The popular image of the Wild West ‘gunfighter’ has largely been shaped by the ‘dime’ novel and the Western film genre. However, the way they have been portrayed is a lot more fiction than reality. Here’s ten facts that might surprise you on the universal popular gunman characters of the Old West.
1. What’s in a name?
The words “gunslinger” and “gunfighter” were never in used in the ‘Old West’ as they are relatively modern terms. The word ‘gunfighter’ was first used in the dime novels that became popular in the late 19th century. The term ‘gunslinger’ was first used in the Western film ‘Drag Harlan’, released in 1920. Both terms were adapted by early screenwriters and quickly came into common usage. The most authentic words in use during the gunfighter era were “gunman”, “pistoleer”, “shootist”, and “badman”.
2. A Typical Gunfight
The ‘gunfight’, as portrayed in films and books, sees two men facing up to each other in a pre-arranged pistol duel. It usually sees one waiting for the other to make the first move. This romanticized image of the gunfight was conjured up in the ‘dime’ novels of the late 19th century. Later it was perpetuated in the Western films in the first half of the 20th century.
It may come as no great surprise to find this somewhat civilised depiction of the gunfight was rarely the case. A shootout was much more likely to be a spur-of-the-moment incident. It was more likely that one party reacted to the other drawing a gun. And, both parties would inevitably run for cover. There are also plenty of cases where the victim of a shooting was simply shot from behind.
3. The Most Famous Gunfight
The Gunfight at the OK Corral, often cited as the most famous of the shootout of the Old West, only lasted around 30 seconds. The skirmish saw the lawmen Earp Brothers, plus Doc Holliday, pitched against the Clanton-McLaury gang. It took place on the October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona. Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded, and Doc Holiday slightly injured. However, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton, were all killed.
Western folklore and Hollywood has perpetuated the myth of the gun skills of the gunfighter. Few gunfighters, if any, would have been capable of the trick shots that are often portrayed on the screen. Firing a bullet that cut a hangman’s rope or shooting a gun out of your combatant’s hand would have been impossible. Pistols of the time did just not have that kind of accuracy. In fact, many gunfighters did not necessarily even have a reputation for precision shooting. However, there were some notable exceptions such as John Wesley Hardin and Wild Bill Hickok.
5. The Hollywood Holster
The gunfighter’s low-slung gun belt and fancy holster, tied to the leg, is pure Hollywood fiction. In reality, most gunfighters would have carried their pistols about their person. Commonly, they were stuck in to a waistband, put in a pocket, or slipped onto a standard belt in a simple leather holster.
6. Weapon of Choice
Another myth, largely perpetrated by Hollywood is that gunfighter’s weapon of choice was the revolver. Western movies often show the gunfighter armed with a pistol or pistols. Somehow, even without taking proper aim, they effortlessly manage to hit their target every time. However, in reality, the pistol had poor accuracy, especially when shot with one hand. Fanning the hammer as often portrayed on the screen, would not have happened.
Most gunfighters, actually favoured a ‘coach gun’, a short-barrelled shotgun, or a rifle such as the 1873 Winchester. The coach gun simply they had much greater accuracy than the pistol. A few exceptions who preferred the pistol, included the likes of Jesse James and Clay Allison.
7. Gunfight Occurrence?
Hard facts about the occurrence of gunfights across the Old West are hard to determine. Did a few gunshots fired off in anger or high jinks constitute a gunfight? Unfortunate onlookers, were often unintentionally killed in such incidents. Gunfights were certainly a lot less frequent than book or film would have us believe. One estimate of total gunfight incidents for the period from end of the Civil War, in 1865, to the end of the century, put the figure at 600. That is an average of just one gunfight every 3 weeks across the whole of the Old West.
8. The Gunman Era
Given the popular portrayal of the Wild West it would be easy to think that were literally thousands of gunfighters. However, the era of the gunfighter is surprising short. Some put that period as between the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the end of the 19th century. In any case, wide ownership of modern revolvers and rifles did not come about until the middle of the 19th century. The total number of individuals who are perceived to have warranted the title of ‘gunfighter’ is most often put at around 250 by experts.
9. The Grim Reaper
The average lifespan of a gunfighter has been estimated at around 40 years old. Those who chose to work on the side of the law usually managed to live a bit longer than those who opt for a life of crime. A good number of gunfighters did both, sometimes at the same time. While some gunman saw death due to natural causes, its said more than 50% died a violent death, either from a gunfight, lynching, or legal execution.
10. The Last Gunfighter
The last person to carry the ‘gunslinger’ tag was Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson, who only died in 1921. The last gunfighter of the Old West was born to a working-class Irish family in Quebec in November 1853. He moved to the Western frontier in his late teens, where he found work as a buffalo hunter and then a civilian army scout. In 1877, he moved to Dodge City in Kansas where he earned a reputation as both gambler a gunfighter. However, he later become the town sheriff. In 1902, he moved to New York City where found work as a reporter and columnist for the The Morning Telegraph. He died at his work desk on 25 October 1921, aged 67, following a massive heart attack.