Michele Day
Enquirer contributor

        Lassiter, a gunfighter with a reputation as a quick draw and a fast shot, eyes his targets from a distance.

Mike Marconet, aka Coyote Kid, of Wilmington fires a shotgun as he competes in a cowboy shooting match at the Middletown Sportsman's Club.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        “Pow, pow . . . pow, pow, pow,” he mouths softly as he waves the preferred weapons of generations of 10-year-old cowboy wannabes - two sharply pointed fingers. Lassiter, however, is no 10-year-old.

        Lassiter, aka Tom Wildenauer, a retired maintenance worker and part-time gunsmith, was among about 50 cowboys and a couple of cowgirls at the Middletown Sportsman's Club cowboy shooting match Saturday. Members of the Big Irons Rangers, who dress in Old West costumes and go by aliases such as Union Jack Watson and Dance Hall Doc, gather at the club on the first Saturday of every month for cowboy-style shooting.

        The sport is called cowboy action shooting. It began in 1981 in California, and its practitioners say it's one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. The national Single Action Shooting Society Web site, www.sassnet.com, reports more than 350 chapters representing all 50 states.

Tom Wildenauer pretneds to pray before shooting.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        In the character of Lassiter, Mr. Wildenauer's two single-action revolvers - replicas of the preferred weapons of real gunslingers of the Wild West - are strapped in the holster of his solid black cowboy get-up. Another 19th-century gun reproduction, this one a rifle, and a Winchester shotgun manufactured in the early 1900s are strategically placed within easy reach. All but the shotgun are loaded.

        Lassiter's shadow shots with the fingers were sort of a mock run - part of his focusing routine. He moves closer to the fence rail in front of the targets; now he's ready to play cowboy for real. “Let's go to Silverado, Slim,” he says - and a beep signals the timer is running.

        He blasts six quick shots from the shotgun, then without a second's pause, fires off 10 rounds from the rifle, and finally rips off another 10 from the pistols. With the pistols, he alternates shots from each hand, gunfighter style.

        “29.19 seconds - clean!” the scorekeeper announces, confirming Lassiter's fast time and perfect accuracy.

Four members of the Big Irons Rangers, dressed in Old West clothing and gear, load their guns.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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        Club members have constructed the Big Irons Corral - a series of seven target-shooting stages that depict scenes right out of the Old West, or at least Hollywood's version. There's a log cabin, cantina, jail, corral, a wooden deck, a combination bank and barbershop and a wagon sitting along a fence rail.

        At each set, competitors must plug a set sequence of targets, using specific combinations of rifles, revolvers and shotguns. Fastest times win, but shooters lose seconds for missing their marks or hitting them out of order. Big Irons members come from many different backgrounds. They're lawyers and ministers, factory workers and secretaries. Age divisions range from teens to seniors.

        But most shooters report experiences similar to those of Mike Marconet of Wilmington, whose shooter alias is Coyote Kid.

        Mr. Marconet, 51, grew up hunting for sport - and as an adult dabbled in target shooting. Then in 1996, friends suggested he try cowboy shooting.

        “It was the most fun thing I've ever done,” he says as he waits his turn at the bank and barbershop stage in Middletown. He loves the cowboy shtick.

        “We've shot sitting on a moving (wooden) horse, suspended from cables,” he says. We've shot out of bathtubs, out of the back of an outhouse, the seat of a wagon. We've even shot off of a swinging bridge.”

        Sure, such stunts are usually the stuff of little boy fantasies. But you're never too old to live out your cowboy dreams, he says.

        “I loved cowboys . . . as a kid,” Mr. Marconet says. “We used to make our own bow and arrows. We played the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Sky King. Those (television) shows were our favorites.”

        “I only wish I'd been a little younger when I found this,” he says.

        Competition is real

        In costume, Mr. Marconet could double for an actor in the movie Tombstone: brown leather, batwing chaps cover his legs and bronze spurs shine from the back of his cowboy boots. He carries a pair of Colt single-action revolvers in his double-rig holster, and his gun cart holds a Yellow Boy rifle and a Winchester 1897 model shotgun.

        He's pleased with the look - but less satisfied with his shooting.

        “I haven't shot in two weeks,” the carpenter and remodeler says. “This is like any other sport; you have to practice if you want to be good.”

        He takes a draw on a cigarette and blows the smoke over the rim of his cowboy hat.

        “But sometimes we have to work instead of play.” Mr. Wildenauer, however, rarely misses a day of practice. He's been a highly competitive target shooter for years, and has won numerous state and national titles in fast-draw competitions. He's so dedicated to keeping his aim sharp that he's built several cowboy action shooting stages near his home in New Lebanon.

        When he competes, he's the picture of concentration. “I focus on the targets and the sights,” he explains. “That's what goes through my head - target, sight, pull the trigger. You try to stay focused on what you're doing and not get in a big hurry, because speed kills.

        “The big thing is maintaining focus,” he repeats. “When you lose focus, that's when you miss.”

        Despite his obviously strong competitive streak, Mr. Wildenauer says the fun-is-priority attitude that surrounds cowboy shooting is what he enjoys most.

        “We're competitive, but we're not necessarily blood-thirsty,” he says. “If you're having some kind of problem, people will loan you their guns, their ammo. They'll give you advice. You'll see guys competing head-to-head standing around comparing strategies. “I don't think I've ever been in another sport like that.”

        Vickie Fulle, alias Millie Nelson, explains: “The spirit of the game is you don't get upset with anyone.” The three spotters monitoring the competition are the only ones who can say how many times a shooter misses a target. “Everybody else just cheers people on,” she says. “There are no arguments.”

        Better than golf

        Mrs. Fulle and her husband Mark (aka Larkin Skaggs) drove to Middletown from Richmond, Ind., for Saturday's event. They've been shooting together for four years, traveling to matches within about a 100-mile radius of their home, she says.

        “I got hooked on the costumes and the shooting,” she says. “It's something we like to do together. My husband used to play golf, but I didn't enjoy doing that with him.

        Now we shoot someplace every weekend.” She watches a competitor reel off a deafening round through a jailhouse window, then adds, “I've always liked cowboys.

        “At first I flinched at the sound of the guns,” she says. “But you get used to it.” She's also grown accustomed to handling some heavy firearms. But she seems most enthusiastic about the cowboy fantasy part of the sport. She and her husband did some research and chose their aliases based on real Old West characters.

        Millie Nelson's family helped hide the Hole in the Wall Gang, she says. And Larkin Skaggs, her husband's alias, was an outlaw who died in a massacre.

        She keeps her character, a working-class cowgirl, in mind as she scours second-hand stores for authentic clothing. On this day she's sporting a brown corduroy skirt, a western vest, petticoat, stockings and lace-up boots.

        “It's pretty comfortable,” she says. Mrs. Fulle is one of only a handful of women at this match, but she insists cowboy action shooting is far from a man's world. “I think women really enjoy this sport as much as the men,” she says, “maybe even more so because of the costumes.”

        Shooting down stereotypes

        Still, club members are sensitive to the negative stereotypes people have regarding gun enthusiasts.

        “We're reasonable human beings who sometimes get portrayed as something else,” says Donald Hoffman (alias Dusty Feller) of West Chester. “This is a hobby. Some people play cards; some people shoot.”

        Mr. Hoffman, who owns a company that represents manufacturers of machine tools, says that people who shoot are some of the nicest he's met. “You know how it used to be when people would open the door for a lady and say things like, "thank-you ma'am'? That's the way all these guys are,” he says, making a sweeping gesture to a crowd of cowboys.

        Mr. Marconet puts it this way. “People don't realize how much fun this sport can be. It's guys playing with real guns and having fun, but nobody's getting hurt.”

        Target scenes strive for realism

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