Cowboy Action Shooting: ‘Call me Sundance Dan’

December 1, 1998 — When I moved to Gainesville, Ga. from Pennsylvania this fall, I expected the Deep South — not the Wild West.

Boy, was I wrong.

“You have one of the largest concentrations of cowboys in the world right here in Gainesville,” said Keith Miller, 26, of Lula, as he adjusted his large black Stetson with one hand and fidgeted with his black leather holster with the other, his two single-action pistols shimmering in the sun.

Miller is a cowboy — a Cherokee Cowboy — and he and hundreds like him call Gainesville home.

Hard to believe? Haven’t seen any cowboys strolling the streets lately?

Well, on the third Saturday of almost any month, saddle up your car or truck and mosey on down to 1700 Candler Road. A modest wooden sign reading “CGC” marks a dirt road that leads to the Cherokee Gun Club.

Tie up your automobile, wander further down the path and visit the Old West.

First you hear the “pow” of shotguns, the “pop” of pistols and — if everything goes according to plan — the “ping” of bullets hitting steel targets.

As you get closer, the smell of gun powder wafts your way.

Then you see them — more than 100 cowboys and cowgirls donning authentic late-1800s attire, right down to the last badge and bolo tie.

Welcome to the world of Cowboy Action Shooting, where men and women answer to names like San Quinton and Derringer Di and act out their wildest childhood fantasies.

“I’ve been a cowboy all my life, but a closet cowboy,” said Gainesville’s Charlie Craft, 57, also known as Cherokee Charlie. “We’ve had this cowboy stuff for years, we just had no place to shoot it. So we would dress up at home when there was no one around. Now we’re out of the closet.”

Cherokee Charlie is one of the three original Cherokee Cowboys who founded the group in 1994. Since then nearly 200 members have joined the club.

The monthly shootouts at the club regularly draw more than 100 shooters, some from as far away as Florida, Alabama and North Carolina.

The shootouts are a sight to see. Posses of cowboys and cowgirls, spurs-a-jangling, toting custom-made gun carts like golf bags from shooting pit to shooting pit.

On Memorial Day weekend, more than 400 shooters will flock to Gainesville for the fifth annual Shootout at Mule Camp, the second largest gathering of its kind in the world.

For my initiation into the world of Cowboy Action Shooting — the fastest growing gun sport in the world — Charlie rounded up a mean posse of club members: Miller (alias Prophet); Jim Reid (Robin T. Banks), 55, of Lula; Mike Gilliam (Hootowl), 50, of Alpharetta; and Steve Baxter (Harry Carey), 47, of Chamblee.

“We’ll meet you at the gun club,” Charlie said over the phone. “We’ll be wearing cowboy clothes. You can, too, if you want.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I threw out my last pair of chaps when I was seven.

I learned from the group that shooters perform “scenarios” that include assorted props and targets, verbal lines and, of course, a good bit of gunplay.

Contestants shoot firearms typical of those used in the Old West: single-action revolvers, lever-action rifles and double-barreled pump- or lever-action shotguns, all dated pre-1899.

Shooters are timed. Penalties are assessed for missing targets or failing to follow the scenario. It is as much a game of memory as of skill.

I quickly noticed, however, that for most cowboys it’s not how well you shoot that matters, it’s how much fun you have, and how good you look.

“When I first heard about it, I said I’ll go and buy a cowboy hat and maybe a pair of boots and jeans, but I’m not going to get into that dressing up stuff,” said Robin T. Banks, who hasn’t missed a Gainesville shoot since they began in February 1996. “Shoot, the dressing up is just as much fun as the shooting.”

For Charlie, at least, the dressing up may be more fun. He has closets — no, rooms — full of cowboy clothing, and claims to have never worn the same outfit twice in five years.

Before I actually got to shoot a gun — something I had never done before — I was prepped on the group’s strict safety precautions.

“I grew up around guns and have been shooting pretty much all my life,” said Hootowl. “This is the safest group of people that I’ve ever been around.”

Eye and ear protection is mandatory. The first sign that it’s 1998, not 1898.

After my safety lesson, I was ready to shoot my first gun, a .22 caliber Ruger, a single-action pistol.

I surprisingly hit the target on my first shot. And the soothing smell of gun smoke calmed any fears or doubts. I quickly became addicted.

I wanted to shoot all of the guns, and my hosts were more than happy to loan me theirs: a .44 Special Colt, a .44 Ruger, a .38 Ruger, a .45 Long Colt, a .22 Winchester rifle, a .45 Marlin rifle, a 20-gauge Stevens shotgun and a 12-gauge Stoeger shotgun.

I shot them all — and hit more targets than I missed.

“Call me Sundance Dan,” I said.

That was not the case when I shot three weeks later at the November shoot. I shot against the clock with a large crowd looking on. I already stuck out. I was the only one wearing post-1900 attire.

My legs were shaking — and I missed more targets than I hit.

But the gun smoke smells the same, hit or miss. I took in a deep breath and smiled.

“I believe y’all got him hooked now,” Robin T. Banks said.

He may be right.

Do something new and you are new.

How boring it is not to fire cowboy guns!

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