Interesting in cowboy action shooting? Visit the Single Action Shooting Society’s Web site at www.sassnet.com. For more information about the River Bend Gun Club, go to www.rbgc.org.
While he works on race car engines at his Silver City business during the week, on the weekends Johnny Thomas takes on a whole other persona.
Watching him practice at the River Bend Gun Club on a recent Saturday was a bit like stepping back in time.
Decked out in dusty jeans and boots, a wide-brimmed hat and holster with a buckle advertising Colt Revolvers, he looked like a proper Old West cowboy.
Throw in the setting of wide open spaces on the gun club’s more than 360 acres and several “stages” built to resemble scenes from a Wild West town, it’s easy to understand why Thomas’ style of shooting is referred to as “cowboy action.”
A lifetime member of the club, which is near the Dawson, Forsyth and Cherokee county lines, Thomas has taken home numerous state and world championship awards from the Single Action Shooting Society, or SASS.
SASS is the first and largest cowboy action shooting organization in the world.
Thomas, who first got involved with cowboy action shooting about a dozen years ago, said SASS boasts about 90,000 members around the world.
Every member takes on an alias, similar to famous gunmen of the old West. Each is registered with SASS so it can’t be duplicated. Thomas is known as the Silver City Rebel.
All the rifles, shotguns and pistols are like those used in the Old West as well.
“We have to use 1899 and earlier firearms,” he said. “They don’t have to be manufactured then, but they’re all that same design. They’re all modern, new guns, but they’re the same style and they have the same function as they did back in the old days.”
SASS shooting competitions are held throughout the world nearly every weekend. Thomas said the River Bend Club holds one a month, as do several other clubs throughout the state.
“You could go to a cowboy action shooting event in Georgia every weekend most months,” he said.
Each year there are state, regional and U.S. championships leading up to the SASS world championship called End of Trail, which since 2005 has been held in New Mexico and prior to that was held in California.
Thomas has won first place in his category at End of Trail for eight of the past 10 years. In 2004, he wasn’t able to compete and he came in second in 2007.
He’s also proud of several white buffalo pins he’s earned at the world championships. Those denote a clean match with no missed targets.
“I think I’ve missed three targets out of the nine times I’ve competed at End of Trail,” said Thomas, who’s also claimed several state first-place overall titles.
One of the reasons he loves cowboy shooting is the wide range of folks attracted to it.
“You get all kinds of people,” he said. “We’ve got an oral surgeon that shoots with us [at River Bend]. We’ve got a retired Eastern Airline pilot. We’ve got two or three lawyers, several doctors, one lady’s a psychiatrist, mechanics, just everybody.”
Thomas said he believes the sport is so popular because the idea of being a cowboy in the Old West has always been a source of fascination for Americans, particularly those of certain generations.
“I grew up in the time period whenever Westerns were on television. Every night, some kind of Western was on,” he said. “We only had three channels and probably on at least two of them there was some kind of Western.”
While the playing the part of a Wild West cowboy is fun, Thomas said he doesn’t think he would want to go back in time.
“Honestly, I know I wouldn’t make it in those days,” he said. “That was tough times … you think of back then, what it was like, and you think you’d like to live then. But you think also about some of these little small problems … you can go to the doctor and be cured today. Back then, they didn’t have nothing.
“Sometimes we don’t really know how good we have it today.”
But on weekends, the Silver City Rebel will still be at River Bend Gun Club dueling tin targets shaped like bad guys, awaiting his chance to ride West to New Mexico.