Zoot Shooters Bring Gangster Style To The Gun Range

  • Members of the Colorado chapter of the American Zoot Shooters set up "capers" — shooting scenarios that allude to Prohibition-era Chicago gangsters, each featuring different rules and target arrangements. Here, they pose before the first "caper" of the day on April 10, in Byers, Colo.
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    Members of the Colorado chapter of the American Zoot Shooters set up "capers" — shooting scenarios that allude to Prohibition-era Chicago gangsters, each featuring different rules and target arrangements. Here, they pose before the first "caper" of the day on April 10, in Byers, Colo.
    All photos by Darcy Varney for NPR/Darcy Varney for NPR
  • "G Man" Steve Fowler, a real-life police detective and "good guy" in both Zoot Shooters capers and cowboy action shooting competitions, poses with his Tommy gun.
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    "G Man" Steve Fowler, a real-life police detective and "good guy" in both Zoot Shooters capers and cowboy action shooting competitions, poses with his Tommy gun.
    Darcy Varney for NPR
  • Jason "The Hustler" Huss demonstrates how to load a drum magazine for a Thompson submachine gun, known during the Prohibition era as the "Chicago Typewriter," among other nicknames. Chicago gangsters like Al Capone made the "Tommy gun" an iconic symbol of the 1920s. The bottle of Bulleit Bourbon on the table is a purely decorative detail.
    Hide caption
    Jason "The Hustler" Huss demonstrates how to load a drum magazine for a Thompson submachine gun, known during the Prohibition era as the "Chicago Typewriter," among other nicknames. Chicago gangsters like Al Capone made the "Tommy gun" an iconic symbol of the 1920s. The bottle of Bulleit Bourbon on the table is a purely decorative detail.
    Darcy Varney for NPR
  • Steve "G Man" Fowler reads the rules for the first "caper," explaining how participants are to navigate "the alley" target range, set up with cardboard and metal targets symbolizing "bad guys" to be shot and "hostages" to be avoided.
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    Steve "G Man" Fowler reads the rules for the first "caper," explaining how participants are to navigate "the alley" target range, set up with cardboard and metal targets symbolizing "bad guys" to be shot and "hostages" to be avoided.
    Darcy Varney for NPR
  • Robert Fowler, aka "John Smith," demonstrates a two-handed shooting technique, a'la "Road to Perdition," just for fun after the second caper. Shooters are not allowed to shoot with both hands during a match for safety reasons.
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    Robert Fowler, aka "John Smith," demonstrates a two-handed shooting technique, a'la "Road to Perdition," just for fun after the second caper. Shooters are not allowed to shoot with both hands during a match for safety reasons.
    Darcy Varney for NPR
  • Michelle "Queenie" Ensign-Jackson waits for "G Man" Steve Fowler to press the start signal, when she will turn around quickly and take up her weapon to shoot the second caper of the day.
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    Michelle "Queenie" Ensign-Jackson waits for "G Man" Steve Fowler to press the start signal, when she will turn around quickly and take up her weapon to shoot the second caper of the day.
    Darcy Varney for NPR
  • "Sweet Water Bill" Hall shows a bullet flattened by hitting one of the armor-plated targets on the course.
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    "Sweet Water Bill" Hall shows a bullet flattened by hitting one of the armor-plated targets on the course.
    Darcy Varney for NPR
  • Metal targets stand on a Zoot Shooters course at the Colorado Rifle Club in Byers, Colo.
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    Metal targets stand on a Zoot Shooters course at the Colorado Rifle Club in Byers, Colo.
    Darcy Varney for NPR

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The world of competitive shooting can get pretty intense. But a Colorado business wants to lighten it up a bit. The American Zoot Shooters Association combines gangster costumes from the early 20th century with marksmanship.

At the Colorado Rifle Club east of Denver recently, AZSA co-founder and owner Jason "The Hustler" Huss was wearing a red pinstripe suit, a bright red tie and a black felt hat.

"[I] kind of look like a leftover reject from a '90s swing band," says Huss, pointing to a shiny silver wallet chain. "That's my hustler bling — probably not very period-correct. I just think it looks cool."

Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn holds his Tommy gun as he prepares to participate in the first caper of the day.

Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn holds his Tommy gun as he prepares to participate in the first caper of the day. Darcy Varney for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Darcy Varney for NPR

Huss says maintaining historical accuracy isn't all that important for the AZSA — it's more about dressing up in clothes you might see in a gangster movie and having fun.

The AZSA doesn't keep ongoing rankings for its members, like other shooting sports. The best you can do is win an individual match.

Huss says the collectible guns also are part of the fun. Most of the shooters have wooden carts to tote their weapons around.

"In my cart you'll see a semi-automatic version of a Thompson submachine gun," says Steve "G-Man" Fowler. "That's the Tommy gun."

Several zoot shooters own reproductions of the iconic gun with the round magazine drum. They're manufactured now by Kahr Arms in Worcester, Mass.

AZSA matches include "capers," which are like obstacle courses with targets to shoot. Each has a theme — a recent match included a shootout in an alley and a bank heist.

Fowler designed both capers, along with creative directions telling the "guys" and "molls" how to proceed through the capers and what weapons they can use.

"It's never called a shotgun in here," says Fowler, reading from his caper descriptions. "It could be called a 'street-sweeper' or a 'gauge.' "

Members of the Italian chapter work a "caper" in La Spezia, Italy.

The Tommy gun is often called a Chicago Typewriter — when shot at the paper human-form targets, it sounds just like an old manual typewriter. There are brown paper targets for the bad guys and white ones for the innocents or hostages — hit one of those, and it's a 5-second penalty.

"Our entire scoring system is based on time. Penalties are added time," says Huss. "Your goal is to shoot it as quickly and accurately as possible."

Compromising safety on the gun range can get you disqualified altogether.

Huss and his business partner, Henning "The Undertaker" Wallgren, started the American Zoot Shooters Association in 2008 in Colorado, and they've added chapters in Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas and Italy.

Huss steers clear of gun politics and controversies. At matches, you'll see a few NRA stickers, but "The Hustler" says he hopes the sport continues to focus instead on having fun.

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