Meet the Zoot Shooters

The American Zoot Shooters Association embodies the looks of the Roaring Twenties. AZSA participants dress in 1920s-1940s costumes and compete against the clock, engaging targets for the best possible score.photo courtesy of the American Zoot Shooters Association

They dress up as gangsters, cops, flappers, and other types from the Prohibition era. They use guns from that period, and compete while in costume. They say they’re “bringing back the Roaring Twenties!”

I'd heard about the members of the American Zoot Shooters Association (AZSA), but I didn't expect to run into any of them.

It was a hot mid-summer day at the 2015 Industry Masters, an event held to raise funds for the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s First Shots program. This year’s event took place in Kansas, near the Oklahoma border, where temperatures hovered around 100 degrees, and the humidity spiked quickly into the soaking-wet zone.

Most of the handgun, rifle, and shotgun shooters were wearing shorts, t-shirts or shooting shirts, ball caps and cooling neck wraps … except for the three guys from Colorado wearing three-piece zoot suits. They even had ties and period hats from the Roaring Twenties. The Masters’ theme centered on the 1920s, so it was fitting that the AZSA showed up to run a side match that featured Tommy guns and single-stack Model 1911 pistols.

“Who doesn’t want to run around and shoot a Tommy gun?” asked Henning Wallgren, the founder of AZSA, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to the proposition that Roaring Twenties’ guns are fun to shoot. He later confessed that the gang almost passed out from the heat by mid-afternoon at the Masters.

Wallgren is a former professional shooter for gunmaker Tanfoglio. His friend, Jason Huss, started the AZSA in 2008. “I dedicated a large portion of my life (from 1998 to 2009) to run around and shoot guns into gravel pits around the world,” said Henning. “I always wanted a Tommy gun, because it’s iconic and classic, and I had an opportunity to get some semiautomatic Tommy guns from Kahr Arms.”

Zoot Shooters must use firearms that are correct for the time period prior to 1950. Costumes may be of any character type reflecting the era such as a gangster, law enforcement type, and flapper.photo courtesy of the American Zoot Shooters Association

Henning and Huss told their friends about the Tommy guns, and they decided to make a sport out of getting together and shooting. The men also decided that competitors must dress the part, and so you’ll see zoot suits and flapper attire at the events. Henning says women even shoot the Tommy guns in high heels.

The activity is similar to Cowboy Action Shooting in that participants choose aliases. Henning is “The Undertaker,” and Huss and current president Steve Fowler are “The Hustler” and “G-Man.”

“We have some members who have authentic, $30,000 Tommy guns,” said Henning. “If you want to spend the money, and can get a license, you can get one.” Members, however, are not allowed to shoot their Tommy guns on full-auto during competitions.

The matches have several scenarios or “capers,” such as a bank heist, for the shooters to move through. “Steve is really good at writing up the ‘capers,’” said Henning. “He writes a story around it.”

Shooters must use guns that were available in the first half of the 20th century. Currently, there are seven zoot-shooting clubs across the country and in Italy. AZSA is actively encouraging the formation of additional local “mobs” to offer more shooters a chance to try gangster action shooting. Henning says there are some German shooters interested in zoot shooting who are in the process of forming a club.

The predominant American Zoot Shooters Association guns are Thompson rifles and 1911 pistols, but other firearms may be considered. Auto-Ordnance is manufacturing high quality semi-automatic Tommy Guns that do not require special permits.photo courtesy of the American Zoot Shooters Association

“It’s not like it’s a huge investment to get going,” said current president Henning Fowler, who got started with the AZSA when he encountered a couple of “crazy guys” doing the Zoot Shooters thing in the Denver metro area. Fowler, who shoots Colt .38 Special double-action revolvers in the capers for the AZSA, said participants may shoot their own hand-loaded ammo, factory ammo, or full-jacket, if they prefer.

“It’s a family friendly association,” said Fowler. “Ruger makes the 10-22 and you can get a conversion kit at 1022Fungun.com that makes it look like a Tommy gun.”

The website, kept updated by Fowler, is full of history and upcoming events, along with photos and information about the guns. One upcoming event is the 2015 AZSA World Championship, to be held at the Colorado Rifle Club in Byers, Colo., from Sept. 4 through 6. The event includes a main match with speed events, belly gun side matches and long-range side matches.

Members of the American Zoot Shooters Association in costume at an event.photo courtesy of the American Zoot Shooters Association