It's a lazy Sunday afternoon in Crooked Creek, and on the charming main drag of this dusty frontier village a brood of mustachioed men preen like peacocks outside Melita's Cantina. Dressed in their finest silk handkerchiefs, wide-brimmed hats and flamboyant leather vests, they greet each other by their noms de guerre: One-Eyed Pete, Frisco Red, Sassafras Kid.
Nearby, 66-year-old Betty Clyne, a.k.a. "Dollar Betty," smiles in the shade of her parasol as her children and grandchildren scamper outside the weathered blacksmith shop, a stone's throw from the iron gates of the one-cell jail and an abandoned mine shaft. The entire sun-drenched scene carries the wholesome air of a church outing to Silver Dollar City, save for the constant explosions of gunpowder and the ornery cursing of 41-year-old Bill Meyer.
Before re-enacting a robbery of the town's ill-defended depository, First Crooked Bank, Meyer fails to yell out the warning: "Open the door! This is a hold-up!"
The procedural violation tacks an additional ten seconds onto his time and bumps Meyer down several pegs in the standings. As he removes his ten-gallon hat from his balding head, Meyer, who goes by the name "Billy the Kidder," makes sure the scorekeeper is well aware of his feelings.
"Baloney! I said the spiel!" he screams.
After a few more futile protests, Meyer tromps off to the side of the firing range, his metal spurs ringing like silver bells with each lumbering step.
Lighting a cigar, Meyer continues muttering to himself.
"I said it," he fumes. "They're all deaf."
Considering that Meyer has a half-dozen guns with him and 200 glistening new bullets, it might seem unwise for the scorer -- or anyone else, for that matter -- to get on his bad side. But then, 54 other shooters have converged on Crooked Creek this spring day. And like Meyer, they're armed to the teeth and not about to let anyone ruin their fun, especially not a notorious prankster like Billy the Kidder.
Minutes later, Meyer appears to have forgiven, if not completely forgotten, the scorer's judgment. Living up to his nickname, he places a set of gnarled "Billy Bob" teeth into his mouth and resumes heckling.
Part Deadwood, part Blazing Saddles, the faux-Wild West hamlet of Crooked Creek can be found twenty minutes south of St. Louis just off Interstate 55. Built in the late '90s by members of the Arnold Rifle and Pistol Club, Crooked Creek is perhaps the finest monument to the sport of cowboy action shooting in the Midwest. Included among its dozen life-size props are a dentist's office, a cemetery, a livery stable -- even an adobe mission church.
The sport, if you can call it that, requires players to dress like extras out of a Hollywood western and brandish live firearms modeled after the guns of the 1800s. Over the past decade, cowboy action shooting has become the fastest-growing gun-playing competition in the world, boasting more than 1,000 members in Missouri and 65,000 worldwide.
Cowboy action shooting is one of a handful of action shooting sports that have sprung up over the past twenty years, and its popularity seems to be rising in tandem with the sales of graphic video games and the passage of concealed-carry legislation in a large number of states, including Missouri.
These sports include the testosterone-fueled speed sport of "practical" shooting, and the creative -- if not slightly paranoid -- game of "defensive" shooting.
Here's a sampling of scenarios our weekend warriors might confront:
Cowboy: Having been on the run for some time now, you stop to take a pause for the cause. You're seated on the throne when someone starts peppering the outhouse with lead. You kick open the door and see the sheriff's posse riding up. Covering your track has never been a virtue of yours.
Defensive: You're in a restaurant in Manila paying for your meal of questionable origin. In walk three Sparrow guerrillas carrying AK-47 assault rifles. You are their intended target.
Practical: Bad guys control the building. Starting in the seated position with your hand on your knees, work your way through the course of fire, shooting the BGs beginning with target #1 and working your way to target #12. Failure to shoot targets in order will result in one procedural violation per incident.
Engage when ready.
All three versions of the game test players on a combination of speed and accuracy. That said, little else unifies these groups, each of which thinks itself superior -- and these factions sure as shootin' don't play nice together.
"Cowboy shooting doesn't let you wear shorts, so fuck 'em," says Rick Hebert, a 54-year-old Web site developer and huge fan of practical shooting. "IDPA?" he asks incredulously of the defensive-shooting organization International Defensive Pistol Association. "Ya know what it stands for? 'I Don't Practice Anymore.'"
As a former area director of the International Practical Shooting Confederation, Hebert is an outspoken local proponent of the sport. On a recent weekend morning, he's joined by approximately 30 other practical shooters for a match in the sleepy Illinois town of Caseyville.
The sun shines bright and warm, and Hebert's bare legs have turned from fish-belly white to prime-rib pink. Like nearly every other shooter in attendance, he wears a souvenir T-shirt from a previous practical shooting match. Over his closely cropped black hair rests a baseball hat with the words "Pure Evil" stenciled above the bill.
Bringing a Benson & Hedges menthol to his pursed lips, Hebert blames his mediocre shooting today on his hangover. On Friday night he closed down That One Place, a Fenton watering hole, before bringing a lucky lady home for a little hanky-panky. It's high noon, and Hebert still has booze and boobs on the brain.
"It's getting to be Hooters time," he calls out to his buddy Jeff Matsche. "Hooters is calling!"
For the moment Matsche, a marine electronics technician from Godfrey, ignores his friend. He's walking a dry run through a practical shooting stage called "Matt's Video" in homage to the guy who dreamed up the course design.
The stage is arranged like a miniature baseball diamond. The shooter begins at home plate and runs backward along the base path, firing shots at fourteen cardboard cutouts positioned like outfielders twenty to thirty feet down range. Several of the targets wear stripes of black paint representing places where the "bad guy" is seeking shelter. Any bullets landing in these areas do not count and add five seconds onto the contestant's overall time.
Preparing himself for the shoot, Matsche places noise-dampening earphones over his curly blond locks. At the age of 47, he looks not unlike a weathered William Katt, the title character from the '80s sitcom Greatest American Hero.
Practical shooters bill themselves as the most athletic of the action-shooting sportsmen, and though a good many tout impressive beer guts, others, like Matsche, take pains to keep themselves fleet of foot. On any given Sunday, he is one of the fastest shooters in the region, bopping and weaving through obstacles like Barry Sanders cutting up a backfield.
In the starter's circle, the range officer asks Matsche the standard line: "Do you understand the course of fire?" He responds with a thumbs-up and loads his weapon. An electronic buzzer sounds. He's off.
Matsche draws his gun in his first frantic steps. By the time he reaches third base he's squeezed off a half-dozen shots. The report of his pistol punches the still morning in a staccato of snaps -- like packing wrap exploding under a steamroller. The noise is deafening.
In mid-flight he tosses his spent magazine clip to the ground and loads another round of fourteen bullets. A blink later, the game is complete. In 16.23 seconds, he has shot 28 bullets and blown a pair of holes in each target.
The air is gray with gunpowder when the range officer walks the field of fire, checking the cardboard targets. "Double Alpha," he notes. "Alpha Charlie. Double Alpha."
The targets resemble boxy human torsos with tiny square heads, like Lego characters without their legs. An "alpha" means Matsche hit the target in the "A" region, a Frisbee-size circle in the center of the target where a person's heart and lungs would be. Charlie (or a "C") is the area surrounding the "A" region and about the size of a trash-can lid. The head of the target is the "B" region, but few people aim their shots above the neck. To do so increases one's chance to pick up a "Mike" (or missed shot), a penalty that tacks five seconds onto the shooter's time.
On this stage Matsche breezed through without a single Mike. Still, he's upset with his overall time.
"I got hung up in the reload," he announces. "It probably took six- to eight-tenths a second off my score."
A similar fumbling in a national match could knock Matsche down fifteen places in the standings.
Action shooting developed in the 1950s, when fans of cowboy movies in Southern California re-enacted gun battles on private ranches and in gun clubs. But it was in Missouri, some two decades later, that the sport formed its first organizing body.
It was 1976 when, according to action-shooting lore, a battalion of hard-core gunners from seven nations met in Columbia to form the International Practical Shooting Confederation.
As Nick Alexakos, the current president of IPSC, tells it, the meeting arose from a need for tighter regulations and safety requirements.
"At the time, Westerns were the hottest thing on television," says Alexakos. "Fans of the shows were staging 'quick-draw' competitions where people re-enacted the proverbial cowboy showdown to see how fast they could draw their weapon and fire. Problem was, a lot of people ended up literally shooting themselves in the foot."
IPSC made the sport more "practical" by providing players with strict guidelines, requiring eye and ear protection, and placing stern limits on the handling of the weapons.
"Our record is impeccable," boasts Alexakos. "I know of no incidents where anyone has gotten hurt in an IPSC match."
But while Westerns were all the rage in the '60s and '70s, critics of practical shooting say the sport has morphed over the years to resemble the schlocky shoot-'em-ups of the '80s and '90s. Gone was outlaw cowboy Clint Eastwood. In was cyborg cop Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"IPSC started out with its roots in practical shooting and kept pushing the envelope," says Jerry Mosher, a defensive-shooting advocate at the Caseyville Rifle and Pistol Club. "Now there's little that's practical about it. Their scenarios are more like 'Attack of the Green Men from Mars,' whereas defensive shooting is more true-to-life, like a mini-mart robbery."
The practical-shooting sea change led disgruntled IPSC members to form the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), the organizing body of cowboy shooting, which would return the sport to its cowboy-shooting roots. The International Defensive Pistol Association (IPSC) would create defensive, "real-life" scenarios.
Today Mosher and others compare practical shooting to NASCAR. Where stock-car racing originally began as a competition among automobiles purchased directly off the showroom floor, today's NASCAR is a beefed-up, bastardized version of its former self.
Practical shooting still has classes for owners of stock-production guns purchased "as is" from manufacturers, but the more fevered competition takes place in the "open" division. It's to this class that Jeff Matsche belongs, taking a pistol based on a government-issue 1911 semi-automatic and adding hundreds, even thousands, of dollars' worth of bells and whistles.
On the barrel of the gun, he's placed a compensator, a ported cylinder that drastically reduces the gun's recoil, or kick. He installed a $300 optical sight that projects a red dot over his intended target. He's lightened the slide so the gun cycles its rounds faster; he's adjusted the trigger, making it easier to pull. And he's installed extended-round magazines that double the number of bullets the firearm can hold.
At the end of the day, a pistol like Matsche's can easily cost a couple thousand dollars. In the parlance of action shooting, the firearm is known as a "race gun" -- a weapon that holds fast and true to the IPSC creed of Diligentia-Vis-Celeritas (accuracy, power, speed).
Matsche says that if his gun were an automobile, it would be a top-fuel dragster, an Indy car, a Ferrari or a Porsche.
For this group, owning a firearm has as much to do with the Second Amendment as it does an even more deep-seated American tenet: the right to own really cool toys. There's just something devilishly fun, action-shooting proponents insist, about punching holes through paper at 335 meters per second.
And so it is that even though the sport is "tragically devoid of females" (as one participant privately lamented), the players can surround themselves with beautiful ladies in pantyhose and tight orange shorts and not make one comment about the scenery.
The only sense of arousal comes well after the Hooters waitress delivers the second order of Buffalo wings, when the conversation turns briefly to Rob Leatham, the fifteen-time United States IPSC champion and four-time world champion.
"He's the best," confirms Hebert, swallowing his Miller Lite with a pang of jealousy. "He's the Tiger Woods of the sport."
The defensive shooting drill "Really Mad Dogs" plays on a common fear of the suburban homeowner. You're barbecuing in the backyard when six wild dogs hop the fence and make a beeline for your toddling son. You drop your meat tongs and lay waste to the beasts, firing two shots into each rabid mutt.
Brad Weston, a handsome, silver-haired general contractor from St. Charles, acknowledges to the range officer that he understands the course of fire and draws his pistol on the cardboard dogs. In less than fifteen seconds, the forty-eight-year-old empties two magazines and fires off twelve shots.
Eleven of the bullets tear through the dogs, the twelfth kicking up earth just shy of the belly of a beast. His pistol safely tucked away, Weston checks his scores and grimaces at his performance. The majority of his shots failed to land in the "A" section of the targets. He finds little consolation in the knowledge that in real life he would have undoubtedly killed the dogs.
"Yeah, they'd probably all be dead," he concedes. "But this is a game of precision, and I should have shot better."
Next up is a contestant whose pistol is all but invisible under many layers of clothing. When the range officer asks if the man has his gun on him, he haughtily fires back: "Have I got my gun on me?! I've always got my gun on me, except at work. They won't let me carry it -- the pricks."
The man's response draws laughter from everyone but Weston. He doesn't want the group to come off as a bunch of "gun nuts."
"We joke around out here on the range," he says. "But we're all very serious when it comes to wearing our firearms. We're all about safety."
Whether a competitive player or a weekend gunslinger, all action shooters toe a similar line. But when asked why they compete in the sport, rarely -- if ever -- does anyone reply: "Because it's safe."
The sport is a helluva good time, they say. Then, in the same breath, they utter a defense perfected by golfers the world over: What's wrong with spending a few hours a week competing with some buddies? The rifle range may not be as serene as a golf course, but here in the muddy backwoods, they've stumbled across camaraderie.
Such is the case with Jerry Mosher, who teams with his ex-father-in-law to design many of the defensive shooting courses at the Caseyville range.
"When my wife was leaving me, I told him I didn't want it to affect our relationship," Mosher admits sheepishly.
The two men meet every few weeks at Mosher's home in Troy, Illinois, where they draw new courses of fire for the Caseyville club's monthly defensive shooting match. Like many of the scenarios, Mosher lifts his ideas from the Internet.
"It's sort of like open-source coding," Mosher explains. "Everyone shares their ideas, and we're free to customize it as we see fit."
In addition to "Really Mad Dogs," other scenarios at a recent match include "ATM Revisited," in which shooters pretend they are being robbed at a cash machine. In "Stop, Rob and Attack," a lifeless and rusting Ford Festiva serves as a prop for a carjacking. At no time is the imagination of the shooter more paramount than in this scenario. The instructions for the course show the broken-down Festiva as a Ferrari Testarossa.
Mosher changes the scenarios from match to match. Occasionally he uses plastic tarps to drape off sections of the range so the shooter cannot see the course prior to competition. Still, he concedes, there is no way to mimic a true sneak attack.
"Ideally we want to throw off their ooda-loop (a shooting term meaning observe, orient, decide and act)," Mosher says. "Because in real life, you're forced to make quick decisions."
But for detractors of action shooting, little if anything about the sport is based in reality. These critics, such as the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, argue that action shooting plays right into the hands of the gun lobby.
"These games effectively sell the propaganda of fear, that everywhere you go you have be armed to the hilt," says Eric Howard, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign. "And if in your everyday living experiences -- from going to the store to mowing the lawn to running to the bank -- you have to always consider killing someone, well, I just don't see that as a very enriching way to live."
In Jefferson County, where the Arnold gun club is located, Sheriff Glenn Boyer sees action shooting as a potential benefit to the concealed-carry legislation passed by the Missouri Legislature in September 2003.
"Carrying a weapon can be a huge liability," says Boyer. "And I'll be quite honest: Since we have concealed-carry, I think it's good for people to go out and fire their weapon. If we're going to have some John Wayne shooting it up at a Wal-Mart, it would be a whole lot better if they knew what they were doing."
In his 39 years, Harvey Logan, known as "Kid Curry," built a reputation as a bank burglar, horse thief, train robber, hold-up artist and callous murderer.
One hundred years after his death, his legacy lives on in the pen of 63-year-old Larry Ripplinger, a retired ferryboat deck hand from Grafton.
As the resident scribe for the cowboy action group at the Arnold gun club, Ripplinger has written dozens of shooting scenarios over the years. Some, like the life of Kid Curry, he bases on real-life characters he's read about in Wild West magazine. Other scenarios develop from the fictional characters of Hollywood.
"I've probably written scripts off every John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Burt Lancaster movie ever made," confesses Ripplinger.
The popularity of "The Duke" among cowboy shooters is so universal that a common phrase used at matches around the world is "WWJWD?" -- "What Would John Wayne Do?"
"We grew up playing cowboys and Indians," says Bob Sieck, a retired police crime-scene investigator who serves as the match director for the Arnold club. "For us, this is a nostalgia trip. It takes us back to our childhood."
Sieck, who goes by the nom de guerre "Bounty Seeker," freely admits that, unlike other action-shooting sports, cowboy shooting has divorced itself from reality. "That's the whole point. This is pure fun and fantasy."
The cowboys compete in posses -- groups of eight to ten fellow shooters who move from prop to prop, staging gun battles. On this day they're re-enacting highlights of Kid Curry's fiendish career. There's the bank robbery, the jailbreak, the showdown with the sheriff. Each stage requires the shooters to blast away at steel targets with a rifle, a shotgun and a pistol. The sound of the soft lead bullets ricocheting off the steel target adds a laser-like ping to the explosions of gunpowder.
The participants will shoot as many as 150 rounds in the course of a few hours, a display of firepower Sieck confirms is much more than their heroes ever shot in the movies. Included in their arsenal are beautiful and rare Winchester rifles and Ruger Vaquero revolvers, the guns' polished steel shafts, burled walnut stocks and horned pistol grips gleaming in the afternoon sun.
As the shooters haul their weaponry around on custom-built wooden carts, a boom box hidden behind one of the props plays the soundtrack from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The lure can be mesmerizing, says 79-year-old Don Holdinghaus, a.k.a. "Old Man."
"You're making a big mistake," Holdinghaus warns a first-timer. "This sport's addictive."
Chief among the addicts are husband and wife team Bill and Ellie Hall, who go by the names of Railroad Bill and Ellie Oakley. A 41-year-old technical editor with frizzy brown hair and a dimpled smile, Ellie is dressed in a felt cowboy hat, brown leather boots and a holster. Fifty-year-old Bill wears an outfit that even a rodeo clown might find outrageous -- bright red shirt, boots embroidered with poker cards, a pair of black leather wrist cuffs, an ammo belt and sunglasses.
The couple attended their first cowboy shoot in 1997, and now they travel each weekend -- sometimes hundreds of miles -- to attend matches throughout Missouri and Illinois. Recently SASS named the Halls "regulators" and commissioned them to spread the gospel of the organization.
But even these stalwarts can't help a little candid self-reflection from time to time. Long after the members of their posse have packed their wagons and headed off to their minivans and SUVs, Bill and Ellie stand together in an empty ghost town. It is only then that they briefly ease the reins on the whole cowboy shtick.
"Yeah," says Bill. "It's hard to take yourself too seriously in this get-up."
It's in quiet moments such as these, when the smoke has finally lifted, that even the most ardent of action shooters expresses similar humility.
"Sure it's not reality," concedes Rick Hebert between rounds at Hooters. "Truth is, anytime it's me versus a dozen guys with guns, I'd be running away as fast as I can, shooting over my shoulder."