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Re-Creating the Old West: They Give It Their Best Shots

April 21, 1988|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Times Staff Writer

This weekend, Harper Kreigh and some of his pals are going to play cowboy. They'll put on 10-gallon hats, strap on six-shooters and call each other names like "Pronto Pike" and "Diamond Lil."

Sounds like child's play, but real bullets will fly when these modern-day gunslingers take aim at the bad guys, and real beer and tequila--not root beer and sarsaparilla--will flow when the sun goes down.

It's all part of "End of Trail," an annual western shooting competition opening Friday at Coto de Caza. Three hundred Old West aficionados will don their cowboy suits and compete for the title of top gun in the three-day event, which draws participants from across the country and as far away as Germany.

"End of Trail" co-founder Kreigh says the event is a way for aging B-movie Western fans to play out their fantasies.

"Basically it started out with a bunch of middle-aged men who didn't want to grow up, and wished they could go back to Saturday mornings when you had a quarter to spend and you could see four movies and eat all the popcorn you could handle," says Kreigh, "and I think we've succeeded quite well."

Those inclined to label "End of Trail" as a group case of arrested adolescence would get no argument from Kreigh: "We'll get older but we won't grow up" is the event's motto, he says.

"We all grew up with the Saturday morning matinees, and we all wanted to be up on the silver screen," says Kreigh. "It's a fantasy shoot, not a historical shoot, and our criteria are you have to dress like a cowboy and have fun."

The competition is organized into stages inspired by well-worn movie Western cliches. In one, the participant is seated at a poker table with five cardboard cutouts representing the bad guys. At the sound of a buzzer, the gunman must grab his pistol and blast his fellow players (the official reason: cheating); then he has to get a rifle from his waiting horse and pick off nine more bad guys coming over a hill.

Other scenarios include holding off a horde of rustlers and shooting robbers from a bouncing train car. In the final event, patterned after the film "The Wild Bunch," teams of five shooters must hit 100 targets. Time and accuracy are the criteria; in most events, the score is determined by adding the raw time plus five seconds for each miss. Low score wins.

When the shooting is done it's time for dinner, drinking, dancing, fast-draw demonstrations, an old-time medicine show and impromptu stunts. A marketplace will offer everything from guns to old-fashioned clothing.

The goal, Kreigh says, is to play down the highly competitive aspects common to most shooting events and simply have fun. "We get together and swap lies. Where most shooting events are 99% shooting and 1% fraternization, we're about 60% shooting and 40% fraternization," Kreigh says.

And while the top male and female shooters are given awards, many of the best prizes are simply handed out to the contestants by random drawing. "It's probably one of the few matches that's set up for the shooters, not the winners," Kreigh says. "Most matches honor the winners, which is the correct thing to do, but they don't seem to do much for the other participants. 'End of Trail' is set up for everybody."

Kreigh and co-founder Gordon Davis started the event about seven years ago, after wondering why there weren't any western-style shooting competitions.

They started brainstorming and came up with "End of Trail," named for the end of a long cattle drive. "The idea we're trying to get is this: It's the end of a long drive, the cowpunchers have all been paid off, they've got money in their pockets and they're looking for clean women and strong drink and shooting contests."

A small group of organizers who came to be known as the "Wild Bunch" put together the first competition. They drew 72 competitors the first year; this year they had to cut off entries at 300. The success of "End of Trail" has spawned imitators across the West, and even in Ohio, Illinois, New York and New Jersey.

Kreigh, the only remaining member of the original Wild Bunch, keeps plugging away with a new group of fellow cowpokes. He is particularly proud of the fact that nobody has ever been injured in "End of Trail," despite the live ammo. Members of the California Range Officers Assn. are hired to keep an eye on the proceedings and enforce the event's strict safety rules.

"When someone shoots, there's a safety officer within arm's reach, so if he does anything wrong he can be stopped right there before anybody gets hurt," Kreigh says. "We have 10 principles that we follow, and safety is the first nine. The 10th one is, 'Have fun.' "

According to a marketing survey, the average "End of Trail" participant is 35 years old and earns about $40,000 a year. Most are men, but the number of women who take part in the event is rising. "Out of 300 shooters, we have 37 women shooters right now," Kreigh says. "The average match is about 5% women, and we're at 11% or 12% right now."

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