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North-South Skirmish Association Promotes Healthy Black Powder Competitions
More than simply a re-enactment
By Barbara Baird
Photos by Jason Baird
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What is the difference between the North-South Skirmish Association (N-SSA) and Civil War re-enactment groups?
There are two big differences. First, although N-SSA participants wear authentic Civil War costumes and uniforms, they use live ammunition in original or dimensionally certified reproduction military firearms (don't worry: they shoot at targets, not people). Second, instead of recreating battles, they compete in "skirmishes."
The N-SSA, created in 1950 to honor the heroism of men on both sides of the war, exists to compete in shooting Civil-War-period black-powder firearms. It also encourages the preservation and display of Civil War materials, including specific uniforms and period costumes. Members belong to approximately 215 teams in 13 regions nationwide, and represent specific Civil War regiments or units. Women are welcome to join ranks and compete alongside the men. Women wear the same uniforms as the men.
Every region hosts skirmishes annually. Competitions include musket, carbine, smoothbore, breechloader, revolver, mortar and artillery. Team and individual events are held. The musket is the most popular event, followed by carbine. The N-SSA believes it offers a sense of what shooting under pressure -- through competition, not battle reenactment -- feels like for its competitors.
Fort Shenandoah, the N-SSA's headquarters, located near Winchester, Va., invites all members to attend the National Skirmishes, held twice a year. Comprised of several hundred acres, the site includes a private campground and the country's widest rifle range -- more than a quarter mile -- that is controlled by officials in a tower. This year's skirmish will take place from May 16 through May 20, and will mark the 125th year of the N-SSA. Last year, 2400 N-SSA members attended the fall skirmish, but more than 4,000 people came to the event. Not all attendants shoot. Some compete in costume competitions, too.
At the nationals, eight-man musket teams compete in timed, rapid-fire events--shooting at breakable targets at 50 and 100 yards. Teams also compete in carbine, revolver, breech loading rifle, mortar and artillery. The skirmish also includes individual events in revolver and BB gun. Awards ceremonies are held on Saturday and Sunday.
According to N-SSA Commander Linwood McMahon, "Most importantly, we are doing our part in commemorating the heroism of the men and women who fought in the American Civil War. We promote interest by conducting live-fire competitions and demonstrations of Civil War firearms and artillery. Our membership is made up of people from all walks of life: sanitation workers to circuit court judges to homemakers, and that's what makes participation so exciting. When we are participating in any of our events, we are one big family with like goals in mind."
McMahon said this year's anniversary skirmish will sponsor two events: a shoot-off among the top shooters of all 13 regions and a live fire night-time artillery demonstration. He said, "We had a nighttime artillery match at the 100th Nationals and it was spectacular!"
Skirmishes also serve as a recruiting arena for future members, and vendors of period firearms, clothing and accouterments are onsite. McMahon said, "Fortunately there is a vast supply original parts and reproduction parts available."
Spectators are invited to watch skirmishes for free.
A Cannon for Katie
"I became interested in the N-SSA in 1997 when my now-husband brought me to Ft. Shenandoah for a National Skirmish," said Katie Scanlan, a member of the 1st Maryland Cavalry, CSA. "I've always had an interest in Civil War history, so when I attended that National, I was hooked. . . .The shooting matches intrigued me, even though I had little to no experience with a firearm. I wanted to learn."
She believes the N-SSA appeals to women because "you get to compete in a predominately male sport on a level playing field. During the team competitions, you are up on the shooting line with two to seven other people, and you're shooting the same targets as everyone else from the same distance. Once you're up on that line, it doesn't matter whether you are male or female; it's all about the competition."
Nine women are on the 25-member team of 1st Maryland CSA. Scanlan says.
"Currently I participate in musket, carbine, repeater and smooth-bore competitions," she said. "I also participate in artillery matches with a 24-pound Coehorn mortar and my cannon -- a 2.25 inch Confederate Mountain Rifle, which we have named Mary."
She added, "My favorite match to shoot is the repeater match, because it is very fast-paced, and you really have to shoot consistently. There is a very high level of competition with the Henry rifles, so you really need to shoot well as a team. My favorite gun, however, will always be my cannon, because that was a Christmas gift from my husband."
Scanlan recommended that if someone is interested in checking out the organization, then he or she should attend a skirmish. Skirmishes are held almost every weekend along the East Coast and midsection of the country. Fort Shenandoah hosts two nationals and 15 regional skirmishes a year.
As to the expense of participating, Scanlan said, "Cost varies depending on the team you join. Like most recreational activities, someone can get started in skirmishing for a reasonable amount of money. Once established on a team with a gun and uniform, shooting for the weekend can cost less than a round of golf."
Spectators are invited to watch skirmishes for free.