Smokin' Guns at Rabbit Ridge
Cowboy action shooting finds a home in Byhalia, Mississippi
Story & Photos by Casey Hilder
A series of gunshots cracks the through the air, followed by the several plinks of a metal target and clinking of shell casings. A brief silence is ushered in with a cloud of black-powder gunsmoke and the chatter of a crowd of hundreds at Rabbit Ridge, a sprawling valley that became a shrine to all things Old West during May of this year. This is the annual shooting match for the Mississippi River Rangers, a SASS (Single Action Shooting Society) club.
A lot of the competition is structured around the eponymous Colt single action army, a six-shot revolver that saw soaring popularity in the Old West and a plethora of Hollywood films. However, rifles and shotguns also have a place in the shooting competition. “I’d say we’re looking at about 20 percent serious competitive shooters out here,” says “Tennessee Whiskey” a two-year SASS competition veteran and Jackson, Tennessee, native. “The rest of us are just out here to have a good time.”
Participants are judged for speed and accuracy with a variety of firearms across 10 “stages.”
“This is the 15th year of Rabbit Ridge,” says Jerry McDaniel, AKA “Sawyer,” a shooting school instructor and member of the North Alabama Regulators. “This particular club was started by Easy Lee and Casino Player, two well-known shooters in the area. I’ve never met a group so friendly. If I break a gun – which sometimes happens – you’ll find at least a dozen cowboys ready to lend you one.”
While Sawyer professes that he doesn’t participate for the thrill of the contest, there are those like “Sidekick,” a 31-year-old regional champion who has become a local legend in his own right, currently ranked fourth in the world for speed shooting. At this year’s competition, Sidekick put on a remarkable revolver show that saw five shots on five different targets in less than a second. “These young kids with their good eye sight, muscle coordination and reflexes, they can smoke this old man,” says Sawyer.
LOOKING THE PART
SASS tradition dictates that shooters adopt an alias and a costume or outfit appropriate to a name or profession in the Old West. Match proceedings are overseen by coordinator Susan Hatcher, known to fellow shooters as “Oglala Sue,” a motherly maven outfitted in full Old-West regalia who enforces safety and order in the raucous and smoky setting surrounding the contest. “Everybody’s got their own look, just like the old cowboys,” says Jim Hastings, event sponsor and owner of Hasting’s Holsters.“Whether it’s a certain look or a certain vest, a lot of what you see at these competitions is 100 percent custom made.”
Embroidered hat bands, chaps, 10-gallon hats and more are par for the course for participants. Pins and patches are proudly displayed on fringed vests, celebrating renowned shooters and icons like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. And of course, no outfit would be complete without a proper holster. “I make holsters and belts for the individuals personally,” says Hastings. “Whether it’s for a male or female. Sometimes it’s ornately done leather, sometimes it’s a simpler piece. It all depends on the cowboy.” And with a wide selection of custom leather craftsmanship including knife sheathes, gun belts, badge holders and bandoliers, the competitionprovides an ample avenue for local artisans to display their work. After all, lots of leather goes into making a cowboy look like a cowboy. “I had a guy ask me once ‘Are you a cowboy?’,” says Hastings. “I told him ‘Well, I want to look like one, not work like one.’”
OLD WEST, NEW WORLD
There’s a degree of theatrics applied to the yearly competition, with grandiose sets inspired by classic Western films and smoky ghost towns. The competition area is carefully crafted to resemble a dusty shantytown, complete with wooden storefronts that recall an older time or, perhaps, the set of an early Clint Eastwood movie. The day begins with a rousing session of Cowboy Church, an evangelical-meets-anachronism style sermon featuring sage wisdom from old cowboys and a unique method of praise to motivate participants. Cowboy Church sets the tone for the rest of theday, with cordial interactions and an accommodating air in place of a fierce, solitary competitive spirit.
A FAMILY TRADITION
Youngsters earn the respect of adults through sheer trigger skill. Competitors as young as 9 and as old as 90 have been known to try their hand at shooting, with many being trained by fathers and grandfathers and inducted with an elaborate “official Rabbit Ridge handshake.” “It’s a family-friendly sport you can find around these parts,” says Sawyer. “Kids here tend to earn the respect of adults and, regardless of age, are treated like equals.”