What is Cowboy Action Shooting?

Cowboy Action Shooting is a multi-faceted shooting sport in which contestants compete with firearms typical of those used in the taming of the Old West: single action revolvers, pistol caliber lever action rifles, and old-time shotguns. It was started in 1982 by a few gentlemen now known as the Wild Bunch. In 1987 they officially formed the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS). Based in California, SASS is the largest and most widely accepted organization for western style shooting. The Illowa Irregulars are SASS affiliated and we use SASS rules. We are sponsored by the Milan Rifle Club and all of our proceeds are donated to selected charities or returned to the Milan Rifle Club for club improvements.

The shooting competition is staged in a unique, characterized, “Old West” style. It is a timed sport in which shooters compete for prestige on a course of different shooting stages. Each scenario or stage, as they are called, features an array of situations, many based on famous incidents or movies scenes, in which the shooters must test their mettle against steel targets. For obvious reasons, shooters should have previous shooting experience. Cowboy Action Shooting is not suggested as your initial firearms training.

To enhance the “fantasy” experience, all shooters are required to wear some form of period dress. Typically, this is long pants (or dresses/skirts for the ladies), leather boots/shoes (no athletic footwear), cowboy hat (no ball caps), and shirts with long sleeves (ladies can wear short sleeves). There are categories that have specific costuming requirements. Most importantly, each shooter and spectator will need eye and hearing protection – usually safety glasses with side shields and ear plugs.

For firearms, you will need two single action pistols, a lever action rifle (in pistol caliber) and a shotgun: side by side without ejectors, 1887 lever action shotgun, or a 1897 pump shotgun. Guns generally must be of 1900 design or prior, but modern replicas like the Ruger Vaquero, Uberti 1866/1873 are acceptable. You will need holsters and a carrier for carrying shotshells. All bullets/shot are lead only.

Most importantly, you will need an alias. Your alias is how you will be known, and records are kept by alias. Pick a name that suits you – either your personality, family references, or something you think is cute. If you join SASS (we highly recommend this), they will issue a badge with your personal SASS member number and register your alias. Your alias is unique to you and is never duplicated. Be prepared to change your original alias choice – it may already be in use. Joining SASS or the Milan Rifle Club is not required to shoot in our monthly matches. However, SASS membership is required for shooting in SASS sanctioned matches at the state level and above.

As you participate, you will learn that there is a rule called “The Spirit of the Game”. This rule is the foundation of Cowboy Action Shooting. It specifies that we are participating safely for fun and we do the right thing regardless of the impact to our score. There are no prizes for winning. If you are willing to sacrifice fun to win, this is not the game for you. You will find that Cowboy Action Shooters are the friendliest folks on the planet. Because we all share a fondness for the old west and the firearms of the time, we have an immediate bond that expands into long term friendships.


The firearms used in Cowboy Action Shooting are regulated by SASS. There are rules in place to prevent people from developing race guns ala IPSC. Generally, the requirements are as follows:

  • Rifles – Pre 1900 Design or Manufacture
    • Lever/Pump Action. Have an exposed hammer and be tubular fed, open or iron sights.
    • .25 caliber and up, pistol caliber only.
    • Henry, Yellow Boy, Winchester 1860, 1866, 1873 or 1892 or replicas, 1894 Marlin, Colt Lightning or replicas.
    • .22 caliber, standard velocity rim fire permitted for Buckaroo category only.
  • Pistols – Pre 1900 Design or Manufacture
    • .32 caliber and up.
    • Single action only.
    • Two are required for competition.
    • Cap and ball are used in the Frontiersman Category.
    • .22 Caliber, standard velocity rim fire permitted for Buckaroo category only (optional)
  • Shotgun – Pre 1900 Design or Manufacture
    • Pump action must be Winchester 1897 or replica only, in 16 or 12 gauge.
    • Side by Side and single barrel, in 10, 12, 16 or 20 gauge. With or without hammers.
    • .410 permitted in Buckaroo Category only.
    • No automatic ejectors on shotguns except single barrel shotguns.
    • Lever Action Winchester 1887 original or replica in 12 or 10 gauge.


  • All main match ammunition must be center fire, all lead. No copper jacketed, copper washed, or gas checks allowed. Shotgun shot must be 7 ½ of smaller.
  • Round nosed, flat point (RNFP) bullets should be used in the rifles tubular magazine.
  • Black powder or black powder substitutes are used in some shooting categories.

Safety is First and Foremost

Safety is the reason for our gun handling rules and for the rigorous structure of each stage.

  • Eye and Ear Protection – This is mandatory. This is for both shooters and spectators. Side shields for safety glasses are highly recommended and required at most matches. Most shooters use ear plugs because ear muffs interfere with hats.
  • 170 degree rule – No muzzle can break a 1700 cone that extends all around the shooter in all directions. This is up, down, left and right.
  • Cross draw dance – Again watch the 170!
  • Empty Action Open – When carried empty, to and from the stage, all rifles and shotguns will be carried muzzle up, with the actions open and cleared. Pistols are carried holstered, hammer down on an empty chamber. When stored in a gun cart, long guns will be stored empty and action open.
  • Loading – All guns are loaded at the loading table.
  • Down Range – When someone calls out “Down Range”, stop handling your guns.
  • Cease Fire – When “Cease Fire” is called – Stop shooting immediately!
  • Cocking – Do not cock firearms until they are safely pointed down range. (Must be at 45 degrees before cocking.) No moving with cocked gun. Think basketball traveling rule.
  • DeCocking – No firearm may be de-cocked on the firing line except by pointing it down range and pulling the trigger, or while under the direct supervision of the Timer Operator (TO).
  • Firing Line – The firing line extends from the loading table to the unloading table.
  • Loading and Transporting
    • Handguns are loaded with the hammer resting on an empty chamber – always.
    • Rifles are loaded with hammer completely down on an empty chamber – always.
    • Shotguns are staged empty with action open and loaded on the clock – always.
    • While in the cart, actions on rifles and shotguns will be left action open – always.
    • Clubs are allowed to have additional safety rules due to different host club restrictions.

Match Components

Monthly matches usually consist of 5 or 6 stages. State level and above matches usually have 10 to 12 stages.

Illowa Irregulars setup our matches the day before (Saturdays). The match director has designed the stages and we set them up, review them for safety, and paint the targets. We start doing this at 9:00 am. It usually takes a couple of hours.

The morning of the match, the shooters register for the shoot, posses are formed, and we have a safety meeting. At the conclusion of the safety meeting, the posses go to their assigned starting stages and prepare. We start shooting about 9:30 a.m.

After we complete the match and all guns are put away, we usually hang around and commiserate, do the “What If” thing, and general socialization. Adult beverages are commonly a part of this socialization.

On Match Day


  • Shooter arrives at match and locates the registration area. They sign up for the match and pay an entry fee, usually $10. This process starts about 8:30 a.m.
  • Shooters write their alias on a card and hand the card to one of the posse leaders. One alias per card. If you want to shoot with someone, hand your cards together to the posse leader.
  • Shooters must complete and signs a waver form (once per year).

Posse Makeup

  • After all shooters have registered, the posse leaders enter their posses into the scoring system. This is an iPad/Android based application that keeps track of the shooters and their results.

Safety Meeting

  • Just prior to the match, there will be a safety meeting and announcements.
  • Posse lists are read and starting stages for the posse are announced.
  • At the end of the safety meeting, we say the Pledge of Allegiance and then go to the assigned starting stage.

At the Stage

  • The posse leader takes roll and announces how the posse will be run. They will usually ask if there are any new/newer shooters on the posse. This is to identify those people who may need questions answered and activities explained.
  • Stage story and shooting sequence are described by the posse leader. The target shooting order, instructions on where to stage all guns, and starting position will be explained by the Posse Leader.
  • Posse leaders ensure that all work assignments are covered by the Posse Members. Shooters shoot the stage while alternating work assignments.
  • Stage flow is loading table, wait to be called to the firing line by the TO, stage firearms, shoot stage, move to unloading table to clear guns, and return long guns to your cart.

Posse Work Assignments

  • Range Officer (RO)/Timer Operator (TO)
    • Normally this person is Range Officer level 1 & 2 trained.
    • Controls the firing line and is responsible for running the stage.
    • Sees that the shooter completes the stage safely and coaches where necessary.
    • When a shooter has completed the stage, consults with the spotters and reports the raw time and any misses or procedurals to the score keeper.
  • Loading Table
    • Watches and monitors loading process.
    • Observes that the proper number of rounds are loaded and hammers are completely down on empty chambers.
    • Verifies the shooter has enough shotshells.
  • Unloading Table
    • Verifies that all guns are empty by observation and demonstration by the shooter.
  • Spotters
    • Three spotters are used. They count misses, count rounds fired to ensure the proper number of shots have been fired, and verifies the targets were engaged in the manner specified by the stage instructions.
    • After the shooter completes the stage, the three spotters report the number of misses to the TO. Discrepancies are scored in favor of the shooter.
  • Score Keeper
    • Records the times and penalties. We use a scoring system on electronic tablets. State level and above matches additionally record the shooter’s score on paper.
  • Brass Pickers
    • Picks up rifle brass and shot-shell hulls for each shooter and takes them to the unloading table
  • Target re-setters
    • Re-sets reactive targets, poppers, clays or knockdowns.

Glossary of Terms

  • Match Director – Designs the stages. Supervises the setup, interprets any stage directions or rules.
  • Stage – A series of targets and associated instructions for shooting the targets. The instructions are often called the scenario. Usually specifies the following:
    • The guns used and where they are to be staged.
    • The number of rounds to be shot from each gun. Usually 10 rifle, 10 pistol (5 in each), and 4+ shotgun.
    • Where the shooter starts (the starting position), where the shooters hands are, and what the shooter says to start the stage (the starting line).
  • Firing Line – The firing line extends from the loading table to the unloading table.
  • Minor Safety Violation – Shooter is given a 10 second penalty.
  • Stage DQ – Disqualification from a stage. 2 Stage DQs = Match DQ
  • Match DQ – Disqualification from the entire match.
  • Range Officer (RO) – Controls the firing line. Responsible for the overall activity and usually the person with the timer.
  • Posse Leader – Responsible for running the posse and is usually the primary TO. Assigns jobs, sees that posse is on the proper stage at the proper time, delivers scores to match director or match score person.
  • Squib – A low report from a firearm that indicates that a bullet may be lodged in the barrel. Do Not Fire Another Round! The TO will stop the shooter and safely ground the gun. The shooter continues with the next gun and finishes the stage. Normal scoring will apply. If it discovered that there is not a bullet lodged in the barrel, the shooter will be awarded a re-shoot of the stage.
  • Stage Your Guns – Place guns in required location prior to shooting the stage.
  • Spotter – Persons that count shots, misses and penalties.
  • Re-shoot – Under some conditions, the shooter will be offered an opportunity to shoot the stage over. Prop failures, interference from a posse worker or a timer problem, for example. Re-shoots are not awarded for gun failure or ammunition failure after the first round has gone downrange (state level or above match). If shooter starts over, misses or procedurals do not carry over. Safety infractions do carry over on a re-shoot.
  • Cease Fire – Stop shooting immediately.
  • Cold Range – Do not handle firearms.
  • Hot Range – Firing is about to take place, do not go down range.
  • Down Range – Do not handle firearms, workers are going down range
  • Side Match – Additional matches held with main match guns and special firearms used for side matches only. Long range big bore rifles, derringers and pocket pistols as an example. These contests are usually held at annual, state, regional and above matches.
  • Sweep – This is shooting adjacent targets in a specific order. There are many types of sweeps. The stage instructions will describe the details of the sweep.
  • Double Tap – Shooting a target twice in succession.
  • Triple Tap – Shooting a target three times in succession.
  • Procedural – A non-safety shooting error. Unintentionally shooting targets out of order or not performing a stage direction or missing a stage requirement. Shooter is assessed a 10 second penalty.
  • Miss – A missed target. Shooter is assessed a +5 second penalty for each miss.
  • Safety – A minor safety infraction. Scored as a +10 second penalty.
  • Bonus – Some stages have a bonus shot that is usually more difficult than normal. If obtained, the shooter can be awarded a 5 to 10 second reduction in the shooters time for that stage.
  • Reload – Some stages call for a reload of the rifle or revolver on the clock.


The following Web sites contain good information about Cowboy Action Shooting

Illowa Irregulars: www.illowairregulars.com
It contains information about our club, schedules, scores, etc..

SASS: www.sassnet.com
The home page for the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS)

SASS Wire: https://forums.sassnet.com/

SASS Handbooks: This is a link to the SASS rule books and RO course material. Good idea to download the rulebook (PDF file) and give it a read.

Milan Rifle Club: www.milanrifle.club This is the home page for the Milan Rifle Club

Wikipedia: Cowboy Action Shooting