For Old West enthusiasts, SLO shooting competition is a long way from national gun debate

Bandolier-festooned competitive shooters with names like “Lucky Horseman,” “Ole Dollar” and “El Toro Suave” descended on San Luis Obispo County with their guns blazing this week for an Old West-style shooting competition.

The 25th annual Chorro Valley Shootout, taking place near San Luis Obispo through Sunday, is like a Renaissance Faire for cowboys — complete with costumes, sets and guns.

While some of the experience is fantasy, all of the gunplay is real.

The event, however, comes at a delicate time, only days after a triple tragedy of mass shootings once again shocked the nation and thrust the debate over guns back to the forefront America’s psyche.

This group — proficient and disciplined gun enthusiasts — has somewhat varied views on the current gun control debate, but one thing was clear: None said the increased frequency of gun-related massacres has done anything to change their opinions about the Second Amendment or Americans’ right to bear arms.

Championship for competitive shooters

This week’s competition is put on by the Chorro Valley Regulators, a sub-chapter of the San Luis Obispo Sportsman’s Association, and is the Single Action Shooting Society’s Western Regional Championship.

Cole Younger, an officer with the Chorro Valley Regulators, said the event attracts more than 250 competitive shooters between the ages of 12 and 80 from six different states and at least two foreign countries, including Germany and New Zealand — home to the “Kiwi Kid,” he said.

On Friday, groups of shooters adorned in striped pants, long-sleeve shirts and a catalog variety of cowboy hats showed their skills on about a dozen ranges, their holstered six-guns swaying on their hips and spurs rattling on their boots as they rotated through loading, shooting, spotting, unloading, picking up shells and brass, and other duties.

Gun Competition020
Pat “Blue Eues” Myers of Orange competes with pistols, a shotgun and rifle in the 25th annual Chorro Valley Shootout. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Attendees of the single-action shooting competition — which only features models of firearms used in the Old West — are encouraged to dress in vintage, pre-1900s western wear, and most adopt creative old-timey cowboy and cowgirl nicknames.

“It’s like stepping back in time,” Younger said.

Participants in the competition paid $140 for a chance at the western regional title, as well as gourmet meals provided under the food tent.

A much-loved tradition

For some, the event is tradition.

Berkeley “Obispo” Johnston, for example, competed Friday alongside his mother, who he admitted schooled him by several seconds on the range.

Johnston, a civil engineer from San Luis Obispo decked out in rawhide chaps, said he’s been shooting at the event off and on for about 14 years and was introduced to single-action shooting by his late father. He said the Regulators rallied around his family when his father died, and Johnston’s mother and sister have since also joined the organization.

“Cowboys are generally so giving, so sacrificial,” he said. “And this event is 300 of them.”

Johnston said the event may be lighthearted in its tone and dress, but it’s incredibly organized. Safety is emphasized first and foremost, and everyone plays a role.

Though he said he personally owns modern firearms, 95 to 100 percent of his shooting is with his vintage model guns at this and similar events. He said the old weapons force shooters to slow down and focus more.

Johnston said the recent spate of mass shootings is “sad and frustrating” to see because he was raised to respect guns.

“Guns are really dangerous; they’re not toys,” he said. “Seeing people use them in that way, it’s very tragic.”

‘Just a bunch of cowboys’

Debbie “Double Shot Darling” Mann of Exeter worked as a school administrator for 32 years and now attends monthly shooting events with the Chorro Valley Regulators and other organizations in Fresno and Bakersfield.

She worked the competition Friday as a range officer and photographer and she said that San Luis Obispo’s event is far and above the best, most-organized cowboy action shoot she attends.

“The atmosphere is so welcoming,” she said. “We’re just a bunch of cowboys who grew up with John Wayne and never grew out of it.”

Mann said she prefers her Stoeger Coach Gun, a shorter double-barrel shotgun, when she shoots.

“I like to blow stuff up,” she said, laughing.

Gun Competition061
A “gravesite” of shooters gone by adds a little humor to the property during the 25th annual Chorro Valley Shootout, taking place this week at the Chorro Valley Regulators range on Hwy. 1. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

When asked about the recent mass shootings and the ongoing debate over gun control, Mann — a current National Rifle Association member — said banning certain weapons is not the right solution.

”Mental health is part of it. But it’s also the breakdown of families,” she said. “Our children do not understand what it’s like to be raised the right way.”

She said educating people about firearms from an early age could prevent gun violence.

“They need to see that guns aren’t a scary thing,” she said. “People that don’t know how to handle them are scary.”

Mann said she is supportive of armed security guards at schools and allowing teachers to also carry arms, if they have undergone training and are proficient in handling their weapon.

“I see it over and over in the news — the good guy with a gun beats the bad guy with a gun every time,” she said.

‘I find it romantic’

Paul “Bungalow Bill” and Colleen “Rainbow Dancer” Matthias, a couple from Southern California, showed off their collection of late 1800s Winchesters and replica Colt revolvers while watching one of the competition’s rounds from the shade.

Events like this one allow them to “play cowboys and Indians for real,” they said.

Gun Competition099
All dressed for the competition are, Paul “Bungalow Bill” Mathias and his wife Colleen “Rainbow Dancer” Mathias of San Bernardino County are participants in the 25th annual Chorro Valley Shootout, an Old West-style competition, on Friday at the Chorro Valley Regulators range, located at the SLO Sportsman’s Association Shooting Facility on Hwy. 1. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

The vintage technology, the authentic dress, and the camaraderie with their fellow single-action shooters brings them out to a range of some sort at least once a month.

“I find it romantic,” Colleen said. “I love the way (the old guns) sound.”

The pre-1900 firearms are fun to shoot, Paul said, but they are hard to maintain and less reliable. For that reason, some shooters opt for replicas.

“They say you need three shotguns,” he said, referring to his 1873 Winchester pump shotgun. “One to shoot, one for backup and one in the shop.”

But the couple has their share of modern firearms also, including two AR-15s, a high-grade tactical rifle variants of which have been used in many recent mass shootings.

Amid that current crop of killings, Paul Matthias said that California’s gun control measures — considered among the strictest in the nation — have done little to protect residents and instead are “driving out” law-abiding citizens.

The couple said they believe mass shootings have been “staged” so that lawmakers can propose tighter gun regulations to disarm people “within minutes.”

That’s why they don’t trust the mainstream media, he said, and instead rely on websites such as YouTube for news.

A form of focus

Gun Competition066
Bill “Lightnin’ Bill” Lightner of Glen Ellen competes at the “Chapel” with a lever-action .38 caliber rifle, Ruger pistol and a shotgun during the 25th annual Chorro Valley Shootout on Friday. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Other attendees who spoke to The Tribune had more mainstream views on gun control and background checks they agreed were sensible.

Bill Lightner, a retired attorney and real estate broker from the Bay Area, said that he enjoys cowboy action shooting events for the sport. Also an avid motorcyclist, Lightner said the competition featuring classic American firearms develops a skill.

“It’s a form of focus, a meditation,” he said. “You perfect your skill over time.”

He said the cowboy shoots have less testosterone and more class than taking an AR-15 to a range and peppering a target.

Calling the current era of mass shootings “a scary situation,” Lightner, who has trained applicants for concealed weapons permits, said he believes people should be required to prove they know how to use a weapon before purchasing it, much like a driver’s license.

“With automatic and semi-automatic (weapons), there’s a likelihood that people will overshoot and maybe just spray bullets. There’s physical skill that’s involved in owning a gun,” he said. “You have to demonstrate proficiency.”

The Chorro Valley Shootout is free for spectators and continues through Sunday at the Chorro Valley Regulators range, located at the SLO Sportsman’s Association Shooting Facility on Hwy. 1 between Cuesta College and Morro Bay.

For more information, visit chorrovalleyregulators.com.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct a misspelling of Paul and Colleen Matthias’ last name and county of residence, as well as to clarify Paul Matthias’ comments about AR-15 rifles.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.