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February 23, 2011   Email to Friend 

STRAIGHT SHOOTERS: Cowboy Mounted Shooting Clubs Go Gunning For Fun
By Darryal Ray

'Pulling the hammer back every time before pulling the trigger takes a lot of getting used to -- your hand gets tired and you can get behind real quick,' says Bandit member Michelle Cummings.
Some are Outlaws, Bandits, Renegades or Desperadoes. Others are Peacemakers, Rangers or Regulators. It may sound as if they are on opposite sides of the fence, but the truth is that truth, justice and the cowboy way rule in the world of cowboy mounted shooting competition.

"It's not so much about who wins as it is a lot of fun," Eddie Vanderslice, president of the Bama Bandits, is saying. "It's very Christian-oriented, it's for the family. We don't tolerate any drinking, no ugly language. It's not for everybody, but that's just the way it's going to be with us."

The Bandits, based out of Bruce Faust's Iron Horse Ranch in Wetumpka, is one of three clubs in Alabama that are part of what has been called the fastest-growing equine sport in America. The national organization, the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association, counts a membership of about 10,000.

Although only established in 2009 by Vanderslice and a handful of others, the Bandits club numbers about 60 members -- easily the most in the state -- and is still growing.

"It's growing about as fast as we can control it now," said Vanderslice, who owns a fabrication and machine shop in Bessemer. "Every time we put on a shoot in Wetumpka, we'll get three to five new members." It's easy to see why -- mounted shooting is a sport steeped in the romance of the Old West. Although the contestants shoot only black powder blanks, mounted shooting still offers a hefty dose of firepower and horsepower.

Often described as "barrel racing with guns," it's an event that -- except for the balloon targets and orange cones that mark the course -- looks like a scene out of Lonesome Dove or True Grit.

Competitors dressed in mid-1800s Old West outfits dash through a randomly selected course that consists of two sets of five balloons. A double, custom-made holster sits angled high above their waist, making it easier to draw the two .45 caliber pistols they carry. Riders charge across the starting line with one gun in hand, firing at the first set of five balloons. After the fifth shot, the rider holsters his first gun and draws the second as he begins a dash to the finish line, shooting the last five balloons along the way. The fastest -- and most accurate -- wins.

The crack of the gun, the smell of the black powder and the clouds of smoke that hang in the air above the arena are all part of the attraction for Shannon Andress, a regional 4-H Extension agent for Montgomery, Macon and Elmore counties.

"I'd been interested in mounted shooting for many years, but I didn't really have the courage to try it until about two years ago when I went to a shoot," says Andress. "I was just going as a spectator because cowboy mounted shooting events don't charge an admission fee - they're just happy to have anybody observe the sport. So the guy in charge saw me looking very longingly, leaning over the wall, and he said, 'Do you want to try this?' He was taking a chance, not knowing that I was a fairly experienced horse person. So, I did and fell in love with it."

Even so, it took her two years of competing before she sunk the $1,300 into her set of Ruger Vaqueros Montado, her weapon of choice, and another $250 into her custom holsters. "It takes awhile to know what equipment works best for you," she explained. "And in the cowboy mounted shooting world, people know this and they don't want you to go out and buy the wrong kind of gun that doesn't fit your hand or is the wrong length. They don't want you to get the wrong set of holsters that won't work for you. People here will beg you, 'Here, try my holsters!' or 'Try my gun!' or even 'Try my horse!’ That's how we hook people in cowboy mounted shooting."

Now a member of the Bandits' board of directors, Andress competes almost monthly with her husband, Allan and 11-year-old son, Sam, who competes in the under-12 Wrangler division where only cap guns are used.

"It's a sport for everybody," she said. "We have shooters of all ages. There's a lady in Florida in her mid- 80s, and she out-shoots everybody. Of course, she takes it at a slow lope but if you shoot clean -- shoot all 10 targets -- you're going to beat somebody who ran three times faster than you but missed one or two. So, it's not just about speed."

Andress became such a fan that she began recruiting new members like Michelle Cummings, a 20-yearold police dispatcher whom she met while posting flyers about the club at a local Western wear and tack store.

"I first saw mounted shooting at the Alabama Horse Fair in 2009 before the Bama Bandits club was ever started," says Cummings, who is attending Troy State University- Montgomery with hopes of becoming a state conservation officer. "I wasn't really sure how I was going to try it until I met Shannon. She told me all about the new club that was forming so as you can imagine I was very excited. When I tried it the first time that was it, I was addicted."

Cummings' first attempt at mounted shooting came in November 2009, and she began attending as many practices with the Bama Bandits as possible. "My first competition was March 2010," she recalled. "I was new at the sport and my horse was young and new to being ridden. So, needless to say, our first shoot didn't go very well."

"The hardest part about riding and shooting is the control of your horse," added Cummings, who was already familiar with handguns. "If you don't have good control, your focus is on the horse and not on shooting and learning how to shoot faster. Pulling the hammer back every time before pulling the trigger takes a lot of getting used to -- your hand gets tired and you can get behind real quick."

Cummings also emphasizes the value of a good horse. "My horse, Lakota, is still young and doesn't have a good handle on him yet," she said. "He doesn't mind the gunfire but he turns like a freight train. My other horse, Caricia, has a good handle on her, but the gunfire makes her nervous."

The gunfire doesn't bother Bandit member Ted Matyjasik, a helicopter instructor at Fort Rucker. "Probably the most difficult part of this is the horse," said Matyjasik. "Well, if you're not used to shooting guns, that can be difficult, too. But trying to get the horse settled in can be tough. Some horses can do it, some can't. Then it's a matter of you and the horse. You've got to figure out what his job is and what you're job is. Then, between the two, you try to coordinate the effort."

Vanderslice has coordinated the effort better than most. He's a "Level 4" competitor, the highest in Alabama and just two steps below the top echelon of shooters.

"I have to have five wins to move up to a Level 5 shooter and I lack one more," Vanderslice said. "You can only accomplish that by going to Tennessee and places like that where they've been shooting a lot longer because you have to have a minimum of five participants that are also in Level 4 in order to move up. So, I have to travel out of state to get my move up. But in time, all those Level 1's we have are going to move up, and we're going to develop a really good shooting club. Still, it's not so much about who wins as it is just a lot of fun."

For more information about the Bama Bandits and upcoming shooting events, visit BamaBandits.com and www.CowboyMountedShooting.com.

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