Once a month, a large group of armed men, and quite a few armed women, converge on a hilly area near Oak Ridge and start blasting away. Some coolly chew tobacco or smoke brown cheroots. Six-shooters blazing, they have it out.
There must be about 80 of them, judging by a count of the cowboy hats during the obligatory safety meeting that opens every match. They’re individualists—they all got up this morning with different ideas of what an authentic shootist looks like. Some look like they’re escapees from the set of Unforgiven or Silverado. A few might fit in better in Red River. Others look more like they’re from the chorus of a Roy Rogers musical. Some are in leather fringe, some in serapes, some in what looks like authentic 19th-century underwear. One fellow’s wearing his coin collection, a few dozen 1870s silver dollars on leather pants. It’s unclear whether any of it helps them shoot.
They wear an authentically wide variety of late-19th-century hats, from bowlers to Navajo hats, but mostly cowboy hats, multiple sizes, some of them 10-gallon style, some more efficient, maybe just a quart and a half. What they have in common is their weapons. They’re all pretty well armed, each with a shotgun, a lever-action rifle, and a couple of revolvers, and each has a couple hundred rounds of live ammunition. In design, at least, all the guns date to before 1890. The short-nosed .32 used to shoot President McKinley in 1901 would not be allowed. It’s too modern.
That’s one of the rules of the Smoky Mountain Shootist Society. It’s part of a national organization called the Single Action Shooting Society, which puts out a monthly journal called the Cowboy Chronicle, and has organized a specific and carefully defined discipline called Cowboy Action Shooting. There are about 700 clubs around the country, and Smoky Mountain is one of them.
You can compare it to a historical re-enactment, maybe, but there’s not any one event they’re re-enacting. And they’re shooting real bullets.
“In most cases, we don’t know their real names,” says Hombre sin Nombre—the Man Without a Name—of his rival shootists. One of the bosses of this peculiar posse, he’s the one with the most surprising accent, not exactly British, not exactly German. He acknowledges that he’s originally from South Africa. The scuttlebutt is he’s a retired vet-school professor.
Others are smilingly obscure about their civilian lives, but many are city professionals, who, once a month, come out here to cherish a few hours as a cowboy.
Except for the lush greenery at the fringes, the landscape of the Oak Ridge Sportsmen’s Association’s Action Pistol Range could be a Hollywood movie set depicting some hard-luck desert town. Along a rocky trail, discreetly hidden from each other, are five dummy buildings made to look like saloons and hotels and jails and barber shops—they’re called stages, and the shootists try out each one, firing at metal targets that mostly direct the projectiles downward. Some targets are shaped like tombstones.
All the stages require gunplay with multiple weapons. With the pistol shooting, some stages offer a table or belt option—you can keep the loaded guns on a table until you need them, or pull them from your person. At one stage, each shootist advances on foot into a sort of corral, shooting at multiple targets.
Each stage has different rules, and some have elaborate rituals. One, evoking the legend of Zorro, calls for each shootist to hold a sword in the air and proclaim an obscure proverb: “Sharp medicine is a sure cure for all diseases.” (Its relevance and meaning is obscure; it was what Sir Walter Raleigh said before he was beheaded.) Another calls for each shootist to pull an arrow out of his or her chest before picking up the guns. With each stage, there’s a lot of learning involved. It’s a sort of choreography—taking your cue, hitting your mark—as an audience of peers watches.
Most either maintain a poker face or laugh at their own mistakes, but after a less-than-perfect show, one younger man paces and grumbles. “I couldn’t get a grip on my pistols!” he says.
When they shoot—here’s something you don’t see in the movies—the spent cartridges fly upwards and come down in a rain, sometimes bouncing off the brims of their cowboy hats. Those broad brims are good for more than keeping the sun out. There are sometimes exclamations at a near-perfect display of shooting, but rarely applause.
Everyone’s required to wear eye and ear protection, a rule mostly followed. The sound of bullets hitting metal is often louder than the sound of gunpowder exploding. Occasionally, but not nearly as much as in the movies—maybe twice in a morning of shooting—you hear the ziiing! of a ricochet.
They’re pretty serious about safety: “Safety first, and have fun,” says Jerry DeLaurentis, aka Sam Buca, one of the organizers. They seem pretty serious about that—no loaded guns except at the firing line. The guns are pulled around on wheeled caddies, many of them homemade, some of them fancifully individualized. The Slim Reaper’s is shaped like a coffin. The caddies, the earplugs, and the hand-held electronic timer used to appraise each shootist are rare nods to any century after the 19th.
And there are frequent references to movies real cowboys never got to see. The name “Josey Wales” is overheard more than once. It turns out that Josey Wales is a style of shooting, with multiple pistols. It’s not fully approved by the parent organization.
And it happens every second Saturday, rain or shine, and new shootists are welcome, if they’ve got the right collection of weapons. It ends with an authentic cowboy lunch of beer, barbecue, and chili. A cowboy from California goes by the name Jackalope. He’s one of a few who has extensive experience with cowboy shooting in other parts of the country. He likes this club.
“This is the only place I’ve been where, if your equipment’s not working right, your rivals will loan you their guns,” he says.