Some Mainers are using pistols to find their ‘inner cowboy’

Posted Nov. 16, 2009, at 8:26 p.m.

HAMPDEN, Maine — Jason Baack is a fast-talking, fast-shooting son of a gun. Ask the burly action pistol aficionado about his chosen sport, and he’ll knock your socks off with the same kind of rapid-fire delivery he uses while working his way through a shooting scenario.

But ask the 36-year-old Frankfort man for his best sales pitch for the run-and-gun shooting sport that occupies much of his weekend time, and he knows he’s got you hooked.

“This sport is actually safer than competitive chess,” Baack says with a grin. “In the past 20 to 25 years [since U.S. Practical Shooting Association matches began], there have been more deaths, accidental deaths, playing chess, due to heart attacks, than there has been in action pistol. There has never been a fatality in the action pistol sport.”

Then Baack pauses — well, he pauses as much as he ever does when he’s asked to talk about action pistol — and grins again.

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“So that’s one of our little selling points,” he says. “It’s safer than playing chess.”

Watch a few minutes of a USPSA practice and you doubt Baack’s safety assertion can be true.

Shooters begin in a framed square, then work their way through a prescribed course — the way they choose to attack the course and its targets is generally up to the competitor — pistol blazing.

The staccato pop of 9 mm rounds rings out, fired from a semiautomatic pistol. Ten rounds. Fifteen. Twenty. Maybe 30.

Meanwhile, the shooter runs from spot to spot — a range safety officer always just behind him to make sure he’s not putting himself or others at risk — discarding magazines and slapping full ones into place as necessary. After firing a couple dozen rounds in 10 or 12 or 15 seconds, the shooter stops, the safety officer makes sure his weapon is completely unloaded, and an official timer tells the competitor how he fared.

Whew.

As you may have guessed, this is not your grandfather’s shooting sport.

It is, however, one of the fastest-growing disciplines in a wide array of shooting sports. And it’s just one way that Mainers are having fun with guns.

Some gun owners decide to become collectors and spend their time seeking out and purchasing firearms that reflect a certain period, or manufacturer, or style they treasure.

Others grab their shotguns and shoot skeet or sporting clays or trap for fun and competition. Still others opt to channel their inner cowboy and dress in period costumes as they compete in cowboy action events.

And some, like Baack, decide to run and gun in an action pistol event.

Baack says that when he began shooting competitively, small-bore rifle matches were the norm.

When he started showing up at the Hampden Rifle & Pistol Club, a group had begun staging unsanctioned action pistol events.

That, he decided, looked like fun. It didn’t take long before club officials asked him if he’d like to run the program.

He did and coerced his shooting buddies into adopting USPSA or International Defensive Pistol Association rules.

IDPA rules call for a more structured match and are designed more for a concealed-carry shooter, Baack says. Competitors must shoot at targets while their entire lower bodies and half of their torsos are concealed behind barriers.

USPSA, though, immediately caught his eye.

“It’s all about shooting. It’s not about the technique of shooting in, say, a self-defense setting,” Baack says. “It’s all about the sport of shooting. Jump right into an opening, fire your shots.”

Shoot. Move. Reload. Shoot. Move. Repeat (if necessary).

Baack travels to Kentucky and Idaho for national-level matches every year and tries to get down to Massachusetts as often as he can for matches that are held monthly.

He’s an open-class shooter, which, to a layman, is fairly easy to explain.

Those in the other classes, you may decide, are “avid” shooters. The open-class athletes? Fanatic might not be too strong a word.

“For me [the allure] is the high-tech aspect of the division I shoot,” Baack says. “I have a battery-powered optic sight. I’ve got a compensator. Different weight springs in the gun will make the gun function differently. You can tinker with that … for me it was always about the science of shooting this thing. And then you get to go really fast. And that’s always fun, too.”

Those looking to compete in one of the lower-tech classes — the divisions don’t automatically correspond with a shooter’s talent, Baack points out — can get into the sport for $600 to $700.

Baack says a tech nut like him, who wants to keep tinkering, tuning and getting his hands on the best components he can could spend 10 times as much. (Tiny hat-mounted camera for use critiquing your run through the course optional.)

“Generally, all day long I’m banging on a keyboard, working with computers,” Baack says. “You get out of that cubicle, that chair, sitting in front of a machine and then you come out here and actually start running around and shooting fast and doing math equations in your head.”

Not for fun, mind you. To get better.

“[You think], if I shoot it this way, will my points be higher or lower? Will my score be better if I shoot it that way?”

Shotgun aficionado

While Baack enjoys the action pistol events, down in Forest City Art Wheaton shows there is more than one way to appreciate a firearm.

Wheaton, 68, a former executive with Remington Arms, is a registered Maine Guide and an avid bird hunter. He also holds another position that reflects his passion for a particular brand of firearm.

“I have had a long interest in Parker shotguns since childhood and have watched them for years and years, bought them and sold them, and currently [am] president of the Parker Gun Collectors Association,” Wheaton says. “[It’s] such a high-paying job, I may never retire.”

Then he laughs.

“It’s a volunteer job,” he confesses.

Wheaton admits to owning a dozen or so Parker shotguns and says the durability of firearms and the craftsmanship that was used to create them appeals to many collectors.

Still, he realizes that the guns he collects are never truly or permanently his.

“No matter how you cut it, you’re going to be a steward of whatever your collection is for some period of time,” Wheaton says. “And at the end of the trip, [the collection] is either going to be sold, given away, inherited. Someone else is going to own it. It’s simple as that.”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t take his collecting seriously. He does. He also has learned that finding a prized Parker — or any other rare collectible, for that matter — is a prize in and of itself.

“The enjoyment part is in the owning part, maybe,” he says. “Maybe a good part of it is in the hunt. The hunt and trying to find it.”

Cowboy up

Bangor’s Charlie Rumsey is a National Rifle Association instructor who teaches frequent gun safety and training courses.

In his spare time — when he finds any — he likes to take part in another popular shooting sport.

And when he does, don’t you dare call him “Charlie.”

“In cowboy action I’m just a humble shooter, just a good citizen that happens to wear two six-guns,” Rumsey says. “My cowboy name is Rimfire.”

Cowboy names are common in the sport and often reflect a certain trait or interest that the shooter possesses. Rumsey —Rimfire — likes old rimfire .22-caliber guns.

And taking part in cowboy action competitions, during which participants get to handle six-shooters and shotguns and pepper targets (and get called names like Rimfire), Rumsey becomes a child again.

“I think there are a lot of us who are probably in our 12th childhood with [cowboy action shooting],” Rumsey says. “We had our old cowboy heroes, back when you could go to the serials on Saturday at the local movie theater … who doesn’t love a good Western movie?”

Acting out a cowboy action scenario, playing the good guy (or the bad guy), and remembering that scenario and acting appropriately while completing the course of fire is a fun challenge, Rumsey says.

And for him, it’s always about the fun.

“You’ll find people out there of all age ranges. The youngest shooter I encountered this year was 11,” Rumsey says. “Most of us out there, if you had 30 registered shooters at a meet, you might have three of them who really cared what the scoreboard said. They’re out there for the fellowship and just to participate because it is simply fun.”

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