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May 31, 2000, 02:43 PM
Sunday, May 28, 2000

Remember playing cowboy as a kid? Plenty of adults still do, pardner, complete with vintage guns, clothing and nicknames.

By Alfred Lubrano
TOPTON, Pa. - They are the kind of people who call women "little ladies." They say it's "high noon" when it's 12 o'clock. A few make bullets in their basements.
Cowboy-action shooters are adults who play cowboy. They wear western garb, assume aliases based on figures from the Old West, and fire 19th-century-style guns at steel targets, measuring for speed and accuracy.
The other weekend, 88 such shooters laden with more than 400 guns crowded the Topton Fish & Game Association between Reading and Allentown in what amounted to a Second Amendment picnic with spurs, a celebration of the right to bear arms - and dress and drawl like John Wayne. "Nice shootin', Two-Gun," is the kind of thing people yelled to one another as they fired, or, "You really got the varmint," or, "This is what we call mosquito control, har-har-har." If Roy Rogers has gone to heaven, the Topton shoot is what his Sundays may look like: women in calico dresses and cream-white bonnets sporting knives on their hips and smoking little cigars; chunky 50-year-old men in creased black cowboy hats, their $400 silver-concho-studded leather holsters slung low and menacing around their waists, with lovingly arranged bullets gleaming from their belts like precious stones in the sun. The footwear was big-heeled cowboy boots. As they strolled from target to target, shooters pulled two-wheel gun carts, looking like golfers who had swapped their nine irons for Winchesters. The American weekend is filled with people trying hard to be who they're not during the week. Civil War re-enactors, extreme-sport daredevils, and paint-gun warriors enter alternative universes between Friday and Monday, in search of an elusive contentment that doesn't exist for them during the average working day.
For those who see the Ponderosa as Paradise, the blam-blam and blast of vintage American guns (or replicas) is the near-deafening sound of pure happiness. Gleaning details and totems from books, old movies and TV shows, cowboy-action shooters have cobbled together a working iconography that pleases them, regardless of how true to historical reality it may be.
And their ranks are growing. In 1995, there were 2,500 members of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), the California-based group that runs cowboy clubs nationwide (www.sassnet.com). There are 31,000 today. Single action, by the way, refers to the type of weapon that must be cocked each time to fire.
The Internet helped to publicize the society, as did SASS ad campaigns in gun and western-lifestyle magazines appealing to lovers of Butch and Sundance. There are weekly shoots on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the country. Along with the Topton shoot, there are similar cowboy events nearly every week between now and late October in the Lancaster area and other parts of rural Pennsylvania, as well as in southern Delaware.
Typically, said Ken Amorosano, SASS marketing director, cowboy shooters are men (75 percent) in their 40s and 50s with grown children and blue-collar jobs - many are current or former law-enforcement officers - with enough disposable income to pony up the thousands of dollars needed to purchase all the accoutrements of this stuff-intensive activity. Each participant must have two pistols, a rifle and a shotgun, which together can easily run $2,000 and up. Some antique weapons cost as much as $12,000 apiece.
Not all members shoot; many are in it just for the clothes. It all has to do with escapism.
"In this day and age, we have magnetic strips on cards that tell you who you are," Amorosano said. "But our folks can pick an alias and be reborn, stepping back to simpler times. People put on clothes that transform them. And when a dainty lady picks up a .45 Colt [revolver] and bangs away down-range, it's exhilarating for her." Perceived simpler times is what draws Gary Leone, 34, of Elroy, Montgomery County. Leone is the executive producer of Shadow Traffic, which supplies traffic reports to Philadelphia television and radio stations. "Cowboy-action shooting is a blend of history and Hollywood and our love for the Old West," said Leone, whose cowboy alias is Gunner.
Duded up in a Stetson hat, rough-out chaps, brown denim pants, suspenders, silk bandanna, striped cotton cowboy shirt with sleeve garters, cream-colored gauntlets (leather gloves reaching halfway up his forearms), two rigs (holsters) with one holding a 120-year-old Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 revolver with .44-Russian caliber bullets, Gunner could never be mistaken for the young executive he is. And that's precisely the point.
"This dressing up means I leave myself behind at home and I become U.S. Deputy Marshal Gunner. It's role-playing, like being in a play. And I'm a ham."
Because these people pack live ammunition, nobody is re-creating the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, with shooters facing off against each other. They simply rain lead on targets meant to represent period prey, such as buffalo, gophers, misbehaving bartenders, and bearded scoundrels bent on mayhem.
The ringing sound of metal on metal provides a satisfying validation: "You can hear it hit," said Leone's wife, Donna (Dead-Eye Donna to her posse), 29, an executive assistant at Fox Realty in Chesterbrook who dresses in a prairie-style outfit of straw bonnet, white blouse and blue, full-length skirt, complete with holsters and hip knife. "That's why I like doing this: You hit what you aim at." That, of course, is a major part of the appeal. If you spend your work life shuffling papers and data that only get added to larger piles of papers and data, it's hard to know what exactly you did by the end of the day. But the reassuring ping means you've accomplished something and had an effect: You hit what you aimed at. Keep in mind, cowboy-action people divorce the gun and bullet from the notion of destruction. For them, shooting a target is a triumph of hand-eye coordination, a skill to relish, like hitting a baseball. And they are sticklers for safety. Still, cowboy-action shooters understand that guns are not merely benign sporting equipment. And, believing themselves to be a put-upon group obliged to defend their brand of what some area cowboys described as "politically incorrect fun," a few get defensive. "Two years ago was the Fish and Game Association's 50th anniversary," said Jay Hassler, a Kutztown man who organizes the Topton shoot and dresses like a cavalry officer. "We had savings bonds to be awarded to school kids for best essays on hunting and fishing. But we got no cooperation from the teachers. They push antigun agendas there. So we never got essays."
Though their "toys" can be dangerous, cowboy-action folks themselves aren't seen as a problem.
"It's a bizarre slice of American life," noted Temple University psychologist Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association and an expert on cultural heroes such as cowboys. "But they're not killing people or even hunting animals. It's just target practice in dress-up. They love guns, and express it in one of the most harmless ways imaginable."
In fact, Farley added, cowboy-action shooters may be doing something healthy: cathartic role-playing. "If you go through life locked into the same straitjacket, it's not much of a life," Farley said. "This allows you to break out and try another role, if only for a day, without threatening your life, family and responsibilities."
And unlike Civil War re-enactors who are slavishly dedicated to detailed authenticity - they'll sleep in the fields and eat the same type of cold biscuits Union and Confederate soldiers ate, for example - cowboy-action shooters don't care whether your hat is of the same vintage as your vest. As for food, well, the cowboys at Topton unloaded coolers filled with Turkey Hill hoagies and iced tea at lunchtime. That insouciant attitude colors the shooting as well. What's particularly fun about cowboy-action shooters is that a large percentage of them don't care whether they hit anything, said Northeast Philadelphian Chris White, 50, a two-way-radio repairman whose alter ego is W.J.L. Sullivan, Texas ranger.
The burly man in black explained that non-cowboy target-shooting can be quite competitive, which makes interactions heated and uncomfortable. He, like many of his compadres, prefers the laid-back approach of cowboy shooters, who don't know the winner of a match until weeks later. "For a lot of people, the big concern is their outfit, not the shooting," White said.
"We're not talking about the real world. It's a break in the humdrum. And, as you play adult cowboys and Indians, you forget about the mortgage for a while."
Alfred Lubrano's e-mail address is [email protected]