What really happened in the Wild West? The Gunslinger Myth

The Wild West of nineteenth-century America was at times a chaotic and unruly place, not helped by the lack of law enforcement officials. Even so, many myths have arisen about the period. Here, Robert Walsh debunks the myths and shares what really happened.

The Wild West was the home of many colorful (often disreputable) characters. Native Americans, gold prospectors, gamblers, cattle ranchers, miners and immigrants scrambled to extend the new frontier. They spread further West in search of their fortunes. With law-abiding, hard-working citizens came criminals. The most notorious were gunslingers, hired guns who would rob a bank one month, protect a cattle baron the next and then be hired as a town marshal the month after that. Being a gunslinger didn’t automatically make a man a criminal; some of the best known were both law enforcers and lawbreakers at different times.

Gunslingers in popular culture

The popular image of gunslingers comes from cheap novels and films and it is far more fiction than fact. Hollywood would have us believe that hired guns were either all good (like Gary Cooper’s portrayal in the classic film ‘High Noon’) or all bad (like Michael Biehn’s portrayal of Johnny Ringo in ‘Tombstone’). This black-and-white idea doesn’t reflect reality. Pop culture’s image is often a slow-talking, fast-drawing lone gunman riding into town, taking on several men at once while wearing one or two pistols in low-slung hip holsters and, naturally, letting them draw first before instantly killing all of them. He’ll probably indulge in a drawn-out, climactic gunfight, standing opposite his opponent in the middle of a street for several minutes, each waiting for the other to make the first move. The ‘good guy’ lets the ‘bad guy’ draw first but still wins, naturally.

This portrayal is, frankly, grossly inaccurate. Gunslingers weren’t even called gunslingers during the ‘Wild West’ period. They didn’t wear the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig’ of a low-slung hip holster tied to their thigh for a faster draw. Many didn’t favor the pistol as their primary weapon. Drawn-out standoffs were almost non-existent, as were single gunslingers choosing to fight multiple opponents single-handed unless they absolutely had to. Few made public show of their skills with trick shooting or fancy pistol twirling in saloons or on street corners (notable exceptions were ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and the infamous John Wesley Hardin). They were seldom always lawmen or outlaws and frequently both at different points in their careers (some even managed to hold public office as sheriffs or marshals while operating as vigilantes, assassins, extortioners and general criminals). Pop culture’s version of the gunslinger hasn’t made them more interesting; it has dumbed down who these men were, what they did and how they did it while ignoring the more complex aspects.

‘Shootists’ – The reality

According to etymologist Barry Popik the word ‘gunslinger’ didn’t come into use until the 1920 movie ‘Drag Harlan’ and then in the novels of famed Western author Zane Grey who first used it in his 1928 novel ‘Nevada’. The word ‘gunfighter’ first appeared in the 1870s. Wild West gunmen were more commonly known as ‘shootists’, ‘badmen’, ‘pistoleers’ or ‘pistoleros’ (a Spanish word for ‘gunman’). Granted, the word ‘gunslinger’ sounds good, but it first appeared long after gunslingers themselves ceased to exist. Feared gunman Clay Allison is believed to have coined the most popular term of the period when asked about his occupation by replying “I’m a shootist.”

Pop culture would also have us believe that gunmen wore customized gunbelts and holsters, the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig’. They didn’t. The stereotypical ‘gunfighter’s rig’ beloved of movie directors the world over didn’t exist during the period. It came into being in the 1950s when ‘quick draw’ contests with blank-firing revolvers became a competitive sport. The low-slung holster tied down to a man’s thigh simply didn’t exist.

Also almost non-existent was the idea of two fighters walking out into a street, facing each other and then fighting a ‘quick draw’ duel. If a real gunfighter drew quickly it was usually because an opponent had tried to ambush him. Most one-on-one gunfights resulted from personal disputes such as over women or during card games where insults were exchanged and guns drawn immediately. The idea of Wild West gunfights having any resemblance to European dueling is best left in dime novels and movie theaters where it belongs. Only two such face-to-face duels are on record as having actually happened, between ‘Wild Bill’ and Davis Tutt in Deadwood, South Dakota (Hickok killed Tutt with a remarkable single pistol shot at a range of over fifty meters) and between Jim Courtright and Luke Short (Short killed Courtright with a volley of four bullets, not a surgically-delivered single shot). Gunfights like those in the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ directed by Sergio Leone are wonderful viewing, but bear almost no relation to reality.

Gunfighters of the time were also far more sensible than to tackle multiple opponents single-handed unless they absolutely had to. One extremely rare example was the notorious ‘Four dead in five seconds’ gunfight in Austin, Texas. Gunfighter Dallas Stoudenmire (employed as town marshal at the time) used his two pistols to kill four men, three of whom had ambushed him. Unfortunately the fourth was an innocent bystander already running for cover when the shooting started.

Tools of the trade

Another myth is that gunfighters all preferred revolvers. In films they draw one or two pistols, empty them without seeming to aim and, naturally, kill every opponent without missing or accidentally shooting anybody else. Any pistol marksman will tell you that holding a revolver with one hand and fanning the hammer with the other is the worst way to shoot accurately. In reality, most gunmen favored the ‘coach gun’ (a short-barreled shotgun used by stagecoach guards, hence the phrase ‘riding shotgun’) or rifles like the 1873 Winchester. Legendary gunman Ben Thompson was a firm devotee of the shotgun, as was John ‘Doc’ Holliday’ of OK Corral fame. Billy the Kid always preferred a Winchester rifle. The reason was simple. Shotguns and rifles are more accurate than pistols so killing with the first shot was more likely. It was pointless drawing a pistol quickly if you couldn’t hit your target before they hit you. As Wyatt Earp once put it: “Fast is fine. Accurate is final.”

Some gunfighters bucked that trend. Clay Allison, Dallas Stoudenmire and Frank and Jesse James all preferred pistols, but they were exceptions. Small pistols like the Derringer were tiny, often firing only one or two shots instead of the six rounds in a typical revolver. They were easily concealed ‘hideout guns’ often hidden in waistcoat pocket or by gamblers for use at a poker table. Similar guns were made for women and nicknamed ‘muff pistols’ because they were often carried in the fur-lined hand-warmers fashionable among women of the time. Whether picking a fight over a poker game or trying to rob a female stagecoach passenger, these small guns often fired large-caliber bullets, much to the distress of many an outlaw.

As time went on single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons were replaced by ‘repeating’ guns like the revolver, shotgun and breech-loading rifles such as the 1873 Winchester. Gunfighters now had weapons enabling them to deliver greater firepower with less time spent reloading their weapons. Samuel Colt’s ‘Peacemaker’ revolver was accurate, powerful and instantly outdated other revolvers by being the first to use all-inclusive metal cartridges. The new cartridges rendered old-school ‘cap and ball’ revolvers obsolete almost overnight. These require the user to fill each individual chamber with gunpowder, add a lead pistol ball and some wadding, ram the ball, powder and wadding into each chamber using a lever under the barrel and then fit a percussion cap over each chamber. Only then is a ‘cap and ball’ revolver fully loaded. The ‘Peacemaker’ could be reloaded simply by shaking out the spent metal cartridges and replacing them. Improved weapons meant increased firepower. Increased firepower was essential in the evolution of the gunslinger.

Rise of the hired gun

So what created the gunslinger? Why was there a need for hired guns rather than the police forces we know today? In a word, necessity. Law enforcement was at best basic. Individual US marshals could find their territory extended over hundreds of square miles. County sheriffs had the same problem. There was simply too much ground containing too many people for such limited law enforcement to deal with. Outlaws could easily evade even the most persistent marshals and sheriffs simply by crossing State lines, putting themselves beyond the legal jurisdiction of their pursuers. The court system on the frontier consisted largely of ‘Circuit Judges’ (a term still used today). Individual judges were allotted a ‘circuit’ of towns and rode round and round conducting trials and any other legal business that had amassed since their last visit. Jails were insecure and their staff often corrupt, so even when criminals were arrested they often easily escaped. Authorities could also offer rewards for wanted outlaws on a ‘dead or alive’ basis, encouraging many gunslingers to work as bounty hunters. With rewards offered ‘dead or alive’ many bounty hunters found it safer to simply kill wanted outlaws, deliver their bodies and collect their reward. It was safer than the additional risks associated with delivering live outlaws into custody for the same amount of money. Bounty hunters of the time were sometimes referred to as ‘bounty killers’ because, to them, fugitives were worth the same alive or dead. 

The gunfighter – Hero or villain?

With the vastly inadequate official systems available, many towns hired their own sheriffs and marshals. Naturally, the job required men who were expert with guns and bold enough to fight when necessary. Not every expert marksman was also prepared to face ruthless criminals for a sheriff’s wage. So townsfolk often turned to whoever was prepared to do the job, often hiring gunfighters based on their fearsome reputation rather than their regard for the law. Notorious outlaws ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius (later killed by Wyatt Earp) and William Bonney (known as ‘Billy the Kid’) were also sheriff’s deputies at one time. Even the infamous John ‘Doc’ Holliday, one of the most feared gunmen of the Wild West, was deputized by his long-time friend and Deputy US Marshal Wyatt Earp after the famed ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ in Tombstone, Arizona. Equally notorious killer Ben Thompson became Chief of Police in Austin, Texas, despite having previously served a sentence for murder.

Businessmen also hired groups of gunslingers to protect their lives and their interests. Famed cattle baron John Chisum once employed ‘Billy the Kid’ as a gunman to protect his livestock against cattle rustlers. Mining companies often employed notorious gunmen such as Butch Cassidy to escort shipments of newly minted bullion and payrolls, ensuring their safe arrival by hiring gunmen who might otherwise try robbing those very shipments. In the absence of adequate official law enforcement many people sought their own version by employing as sheriffs and marshals exactly the kind of people they hoped to be protected from. Famed marksman Tom Horn (later hanged for murder) was a sheriff’s deputy and a Pinkerton detective while performing contract murders at the same time. Jim Courtright was a town marshal when he fought his famous duel with Luke Short. Being town marshal hadn’t stopped Courtright from trying to extort Short. It didn’t stop Courtright killing him, either. Wyatt Earp was heavily involved in gambling (and, some say, pimping) while also serving as a Deputy US Marshal.

Men of dubious reputations weren’t everybody’s first choice as law enforcers, but then they were often the only men available to do the job. The frontier territories, with their cattle ranches, mining towns, railroads and various other lucrative businesses and limited law enforcement, offered rich pickings for outlaws prepared to rob, extort and kill anybody opposing them. Law-abiding citizens had to hire their own gunmen and sometimes resort to vigilante justice through lynch mobs. Until the law was fully established the gun took precedence.

One last thought on the gunslinger myth is that pop culture isn’t entirely to blame. To develop and keep their credibility gunmen had to be regarded as people to both respect and fear. The more feared they were, the fewer challenges they were likely to face. With that in mind, many gunfighters built myths around themselves and made themselves seem as skilled (and therefore deadly) as they could get away with. John Wesley Hardin was a notorious braggart. Clay Allison was the same. If gunfighters are so badly misrepresented in the modern world then they are also to blame.

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