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The Outlaw Travis James
by on July 27, 2021

This blog was inspired by a question I received from Camo Cowboy on Action Shooting Network.  “Question for you? Is there info on the types of stages? I am wanting to practice and being new my only set back is learning the stages and how to shoot them. Working on transitions like you show and smoothness. Practicing in garage with fake stands and tables set up.”


Where Do I Start?

How to Improve the Most When You First Start in CAS

My advice to new(er) shooters who would like to improve is there are two areas of focus where the improvements are the most dramatic. These are transitions and shotgun.

Think of it this way: "What is the best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time." Our metaphorical elephant in this blog post is a consistently smooth stage run.  But that requires a lot of little steps to be executed properly for it to happen. We must first break down the stage into its components and learn how to execute those before putting the whole stage together for the desired pachyderm feast.

We want to see marked improvement when we first start, so our focus should be on areas that will facilitate this.  If there is not ample improvement early on, most will get frustrated and give up practicing.  And no one ever gets better by calling it quits. 



If you watch any shooter, the most time spent on a stage is in transitions between guns and shooting positions.  This is because multiple transitions are being executed in a stage being that our sport is a 4-gun discipline.  Practicing this is the same as learning any other fine motor skill.  We must break every transition down into its components and practice each one slowly to get the proper technique committed to muscle memory.  Once each movement is perfected we can put together the smooth stages we all strive for.  Matt Black, Missouri Lefty, and Dead Eye Dillard did not become the fastest Cowboy shooters in the world by practicing entire stage runs over and over.  They did so by focusing on small areas that needed the most improvement.  Transitions.

I define a transition as any movement not included in operating the guns (i.e., cocking hammers, levering rifles, pulling triggers, etc.).  These include drawing & holstering pistols, engaging shotgun targets from multiple shooting positions, loading the shotgun, putting down & picking up guns, manipulating props, etc.  If we look at all these movements as transitions, we are more than likely going to give them their warranted attention and correctly execute them.

How do we practice this? 

The answer is dry fire practice.  Live fire has its merits.  But we would be better served and save hard-to-find components by dry firing and getting these movements more fluid and comfortable.  Then, we can use those primers more efficiently in live fire.

I use a few techniques, but they are all based on one-shot drills.  The reason being, the first shot of each string will most likely (barring any faux pas) take the most time to find our sights, break the shot, and hit the target.  For this reason, practicing this technique will net the most improvements in our stage times.  Also, take into consideration our available time.  Most of us do not have unlimited hours to commit to practice.  If we practice entire sweeps and stages, this takes much more time for each rep, and we get fewer reps of the first shot (the area where we can improve the most).  This slows down our measurable improvements during a match. 

What is a one-shot drill?

A one-shot drill is where we place a single shot on a target.  Reset.  Then repeat.  For instance, we have a post-it note hanging on our wall representing a target.  We put our pistol rig on and practice by drawing the pistol, finding our sight picture, and breaking the shot.  Do this 5 times for each pistol.  Then, do it again with the other pistol.  Once we feel comfortable, draw one pistol, find our sights, break the shot, holster; and repeat with the other pistol with no break between them.   Reset.  Repeat. Do this drill 5 times and then repeat starting with the opposite pistol.  Do we see a pattern emerging?

We want to be versatile.  We don’t want to ALWAYS put our rifle down with our weak hand, or ALWAYS draw our strong side pistol first.  When we see stages at a match, they may be better executed by putting down our rifle with the strong hand and drawing our weak side pistol first.  For this reason, we want to practice as many ways to transition as we can.  And if we’re uncomfortable transitioning one way over another, practice that more.

Once we feel comfortable in our first shot drills with each gun separately, put them all together.  Do one shot from each gun (except the shotgun).  Mix up the gun order and incorporate split pistols and shotgun.  Below is how it should look when doing this drill.  Read the explanation of the drill in the description.


I am working on some dry fire technique videos which will cover a lot of these drills in detail.



The second area we see major room for improvement and time savings is in the manipulation of our shotgun.  How many great stage runs have we seen derailed by a shooter struggling with their blunderbuss?  Too many!

Why would a gun we only shoot 4 times per stage take longer than one we shoot ten times?  Or two that we shoot five times?  Because it is the only gun we start with unloaded and that is where the time comes in. 

I typically do not practice one shot only with my scattergun.  I almost always do a full four-shot string.  The more reps we can get with our shotgun the better.  The biggest thing that helped me achieve smoother strings when I started was something I call “Point Practice” and I do it with all my guns.  I start every single dry fire session with this type of practice.

Point Practice

Point Practice is how I define breaking each complex movement (i.e. loading a shell) down into single movements.  For example:  loading a ’97 with hands on hat and shotgun staged on a table involves four different movements.  And each movement has both of our hands doing different things. 

  1. Right hand moves from hat and grabs shotgun, left hand moves from hat to grab shells.
  2. Right hand picks up shotgun and meets left hand moving from shotgun belt to load the first shell into port.
  3. Right hand moves shotgun to right shoulder, left hand grabs slide and closes action as shotgun is shouldered.
  4. Right hand pulls trigger, left hand opens slide.

These four steps are the “Points” we need to practice for that smooth first shot.  Because shooting a ’97 string smooth is predicated on keeping a good rhythm, I do not stop at the first shot and continue for the entire string.

  1. Right hand slightly rolls port up, left hand loads next shell into port.
  2. Right hand rolls shotgun back to vertical, left hand grabs and close slide.
  3. Right hand pulls trigger, left hand opens slide.
  4. Repeat for remaining shotgun targets.

My first 10 reps of every single shotgun dry fire session are Point Practice.  These “Points” are performed painfully slow but with perfect technique.  I perform the movement and pause between Points to ensure I get my hands exactly where they should be.  What I’m doing is reinforcing the muscle memory so that even if I have some weird pain or am a little tired that day, my technique remains consistent when I get match speed & race speed later in the session.  This is the key to having a smooth shotgun string each stage.  Consistency only comes from practice.  To paraphrase Santa Fe River Stan “Perfect practice makes permanent.”

This is what it should look like once everything is all put together.



When we first start to shoot Cowboy Action, it may seem overwhelming trying to improve our stage times.  Nothing seems to flow and everything feels like a struggle.  But there are two areas where the extra practice will pay huge dividends.  These are transitions and shotgun.  If we focus on these areas the improvements will vastly outshine the investment of time.  And hopefully one day, we can all sit down at the table and finish off that elephant!

I see a lot of videos posted of shooters live fire practicing starting with their rifle shouldered and dumping ten on a single target.  This looks pretty cool and you can get some really fast times.  But how does this help you shoot smooth stages?  Manipulating your guns lightning-fast will turn some heads at the range.  But will it make your stage times faster consistently?  No.  You need to put the entire stage together from beginning to end and this is done with smooth transitions and shotgun.


Like (14)
RK Carroll
Great info. I have one “newbie” question i can not seem to shake on the clock: sight picture; should you pick up gun sights off table or from holster first and bring eyes & sights to target? Or look at target and bring sights into your field of view?
August 5, 2021
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Whenever I'm drawing my first pistol I'm looking at the target and pick up the sights as I'm pushing the pistol out. I then look the pistol back into the holster and immediately look at the next target to be engaged with the second pistol and pick up the sights as I'm pushing the pistol o... View More
August 5, 2021