MILFORD, Pa. — Something’s a bit off about Tom Payne, a rancher who laid down his badge to reap the easy life out West.
He’s got the look down — leather boots, chaps, even the old, reliable Winchester rifle — but when Payne speaks, he sounds a lot more like Tom Colaluca, a guy who’s barely a hundred miles west of the Bronx. Turns out this cowboy had rustled up some Yankees game tickets the night before, too.
“This [Giancarlo] Stanton guy, I think it he was just a flash in the pan when he was in Miami, you know what I mean?” Colaluca, 67, said of the injured Yankees slugger. “This guy’s made out of balsa wood.”
Tom Payne is Colaluca’s alias in the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), an international league of sharpshooters who compete against one another with shotguns, rifles, and pistols, all while dressed in period Western wear. On this Saturday morning at the Matamoras Rod and Gun Club in Pike County, gunshots were pinging off metal as shooters moved from one station to another as fast as they could. There were cactus cutouts and vultures and a guy named “Loose Change” whose laugh was about as loud as the shotguns.
“This," said Colaluca, "is the only place where fat guys are called ‘Slim’ and old guys are called ‘Kid.’”
The three-day event in Northeast Pennsylvania, near the New York border, was dubbed the Rendezvous at Rattlesnake Ridge and featured 91 competitors from nearly a dozen states, all using pre-1900s replica guns and, in some cases, real antiques. The style is called "cowboy action shooting.” Competitors must wear eye protection and ear plugs, which weren’t standard at the O.K. Corral. Cowboy action shooting was created as a hobby in 1981 by a man who loved Westerns, particularly The Wild Bunch, and looked for a way to replicate it.
The SASS was formed in 1987 and today has 97,000 members worldwide, each with a nickname. Some events elsewhere in the country even feature shooting from horseback, like Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves, except not nearly as proficiently.
Rules for nicknames are fairly simple: They can’t be duplicates, and they have to be printable.
“My father’s nickname was Ziggy," said George Segnini, match director at the gun club. “They used to call me Ziggy when I was in school. My first cat I named Ziggy. I tried to get Ziggy the Kid. That was taken already. So I said I’ll be Ziggady Zag, 'cause, you know, I don’t know if I’m coming or going.”
Often, local clubs, like the Milford Mavericks or the Elstonville Hombres, are pitted against one another in matches. There are state, regional, and national championships each year as well. Scores are kept by speed, and how quickly a shooter can reload and fire the shotgun or rifle, before moving on to shoot a metal coyote. Many kept their guns and ammo in handmade wooden carts, but others resembled jogging strollers. One couple got around in a golf cart fitted with a rifle holder.
And there was some good old-fashioned jawing, from one old hoss to another.
“I ain’t too bad for an old man,” one shooter said as he laid down his weapons.
“I think you better get back to the senior citizen center,” another said.
Mike Nielsen, an electrical contractor and New Jersey state champion, said he originally had wanted to shoot from horseback, but that event is no longer offered there.
“You want to know my nickname? It’s Cholula Mike, like the hot sauce,” he said.
Nielsen runs the New Jersey State SASS Championships, which are scheduled for October in the Pinelands. Pennsylvania’s championships, which honored the actor Tom Selleck, were held over Memorial Day weekend.
River Brundage, 53, is a world champion shooter who got the nickname Spinning Sally because she used to bring a spinning wheel to competitions to make blankets. Now, she’s a deadeye.
“I’m a speech pathologist,” she said. “I work with little kids.”
Eric 'Wyatt Hurts" Katz is a high school counselor. The Eastwood Kid is a big Spaghetti western fan, but he’s a physician and didn’t want to give his real name. Bill “Pennsyltucky Slim” Stuchell and his wife, “Calico Jan” Stuchell, were heading off to Kentucky for a shootout after leaving Pennsylvania.
“My whole family is into it,” Jan said. “My son, my daughter, my grandchildren.”
While children can compete in the league, there were few at Saturday’s event. Most competitors were older and retired, like Lefty Bob Ricca, 73, a former Fox Chase resident who now lives in Gilbertsville, Montgomery County. Ricca got his nickname because he’s left-handed, not because of his politics.
“Oh no, no, no,” he said.
Ricca, a retired engineer, said he used to shoot at a YMCA on Adams Avenue in Philadelphia’s Crescentville section.
“For 25 cents, we could fire 50 shots,” he said.
Around high noon, the shooters laid down their weapons, some retreating to fancy RVs, others up to the clubhouse.
For Colaluca, who left the Bronx for Orange County and now lives on a mountain in Milford, sharpshooting is a more interesting hobby than, say, fishing or bocce. Maybe not bocce.
“Whoa. Hey,” he said. “You don’t want to say that around too many Italians.”