Buffy the cowboy glares at the closed door, his feet set apart, the bandolier round his belly loaded with red shot-shells. His ten-gallon is pulled down over his forehead, and his neckerchief is snugged up tight under a steel slide, which depicts a lewd act between two hogs.
It is morning, and the sun has not yet pierced the fog draped on the outskirts of Richmond. The ground is dew-darkened, with lighter scars of dry dust from boot scuffs.
“Come on out or I’ll shoot you out!” Buffy yells, but he doesn’t wait, just lifts his shotgun and shoots. The door swings open in a cloud of debris and he rushes through. He drops the shotgun, draws the iron on his left hip, pop pop pop pop pop, slams it back in its holster, pulls the piece on his right, pop pop pop pop pop. He grabs his rifle and squeezes off ten shots, swinging the lever, flinging out spent brass.
More cowboys follow him—Vesperado with the black hat, Ready-and-Able Annie with the baby-blue bandana, Leapin’ Otis with the purple silk vest— guns puffing smoke, littering the ground with empty shells.
Bang pop-pop-pop zip zing.
Some of the cowboys, though, don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Forrest Fire, red curls spilling out under his black gaucho’s hat, looks confused when his rifle jams and ejects an unfired shell. He starts to bend over after it, but Buffy stops him. “Don’t pick it up off the ground,” he says. Forrest Fire chambers another round and keeps shooting. Buffy watches, nods approval, and repositions his Oakley bifocals.
Rough-and-Ready Rob follows behind Forrest Fire, eyes groundward, grabbing up brass casings with a garbage picker and dropping them in a Folgers can attached to a dowel.
The Shanghai Kid steps up, eyeing the door from under his wide-brimmed black hat. “Come on out or I’m blasting my way in!” he shouts.
“I say that to my wife in the bathroom all the time,” Buffy says.
Boom! The door swings open.
There’s something awkward about seeing a cowboy emerge from a minivan, watching him send a text message, hearing him complain about traffic. The men (and few women) who play cowboy at the Richmond Rod and Gun Club don’t fit with the popular image of the gun nut.
One incongruous moment after another, cowboy shooting is not slick, like the crew-cut, law-enforcement guys who meticulously measure the distance between bullet holes they shoot in human-silhouette targets. It isn’t 1950s-Rockwell-pleasantly-staid, like the flannel elders who lounge around the trap-and-skeet shack down the road. Nor is it stereotypical, like the camo cadre propped up against the clubhouse bar, swigging domestic pints and guffawing at racist jokes.
The hats, the nicknames, the old guns—the whole thing is a little dorky. But cowboy shooting, with no solid connection to either self-defense or hunting, is also unique among the shooting sports in its purity of purpose.
“I do it because it’s fun,” says Gunslinger Grandma. The outfits were a little hard to get used to at first, she says, but she enjoys the shooting.
Cowboy shooters, or the Single Action Shooting Society, as they are officially monikered, are part of one of the fastest-growing shooting sports in a country of gun lovers.
According to the Small Arms Survey, a monitoring center in Geneva, Switzerland, Americans own roughly 300 million guns, or a little less than one gun for every child, woman and man—the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world.
That’s too many guns, say advocates of gun control, pointing to the roughly 10,000 Americans murdered with firearms every year. Gun rights advocates, meanwhile, retort that Americans have a founder-given right to own guns, enshrined irrevocably in the 2nd Amendment. Guns aren’t the problem, goes the refrain—it’s the people who use them.
But while the debate plays out in real time less than two miles away in notoriously violent North Richmond, the cowboys at the Richmond Rod and Gun Club—whooping at good shots, ribbing each other over their costumes—hint at a more basic reason for the popularity of guns in America: They’re fun.
Like an old car and a Roman candle rolled into one, guns are a hobbyist’s dream. They’re collectable and endlessly customizable, fit for tinkerers, pyros, and sporting types alike. The objections to guns are learned, based on moral and intellectual arguments, but the physical appeal is natural, childlike in its simplicity—pull a trigger over here, and something happens over there.
The first cowboys appear before 8:30 a.m., pushing wooden carts. Most of the carts are two-wheeled, with a gun rack on the back and an ammo box on the front, stickered and hung with flair. The carts are a measure of cowboy swag, but aren’t mandatory. One cowboy rolled up with his guns loaded in a baby stroller.
They congregate in small packs by a set of wooden bleachers in front of two khaki-painted buildings, discussing their guns—“If I ever went postal I’d use my cowboy gun, because I’m faster with it,” says Jerry James—and their cowboy names.
“I like being mistaken for a girl,” Buffy says.
“Normally he has the assless chaps,” James says.
About 25 cowboys have assembled by 9 a.m. Buffy scales the bleachers and calls for attention. He and another cowboy announce the winners from the last match, and pass out ribbons—with which to decorate carts—and read through a list of names, dividing the cowboys into two posses.
“Let’s say the pledge,” Buffy says, and the cowboys turn toward a flag hanging from one of the beige buildings and doff their hats.
I pledge allegiance
To the Flag
Of the United States of America,
And to the Republic
For which it stands,
One Nation under God,
With liberty and justice for all.
“Yeehaw!” they yelp. The posses divide, trundling their carts over the gravel to the first challenge.
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
When the 2nd Amendment was written, Americans had a closer relationship with firearms than they do today. In the Republic’s early days most states required that able-bodied men own guns and be ready to quash insurrections, fend off invaders and otherwise keep it real in America’s then-untamed wilds. Farm kids, as most kids were back then, grew up around guns, shooting for food and for fun.
Even after decades of decline, the rate of murders by firearms in modern America is still high, at around 3 murders annually per 100,000 people, compared to most developed countries, like Denmark, where the rate is around one person per 300,000 people, but low compared to many countries in the Third World, like Jamaica, where the rate is nearly 40 per 100,000, and Honduras, where the rate is almost 70 per 100,000.
The gun control debate weighs violence prevention against individual rights, says Adam Winkler; fun has no part in that debate. Nonetheless, he says, understanding the fun of guns is part of understanding why people own guns. Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, and author of Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, says that people who like guns understand something that people against guns just don’t get.
“Gun control advocates ask, ‘Why does anyone need this particular kind of gun, like an AR-15 (an assault rifle similar to the one used by the U.S. military)?” Winkler says. “The reason people like an AR-15 is because it’s fun to shoot.”
Shooting a firearm, he says, triggers the same chemicals in the brain as riding a roller coaster—endorphins and adrenaline. “I was out at the range two weeks ago, shooting an AR-15,” he says. “It was a lot of fun.”
There are a lot of things that are fun, though, that are also illegal. “We don’t let people drive 150 miles per hour just because it’s fun,” he says. “Some people like to watch videos of people crushing animals.”—also illegal.
For that reason, hobbyists don’t have a real role to play in the debate over gun control, he says. “When you see twelve people die in a movie theater, it’s not a very satisfying answer to say, ‘Oh, they’re really fun to shoot.’”
The debate is only balanced then, he says, if the dangers of guns are weighed not against their value as a hobby but against their value for self-defense. Still, he says, “By leaving hobbyists out of the debate, we miss a large reason why people enjoy firearms.”
As hunting declines—the Fish and Wildlife Service sold just 12.5 million hunting licenses in 2006, down from 44 million in 1977 (the first and last years for which data is available)—recreational shooting could be the biggest reason Americans still love guns.
“If you were to say, ‘What happens to the majority of bullets that are discharged in the United States each year?’ my guess is that more than 90 percent of all the ammunition actually discharged is discharged through a recreational form,” says Dr. Franklin Zimring, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, and an expert on violent crime. “The overwhelming majority.”
Shooting for fun, or plinking, as he calls it, “is a sheerly expressive, recreational use of firearms,” he says. “Plinking in costume is a somewhat rarer event.”
Buffy came from Buff, Tom Frenkel says, and that nickname wasn’t really of his choosing. At a national rifle match years ago he was paired with a guy, he says, of above-average dimensions. “Six-foot-five, 350 pounds.”
“‘My name is Buddy Brown, but everybody calls me Buff,’” his partner told him. “You may ask yourself, ‘What do Buff mean?’ It means Big Ugly Fat Fucker, and that is certainly what I am.”
Later, Frenkel told a friend about Buff. After that, his friend started calling him Buff. “I didn’t like it for the first six months, but I couldn’t get rid of it.” Frenkel shrugs. “May as well embrace it.”
Frenkel, 72, leans against the back wall in his San Francisco bar, Bloom’s Saloon. It’s the bar’s 30th anniversary, and the place is packed. The crowd is mostly older, 50s on up, lots of Hawaiian shirts, with a sprinkling of younger, trendy types.
The TV above the bar is set to the Oakland-Tampa Bay game, though at the moment it’s bellowing out ads for laugh-track sitcoms. The place is lousy with Giants and 49ers schwag. Frenkel is wearing a black Raiders jersey.
“Most people around here are SF fans, so I wear Raiders gear to irritate them,” he says.
Frenkel, who has a law degree, and his friends Tom Hargedon, a lawyer, and Alvin Warwas, an aeronautical engineer, started their other bar, Finnegan’s Wake, in the mid-1970s, and then Bloom’s Saloon a few years later. The James Joyce references are because Hargedon is Irish Catholic and the names sounded cool, Frenkel says. “Hargedon named them both,” he says, “and nobody’s ever made it through Ulysses.”
Warwas, wearing one of the Hawaiian shirts, leans in and mumbles, “I came up with the name for Bloom’s, and I’ve read Ulysses twice.”
Owning a bar isn’t a bad gig, Frenkel says, looking around. And he has enough time for his hobbies. “Shooting and sports, that’s all I care about,” he says. “And eating.”
He used to play basketball, racquetball, used to run before multiple knee surgeries slowed him down. But he still shoots regularly, and has been for more than 60 years.
He’s not a hunter—“Hunting combined the worst aspects of camping and shooting to me, slogging through the muck and rarely shooting”—and he’s not particularly worried about getting attacked—“I like having the skills if I need them, but I’m not a paranoid person.”
The first time he shot was at a summer camp in northern Minnesota in 1951, when he was 11. “It was a Remington 511, single-shot bolt-action rifle,” he says. “A .22.”
His dad wasn’t into guns, and his mom disliked them, but young Frenkel, aficionado of TV Westerns, thought they were great. “I liked it from go,” he says.
For him, it’s always been about having fun. He likes shooting fast, in sports like action pistol shooting (the aforementioned crew-cut law enforcement dudes), and more recently, cowboy shooting, he says. “There’s always the allure of trying to go faster.”
A young woman with a bald baby in her arms walks into the bar. Frenkel smiles at the woman, then leans over and taps the baby on the shoulder. “Can I see your ID please?” he says.
Frenkel is typical of gun owners in America, says Ladd Everitt, director of communication at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, in Washington D.C. You wouldn’t know it from the pro-gun voices in the current debate, though, he says.
“If you look at the cover of a gun magazine today, you’re going to see one of two things: Compact guns for concealed carry, or assault rifles.” They cater to what he calls “self-defense freaks, extremely paranoid people, emboldened by the stand-your-ground laws,” and “hardcore insurrectionists.” Insurrectionists, or people who Everitt says believe they need to arm themselves against the government, in particular are the dominant voice in the pro-gun side of the debate, he says.
“They believe they have an individual right to check government by force of arms,” he says. Insurrectionists are a vocal fringe group, he says, not at all representative of most gun owners. “From everything I’ve seen working 12 years here, there’s a very clear discrepancy between Average Joe Gun Owner,” he says. “He’s not stockpiling guns and fantasizing about shooting a cop.”
Jacqueline Otto, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, agrees that insurrectionists aren’t representative of gun owners as a group, although she says calling them the dominant voice for gun rights is farfetched.
“I haven’t seen any evidence of that,” she says. “That’s not the average gun owner, the average person who shoots firearms.”
Bearing in mind that most NRA members, and gun owners in general are either hunters or sportsmen and not crazies, people have a right to have assault rifles like AR-15s, she says, regardless of whether or not they really need them. “It’s the Bill of Rights, not the Bill of Needs,” she says. “Just because it’s someone’s opinion that someone doesn’t need it isn’t a legally viable reason to ban them.”
A recent poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that the majority of NRA members and gun owners are in favor of gun safety regulations such as requiring background checks for anyone purchasing a firearm, and stricter rules regarding who is allowed to have a concealed carry permit. It’s the fringe groups that keep common-sense gun safety laws from being passed, says Everitt.
The truth, says Adam Winkler, the UCLA law professor, is probably somewhere in the middle. “I think the gun movement is a very diverse lot. There are certainly insurrectionists in the gun rights movement, but I don’t think they’ve taken [it] over.”
While the number of guns in America has climbed steeply in the last decade, the number of households that report owning a gun has fallen steadily since the 1960s, according to Gallup polling. Even though fewer Americans personally own guns, the gun control debate is here to stay, Winkler says. “People are not losing their fascination with guns.” In 25, 50, 100 years, he predicts, “We’ll still be trying to find solutions to gun violence, and always trying to reduce criminal access to guns.”
Guns, he says, whether for self-defense or hunting or sport, will always be controversial, because they are an inherently violent instrument. “They’re not designed to be placed on a mantelpiece, they’re designed to shoot a projectile at an incredibly high rate,” he says. They’re designed for one thing, he says—to kill. There’s always a person behind the weapon though, directing its use, he says. “I don’t think guns cause people to be violent.”
The first thing to know about cowboy shooting is the rules. For a sport meant to emulate the Wild West, there are an awful lot of them. Spirit of the Game, simply put, is just a fancy getup for Be a Good Sport (Single Action Shooting Society Handbook, pg 1). Selecting an alias is more complicated: “Ranger” could become “Texas Ranger” but not “The Ranger.” “John Henry Chisum” could be modified to “Jack Chisum” but not “John H. Chisum” or “Jon Henry Chisum.” (SASS Handbook, pg 2, bulletpoint 5).
Pages 3 through 17 dictate what sorts of firearms are allowed. Briefly, cowboys can only use guns designed before the beginning of the 20th century. Modern replicas are fine, although the old guns are obviously cooler.
While T-shirts are strictly outlawed, “Long sleeved [sic] Henley type shirts with buttons are acceptable” (SASS Handbook, page 24). Designer jeans are banned, as are “Nylon, plastic, or Velcro accouterments.”
The cowboys, devoid of Velcro, circle up around the first challenge—five metal plates arranged in a diamond, and four spring-loaded shotgun targets, all around 25 feet away. The procedure, says a cowboy with a cardboard rulesheet, is to first shoot the rifle 10 times, hitting the four outside plates in a counterclockwise direction, then the center plate, then the outside plates clockwise, then the center plate, then the same thing in reverse with the first pistol, then reversed again with the second pistol, finally using the shotgun to blast the hell out of the four spring-loaded targets to the right—or something like that.
“Remembering the order is part of the challenge,” says the Shanghai Kid.
“Everybody got that?” says the cowboy with the rulesheet.
They reckon they do.
The other part of the challenge, the biggest part, is shooting fast. With the targets only a few paces away, the sport is less about accuracy than speed. While missing the target incurs a time penalty, for the fastest cowboy shooters, the ones these cowboys talk about in reverent tones (try “Fastest Cowboy Action Shooter” on YouTube), a fast time is all about the transitions—putting down the rifle, drawing and re-holstering the pistols, loading the shotgun.
The rule-reader reads off the shooting order, and the first shooters head to the loading table. They set their rifles and pistols down on the carpet-covered table, guns facing out and away for safety.
As in all shooting sports, safety is paramount. The cowboys put one bullet in their revolvers, skip a spot, then chamber four more, spinning the cylinder to leave the firing spot empty. They load 10 shots in their rifles, which can’t be fired without working the lever. Shotguns are left unloaded with the action open.
Then the fun starts. The first shooter stands in a metal square, rifle held vertical in front at arms’ length. His pistols are holstered, and the shotgun is propped against a wooden stand.
“Ready?” says the timekeeper, who has a recorder that registers the first and last shots fired.
The shooter nods.
Firing a .38 into a metal plate 25 feet away is like dropping a watermelon from the third story balcony. It’s like splitting a log, like throwing a rock in a still pond, like watching a freight train squash a penny. It’s a loud noise, a shove on the shoulder, a puff of tangy smoke—a joyful destruction.
The lead splinters on the steel plates and spits into the dust below, rains down softly on hats and hands and faces. The cowboys go silent and watch.
The shooter racks the shotgun, the last shell flies out in the dirt, and it’s over.
The Shanghai Kid had caught a striped bass, he says, and his friend was beating it on the head with a club. “I yelled, ‘Don’t hurt it!’ He looked at me, like, ‘What?’” The Kid, whose real name is Holland Ja, smiles at the recollection and shrugs. “’Oh, okay,’ I said. ‘Put it out of its misery.’”
Ja, a retired engineer, keeps a gun by his bed. “If it ever came to defending myself or defending my family, you don’t want to mess with me,” he says. “But I have a soft heart for animals.”
He’s having dinner with his wife Hilarie Connolly in their San Francisco home—fried chicken, salad with pears and blue cheese, noodles, white wine for Connolly and water for Ja—and explaining the way he teaches his nieces and nephews from the East Coast how to shoot.
The first half of the day is all coaching. They learn the three rules—always assume a gun is loaded, never point it at anyone, and never put a finger on the trigger until it’s time to shoot—how to use the safety, how to hold and aim the gun, how to load and unload it.
When they first shoot, it’s with a .22 rolling block rifle with a fixed sight, Ja says, then an Anschutz .22 with a scope. Then they shoot a centerfire six millimeter, a real rifle that makes the .22s feel like popguns. “There’s nothing like the first jolt of a centerfire rifle,” Ja says. “They feel the kick and they feel the power and they have respect for the power.”
Without exception, the kids love it, he says, and their parents often want to go shooting too when they hear about the fun. “Bob’s son,” he says, an aside to his wife.
“Grant?” Connolly says. “He wants to go? Wimpy Grant?”
“The point is,” Ja says, “Because they know me as a responsible person-“
“-this is a safe avenue for them to learn. It’s not all danger.”
Ja was 18, he says, working nights at the gas station on Seventh and Howard, when one evening his supervisor asked him if he wanted to go to the shooting range. “I didn’t know anything about guns, other than I thought they were dangerous,” Ja says.
Like his nieces and nephews, Ja was hooked, especially with rifles and target shooting. “It was the art of marksmanship,” he says, “trying to hit a piece of paper 100 yards away and put five shots in the space of a dime.”
Ja leads the way downstairs, past the motorcycle in the garage and the wine cellar and the underwater hockey awards (he’s a founding father of the little-known sport, he says) and into a cinderblock basement, where he has his workbench.
His red bullet reloader, bolted to the wooden bench, looks a little like a microscope—a clear cylinder on top, a rotating plate on the bottom, and a long lever like a shifter on an old tractor hanging off the edge at hand-level.
Ja tips out a box of primers, loads them in a tube, and feeds them from the tube into a stainless hopper on one side of the machine. He pours gunpowder into the silo on top of the machine, and sticks an empty shell in the first slot at the bottom of the machine.
With his right hand he rocks the lever forward to set the primer, rocks it back, and the shell rotates. He rocks the handle again to widen the top of the shell—rotate—then again to crimp it a little—rotate—again to pour in a pre-set dose of gunpowder—rotate—a pin drops into the shell to check the amount of powder—rotate—he places the lead slug on top of the shell, and rocks the lever—rotate—the finished bullet drops into a plastic bin.
He sticks it in an ammo box. He can load 300 bullets in an hour, easy, he says. A box of .38s for cowboy shooting costs about $22. Reloading the same box only costs him $7, he says. It sounds boring, the same thing over and over, but he enjoys it. “I’m good at it so I enjoy doing it,” he says. “It’s peaceful.”
Shooting is just a hobby, he says, like any other hobby, but one that he would sorely miss. It’s important to him to pass on the respect for firearms and the fun they bring.
“If I don’t do it, if I don’t expose other people,” Ja trails off. “You go to the range and all you see is old people. I was lucky enough that someone turned me on to it.” He pauses again. If it weren’t for the night manager, his path would have been different, and might never have intersected with guns, he says. “How long would it have been, if at all?”
It is high noon. The fog has cooked away, revealing a cloudless sky. The sharp rifle cracks and shotgun roars have lost their edge. The cowboys are on the sixth and final stage of the match. The procedure for this one, says the cardboard-carrying cowboy, is to shoot the two large, adjacent plates, 10 times back-and-forth with the rifle, then 10 times back-and-forth with the pistols. Finally, he says, you have to shotgun the snakes.
The “snakes” are short pieces of hose, and the ground beneath the plates is crawling with them. In this stage, shooting the rifle and pistols are mere foreplay: The moment of glory is blasting the rubber reptiles, seeing them fly end-over-end in the sand.
“Snakes!” shouts Vesperado, between shooters. “Downrange!” He and two other cowboys trot forward and gather the scattered serpents for the next shooter.
The last cowboy is up. He shoots at the plates and smokes the snakes. The match is over.
“I had so many misses today,” Crabby says, sounding almost happy about it.
“They’re just fun days,” says Sourdough Stu.
The cowboys drift into the Richmond Rod and Gun clubhouse bar, a dim room stuffed with grimacing dead animals and sassy signs (WARNING: This Sign Has Sharp Edges), where a stein-full of Miller is $1; a hotdog is $2. Beered and hotdogged, they sit down along two folding tables in the clubhouse’s main hall. Some of the cowboys have set aside their hats and button-ups, revealing screen-printed T-shirts.
Munching on his hotdog, Vesperado looks at Killer and his son, Forrest Fire, and asks, “So you guys want to shoot a round or two of trap, or are you ready to head home?” Killer is in; Forrest Fire looks doubtful. “Baaaawk,” Vesperado says. “Baaawk bawk bawk bawk.” Killer laughs. Forrest Fire gives a wan smile.
Vesperado finishes his hotdog. It’s had a sedative effect. He wouldn’t mind going home and taking a nap, he says. Killer says he doesn’t care either way. “I could shoot a round or two,” Forrest Fire says.
Outside, Buffy loads his guns and gear into the trunk of his Lexus sedan. He pulls off the neckerchief and the slide with the screwing pigs, and folds up his cowboy cart. There’s a Niners game on, and he needs to get to Blooms, he says. “I have a moral obligation to go get drunk.”
The cart goes in the back seat, and he climbs in the front. He starts the car, turns it around, and stops to talk out the window with another cowboy for a minute. Then Tom Frenkel takes off his hat and rides away from the Rod and Gun Club, wheels dragging a cloud of dust.