As the first child born to overprotective parents, I am naturally predisposed to approach life with caution. As such, I've always had a healthy respect (read: mild fear) for anything that can cause loss of life or limb. Chief among those agents of potential death and destruction—guns. (Cue eye rolls from all the native Central Oregonians who got their first firearm not long after learning to walk.)
So it should come as no surprise that this book-toting, vegetarian, one-time city slicker has come no closer to shooting—nay, touching—a firearm than a game of Nintendo Duck Hunt. That is, until this past weekend.
As part of my ongoing "I've Never" column, in which I explore the many outdoor adventures I've not yet had, and in the interest of further acclimating to my new home, I decided I should go shooting.
It's just after 9 am and already 85 degrees as I head east on Highway 20, past the Oregon Badlands and a taxidermy shop advertising "beetle-cleaned skulls." I am decked out in jeans and a long-sleeved plaid shirt and hiking boots. It's my closest approximation of the Pine Mountain Posse's dress code for men. The local Cowboy Action Shooting group also requires men to wear cowboy hats and boots, but I'm hoping they'll cut this newcomer some slack.
About 22 miles outside of Bend, near Millican, I turn off the highway and drive up to the Central Oregon Shooting Sports Association range. I sign in at an unmanned kiosk, leave the requested $5 for non-members (to cover insurance) and drive up to the range itself. To my right, there's a sea of RVs, trucks and tents—flying an array of flags: American, Confederate, Don't Tread on Me—and at least one Obama-Biden bumper sticker.
On the left, Old West shop and church fronts line the dusty range, and the pings of soft lead hitting steel ring out in rapid succession. I approach a woman wearing a long skirt and other old-fashioned attire observing the proceedings from the shade of a small shelter.
"I'm looking for Tetherow Tex LaRue," I shout. The required ear protection and the constant din of bullets hitting their mark makes conversation challenging.
"I think he's over at the other stage," she shouts back. To be sure, she approaches a man setting up his firearm at a nearby table. From the back, it seems, all cowboys look the same—especially behind a cloud of thick, black gun powder smoke.
I finally find Tex—not his real name, but the unique character name he's required to use on-range—at the next stage over, supervising the unloading of firearms. The Pine Mountain Posse is vigilant about safety, employing multiple spotters to ensure that all shots are fired and that the guns are cleared.
"I grew up on farms and ranches doing the whole cowboy thing, watching westerns," Tex tells me. "I found out about the club, came out on a Sunday morning and they let me shoot some guns and took me to lunch."
After that, he was hooked. Fast-forward four years and Tex is leading the PMP, drafting the scene-setting narrations for shooting stages, and donning what he says is authentic Old West attire. It's not the big belt buckle, big yoke style most people associate with cowboys. That look, he explains, comes from post 1920s western B movies. He points to a shooter known as the Stumptown Kid, a Portland member clad in all black. His hipster-like get-up, complete with dark-rimmed glasses, is specific to his style of shooting, Tex says.
"It's more entertainment than competition," Tex admits, "but there are some serious competitors."
And it is entertaining. Most Cowboy Action Shooting competitions are speed shootouts—after saying a line to let the timer know they're ready, like, "Lemme at 'em!" the shooter must fire shots at specific targets in a particular order with one or more of three guns—a rifle, pistol, and shotgun. Some stages are more complex, requiring specific gestures (like starting with both hands on the hat, or shooting while holding one's hat over the heart) and moving from windows to doors.
On this day, the Posse is on its second six stages of a two-day, 12-stage competition. As the group cleans up one stage, Whisperin' Wade lets me warm up the next one with a few shots.
"Have you ever handled a gun before?" he asks.
I tell him I haven't. I don't tell him that guns, and their power, scare me.
"Do you know how to look through the sights?"
I get the basic concept, I say. I don't mention that I get that much because I Googled "How to shoot a rifle" before leaving the house, and read a moderately informative article on a website called "The Art of Manliness" (from which I'd previously gleaned instructions on tying a bow tie).
I pull the rifle butt up toward my cheek, instinctively close one eye, and look through the sight to the metal target some 30 feet away through the façade's window. I take a deep breath, cock the rifle, and slowly squeeze the trigger.
Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping!
I unload all five bullets, hitting my target each time. After I lay down the rifle, I repeat with the pistol. Five more shots, all on target. I'm surprised with my performance. I've never been good at sports requiring aim—or, really, any sports.
Friends who are likewise wary of guns, but have shot them, say that the power they feel shooting one is sobering. Somehow, shooting with the PMP doesn't feel as heavy as I expect it to. Perhaps the costumery and play-acting blunt the seriousness of holding a firearm. Maybe I have a hard time taking the replicas, which look more like props than weapons to my uninitiated eye, seriously.
But Cowboy Action Shooting is no joke. The parent organization SASS (the Single Action Shooter Society) has member groups around the world and strict rules for participation. As for the members, they seem to take seriously the sport's catchphrase: "Come for the shooting, stay for the people." Constantly ribbing one another, it's clear the club is like a second family.
See the gang work out its differences in upcoming Wild West re-enactments in Sisters (August 23-24) and Redmond (August 30-31), or check out the competitive action at Oregon State Match "25th Annual Shootout at Saddle Butte" July 18-20. For more information, visit www.pinemountainposse.com.