They call him ‘Outlaw Gun’

Published 9:02 am Thursday, March 12, 2009

When Hartland’s Dale Phillips isn’t farming over the summer, he goes by the name Outlaw Gun.

Dale competes at Cowboy Action Shoots under that name and has traveled as far as Phoenix, Ariz,. and Florida for contests that judge on accuracy and speed.

Dale is a member the Single Action Shooting Society, a national club, but he competes about once a month from April to October in Morristown, where he’s a member of the Cedar Valley Vigilantes Cowboy Action Shooting Club.

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Anne Phillips, Dale’s daughter, also competes and was the women’s state champion in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin in 2008.

Dale most often competes in Morristown at what looks like a small old Western town with a jail, a bank and a train, but it’s not a town, it’s really 12 stages. Each of the 12 stages has its own shooting range enclosed by walls of railroad ties on the sides and a dirt mound at the back.

Targets are set up at each stage, but there’s a specific sequence of targets the shooters must use. Shooters are judged on accuracy and speed, and they don’t learn the sequence until they get to the stage.

Competitors usually compete at six stages for each match.

“When the timer goes off, then everything goes blank in your head, but you have a certain procedure you’re supposed to shoot these targets. Like, say, for instance, you’re in the jail cell, they get really technical, like both hands on the bars or both hands on your hat,” Dale said.

After the timer starts, Dale said a competitor would first have to shoot five to 10 shots with a pistol, then he or she would shoot with a rifle, which would often be sitting on a table in the jail. Then the competitor would shoot targets with a shotgun outside.

“When you get all done, if you do it in about 20 seconds, you’ve done good — for 24 shots,” Dale said.

Five seconds are added to a shooters time for each miss, and Dale said 10 seconds are added if he or she shoots targets out of the written procedure.

Dale said the targets, which can vary in size at different places, are usually about 16 inches. Most people could easily hit them standing still from the distances they shoot from, but he said it’s much more difficult when speed is involved. Dale said he watched videos to learn a technique that allowed for speed and accuracy.

“That buzzer goes off, and myself and my daughter have really quick reflexes,” Dale said. “You can miss them real fast, too. … You can’t overrun the gun. … When I started I had really good reflexes and I could blaze right through a course, but I missed too many targets. And people kept telling me ‘slow down, slowdown, hit the targets.’”

About 100 people compete at a typical competition in Morristown, and the Minnesota State Tournament in Morristown allows for 220. Dale said these people are into a posse of about 15 to 20, with about three or four of them in the same category.

In each posse, three people look for misses, one person keeps score and one person operates the timer. The timer operator is trained, and is usually the safety officer for the group, Phillips said. Dale said

SASS has three rules: safety, safety and then have fun. There are rules that state the gun can only be aimed so far to the side away from the targets, and there are also rules for drawing guns. Dale said there has never been a serious accident at a competition, even though it may not look safe because of the speed involved.

“They talk safety, safety, safety, and then the next thing you see is a guy just blazing away, and then he’s running down range, and then he’s got his gun up and he’s blazing away again,” Dale said.

All the guns these shooters blaze with are from the 1800s or are replicas: rifles have to be 1892 or earlier, shotguns are 1897 or earlier and pistols must be single action. Dale often uses Colt pistols, which he said cost about $2,000 each with purchase and repairs. Dale also said he’s spent countless hours making his guns smoother and changing springs so they’re faster.

Dale competes in one event called frontier cartridge where shots have to make smoke, which he said can cause slower times.

Dale loads his own bullets, and said he has about 15,000 bullets right now. He said they’ll likely be gone by the summer, because Anne will often shoot 1,000 bullets in an afternoon practicing.

Phillips said he’ll shoot about 500 bullets a week practicing his pistols, which he said are the harder for him to master than a rifle or shotgun.

Dale discovered the shows about six years ago when he went to Shooters Roundup, a two-day event hosted by Ahlman’s Guns Parts & Services in Morristown. A friend convinced Dale to shoot at the cowboy course.

Outside of Morristown, Dale competes once a month in New Ulm, four times a summer in La Crosse, Wis. and about five times a year in Boyceville, Wis.

While shooters can compete in jeans, Dale said competitors are required to wear traditional cowboy clothing, so no T-shirts or baseball caps.

Dale said the contests are competitive, but the atmosphere is also friendly. Dale said he went to a competition in Wisconsin a few years ago. The shotgun targets had to be knocked down, and Dale told his daughter she’d have to be very accurate to knock them over because they were using lighter shells because they were faster with less recoil. Another competitor overheard and gave Dale and Anne a box of shotgun shells.

“The people are probably the most friendly group of people I’ve ever shot with. Kind of like we all got caught playing cowboy out here, might as well be friendly,” Dale said.