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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.
React!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.
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