Seated in camp chairs in a shady patch of bush to escape the oppressive heat of another 34 degree April day in rural Victoria, Michelle and Justin are nonetheless looking happy and relaxed after a long day of target shooting. The pair make for a striking picture; she is dressed in a beautiful dusty-rose coloured dress, corseted in at the waist with a criss-crossed length of ribbon, and ruffled at its bottom hem. She is also sporting lace-up Victorian ladies boots with a narrow heel – the kind typically worn during the late 19th century. He is wearing black button-up pants and braces. Both have cowboy hats perched on their heads, shading their faces from the vicious sun, and both wear gun holsters, low-slung across their hips – they are now empty, as shooting has finished for the day.
The couple are devotees of a target shooting sport that is rapidly gaining favour across Australia and the world: Single Action Shooting, also known as Cowboy Action, or Western Action. There are several hundred competitors in attendance at the Victorian State Titles this year*, being held at the Bendigo Pistol Club, only six kilometres from the centre of Bendigo city. Single Action Shooting is one of the fastest growing target shooting sports in Australia, and involves shooting steel targets with two single action revolvers, a shotgun and a rifle, all while dressed in period costuming. The firearms used must be typical of those available in the mid-late 19th century in the United States. Competitors also choose – or have chosen for them – an “alias” or nickname, which can be descriptive, humorous or indicative of the person’s skills or interests. Justin goes by the moniker Ace McKenzie, while Michelle is known as The Scarlet Assassin.
Only minutes after arriving at the event, it is apparent to me that the men and women of Single Action are members of an astonishingly friendly, welcoming community – much more so than other target shooting disciplines, and indeed, most other sports. I ask the couple why they believe this is the case.
“With the other disciplines, you buy yourself a firearm and you go shooting,” says Justin. “Whereas with this, everyone gets dressed up. I think it puts everyone in a similar light, and they’re obviously people who don’t take life too seriously, and we always have a lot of fun.”
“I think the costumes do play a really big part in it,” adds Michelle. “It makes it a bit more relaxed – it takes that seriousness away from it.”
After witnessing the degree to which the couple have embraced their chosen sport, one would be forgiven for thinking that they both belong to established shooting families, where firearm ownership is a long-standing tradition. However, Michelle has only been shooting for four years, and had never fired a gun prior to that. “Actually I was pretty anti-gun. And I just thought one day, why don’t I give it a go? I didn’t really know anything about it. And how can you hate something that you don’t really know anything about? So I went down to Melbourne International Shooting Centre, and did the orientation day there. I just loved it. After the very first shot, I was hooked. It was so different to what I expected. I thought it would be fun. But I guess I didn’t understand how focused and how calm you had to be to do it.”
Justin grew up on a farm, and had done some clay target shooting prior to taking up Single Action. He remembers the day he discovered the sport. “I heard a heap of noise coming from the other side of the facility and I said “What’s all that?” and someone said “It’s the cowboys! They shoot cowboy guns.” So I went and introduced myself, and that was the end of that, I didn’t shoot clays after that.”
When asked what appeals most to the couple about this sport, Justin replies “I think it’s the mateship, the fun. When you think about it… you shoot 12 stages, say you average 30 seconds [for each stage]… you’re shooting for six minutes. It’s the social side of it, and the laughs.”
The couple both relate stories of how helpful other competitors are, even when they are the direct competition. “It’s just such a friendly atmosphere and everyone’s so welcoming,” explains Michelle. “The first time I shot here, I didn’t know anyone. I’d never shot outside my club before. I didn’t even have half the equipment I needed. I was borrowing a shotgun belt from one of the guys I was here with – it was massive on me. I’d never met [fellow competitor and champion shooter] Miss Lead before in my life, and we’d not even spoken at that stage, and she just walked up to me, and said “Here, share mine.” Just little things like that – people who don’t know you will do anything they can to help you out. Even if you’re the competition, it doesn’t matter.”
Justin and Michelle met here on this site four years ago, and become firm friends before later becoming a couple. I ask why they believe Single Action shooting is a great sport for couples. ”You get to see your girlfriend in a corset,” Justin quips without missing a beat. “Did I say that out loud?” he grins, as Michelle and I dissolve into fits of laughter. Smiling, Michelle adds, “I would say because there are quite a few women doing it now. There are a lot of people who will give you a hand. I had one time where I had a shotgun malfunction and I’d taken it to the unloading table, and suddenly there’s five people coming over, saying “What’s wrong?” and “I’ve got a screwdriver.”” Both agree that a major drawcard of the sport for some women is also the fact that they get to dress up, and many even make their own clothes.
The Victorian State Titles is only one of many competitions that the couple travelled to in the past few years. “This is our second big trip of the year. We’ve already got Wangaratta booked in for April, Broken Hill in May, back here in June, and we’re considering the Gold Coast in July,” says Justin. “Then eventually world domination,” Michelle grins. The pair are also very keen to one day travel over to the United States for the annual internationals – End of Trail in New Mexico.
As we discuss funny stories from past events, I ask what their favourite day of competition was. “There’s something that happens at every single shoot that everyone will talk about and remember,” says Michelle. “Like Stan dressing up as a woman last night….” Justin chuckles and muses, “There are plenty of characters in this sport.”
We finish our drinks, as the burning sun slowly sink down beyond the horizon. As we pack up, I pose a final question: “What would you say to someone thinking about giving Single Action shooting a go?”
With a smirk on her face, Michelle retorts “I’d say don’t do it, because you will never buy any “normal” clothes ever again! But seriously, I can’t recommend it enough. You can dress up as much or as little as you want. But if you want a full corset and to wear feathers in your hair, then you can do that as well. I’ve never been so glad that I’ve gotten into something, than I have with this.”
Michelle believes that target shooting is increasingly a welcoming sport for women, and the large female contingent at today’s event is proof of that. “I think shooting is becoming less of a man’s world. A lot more women are getting into it. It doesn’t have that boy’s club feel any more. It can be daunting at first, but you just have so much help on hand. Everyone here is very passionate about it, and they want everyone to have a good time.”
*This interview was conducted in April 2016