Purt’ near four dozen cowboys sauntered ’n spit and shot their guns on a Saturday morning that had the overcast skies of Johnny Reb gray.
Everyone wore wide-brimmed hats of different shapes, sizes and muted colors, though black was the most popular. All had leather boots and long-sleeved cowboy shirts of some variation. Some wore vintage suspenders; others, broad belts, with big buckles. A few wore chaps that flapped and spurs that jangled when they walked. And every man, woman and child had a pair of six-shooters holstered on each hip. The only ones across the 40 grass, gravel and wooded acres that weren’t packing were a few spectators and Cain, the chocolate-brown Weimaraner dog.
It was Horace Greeley, a New York City newspaperman, who, in 1865, suggested in an editorial that young men should go West. Nearly 150 years later, many of these cowboys heed that advice on the first Saturday of each month. In this instance, “west” is about 10 miles the other side of Warsaw, near Etna Green.
They come faithfully – rain or shine, snow or scorching – as members of Paradise Pass, a local chapter of the Single Action Shooting Society.
With an estimated 100,000 worldwide members – 85,000 in the United States – SASS events are a blend of timed target shooting competition, cowboy make-believe and camaraderie, without the swinging doors or honky-tonk piano of a smoky saloon. The most recent three-hour match concluded with cowboys sitting at picnic tables and washing down the day with a Diet Coke or Mountain Dew.
Because participants are dressed like cowboys, plus the outdoor landscape and rustic storefronts that serve as shooting stations, there is a distinct look and feel of the Old West. Cain, the “town” dog, even adds to the ambience.
“We get to dress funny and act funny, and nobody cares,” says the Indy Kid, but hardly a kid, with his long, gray whiskers.
Everyone must have an alias – a SASS requirement. And no two names are the same, since members must register them.
The Indy Kid is Bruce Shelley, who came to shoot with his wife, Kelly (aka Calamity Kelly). Both are from Indianapolis.
The owner of the Etna Green site built in 2005 with sponsorship money and volunteer labor is C.C. Top, aka Curt Ebersole.
There are others who roam these parts: Stroud, Rusty Finger, Singer, Dog Bite, Two-gun Dan, Li’l Sis, Short Term Emory, Michigan Slim.
But it is Korupt Karl, 67-year-old Karl Peterson, decked in a wide black hat, black shirt, chaps, boots and six-shooters, who begins the competition with a few announcements and assigning starting stations to competitors.
There are 13 stations on-site, but only five will be used this particular morning.
Behind each sponsored “storefront” are ample-spaced wooden porches with railings that face the woods. Using their own double-barrel 12-gauge shotguns, .38-caliber rifles and both pistols, each cowboy competitor will shoot at iron targets of varying shapes, sizes and distances. Close by is a cowboy who is the timer. And cowboy spotters, also on the porch, note the shooter’s accuracy. Each missed target is an additional five seconds.
After all five stations have been completed, each cowboy’s times are added, and the one with the fastest combined time is the day’s winner. The prize is bragging rights, nothing more.
“When (SASS) started the organization, that was one thing they tried to prevent,” Ebersole says. “They didn’t want it to turn into it being sponsored, and somebody’s trying to make a living directly from the matches.”
Even without a stopwatch, it’s easy to discern the accomplished shooter from the beginner by the rapidity of each shot and the “ding” of the bullet hitting the target.
And yes, they use live ammunition.
To the left of each station is a loading area, and to the right, an unloading area – in both, the shooter is supervised, regardless of his experience.
“We are anal about safety,” says Peterson, who serves as territorial governor. “If you do something extremely unsafe, you are disqualified from the match. If you do something like drop an unloaded gun, you’re disqualified from that stage, and your score doesn’t count.”
All participants and spectators are required to remain behind the shooting area. Glasses, whether protective or prescription, are mandatory. The provided yellow ear plugs are strongly suggested.
Even Cain, the brown dog, has ear muffs that he willingly wears.
At Station 4, Korupt Karl rips through four shotgun rounds, 10 rifle rounds and five shots each from both pistols.
“Twenty-five, eighty-nine,” the timer announces the seconds.
“Clean,” a spotter yells, indicating that there were no misses.
“Not bad for a one-eyed fat man,” Peterson says.
This is the eighth year of shooting for Peterson, who owns a roofing inspection business.
For Kaya, the 13-year-old daughter of Michigan Slim, it’s her first year.
She wears a red, long-sleeved Western blouse, and a long, black skirt that covers the top of her boots. Her long, dark hair is parted in the middle and she wears glasses.
Meek, with a soft voice, her real name is Emily Aurich, and she’s an eighth-grader at Jefferson Middle School. Because of school rules, she cannot talk about the club, or shooting, or guns of any kind.
“I love it,” she says of the club as she puts her rifle onto her gun cart. “I’m kind of a history freak. I love the Old West; I always have.”
And what do her friends think, when they can talk about it outside of school?
“They like it,” Aurich says. “A few of them want to come to a few matches.”
All of her friends?
“The boys are terrified of me,” she says, then smiles.
Go east, young men. Go east.