Guns, Horses, and … Balloons: The Sport of Mounted Shooting

By Barbara Newtown.

Mounted shooting involves galloping at top speed, flying changes of lead, hand gun or long gun marksmanship, and partnership with a literally bomb-proof horse.

The Mounted Shooters of America and the Cowboy Mounted Shooting Association are the main national organizations.  Other groups include the Single Action Shooting Society and the Cowboy Sports Association.

[The following descriptions follow the Mounted Shooters of America rules.  A .pdf of the MSA Rulebook is available at: ]

Competitors ride memorized patterns, chosen by the organizers, which usually involve galloping through a maze of ten poles and one or two barrels.  In most patterns, two colors of balloons are tied to the tops of the poles, and the object is to shoot the light-colored balloons first and the dark-colored ones last. A typical pattern may require the horse and rider to do tight circles or flying changes to get good shots at the first five, and then race at top speed down a straight line to burst the last five.  In any pattern, missing a balloon incurs a 5-second penalty.  Other penalties can be piled on to the time of the ride, such as:  knocking over a barrel, 5 seconds; missed balloon, 5 seconds; off course, 10 seconds; starting before the signal, 60 seconds.  The mounted Range Officer, in charge of the competition, has the last word. Photo:

The ammunition is black powder blanks.  The discharge of hot ash from the hand gun or long gun is what breaks the balloon.  Certified ammunition producers provide ammo that is guaranteed to break a balloon at 20 feet.  All competitors receive their ammunition in the “loading area” from the “shoot producer” before the competition starts. No participant is allowed to bring his or her own ammunition to the venue.  The MSA encourages all competitors to check their state rules for transporting and using firearms.

The ideal horse for this sport is usually a Quarter Horse, since quick acceleration after a tight turn is a must.  Clean, balanced lead changes help shave seconds off the twisting part of a pattern.  And the horse must be absolutely broke to the sound of a pistol or rifle on either side of his head!  Nevertheless, ALL breeds of horses and mules, registered or unregistered, are welcome to compete, as long as they are healthy and used to the sound of gunfire.  First-time competitors (either horses or humans) must demonstrate to the officials beforehand that they can negotiate a pattern and (in the case of humans) fire a weapon safely.

The hand gun should be a fixed sight, single action .45 caliber revolver.  In the hand gun division, each competitor carries two holstered revolvers, one for each five balloons.  The first revolver must be returned to the holster before the rider reaches for the second revolver.

In rifle competition, the first five balloons must be shot with a revolver.  The rifle must be in a leather scabbard attached to the saddle when the timer starts.  According to the MSA, the rifles must have been made before 1900 or must be copies of the same.  Calibers are 45LC, 44/40, or 44 magnum.  The rifle must be braced against the shoulder or the armpit.

Rules for shotgun competition diverge from rifle rules in two ways:  1) the last five “shotgun” balloons must be in two groups (2 and 3 balloons), and 2) [as the MSA Rulebook puts it] “a hand must be on the forearm of the shotgun while in the act of firing the firearm.”  In other words, guide your horse with your legs! Photo:  agribition 1.jpg

Competitors must wear Western hats or safety helmets, long-sleeve shirts, and Western boots.  The MSA encourages competitors to “pursue Western or patriotic themes in their dress.”  The hat and sleeve rules are waived for “ladies” wearing dresses.

Mounted shooting combines the precision of a dressage test, the explosive speed of a barrel race, the pounding hooves and gunfire of the Wild West, and a lot of whooping and hollering from the spectators.  Even if you don’t ride, you can volunteer:  knowledgeable people are needed to help at the ammo table.  If you don’t know anything at all about guns or equines, you can always get busy inflating balloons!

For a look at mounted shooting, go to: Photo:  cmsaevents2.jpg