The rules governing Cowboy Action Shooting allow for the use of several types of shotguns for main match competition. The SASS Shooter’s Handbook with regard to shotguns reads as follows:
“Any side-by-side or single-shot shotgun typical of the period from approximately 1860 until 1899, with or without external hammers, having single or double triggers is allowed. Automatic ejectors are allowed on single-shot break action, lever and pump action shotguns ONLY. Side-by-side shotguns may not use automatic ejectors. Lever action, tubular feed, exposed hammer shotguns of the period are allowed, whether original or replicas. The only slide action shotgun allowed is the Model 1897 Winchester shotgun, whether original or replica. Certain shooting categories require a specific type of shotgun and ammunition to be used. Military configurations are not allowed (i.e., trench guns).”
SASS currently recognizes some 33 different shooting categories, and all but a few allow the shooter to compete with his/her preferred shotgun action type. So, unless you’re going to shoot in one of the black powder categories or in something like Classic Cowboy, the choice of shotgun (within SASS guidelines, of course) is yours.
Although when one thinks of the Classic Cowboy shotgun, a short-barreled, outside-hammered coach gun usually comes to mind, the hammerless or inside-hammered double gun, which debuted in the Americas in the late 1870s/early 1880s, was also a popular firearm of the time.
Although my preferred Cowboy competition shotgun is a short-barreled Winchester Model 1897 pump gun, if forced to compete with a side-by-side smooth bore, my choice would be a hammerless version. Why? Well, SASS competition is a timed event with the winner determined by essentially establishing who hit the most targets in the least amount of time. Since the hammerless gun is much quicker to operate than having to thumb back the hammers on a mule-eared gun, it’s the one I’d be shooting. If everybody shot with a double-hammered gun, then that would be okay with me, too. Absent that kind of level playing field, give me the hammerless gun.
Cimarron Firearms has got a nice hammerless double 12 gauge in their firearms lineup and they call it the Model 1881. It’s made to Cimarron’s specifications by KRAL AV in Turkey, a closed production firearms facility who’s been in operation for the past 25 years. KRAL produces not only side-by-side shotguns but over/unders, single-barrel, semi-auto and pump action models, along with air rifles, blank-firing handguns and related accessories, and exports not only to the U.S., but also to various European countries, as well.
Built on a box-lock action wherein the locks (internal hammer, sear, spring, etc.) are contained inside the steel receiver (the box), the 1881 utilizes a satin stainless receiver tastefully etched with a border and leafy pattern, with stippling adorning its top that contrasts nicely with the deeply black-chromed twin barrels, forend furniture, triggerguard and top lever. The plating is rich and uniform throughout, attesting to proper metal preparation prior to its application.
The 1881 locks up bank-vault tight via double under bolts and has a “clean” breech face devoid of any projections from the face that could interfere with the removal or insertion of shells contributing to a faster, uninhibited reload. Barrels are separated by a solid, raised, lightly knurled rib, ending in a single, round, brass bead for sighting. The gun sent me for review, at my request, came with the shortest tubes offered, measuring 20 inches in length, but barrels measuring 22-, 26-, 28- and 30-inches are offered. For Cowboy Shooting, the 20- or 22-inch versions seem ideal whereas the longer-barreled versions would make for a dandy field gun and could do double duty for CAS shooting, as well.
The 1881 comes with interchangeable choke tubes, and tubes with constrictions marked “Full, Improved Modified, Modified, Improved Cylinder and Skeet” are included, along with a wrench and choke-tube case. It’s nice to be able to configure the chokes on your double as needed to accommodate the different target arrays encountered and different conditions we shoot in. I had my short-barreled Winchester 97 fitted with interchangeable chokes for just these reasons. With an open tube installed, it works just fine for the up-close and personal targets encountered at most SASS shoots, but can be choked up for that occasional round of Cowboy trap.
The Cimarron comes with a mechanical single-selective trigger, another feature I like in a Cowboy double. “Mechanical” means it resets automatically and doesn’t rely on recoil to reposition the trigger for the next shot, and “selective” in that movement of its tang safety to the right or left (when the gun is cocked and on safety) allows for the selection of which barrel fires first. To the right fires the right barrel first, and vice versa. Trigger pull was a tad rough and heavy regardless of which barrel was selected to fire first, with the right lock releasing with around 7 pounds of pressure, and the left requiring about 8 pounds. These pulls might smooth up with use, but were this my gun and it were my intent to use it as my main match gun, I think I’d have them smoothed and lightened up a bit. Still, I think I could shoot this gun with the triggers as-is without too much problem.
The tang-mounted safety is of the non-automatic type and doesn’t reset to safe when the gun is opened. This is a good thing on a Cowboy competition shotgun because it’s one less thing to remember. You don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed a Cowboy shooter unaccustomed to his side-by-side forget to unsafe his/her gun after loading and then practically bend its trigger try-ing to get it to go off. A non-automatic safety is the preferred setup for CAS-type shooting.
The wood on my sample gun appears to be made of European walnut and exhibits some nice figure. Its wood-to-metal fit is fairly well done, with the wood being just a trifle proud where buttstock meets the receiver. It wears some type of spray-on urethane-like finish that is evenly applied and looks similar to a hand-rubbed oil finish. It is even and uniformly applied throughout. Cimarron offers the 1881 in two grades—standard and deluxe—and I’m told the differences involve the amount of figure in the wood and the fanciness of its checkering. The standard-grade gun has conventional checkering, while the deluxe gun has its pistol grip and forend adorned with an attractive combo of straight checkering and a laser pattern of deep ornamental scroll. Both models have a rounded Prince of Wales pistol grip and end in a three-quarter inch thick black ventilated recoil pad, which should help mitigate recoil. Length of pull from the 1881’s single trigger to back of its recoil pad measured a very adult-sized 14½ inches, long enough for proper fit on most adult males. I’m 6 feet, 2 inches and I like its feel and fit at this length—yet it has room to be properly shortened for the smaller statured.
The forend on the Cimarron is semi-beavertailed in profile and ends with a hint of a Schnabel and should provide good protection until barrels get super hot, something heavily fired doubles are noted for. It attaches securely to the barrel’s attaching iron via a pull-down Deeley-type latching system. Offered for now only in 12 gauge, the 1881 sports three-inch chambers, with the Standard grade gun offered at a price of $740.60 and the Deluxe gun retailing for $908.60.
Like all new out-of-the-box guns, be they domestic or imported, few and far between are the ones that could not use a little tuning to make them slicker and easier to shoot. The Cimarron 1881 is no exception. Except for my 55-year-old Winchester Model 1897—which was made in 1957, its last year of production—every gun that I’ve ever used for Cowboy Action Shooting, be it made by Colt, Ruger, Uberti or whomever, has needed some sort of slicking up or modification to make it better and easier to shoot. Even my well-used 97, whose years of use have made it slick and smooth to operate, was modified by the installation of choke tubes to make it more versatile. The major complaint I have regarding the 1881 is that it’s rather hard to open when internal hammers are in need of being cocked. Unlike the outside-hammered shotgun that literally falls open when its top lever is activated, the hammerless gun must cock its dual concealed hammers upon opening the gun and the 1881 seems unusually stiff in this regard. I subsequently spoke with Cowboy gunsmith Lonnie Meyer of Run-N-Iron Customizing, who has slicked up quite a few of these Cimarron Model 1881s since its introduction, and he advised that—like most out-of-the-box guns of today—the 1881 responds well to a basic action job where the interior of the frame where the mainsprings ride is cleaned up and the mainsprings are shortened slightly resulting in a much easier to open gun. A basic action job runs in the neighborhood of $135, slightly more if forcing cones are lengthened at the same time. Although I could shoot the 1881 as is, an action job would be in its future were it to be my main match shotgun.
The first shots fired out of the 1881 were on the skeet field at my local gun club. Conditions were not exactly ideal, with the wind causing some erratic bird flights, but I got through the round dropping five targets, two being the first two birds out of the high house at Station 1. I quickly learned that the 1881 shot a little high for me unless I really got into its buttstock. Using Remington STS shells during testing, the Cimarron shed empty cases easily with a quick backward flick, allowing for a quick Cowboy reload. If I failed to mention before, the 1881 comes with extractors only (no ejectors), which makes it fully SASS-compliant, and it functioned without mishap during this range session.
So, if your taste runs to the side-by-side and, like me, you like yours sans hammers, Cimarron has a gun in the running that might just be what you’re looking for.