LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Comic book fans have Comic-Con. Would-be knights have the Renaissance festival. And as Grant Gerlock of NET News in Nebraska discovered, cowboy wannabes also have a place to live out their fantasies.
GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: At this shooting range in central Nebraska, the sound of bullets hitting steel targets is ringing out on a cold fall morning. And a few things look out of place here. There's an old replica jail, a train depot and a hangman's gallows that could be from a Western movie backlot. And then when you ask people their names, you may get a funny answer.
CARALEE CLINE: Kurly May.
TRACY THORPE: Pit Mule.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Crooked Creek (laughter).
DAVE BREYFOGLE: My name is Grizzly Dave. My friends call me Grizz. You want to be my friend, don't you?
GERLOCK: Those are actually Caralee Cline of Plainville, Kan., Tracy Thorpe of Des Moines, Iowa, and Dave Breyfogle of Lewisville, Colo. This is cowboy action shooting - target shooting with historically accurate guns and costumes. While other weekend warriors may head for the golf course or hiking trail, this group is at home on the range.
DAVID SAYERS: When you strap on the holsters, and you've got all the other get-up to it, it's like you've forgotten all about the outside world at that moment.
GERLOCK: That's David Sayers, the Nebraska state coordinator of SASS, the Single Action Shooting Society. He says cowboy shooting competitions started in the 1980s in California. Now there are clubs in all 50 states. The national championship is in Phoenix each February, last year drawing nearly 800 competitors.
About 40 people are at this match. A few stand at a table, loading their guns. At each station, the cowboys take turns firing at targets about 10 yards away using pistols, a rifle and shotgun. The fastest time wins, but it's not just about speed. It's about looking good. Tracy Thorpe, aka Pit Mule, dresses for a costume category called classic cowboy.
THORPE: Today, I'm wearing garters, a vest, what they call braces, botas, which are leggings - not quite chaps - and a knife.
GERLOCK: Others wear badges and bandanas, belt buckles and spurs. And there's another dose of theater because in each round, the shooters play out a scene. This match is based on scenes from Jimmy Stewart movies. He was in lots of famous westerns like "Winchester '73," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: "Night Passage." Grant McLaine arrives at the abandoned mine.
GERLOCK: The stage leader sets up the round based on this 1957 movie about a railroad worker who's good with a gun. Dannette Ray from Boulder, Colo., stands in the depot. But before she starts firing, she recites a line from the big shootout at the end of the movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT PASSAGE")
JIMMY STEWART: (As Grant McLaine) All right. Now, you get back inside. I'll cover for you.
DANNETTE RAY: You get back inside. I'll cover for you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Stand by.
GERLOCK: Ray says it was her husband who first started shooting cowboy style, then her daughter.
RAY: And I waited a couple more years 'cause, you know, running with guns just scared me to death. Now it's a way of life. All our vacations are cowboy-related shootings. It's a hoot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Forty-five, five, five. And everybody says, one got away.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAYING HARMONICA)
GERLOCK: The winner of today's match gets a medal. Winning nationals gets you a trophy and belt buckle. But for many shooters like Tony Gauer, who goes by Gray Rat, it brings back fond memories.
TONY GAUER: People my age and older that grew up watching the Westerns on Saturday morning and go to the movies and all that - Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne and, of course, Jimmy Stewart.
GERLOCK: And for a day, they get to wear the clothes and shoot the guns of their childhood heroes.
For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.
WERTHEIMER: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and rural issues.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COWBOY HEAVEN")
ROY ROGERS: (Singing) I dreamed I was there in cowboy heaven. Oh, what a beautiful sight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.