Between The Berms: Winter’s End

Mar 7, 2023

Back in 1991 they held the first ‘Winter Range’ Cowboy Action Shooting match at the Ben Avery Shooting Facility on the north side of Phoenix, and for 29 years it’s been one of the major events on the competition calendar for the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS).

When you come across a cowboy sitting on his bass fiddle, you know you’re in the right place to see some serious shooting, fancy duds and a whole lot of smiles. Photo by P. Erhardt

In 2021, Winter Range – one of the best names for a match and still how many refer to it – became SASS’s End of Trail, the World Championship of Cowboy Action Shooting and Wild Bunch Action Shooting. Of course, not a lot of shooting was done in 2021 as COVID managed to cancel several if not all large events around the country.

Large scale public events returned to Arizona in 2022 and End of Trail made its first official debut in the Grand Canyon State.

This past weekend Cowboy Action shooters from 44 states and six foreign countries returned to Ben Avery, logging 621,101 miles to get here – or the equivalent of traveling 24.9 times around the earth.

This is obviously a very popular match, and a very popular venue. There were 650 U.S. competitors and another 34 international shooters, representing Australia, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand and Norway, that came together to put close to a quarter million rounds down range over the course of the seven day event.

Arizona alone had 162 cowboys and cowgirls in the match, accounting for 25% of the U.S. shooters. But that should not be a surprise as Arizona is a Western state after all, and home to the famous city of Tombstone.

Among those participating in this massive celebration of cowboy culture were 44 vendors. For those that have attended major shooting championships, you know that this level of vendor participation is not the norm. Only the ATA’s Grand American, where they count competitors in the thousands, will you see such strong vendor participation like this.

Cowboy Action is by no means a minimalist sport when it comes to gear. Photo by P. Erhardt

End of Trail brings out the vendors because Cowboy Action Shooting is more than just a shooting sport, and a number of small businesses have emerged to support the sport.

Mixed in with the many vendors at End of Trail were the custom leather makers, dress makers and dress re-sellers, gunsmiths, a general store, and a custom brand maker for those that literally plan to put their irons in the fire.

Your gun go down? Need some trigger work? Or just have to put come air in your gun cart’s tire? No worries, because gunsmithing is just another part of the experience at End of Trail. Photo by P. Erhardt

Of course there were gun companies present. Ruger, which has a major manufacturing facility in Prescott, Arizona, is the dominant brand in Cowboy Action Shooting with something like 80 to 90 percent of competitors in the sport running Ruger single-action revolvers. And with Marlin now under Ruger, you can expect Ruger to dominate the lever guns in Cowboy Action in short order.

The other big names in the sport are F.Ili Pietta, Cimarron and Taylor’s & Company, which all had a presence along vendors’ row as they cater to shooters looking for their next period specific shooting iron.

The Taylor’s & Company tent was a popular spot with future customers perusing the wares. Photo by P. Erhardt

Why so much interest by vendors? Easy, it’s the dollars. Cowboy Action Shooting requires a whole lot more than a gun, a holster and a belt.

Cowboy Action Shooting is a giant costume party disguised as a shooting match. Or possibly the other way around. Regardless, competitors spend lots of money on their cowboy apparel. From hats all the way down to boots, they’ve openly shunned Waylon and Willie’s warning, “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”

And to complete the whole transformation to cowboy – or cowgirl – they take on aliases, like Holy Terror (a.k.a. Randi Rogers, SASS’s reigning ‘I can beat anybody’ multi-time champion) or Rattlesnake Slim.

Rattlesnake, who goes by Leo Horton outside of SASS, is s member of the Arizona Territorial Company of Rough Riders, which played host to End of Trail. Cowboy Action Shooting is a very social pastime where one makes many, many friends but might not know the legal names of those friends.

When I asked Rattlesnake how many of his friends in the sport he also knew by their given name and not just their SASS alias, he quickly admitted it was less than 20%. And that’s totally fine, and very common.

There was never a lack of smiling faces at this year’s End of Trail. A testament to the camaraderie one finds in this sport. Photo by P. Erhardt

Lots and lots of friendships are made out on the Cowboy Action ranges, and the strong bonds that develop reflect not just the cowboy aesthetic but the “cowboy way.” It’s no surprise why the sport appeals to so many, even picking up those entering the sport later in life.

Out at the range this past weekend were a number of older shooters, shooters that have the time and the money to travel across the country as part of this traveling cowboy shooter lifestyle. And they have the funds to fully take advantage of all the accoutrements that End of Trail’s 44 vendors offered.

Ben Avery hosts a lot of Cowboy Action matches and with their permanent range sets it’s no wonder that for over 30 years this facility has been so popular. Photo by P. Erhardt

When this cowboy roadshow heads your way, be sure to check it out. But bring your wallet, because Cowboy Action Shooting is easy to get excited about and there is no shortage of small businesses that support the discipline and can help you cowboy up with all the gear you’ll need.

In upcoming editions we’ll take a look at three of those small businesses that help make Cowboy Action Shooting what it is.

-- Paul Erhardt, Managing Editor, the Outdoor Wire Digital Network