|Gunfighters - Wikipedia
This article is about the profession. For the 1950 film,
see The Gunfighter. For other uses, see Gunfighter (disambiguation).
"Gunslinger" redirects here. For other uses, see Gunslinger
"Gunfight" redirects here. For the video game, see Gun
Fight. For the film, see Gun Fight (film).
Armed gunfighters in the 19th century
Gunfighter and gunslinger are literary words used historically
to refer to men in the American Old West who had gained a reputation of
being dangerous with a gun and had participated in gunfights and shootouts.
Gunman was a more common term used for these individuals in the 19th century.
Today, the term "gunslinger" is now more or less used to denote someone
who is quick on the draw with a pistol, but can also refer to riflemen
and shotgun messengers. The gunfighter is also one of the most popular
characters in the Western genre and has appeared in associated films, video
games, and literature.
Gunfighters range from different occupations including
lawman, outlaw, cowboy, exhibitionists and duelist, but are more commonly
synonymous to a hired gun who made a living with his weapons in the Old
Origin of the term
Etymologist Barry Popik has traced the term "gun slinger"
back to its use in the Western movie Drag Harlan (1920). The word was soon
adopted by other Western writers, such as Zane Grey, and became common
usage. In his introduction to The Shootist (1976), author Glendon Swarthout
says "gunslinger" and "gunfighter" are modern terms, and the more authentic
terms for the period would have been "gunman", "pistoleer", "shootist,"
or "bad man" (sometimes written as "badman"). Swarthout seems to have been
correct about "gunslinger", but the term "gunfighter" existed in several
newspapers in the 1870s, and as such the term existed in the 19th century.
Bat Masterson used the term "gunfighter" in the newspaper articles which
he wrote about the lawmen and outlaws whom he had known. However, Joseph
Rosa noted that, even though Masterson used the term "gunfighter", he "preferred
the term 'mankiller'" when discussing these individuals. Clay Allison (1841–1887),
a notorious New Mexico and Texas gunman and cattleman, originated the term
Often, the term has been applied to men who would hire
out for contract killings or at a ranch embroiled in a range war where
they would earn "fighting wages". Others, like Billy the Kid, were notorious
bandits, and still others were lawmen like Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp.
A gunfighter could be an outlaw—a robber or murderer who took advantage
of the wilderness of the frontier to hide from genteel society and to make
periodic raids on it. The gunfighter could also be an agent of the state,
archetypically a lone avenger, but more often a sheriff, whose duty was
to face the outlaw and bring him to justice or to personally administer
it. There were also a few historical cowboys who were actual gunfighters,
such as the Outlaw cowboy gang who participated in the bloody Skeleton
Depiction in culture
Gunslingers frequently appear as stock characters in Western
movies and novels, along with cowboys. Often, the hero of a Western meets
his opposite "double", a mirror of his own evil side that he has to destroy.
Western gunslinger heroes are portrayed as local lawmen
or enforcement officers, ranchers, army officers, cowboys, territorial
marshals, nomadic loners, or skilled fast-draw artists. They are normally
masculine persons of integrity and principle - courageous, moral, tough,
solid, and self-sufficient, maverick characters (often with trusty sidekicks),
possessing an independent and honorable attitude (but often characterized
as slow-talking). They are depicted as similar to a knight-errant, wandering
from place to place with no particular direction, often facing curious
and hostile enemies, while saving individuals or communities from those
enemies in terms of chivalry. The Western hero usually stands alone and
faces danger on his own, commonly against lawlessness, with an expert display
of his physical skills (roping, gun-play, horse-handling, pioneering abilities,
In films, the gunslinger often possesses a nearly superhuman
speed and skill with the revolver. Twirling pistols, lightning draws, and
trick shots are standard fare for the gunmen of the big screen. In the
real world, however, gunmen who relied on flashy tricks and theatrics died
quickly, and most gunslingers took a much more practical approach to their
weapons. Real gunslingers did not shoot to disarm or to impress, but to
Another classic bit of cinema that is largely a myth is
the showdown at high noon, where two well-matched gunslingers agree to
meet for a climactic formal duel. These duels did occasionally happen,
as in the case of the Luke Short – Jim Courtright duel, but gunfights were
typically more spontaneous, a fight that turned deadly when one side reached
for a weapon, and no one knew who actually won the fight for several minutes
until the air finally cleared of smoke. Gunfights could be won by simple
distraction, or pistols could be emptied as gunmen fought from behind cover
without injury. When a gunman did square off, it rarely was with another
gunfighter. Gunslingers usually gave each other a wide berth, and it was
uncommon for two well-known gunslingers to face off. The gunslinger's reputation
often was as valuable as any skills possessed. In Western films and books,
young toughs often challenge experienced gunmen with the hopes of building
a reputation, but this rarely happened in real life. A strong reputation
was enough to keep others civil and often would spare a gunfighter from
conflict. Even other gunslingers were likely to avoid any unnecessary confrontation.
In the days of the Old West, tales tended to grow with
repeated telling, and a single fight might grow into a career-making reputation.
For instance, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral made legends of Wyatt Earp
and the Outlaw Cowboy gang, but they were relatively minor figures before
that conflict. Some gunslingers, such as Bat Masterson, actively engaged
in self-promotion. Johnny Ringo built a reputation as a gunslinger while
never taking part in a gunfight or killing unarmed civilians.
Fact and fiction
Most gunfights are portrayed in films or books as having
two men square off, waiting for one to make the first move. This was rarely
the case. Often, a gunfight was spur-of-the-moment, with one drawing his
pistol, and the other reacting. Often it would develop into a shootout
where both men bolted for cover. In popular folklore, men who held noteworthy
reputations as a gunfighter were eager to match up against another gunman
with the same reputation. On the contrary, in cases where two men held
a similar reputation, both would avoid confrontation with one another whenever
possible. They rarely took undue risks, and usually weighed their options
before confronting another well-known gunman. This respect for one another
is why most famous gunfights were rarely two or more well-known gunmen
matched up against one another, but rather one notable gunman against a
lesser-known opponent or opponents.
These fights were usually close-up and personal, with
a number of shots blasted from pistols, often resulting in innocent bystanders
hit by bullets gone wild. Much of the time, it would be difficult to tell
who had "won” the gunfight for several minutes, as the black powder smoke
from the pistols cleared the air. How famous gunfighters died is as varied
as each man. Many well-known gunfighters were so feared by the public because
of their reputation that when they were killed, they died as a result of
ambush rather than going down in a "blaze of glory". Others died secluded
deaths either from old age or illness.
Mythology and folklore often exaggerate the skills of
famous gunfighters. Most of these historical figures were not known to
be capable of trick shooting, nor did they necessarily have a reputation
for precision sharpshooting. Such tropes that are frequently seen in Westerns
include shooting the center of a coin, stylistic pistol twirling, glancing
shots that intentionally only graze an opponent (the bullet through the
hat being an example), shooting an opponent's belt buckle (thus dropping
his pants), a bullet cutting the hangman's rope, or shooting the guns out
of opponents' hands (typically as an alternative to killing). The latter
was debunked by Mythbusters as an impossibility, as unjacketed bullets
tend to shatter into fragments that can hurt or even kill. Ed McGivern
dispelled the myth of the inaccuracy of pistol fanning by shooting tight
groups while fanning the revolver.
In Western movies, the characters' gun belts are often
worn low on the hip and outer thigh, with the holster cut away around the
pistol's trigger and grip for a smooth, fast draw. This type of holster
is a Hollywood anachronism. Fast-draw artists can be distinguished from
other movie cowboys because their guns will often be tied to their thigh.
Long before holsters were steel-lined, they were soft and supple for comfortable
all-day wear. A gunfighter would use tie-downs to keep his pistol from
catching on the holster while drawing. Most of the time, gunfighters would
just hide their pistols in their pockets and waistbands. Wild Bill Hickok
popularized the butt-forward holster type, which worked better on horseback.
Other gunfighters would use bridgeport rigs that gave a faster and easier
draw. Revolvers were a popular weapon to gunfighters who were horsemen,
cowboys, and lawmen because of their concealability and effectiveness on
horseback. The Winchester rifle was also a popular weapon among gunfighters.
Dubbed the "Gun that Won the West", it was widely used during the settlement
of the American frontier. Shotguns were also a popular weapon for "express
messengers" and guards, especially those on stagecoaches and trains who
were in charge of overseeing and guarding a valuable private shipment.
Although quick draw and hip shooting was an important
skill in the West, only a handful of historically known gunslingers were
known to be fast, such as Luke Short, John Wesley Hardin, Wild Bill Hickok,
Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid. Shooting a pistol with one hand is normally
associated with gunslingers, and is also a standard for them of the era
to carry two guns and fire ambidextrously. Capt. Jonathan R. Davis carried
two revolvers in his iconic gunfight, while Jesse James himself carried
over half a dozen revolvers in many of his gunfights.
Gunfighters King Fisher, John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson,
Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickok and Pat Garrett all died as a result of
ambush, killed by men who feared them because of their reputation. Gunmen
Kid Curry, Jim Courtright, Dallas Stoudenmire and Dave Rudabaugh were killed
in raging gun battles, much as portrayed in films about the era, and usually
against more than one opponent. Bill Longley and Tom Horn were executed.
Famed gunman Clay Allison died in a wagon accident. Gunmen Wyatt Earp,
Bat Masterson, Bass Reeves, Commodore Perry Owens, and Luke Short all died
of natural causes, living out their lives on reputation and avoiding conflict
in secluded retirement. Gunfighter and lawman Frank Eaton, known as "Pistol
Pete" lived into old age and gained further fame, before his death at age
97, by becoming the mascot for Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State
University). Rare are the gunfighters who, like William Sidney "Cap" Light,
died accidentally by their own hand.
The image of a Wild West filled with countless gunfights
was a myth generated primarily by dime-novel authors in the late 19th century.
An estimate of 20,000 men in the American West were killed by gunshot between
1866 and 1900, and over 21,586 total casualties during the American Indian
Wars from 1850 to 1890. The most notable and well-known took place in the
states/territories of Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Actual gunfights in the Old West were very rare, very few and far between,
but when gunfights did occur, the cause for each varied. Some were simply
the result of the heat of the moment, while others were longstanding feuds,
or between bandits and lawmen. Lawless violence such as range wars like
the Lincoln County War and clashes with Indians were also a cause. Some
of these shootouts became famous, while others faded into history with
only a few accounts surviving. To prevent gunfights from happening, many
cities in the American frontier, such as Dodge City and Tombstone, put
up a local ordinance to prohibit firearms in the area.
The Gunfight at the OK Corral is a famous example of a
real-life western shootout, between the Earp Brothers together with Doc
Holliday, and the Clanton-McLaury gang. It lasted only 30 seconds, contrary
to many movie adaptations. The gunfight itself didn't actually happen in
the corral, but in a vacant lot outside of the corral. Both parties simultaneously
drew their guns, which added to the confusion of who fired first. The shooting
started when Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury cocked their pistols. It is
not known who fired the first shot, but Wyatt's bullet was the first to
hit, tearing through Frank McLaury's belly and sending McLaury’s own shot
wild through Wyatt’s coattail. Billy Clanton fired at Virgil, but his shot
also went astray when he was hit with Morgan's shot through his rib cage.
Billy Claiborne ran as soon as shots were fired and was already out of
sight. Ike Clanton panicked as well and ran towards Wyatt pleading for
his life. "Go to fighting or get away!", Wyatt yelled and watched Ike desert
his brother Billy and run. Doc instantly killed Tom with blasts from his
shotgun. Frank was running to Fremont Street, and he challenged Holliday
for killing his brother, but Doc dropped his shotgun, drew his pistol,
and shot Frank in the right temple. Desperately, wounded and dying, Billy
Clanton fired blindly into the gun smoke encircling him, striking Virgil's
leg. Wyatt responded by sending several rounds into Billy.
In April 14, 1881, lawman Dallas Stoudenmire participated
in a gunfight in El Paso, Texas which many dubbed the Four Dead in Five
Seconds Gunfight, in which he killed three of the four fatalities with
his twin .44 caliber Colt revolvers. One of those killed was an innocent
Mexican bystander. Less than a year after these incidents, he would kill
as many as six more men in gunfights while in the line of duty.
Another well-documented gunfight resulted in the most
kills by one person in a single event, when Capt. Jonathan R. Davis shot
eleven bandits single-handedly on 19 December 1854. Unknown to Davis and
his companions, a band of robbers was lying in wait in the canyon brush
near the trail. They were a typically diverse and motley group of Gold
Rush bandits: two Americans, one Frenchman, two Britons, five Sydney Ducks,
and four Mexicans. As Captain Davis and his companions trudged on foot,
the bandit gang charged out of the brush, pistols flaming. James McDonald
died instantly, without time to draw his revolver or react in any way.
Dr. Bolivar managed to get his six-shooter out and fire twice at the highwaymen
before he dropped, badly wounded. Captain Davis later described himself
as being "in a fever of excitement at the time." Unfazed, he stood his
ground, pulling out both pistols and firing a barrage at the charging outlaws.
He shot down his assailants, one after another. The outlaws' bullets tore
at Davis's clothing, but caused only two slight flesh wounds. Within moments,
seven of the bandits were dead or dying on the ground and Davis's pistols
were empty. Four of the remaining robbers now closed in on the captain
to finish him off. Davis whipped out his Bowie knife, and quickly warded
off the thrusts from the two of the bandits. He stabbed one of them to
death; the other he disarmed by knocking the knife from his grasp and slicing
off his nose and a finger of his right hand. The two last attackers were
the men who had been wounded in a previous bandit raid. Despite their weakened
condition, they foolishly approached Davis with drawn knives. The captain
reacted in an instant. Slashing with his heavy Bowie, he killed them both.
In December 1, 1884, a town sheriff named Elfego Baca
came face-to-face against 80 gunmen which became known as the Frisco shootout.
The battle started when Baca arrested a cowboy who had shot him. In turn
the cowboy called upon 80 of his associates to murder Baca. Baca took refuge
in an adobe house, and over the course of a 36-hour siege, the gunmen put
400 bullet holes in the house (some accounts say a total of 4,000 shots)
without touching Baca. He in turn killed 4 of them and wounded 8. When
the shooting was over as the attackers finally ran out of ammo, Baca strolled
out of the house unscathed. Baca went on to a distinguished career as a
lawyer and legislator and died in his bed in 1945, age 80.
In January 1887 Commodore Perry Owens took office as Sheriff
of Apache County, Arizona. He sent two deputies to arrest Ike Clanton.
Clanton had instigated the Gunfight at the OK Corral and was charged with
the later ambush shooting of Virgil Earp. Wyatt Earp searched for Ike Clanton
in his vendetta, but never found him - Ike move north to Apache County
to continue rustling cattle and killing. Owens' two deputies killed Ike
Clanton; Phin Clanton was arrested; three other gang members were killed;
and the Clanton gang was done. Then Sheriff Owens turned his attention
to the Blevins family, the other rustling gang in the county. In June 1887
Old Man Blevins disappeared, presumably killed by the Tewksbury faction
of the Pleasant Valley War. The Blevins sons searched for their father
and in August Hamp Blevins and another were killed by the Tewksbury side.
So Andy Blevins (aka Cooper) ambushed and killed John Tewksbury and Bill
Jacobs in revenge. Blevins returned to Holbrook and was heard bragging
about his killings. Sheriff Owens had inherited a warrant for Andy Blevins'
(Cooper) arrest for horse theft so he rode to Holbook on September 2, 1887.
Sheriff Owens had hunted buffalo for the railroad and could shoot his Winchester
from the hip with great accuracy. Cradling his Winchester rifle in his
arm, Sheriff Owens knocked on the Blevins' door. Andy Blevins answered
with a pistol in hand, the lawman told him to come out, that he had a warrant
for arrest. Blevins refused and tried to close the door. Owens shot his
rifle from his hip through the door, hitting Andy Blevins in the stomach.
Andy's half-brother, John Blevins, pushed a pistol out the door to Owens'
right and fired at the Sheriff. He missed and Owens shot John Blevins in
the arm, putting him out of the fight. Owens saw Andy Blevins in the window
moving to shoot back. Owens shot through the wall, striking Andy in the
right hip - he died that night. Mose Roberts, boarding with the family,
jumped out of a side window with a pistol. Sheriff Owens shot him through
his back and chest, killing him. Fifteen-year-old Samuel Houston Blevins
ran out the front door, with his brother's revolver, and yelled "I'll get
him." His mother ran out after him. Owens shot and Sam fell backward, dying
in his mother's arms. The shootout took less than one minute and made Owens
a legend. In eight months Sheriff Owens had rid Apache County of two notorious
gangs of rustlers and killers.
In many early western films and literature, Native Americans
were often portrayed as savages; having conflicts and battles against gunfighters
and white settlements. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1894),
an estimate of 19,000 white men, women and children were killed while the
Indians killed numbered between 30,000 and 45,000 casualties during the
American Indian Wars. Gunfighters in history did fight Native Americans.
Among them was civilian Billy Dixon, who made one of the longest recorded
sniper kills, by shooting an Indian off his horse almost a mile away with
his Sharps rifle, during a standoff in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.
General George S. Patton himself had a gunfight when he
was a young second lieutenant chasing Pancho Villa all over northern Mexico
in 1916. Patton and 10 enlisted men had been sent to San Miguelito Ranch
to look for Villa, who had recently raided the city of Columbus, New Mexico.
Patton positioned his men by the south gate and was making his way up to
the north gate when a trio of Villa's men came into the ranch on horseback.
Patton drew his obsolete single-action Colt Peacemaker revolver and shot
two of the men. The first man had been fatally wounded in the exchange
and tried to draw his pistol before Patton killed him with a single shot.
After his troops took down the remaining outlaw, Patton tied the three
dead men to the hood of his touring car and drove the bodies back to his
Real-life Wild West duels
The image of two gunslingers with violent reputation squaring
off in a street in a duel, where each draws his pistol and tries to kill
the other, is a Hollywood invention. However, Wild West duels did occur
in real life (though rarely) and as such are not entirely a myth. These
duels were first recorded in the South, brought by emigrants to the American
Frontier as a crude form of the "code duello," a highly formalized means
of solving disputes between gentlemen with swords or guns that had its
origins in European chivalry. By the second half of the 19th century, few
Americans still fought duels to solve their problems, and became a thing
of the past in the United States by the start of the 20th century. Writer
Wyatt-Brown in his book "Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old
South" described dueling in the American frontier as a "custom", and was
primarily used for teenage disputes, rise in ranking, status and scapegoating.
The most famous and well-recorded duel occurred on 21
July 1865, in Springfield, Missouri. Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt quarreled
over cards and decided to have a gunfight. They arranged to walk towards
each other at 6 p.m. Wild Bill's armed presence caused the crowd to immediately
scatter to the safety of nearby buildings, leaving Tutt alone in the northwestern
corner of the square. When they were about 50 yards apart, both men drew
their guns. The two fired at the same time, but Hickok's shot hit Tutt
in the heart, while Tutt's shot missed. This was the first recorded example
of two men taking part in a quick-draw duel. The following month Hickok
was acquitted after pleading self-defense. The first story of the shootout
was detailed in an article in Harper's Magazine in 1867, and became a staple
of the gunslinger legend.
The famous lawman Wyatt Earp gave an account of having
participated a duel once during his vendetta. While in the South Pass of
the Dragoon Mountains, Earp's posse found one of the outlaw cowboys named
"Indian Charlie" Cruz. One account says that after the party recognized
Cruz, they chased him down and a gunfight ensued. The party manage to capture
Cruz and he confessed to have taken part in Morgan's murder, and that he
identified Stilwell, Hank Swilling, Curly Bill and Johnny Ringo as other
of Morgan's killers. During that time, Wyatt allowed Cruz to keep his revolver
to "give him a chance to fight like a man." After the confession, Wyatt
told Cruz to draw, challenging him to a duel, and the posse counted to
three before Wyatt gunned Cruz down.
Doc Holliday himself had a duel in a saloon in Las Vegas,
New Mexico. One of the women who worked there had an ex-boyfriend named
Mike Gordon who had just been discharged from the Army. Gordon wanted her
to stop working. When she told him to leave her alone, he became angry,
went outside the saloon, and started shooting out the windows with his
pistol. As bullets went through the saloon, Doc unflinching, holstered
his Colt Peacemaker revolver, and walked outside. Gordon then started shooting
at him but missed. Holliday then drew his pistol and shot Gordon at long
range with one shot. He then went back to the saloon. Gordon died the next
day and Holliday fled. Doc Holliday has also been credited with wounding
and shooting a pistol out of saloon owner Milt Joyce's hand when he tried
to brandish it at Holliday.
Another well-known duel in the American West happened
in Fort Worth, Texas, and was known as the Luke Short-Jim Courtright Duel.
Timothy Isaiah "Longhair Jim" Courtright was running the T.I.C. Commercial
agency in Fort Worth, which provided "protection" to gambling dens and
saloons in return for a portion of their profits. At the same time, Luke
Short, a former friend of Courtright's, was running the White Elephant
Saloon and Jim was trying to get Short to utilize his services. But the
Dodge City gunfighter told Courtright to "go to Hell," that he could do
anything that was necessary to take care of his business. On February 8,
1887, the two quarreled, and with Bat Masterson at Short's side, Courtright
and Short dueled in the street. They drew their pistols at close range,
and Short fired first, blowing off Courtright's thumb. Courtright attempted
the "border shift", a move where a gunfighter switches his gun to his uninjured
hand, but he was too slow. Short shot him in the chest, killing him.
The Long Branch Saloon Shootout, involving Levi Richardson,
a buffalo hunter, and "Cockeyed Frank" Loving, a professional gambler,
happened on April 5, 1879. Richardson had developed some affection for
Loving's wife Mattie, and the two began to argue about her. In the saloon,
Frank sat down at a long table, Richardson turned around and took a seat
at the same table. The two were then heard speaking in low voices. After
the conversation, Richardson drew his pistol, and Loving drew his in response.
The Long Branch Saloon was then filled with smoke. Dodge City Marshal Charlie
Bassett, who was in Beatty & Kelley's Saloon, heard the shots and came
running. Both men were still standing, although Richardson had fired five
shots from his gun and Loving's Remington No. 44 was empty. Deputy Sheriff
Duffey threw Richardson down in a chair and took his gun, while Bassett
disarmed Loving. Richardson then got up and started toward the billiard
table, when he fell to the floor with a fatal gunshot in the chest, as
well as a shot through the side and another through the right arm. Frank
Loving, who had only a slight scratch on the hand, was immediately taken
to jail. Two days later, the coroner's inquest ruled that the killing had
been in self-defense and Loving was immediately released.
On March 9, 1877, gamblers Jim Levy and Charlie Harrison
argued over a game of cards in a saloon in Cheyenne, Wyoming. They met
in an alley following an argument about a card game. Harrison shot first,
but missed. Levy aimed carefully and hit Harrison, who died a week later.
Not as well known today but famous in his time was the
dapper, derby-wearing train robber Marion Hedgepeth, who despite his swell
appearance, "was a deadly killer and one of the fastest guns in the Wild,
Wild West". William Pinkerton, whose National Detective Agency had sought
to capture Hedgepeth and his gang for years, noted that Hedgepeth once
gunned down another outlaw who had already unholstered his pistol before
Hedgepath had drawn his revolver. The infamous assassin Tom Horn was also
said to have participated in a duel with a second lieutenant from the Mexican
Army, due to a dispute with a prostitute when he was twenty-six years old.
Living on reputation
Most Old West men who were labeled as being "gunfighters"
did not kill nearly as many men in gunfights as they were given credit
for, if any at all. They were often labeled as such due to one particular
instance, which developed from rumors into them having been involved in
many more events than they actually were. Often their reputation was as
much "self-promotion" as anything else; such was the case of Bat Masterson.
Wyatt Earp with his brothers Morgan and Virgil along with Doc Holliday
killed three outlaw Cowboys in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone,
Arizona Territory. He has been said to have been involved in more than
one hundred gunfights in his lifetime. But Prof. Bill O'Neal cites just
five incidents in his Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. Earp expressed
his dismay about the controversy that followed him his entire life. He
wrote in a letter to John Hays Hammond on May 21, 1925, that "notoriety
had been the bane of my life."
After his brother Virgil was maimed in an ambush and Morgan
was assassinated by hidden assailants, the men suspected of involvement
were provided alibis by fellow Cowboys and released without trial. Wyatt
and his brother Warren set out on a vendetta ride to locate and kill those
they felt were responsible. Wyatt has been portrayed in a number of film
and books as a fearless Western hero. He is often viewed as the central
character and hero of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, at least in part
because he was the only one who was not wounded or killed. In fact, his
brother, Tombstone Marshal and Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp had considerably
more experience with weapons and combat as a Union soldier in the Civil
War, and in law enforcement as a sheriff, constable, and marshal. As city
marshal, Virgil made the decision to disarm the Cowboys in Tombstone and
requested Wyatt's assistance. But because Wyatt outlived Virgil and due
to a creative biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal published two years
after Wyatt's death, Wyatt became famous and the subject of various movies,
television shows, biographies and works of fiction.
There are no records to support the reputation that Johnny
Ringo developed. Of the documented instances where Ringo killed men, they
were unarmed, and there is no evidence to support his participation in
a single gunfight. Others deserved the reputation associated with them.
Jim Courtright and Dallas Stoudenmire both killed several men in gunfights
both as lawmen and as civilians. Clay Allison and Ben Thompson had well-deserved
reputations. At the same time, gunmen like Scott Cooley are all but unknown,
when they actually led a life reflective of what most would consider a
gunfighter to be. In other cases, certain gunfighters were possibly confused,
over time, with being someone else with a similar name. The most well known
of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang, the Sundance Kid, was in reality only
known to have been in one shootout during his lifetime, and no gunfights.
Some historians have since stated that it is possible that over time he
was confused with another Wild Bunch member, Kid Curry, who was without
a doubt the most dangerous member of the gang, having killed many lawmen
and civilians during his lifetime before being killed himself. Hence, it
is the Sundance Kid who is better known.
Outlaw or lawman
It is often difficult to separate lawmen of the Old West
from outlaws of the Old West. In many cases, the term gunfighter was applied
to constables. Despite idealistic portrayals in television, movies, and
even in history books, very few lawmen/gunfighters could claim their law
enforcement role as their only source of employment. Unlike contemporary
peace officers, these lawmen generally pursued other occupations, often
earning money as gamblers, business owners, or outlaws—as was the case
with "Curly" Bill Brocius, who, while always referred to as an outlaw,
served as a deputy sheriff under sheriff Johnny Behan. Many shootouts involving
lawmen were caused by disputes arising from these alternative occupations,
rather than the lawman's attempts to enforce the law.
Tom Horn, historically cited as an assassin, served both
as a deputy sheriff and as a Pinkerton detective, a job in which he shot
at least three people as a killer for hire. Ben Thompson, best known as
a gunfighter and gambler, was a very successful chief of police in Austin,
Texas. King Fisher had great success as a county sheriff in Texas. Doc
Holliday and Billy the Kid both wore badges as lawmen at least once. "Big"
Steve Long served as deputy marshal for Laramie, Wyoming, while the entire
time committing murders and forced theft of land deeds. A town with a substantial
violent crime rate would often turn to a known gunman as their town marshal,
chief, or sheriff, in the hopes that the gunman could stem the violence
and bring order.
Known gunmen/lawmen were generally effective, and in time
the violence would subside, usually after the gunman/lawman had been involved
in several shooting incidents, eventually leading to a substantial and
well earned fear that kept everyone in line. At times they were hired by
cattlemen or other prominent figures to serve as henchmen or enforcers
during cattle wars. Although sanctioned by law enforcement officials, the
gunmen were not always actually deputized. Sometimes, however, just to
make things "official", they would go through the formality of deputization.
A case in point: the service of the Jesse Evans Gang, and outlaw Jesse
Evans himself, as agents for the Murphy-Dolan faction during the Lincoln
County War. While technically working as lawmen, they were little more
than hired guns.
Usually, when a gunman was hired by a town as town marshal,
they received the full support of the townspeople until order was restored,
at which point the town would tactfully indicate it was time for a change
to a less dangerous lawman who relied more on respect than fear to enforce
the law. A good example was the 1882 decision by the El Paso, Texas, town
council to dismiss Town Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire. He entered the council
hall and dared the councilors to try to take his guns or his job, at which
point they immediately changed their mind, saying he could keep his job.
He resigned on his own a couple of days later.
Cowboy Action Shooting
People relive the Wild West both historically and in popular
culture by participating in cowboy action shooting events, where each gunslinger
adopts his or her own look representing a character from Western life in
the late 1800s, and as part of that character, chooses an alias to go by.
The sport originated in Southern California, USA, in the early 1980s but
is now practiced in many places with several sanctioning organizations
including the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS), Western Action Shootists
Association (WASA), and National Congress of Old West Shooters (NCOWS),
as well as others in the USA and in other countries. There are different
categories shooters can compete in. There's the gunfighter, frontiersman,
classic cowboy and duelist - each with its own specifications.
Alongside the iconic cowboy, gunfighters have become a
cultural image of the American people abroad, and also as an idealized
image of violence, frontier justice, and adventure. Even outside of the
Western genre, the term 'gunslinger' has been used in modern times to describe
someone who is fast and accurate with pistols, either in real life or in
other fictional action genre.
The quick draw which gunfighters help popularize, is still
an important skill in the American military.
In popular culture
Gunfighters have been featured in media even outside the
Western genre, often combined with other elements and genres, mainly science-fiction
Space Westerns, steampunk, and the contemporary setting. Abilities, clothing
and attitude associated with gunfighters are seen in many other genres.
An example of these is Han shot first, in which Han Solo, a gunfighter-like
protagonist in Star Wars, kills his opponent with a subtle, under-the-table
draw. He also wore his holster low on, and tied to, the thigh with a cutaway
for the trigger. Roland Deschain from the fantasy series The Dark Tower
is a gunfighter pitted against fantasy-themed monsters and enemies. Inspired
by the "Man with No Name" and other spaghetti-western characters, he himself
is detached or unsympathetic, often reacting as uncaring or angry at signs
of cowardice or self-pity, yet he possesses a strong sense of heroism,
often attempting to help those in need, a morality much seen in Westerns.
Jonah Hex, from DC Comics, is a ruthless bounty hunter
bound by a personal code of honor to protect and avenge the innocent. IGN
ranked Jonah Hex the 73rd greatest comic book hero of all time. Throughout
the DC Universe, Hex has been, on many occasions, transported from the
Old West to the contemporary setting and beyond. Even in an unfamiliar
territory and time period, Hex managed to outgun his enemies with more
advanced weaponry. Two-Gun Kid is another comic book gunfighter from Marvel
Comics. Skilled with revolvers, he has aided many super-heroes in future
timelines, most notably She-Hulk.
Many Japanese manga and anime have also adopted the western
genre. Yasuhiro Nightow is known for creating the space western Trigun.
The story's protagonist, Vash the Stampede, is a wandering gunslinger with
a dark past. Unlike other violence-themed gunslingers, Vash carries a Shane-like
pacifist attitude, and avoids killing men, even dangerous enemies. Behind
him is the gun-toting priest named Nicholas D. Wolfwood, who carries with
him a heavy machine gun and rocket launcher shaped like a cross. Nicholas
is more violent than Vash, and the two would often argue about killing
opponents. Other western genre themed manga and anime include Cowboy Bebop
and Kino's Journey, who both incorporate knight-errant gunslinger themes.
Modern-day western gunslingers have also appeared in recent
Neo-Westerns. Raylan Givens from the television series Justified shares
the same ambiguous moral code of an Old West sheriff, even using a fast
draw to dispatch his enemies. The hitman Anton Chigurh from No Country
For Old Men shares many elements of a hunted outlaw. Additionally, the
comic book character Vigilante is a self-proclaimed gunfighter born in
Gunfighters have also been featured in many video games,
both in traditional Old West, and in contemporary and future settings.
Colton White, the protagonist of 2005's best-selling western video game
Gun. Another well-known video game Western protagonist is John Marston
from Red Dead Redemption, who was nominated for 2010 Spike's Video Game
Awards. The New York Times stated: "he and his creators conjure such a
convincing, cohesive and enthralling re-imagination of the real world that
it sets a new standard for sophistication and ambition in electronic gaming."
The main character Caleb in the video games Blood and Blood II: The Chosen
is also a former Old West gunfighter. Gunfighter is also a callsign for
a group of two Apache Helicopters in the video game Medal of Honor. They
appear on mission named "Gunfighters", and the player will act as Captain
Brad "Hawk" Hawkins from 1st Aviation Regiment.
Former professional American football quarterback Brett
Favre was nicknamed "The Gunslinger" due to his rural, Southern upbringings
and his wild, risky, quick-throwing play-style that led him to great success
in the National Football League.