Coastal CowboysThe Panhandle Cowboys posse brings some of the Old West to Northwest Florida
By Kirsten L. Olsen
The Emerald Coast is frequented by tourists, military personnel and cowboys. Cowboys? Yep, partner. Pensacola is home to the Panhandle Cowboys posse, a chapter of the international Single Action Shooting Society.
The Panhandle Cowboys are a competitive shooting club that pays homage to the Old West through shooting skill, dress and attitude.
“I’m a cowboy at heart. I love to dress the part,” said Ben Glass, aka Newton Paxton (his cowboy name). Glass, of Pace, Fla., shoots with the club when he’s not busy as a Florida Highway Patrol trooper.
To shoot, competitors are required to adopt a persona from the latter part of the 19th century, of a Hollywood Western star, or of an appropriate character from Old West fiction. The participant must register his or her unique cowboy name with the international Single Action Shooting
Society organization, which has more than 60,000 members. Rob N. Rustler, Molina Bob, Mad Dane, the FloraBama Kid, Poncho Via, Mo M. Down, Rot Gut Ray and Sweetwater Sid are just a few of the characters who compete regularly at Pensacola matches. Many of the shooters know each other only by their cowboy names.
Once a shooter chooses a character, he or she must design a costume. Fred Hayles of Pace, aka Trail Scout, wears a fringed jacket because his persona is based on the men who protected wagon trains.
“I liked that character in all the movies,” he said.
Hayles is retired from the Air Force and said he likes shooting, but especially likes cowboy shooting because of “the people and the camaraderie. It is so much fun.”
Of course, regional weather plays into the design of a costume. Gerry Baughman, aka High Card, said his original goal was to dress like a gambler in a black outfit. However, the Florida heat prompted him to change his outfit to something cooler, featuring lighter colors. Many participants buy their gear from a number of Web sites that feature period clothing or from vendors who bring items to matches for sale.
Christopher Nussbaumer is a state trooper and firearms instructor based in Pensacola. At shooting matches, he’s known as New York Minute. He said he acquired his cowboy persona the first time he shot at a match.
“Everybody was teasing me about being a Yankee since I was from Syracuse, New York,” he said. “But the first time I shot, I was fast, so the nickname stuck.”
Nussbaumer said his goal is to increase his skill enough to compete in national matches.
Contestants must use firearms typical of those used in the Old West: single-action revolvers, pistol-caliber lever-action rifles and old-time shotguns. Contestants can fire smokeless powder or black powder. Many shooters also load their own ammunition. There are different classes of shooting – for instance, traditional, modern and gunfighter.
Each month’s competition features a different scenario. A recent match was based on the events of April 5, 1892, when Texas gunfighters laid siege to a cabin in Wyoming occupied by two men. One man was quickly killed, but the other held off the gunfighters for 12 hours. Each round usually begins with a saying from the Old West. One of November’s sayings to start the round was, “They’ll have to burn me out.”
Many shooters say they like the cowboy competitions because competitors have to focus on the basics of shooting. Nussbaumer said that in cowboy shooting, winning is not based on technology.
“There are some high-dollar guns out there, but nothing is high-tech. Replica-style guns are more fun,” he said.
Nussbaumer added that the guns in Single Action Shooting Society competitions aren’t modified. This isn’t the case in modern shooting competitions, where winning is, in part, based on the shooter having the latest innovation.
Of course, a gun is a deadly weapon, so safety is an important part of every Single Action Shooting Society match. There are strict protocols followed at matches for loading and unloading weapons, and there are observers at every station in the competition. Participants and observers also are required to wear eye and ear protection.
The emphasis on safety is why Alice Fleming, aka Lady Grace, said it is an ideal family sport. Fleming, of Pensacola, frequently shoots with her sons, 17-year-old Daniel “Sweaty Hand Dan” and 20-year-old Josh Henry “Joshua Henry” Fleming.
“They love to pick on me and say they are going to beat me. I play with it,” she said, adding that she and her sons also bond when they work together to reload their ammunition at home.
Fourteen-year-old twins John “Sudden John” and Stephen “Irish Clover Ten” McCadden of Foley, Ala., have been competing for about a year as junior shooters.
“I like the competitiveness,” John said. “We compete against each other.” He said the hardest part is “remembering the obstacles and remembering which order to shoot.”
Stephen said that being around so many adults is a challenge because “you try to keep up with them.”
The president of the Panhandle Cowboys is Sheldon Wade, aka the Panhandle Blackhawk Kid. He said the club has approximately 100 members and that about 30 compete a month. The group always has several new shooters.
“We have a lot of Navy people who shoot with us, so they are transient,” Wade said. “Military move along, but then more come back in. We have a few fresh faces all the time.”
The Pensacola club is also home to a Single Action Shooting Society territorial governor, Randy Pippin, aka the Navajo Kid. Pippin said that cowboy shooting has its share of competitive controversy. For instance, a current issue involves how much smoke should be generated by a black-powder round.
“There is a proposal for a minimum smoke level of 15 grains of black powder. More smoke can slow a shooter down because the smoke has to clear to see a target,” Pippin said. “At the highest levels of competition, there are allegations that people try to take advantage of that by shooting less powder or blending (smokeless and black) powder.”
There are no regulations on the gun carts that shooters use to move their weapons and supplies at the shoots. The Flemings’ gun cart is handmade from a tree that went down on their property. Another competitor uses a Westernized golf bag. Whatever conveyance a shooter uses is fine as long as it gets the job done.
Baughman, aka High Card, said that sometimes the most interesting part of the day can be getting to and from the match. He used to shy away from stopping anywhere while dressed in his cowboy garb.
“When I would stop for gas or a snack, I used to be embarrassed,” he said. “But now I enjoy people looking at (my outfit). They ask, ‘What are you supposed to be?’ I get to explain what (cowboy shooting) is,” he said. Invariably, strangers are surprised and fascinated to hear that there are cowboys roaming Florida’s Emerald Coast.
The Panhandle Cowboys meet 15 miles north of Pensacola on the second Sunday of each month at the Escambia River Muzzle Loaders Inc. range. To find out more, see http://cowboy6.com/sass/ or call the Panhandle Blackhawk Kid at (850) 432-1968. Observers are encouraged but must wear safety glasses, and it is strongly suggested that they wear ear protection.For more information on the Single Action Shooting Society, visit sassnet.com.