Off and Gunnin'

Action shooting clubs are a blast all over the Midwest. Lock and load, baby!

The two men meet every few weeks at Mosher's home in Troy, Illinois, where they draw new courses of fire for the Caseyville club's monthly defensive shooting match. Like many of the scenarios, Mosher lifts his ideas from the Internet.

"It's sort of like open-source coding," Mosher explains. "Everyone shares their ideas, and we're free to customize it as we see fit."

In addition to "Really Mad Dogs," other scenarios at a recent match include "ATM Revisited," in which shooters pretend they are being robbed at a cash machine. In "Stop, Rob and Attack," a lifeless and rusting Ford Festiva serves as a prop for a carjacking. At no time is the imagination of the shooter more paramount than in this scenario. The instructions for the course show the broken-down Festiva as a Ferrari Testarossa.

Behind that dimpled smile, Ellie Oakley is a free-
wheelin' gunslinger.
Jennifer Silverberg
Behind that dimpled smile, Ellie Oakley is a free- wheelin' gunslinger.
Behind that dimpled smile, Ellie Oakley is a free-
wheelin' gunslinger.
Jennifer Silverberg
Behind that dimpled smile, Ellie Oakley is a free- wheelin' gunslinger.

Mosher changes the scenarios from match to match. Occasionally he uses plastic tarps to drape off sections of the range so the shooter cannot see the course prior to competition. Still, he concedes, there is no way to mimic a true sneak attack.

"Ideally we want to throw off their ooda-loop (a shooting term meaning observe, orient, decide and act)," Mosher says. "Because in real life, you're forced to make quick decisions."

But for detractors of action shooting, little if anything about the sport is based in reality. These critics, such as the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, argue that action shooting plays right into the hands of the gun lobby.

"These games effectively sell the propaganda of fear, that everywhere you go you have be armed to the hilt," says Eric Howard, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign. "And if in your everyday living experiences -- from going to the store to mowing the lawn to running to the bank -- you have to always consider killing someone, well, I just don't see that as a very enriching way to live."

In Jefferson County, where the Arnold gun club is located, Sheriff Glenn Boyer sees action shooting as a potential benefit to the concealed-carry legislation passed by the Missouri Legislature in September 2003.

"Carrying a weapon can be a huge liability," says Boyer. "And I'll be quite honest: Since we have concealed-carry, I think it's good for people to go out and fire their weapon. If we're going to have some John Wayne shooting it up at a Wal-Mart, it would be a whole lot better if they knew what they were doing."

In his 39 years, Harvey Logan, known as "Kid Curry," built a reputation as a bank burglar, horse thief, train robber, hold-up artist and callous murderer.

One hundred years after his death, his legacy lives on in the pen of 63-year-old Larry Ripplinger, a retired ferryboat deck hand from Grafton.

As the resident scribe for the cowboy action group at the Arnold gun club, Ripplinger has written dozens of shooting scenarios over the years. Some, like the life of Kid Curry, he bases on real-life characters he's read about in Wild West magazine. Other scenarios develop from the fictional characters of Hollywood.

"I've probably written scripts off every John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Burt Lancaster movie ever made," confesses Ripplinger.

The popularity of "The Duke" among cowboy shooters is so universal that a common phrase used at matches around the world is "WWJWD?" -- "What Would John Wayne Do?"

"We grew up playing cowboys and Indians," says Bob Sieck, a retired police crime-scene investigator who serves as the match director for the Arnold club. "For us, this is a nostalgia trip. It takes us back to our childhood."

Sieck, who goes by the nom de guerre "Bounty Seeker," freely admits that, unlike other action-shooting sports, cowboy shooting has divorced itself from reality. "That's the whole point. This is pure fun and fantasy."

The cowboys compete in posses -- groups of eight to ten fellow shooters who move from prop to prop, staging gun battles. On this day they're re-enacting highlights of Kid Curry's fiendish career. There's the bank robbery, the jailbreak, the showdown with the sheriff. Each stage requires the shooters to blast away at steel targets with a rifle, a shotgun and a pistol. The sound of the soft lead bullets ricocheting off the steel target adds a laser-like ping to the explosions of gunpowder.

The participants will shoot as many as 150 rounds in the course of a few hours, a display of firepower Sieck confirms is much more than their heroes ever shot in the movies. Included in their arsenal are beautiful and rare Winchester rifles and Ruger Vaquero revolvers, the guns' polished steel shafts, burled walnut stocks and horned pistol grips gleaming in the afternoon sun.

As the shooters haul their weaponry around on custom-built wooden carts, a boom box hidden behind one of the props plays the soundtrack from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The lure can be mesmerizing, says 79-year-old Don Holdinghaus, a.k.a. "Old Man."

"You're making a big mistake," Holdinghaus warns a first-timer. "This sport's addictive."

Chief among the addicts are husband and wife team Bill and Ellie Hall, who go by the names of Railroad Bill and Ellie Oakley. A 41-year-old technical editor with frizzy brown hair and a dimpled smile, Ellie is dressed in a felt cowboy hat, brown leather boots and a holster. Fifty-year-old Bill wears an outfit that even a rodeo clown might find outrageous -- bright red shirt, boots embroidered with poker cards, a pair of black leather wrist cuffs, an ammo belt and sunglasses.

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