There’s only one volunteer activity that will make you look as cool as John Wayne.
“I grew up watching Gene Autry, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, that sort of thing, and one thing about John Wayne is he always twirls his pistol whenever he pulls it out of the holster,” said Cheyenne Gunslingers Deputy Chief Roger Barnes. “So I kind of thought, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ ... I liked that idea, so I got into that and always did it for myself, and thought it would be nice if I could do this in front of other people.”
Barnes has been a volunteer Gunslinger since 2005, and a decade and a half later, he’s still having just as much fun. He was disappointed the group’s season didn’t start in June as per usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he’s excited to polish his pistol and get to twirling this weekend.
The Gunslingers’ beloved Western act started in the early 1980s when a few local business owners decided they needed something to keep people downtown during Cheyenne Frontier Days, Barnes said. There were the parades and pancake breakfasts, of course, but the second those were over, people would book it back to Frontier Park for more rodeo fun.
Ironically, downtown businesses are currently facing a similar problem again due to both the novel coronavirus and the historic cancellation of Frontier Days. Although the Gunslingers’ show is no longer right downtown across from The Crown, as it was pre-2010, Barnes hopes that being on the southern edge of downtown next to the Cheyenne Depot can still attract some tourists and locals alike and encourage them to support some businesses.
This year’s show, which will run four days per week from July 4-25, will be modified slightly for social distancing purposes, Barnes said, but it’ll still have the same heart and feel (minus a random tourist being brought to the gallows and a little tyke trying some sarsaparilla).
The one aspect of the show that will never change, though, is the Gunslingers’ dedication to firearm safety, he said. Every single performer must line up and have their gun checked before the show, and unless the revolver is empty, the marshal won’t allow them to perform. They’re then given blanks to shoot off throughout the show (which still features a rope to divide the shooters and the audience, Barnes said, because being shot by a blank can still cause serious injury), and then they line up at the end to empty their revolvers yet again.
“We’ve never had a firearm-related incident,” Barnes said proudly. “I don’t think anybody else can say that. The folks in Cody had an incident because somebody got shot, and they did the same thing in Deadwood, in Tombstone … they didn’t check it before they started hosting it.”
Every member of the group also has to sit in on a safety presentation at the start of each new season, which Barnes admitted causes some eye rolls, but it is necessary in order to keep up their spotless safety record.
As for COVID-19 safety, he said he’s happy bandanas are an acceptable face covering, because they’ll fit in well with the Gunslingers’ traditional 1800s Western dress code.
Even though this season will be shorter and less interactive, as long as he can make some young ones smile, Barnes said it will have been worth it.
“That’s our main audience, grade school and junior high, so if we can make them happy and their moms, then we’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “Dad usually just gets dragged along, but is often a kid at heart, so he usually likes it.”