Jean Butler is a retired college administrator, but on Saturday she looked more like a character from a John Wayne movie. She wore a straw hat, suspenders and a thick leather belt weighed down with two pistols and a row of red shotgun shells. She had abandoned her old identity and adopted the nom de guerre Clara Allen.
She was one of a few dozen shooters at a cowboy action shooting event in Hamilton last weekend. The competitors dressed up like characters from the old west and adopted cowboy aliases. At each stage, they shot at steel targets and acted out scenes based on stories from Montana mining towns.
"Clara Allen was my favorite character in Lonesome Dove, if you ever saw that series on TV. She was a very strong willed ranch woman, and that appealed to me," Butler says.
The shooting range smelled like a fireworks show because some of the participants were using black powder. At the beginning of each stage, they recited a cheesy line ripped from a B western, and then shot out of covered wagons, from behind jailhouse bars and through the windows of a fake saloon.
Some of the people here shoot because they like studying history, others just want to dress up and act out westerns. But for Butler it’s a chance to take on a new persona and take a break from the real world.
"You get to dress up again and play. It is so freeing. You don't have to worry about what's going on out there."
At the event on Saturday there were college professors, engineers, school teachers and cops. Often, these competitors don’t even know each other’s real names. They’re stepping into a different character and a different time period to get away from the modern world.
"If you want to talk politics, we'll talk the politics of 1898," says Steve Butler, Jean Butler’s husband.
During shooting events he goes by the name Stevareno. He said these days politics has become so divisive that it’s best not to talk about it at all. He’d rather talk about shooting. But sometimes current events still creep in.
"There was a little conversation about the politics of the, what's going on in our country with the civil war, because you'll see that a lot of their guys do their reenactment where they actually have confederate names and so forth. And we're not making any political statement about that," he says.
Jean Butler — AKA Clara Allen — shoots because it’s fun. It’s easy to get wrapped up with what’s happening in the news, but she said it’s not healthy to live like that. Everybody needs a break once in awhile.
"This doesn't mean we aren't aware of what's going on out there in the real world, but my gosh, it's kind of nice to take some time off; a couple hours every month to get cowgirled up, come out here, do some shooting, see some folks that you like, have some fun," she says.
Not everyone at the competition came to escape the news. Kathleen Loucks uses cowboy shooting as an excuse to study family history. She goes by the alias May B. Sheecan.
"My alias came from my great aunt May who actually grew up in a Colorado mining town, and she wore a sidearm from the time she was 12 through her twenties. And I'm thinking if she was a young woman in a mining camp she probably had to," Loucks says.
Her great aunt grew up boxing, riding horses and mostly fending for herself. Loucks said she hasn’t faced those kinds of challenges in her own life, and admires her aunt’s toughness.
"Well I suppose we do romanticize it a bit, thinking I'd be that tough. I don't know if I could or not."
She started competing 11 years ago after she and her husband got bored with golf, and it turned out she was pretty good. She was reluctant to admit it at first, but she’s one of the best female cowboy action shooters in the nation.
After the competition she’ll go back to her life as a retired school teacher. She’ll play golf with her husband. But if she ever gets bored she can always step into that alter ego, the fast shooting woman of the old west, May B. Sheecan.