Think gunfighters, and you are whisked away into the old American West, with legendary names like Doc. Holliday and Billy The Kid loading up their six shooters, sauntering down dusty streets, spurs ringing with each step, turning to face each other and shooting.
In fact there were very few face to face gunfights, and not where two men went out on the street and shot it out the way that the movies show them. Often, a gunslinger’s reputation of being a killer would keep people from pulling a gun on him.
Most gunfights were at a distance of less five metres. At the OK Coral the distance between the Earps and Clantons was less than two metres. If a gunslinger was going to shoot, he pulled his gun and started firing. Cowboys tended to wear their pistol tucked under their belt. Holsters or gun buckets were only used while riding on a horse. Many early cowboys did not carry a pistol unless they were a long way from the ranch. They preferred a rifle over a pistol because of accuracy.
It was dangerous if someone started shooting – you never knew who else would pull a gun and fire. When the shooting started there was no safe place to be as there were more stray bullets than on-target ones. Gunslingers who went into a town to harass the local town folk didn’t live long. A good Winchester or a Sharps buffalo rifle would take care of the problem at a safer distance. Many men were shot in the back.
As a gunfighter you had to be alert. There was always someone a little more skillful or luckier than you. Luck played a big part in a gunfight. In the 1800s the black gunpowder gave off so much smoke that after firing a few quick shots you could not see your adversary, especially on a day with no wind or inside a building. Pistols were notoriously inaccurate, so that under the pressures of a gunfight unless the shooter was very practiced with the particular pistol, or the range was so close they could not miss – they often did miss. Gunfighters often carried more than one pistol.
In the 1800s lawmen were scarce and were often not called when there was a fight or minor shooting. Most settled their differences themselves and left the law out of it. The lawmen knew like anyone else, that they could be shot at any time. Lawmen were hired to protect the citizens and most considered the cowboys, outlaws and gunslinger’s not to be a citizen so left them alone as long as they minded their own business. Notorious wanted men moved through many towns and not arrested. These men knew the lawmen would leave them alone as long as they caused no trouble.
The gunfighters were daring and deadly, they lived a rough violent life. Many were from the South and had fought in the Civil War. After losing their land and wealth following the war, the soldiers turned gamblers, bandits and gunslingers. Some were pushed into it, to others killing came more easily. Most died at an early age by lead poison, shot in the night as they slept or in the back.
Some of the most deadly gunfighters include:
John Wesley Hardin was a killer turned lawyer and his word was the law. He was one of the deadliest men that ever lived.
John ‘Doc’ Holiday was a very talented and intelligent gunfighter. He reputadly had nerves of steel and would rather die than back down.
Robert Clay Allison – Fist, knife or gun. He would fight until he died. He was said to be the first true gunfighter.
Billy the kid – see next week’s feature to find out more about him…
Another Through the Ages article coming soon…