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The Truth About Gunfights in the Old West

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website. Hollywood movies are famous (often notoriously so) for embellishing the truth. This is, of course, a polite way of saying filmmakers often lie. In the interest of entertainment, it seems justified. A down-and-out (but good-looking) young guy without a nickel meets a gorgeous girl, who falls for him, and despite all the warnings and their parents being against it and ...well, you know what I mean. It's fiction, it's fluff. And that's basically what movies do for us; they carry us out of our own mundane, unglamorous lives and into the land of make-believe. And that is fine. But there's another kind of cinematic embellishment. This is the distortion of actual events, real-life occurrences being changed and modified for the sake of "entertainment." This brings us to the foremost example of this second distortion: the "Old West gunfight." First off, it's not all the fault of Hollywood and the movies. Many years before cinema was even invented, dime novels were printed up, enthralling their eager and avid readers. These pulp novels were extremely popular and carried the written accounts of legendary Old West gunslingers Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Bat Masterson, etc. The authors would simply dream up fictional accounts of the exploits of these famed heroes and embellish things that actually did occur. It wasn't only the authors doing this embellishing, as many of the actual participants themselves would "color" their own stories for the sake of a good story. Newspapers, too, would dress up the tales of Old West gunmen in order to boost sales (no kidding? A newspaper not telling the truth? Gee, I'm mortified at that one!). The fact is, Old West gunfights were few and far between. In popular Western television shows like Bonanza, The Big Valley, Have, Will Travel, and Rawhide, the gunfight is a routine event, taking place about as often as we currently witness a politician being dishonest or your luggage being late coming on the carousel when you arrive at the airport. In some seasons of the longest-running Western TV series ever, Gunsmoke (1955-1975), a formal Hollywood gunfight takes place during the show's opening credits.

The typical Hollywood gunfight, in TV or in the movies, is two cowboys meeting on the street, usually about ten, twenty, or maybe twenty-five feet apart. They formally wait for one of the two to take a first shot. This signals that the fight is on, and gives the second cowboy (almost inevitably the hero, the lead, the "good guy") the right to then draw. This second guy, also almost inevitably, wins the fight. Actual facts (I know, this is a redundancy, but I wanted stress) about the Old West are tough to pin down. The following facts do appear to be true. Actual gunfights in the Old West were very rare, very few and far between. When they did occur, not one, but several gunshots were usually fired. Often onlookers were hit. And also, no one knew who actually won the fight until several minutes after the gunshots, as it took a while for all the gun smoke to clear in the air. And unlike in the movies, easy shots were often missed. Often the two just continued firing until they had completely emptied their pistols. Most experts on the Old West also agree, it was not the "fastest gun" who won. Most gunfights went to the more accurate shot. But even above speed and accuracy, a "cool head" took precedence and was the single most valuable asset for a gunman. Although many Old West legends have "fast gun" reputations, it appears that John Wesley Hardin, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid were actually really fast guns. But even famous "quick draws" didn't go the formal route in their gunfights. Why? It was still too risky for a "fast draw" or a "good guy" to lose. Much more frequently than the typical Hollywood face-to-face draw, a cowboy would gun a guy down at the most opportune point. Meaning, if he got a drop on his enemy, if he was unarmed, or even if it meant shooting him in the back. The typical Hollywood gunfight distance too, was often varied. Sometimes two opposing gunmen would be very close and would circle each other, like caged animals, before opening fire  on each other. In 1865, in one of the few actual documented gunfights (with evidence and valid testimony), James Butler Hickok ("Wild Bill" Hickok) had a bad quarrel with Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri. The fight was over a debt. At around 6PM, the two advanced on each other in the town square. The men drew guns at a distance of around 50 yards and blasted away. Tutt missed. Wild Bill didn't. Tutt fell with a bullet through his heart. Hickok was tried for manslaughter and acquitted. A sensational account of the gunfight appeared in Harper's magazine in 1867. This account made Hickok a national celebrity. This fairly "Hollywood" gunfight, although it did occur, was a rarity. The 50 yard distance was questioned by skeptics, but was verified by several onlookers. Another "mistake" Hollywood makes about gunfights is the "gun in the holster" myth. True, gunfights were sometimes conducted with the opponents' guns in their respective holsters, but often the guns were held in belts or in their pockets, and sometimes just tucked into the front of their pants. It was rare, but sometimes the two duelists would just stand up and face each other, each man clutching his gun in hand, no holster draw, no nothing. Oh, and there is one gunfight factor Hollywood did get right: "liquid courage." A great number of Old West gunfights were not the result of some noble cause, like "defending a woman's honor" or some such deal. The consumption of whiskey, liquor, and booze had a hand in a great percentage of mano et mano confrontations in the town square. Still, despite knowledge of the truth. most of us enjoy a good TV or movie gunfight. They're dramatic, they're romantic, they're exciting, and I guess we like them because almost inevitably the good guy wins. And this isn't always so in real life, is it?

True, gunfights were rare, but murders with guns were common, especially in the gold rush cities, and especially because of the rotgut that young, lonely hotheads drank.
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This also is similar to gentleman's duels proceeding the wild west times. Each participant received the ability for one shot at their opponent. If the first person shot and missed, he then had to stand there as a target and wait for the other man to take his shot. Different times.
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@Miss C – Loved your flapper pics on Mental Floss!

This comment induced me to immediately visit Mental Floss in search of pictures of Miss Cellania dressed as a flapper. I was disappointed.
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I like the exchange from 1990's TV movie El Diablo with Louis Gossett, Jr. and Anthony Edwards:

"You shot him in the back!"

"Well, his back was to mey."
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I agree with JoeD!

Miss Cellania, I loved your Flapper photos on Mental Floss!

You do great work, I am very lucky you do such excellent work on my articles for Neatorama!!
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They've actually done studies on how fast a person can initiate a movement (such as drawing a pistol).

Interestingly, a person who moved in response to a prompt (like their opponent drawing) were actually able to perform an action significantly faster than a person who simply decided when to move (the person who draws first).

The results suggest that in contests of speed, such as the prototypical western gunfight, it actually pays to wait until your opponent twitches.
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Regarding the violence(or lack thereof)of the "wild" West, check out "The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier" by Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill.
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Hoss's use of heavy eyeliner is both bogus and an injustice to historically accuracy. As the Skipper would have said, 'It's little mistakes like that that make the whole thing unbelievable."
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I absolutely LOVE western movies and especially the gunfights scenes. I wish I could have lived in the OLD WEST. Who cares if Hollywood got it exactly right, it feels right? I love the into picture from "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN". What a great movie that is. I'm really hoping for a remake of "the Good, the Bad and the Ugly'.
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Mano et mano? Hand to hand?

I thought this was an article on gunfights, not fistfights!

I have to admit though, a fistfight at 20 paces would be quite interesting.

Maybe pistola et pistola?
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A pistol fired while excited is not very accurate at any kind of distance. Even a decent shot, if he is rushed, scared, winded will pull too hard, shoot too fast, fail to aim well, assume a bad stance. There's also a big difference between shooting a perfectly stationary paper target at 50 feet and a moving one at 20. The angle change alone makes aiming for a critical point difficult, not to mention how those critical points may change during 100 milliseconds. Bullets aren't light beams and the farther the target, the more the potential for the aim point to move post discharge.

Even with something like deer hunting, a moving shot is not only bad form, it's seldom successful, and that's with a rifle.

Last, not all bullets that connect yield a disabled/killed target. Depends on what is hit, how it's hit, what's in the way, how much adrenaline is circulating, etc.

Hollywood often portrays Clint Eastwood taking out some guy on a horse traveling 20 MPH at an angle to the shooter, a diminishing angular presentation to the shooter, with a projectile that is decreasing in velocity for every foot it travels and dropping in space at the same rate as any other dropped object. The math doesn't add up to the kill rate on screen. Patent bullsht.

Lucky shots do happen, of course. For real life, non-Western gun fights, a case in point is Audie Murphy, of WW2 fame.

There are a few other, really improbable cases in WW2 that simply defy comprehension, but he's a pretty good one.

Nice post. Thanks.
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"True West" magazine has a lot of great information about real gunfights, though a lot of them sound like the teenage drama I hear as a high school teacher, with alcohol and guns thrown in. Some of them are almost humorous to read about, like the two guys who chased each other around a stove and continually missed each other at less than five feet, or the man who tried to draw on Luke Short but got his gun caught in his suspenders. Humorous, that is, until you remember the homicidal intent in all the stories!
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@Miss C - Loved your flapper pics on Mental Floss! Seriously, why don't the two sites just morph into one. Neato-Floss..Mentalrama...Menorama-Floss. I'm sure I'm not the only one who goes back and forth between the two.
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Thanks for all that information, Ross! Eddie's post is about the historic fights, and didn't touch on the movies much. But I decided to use film stills to illustrate the article because, honestly, photographs of real gunfights are nowhere to be found.
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I assumed Old West gunfights were no more than duels (such as the famous Hamilton-Burr duel) and the only reason they carried on in the West, as opposed to the East, was the lack of common law. And since dueling was considered the "honorable" way to settle things, they were not that uncommon. So, I'm surprised you're saying they were few and far between. Is there an historical source you have for this? I'd be interested in reading it.
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Two of the movies pictured actually have fairly authentic gunfights. The OK Corral shoot out as portrayed in 1993's "Tombstone" is very close to eyewitness accounts of the event, from what was said by the participants to Wyatt Earp carrying his pistol in his coat pocket to who shot who. The major problems are Ike Clanton running through C.S. Fly's studio and shooting from a window-he actually ran as far and as fast as he could-and Doc not getting wounded-he was actually grazed on the hip. I don't count the firearms firing too many shots, as the filmmaker showed some of the action from multiple angles, essentially showing the shots twice, to portray the confusion of a gunfight.

"Young Guns" touches on the "get an edge whenever possible" philosophy of gun fighting with Billy's fight with Texas Joe Grant. In the movie Billy asks to see Grant's gun, as he has boasted he will kill Billy the Kid with it. While looking it over, Billy removes shells from the cylinder so that Grant's first pull of the trigger produces only a "click!". In real life, a drunk Grant had exchanged guns with a cowboy with Billy. Billy, knowing that pistol had been fired and not reloaded earlier in the day, asked to see it and spun the cylinder so that the next three pulls of the trigger would cause the hammer to fall on an empty shell. When Grant subsequently tried to shoot Billy in the back, Billy quickly drew his own pistol and killed Grant.

One last movie that is pretty good as far as authentic feel to a gunfight is "Open Range" with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall. The end gunfight has problems, like Costner firing way more than six shots from his six-shooter at one point, but the start of the fight is excellent, you can tell the different between pistol, rifle and shotgun shots by their sounds, there are misses, ambushes, horses and bystanders are hit, and men trying to surrender are shot down.

With all of that said, most gunfights that come out of Hollywood are indeed pure invention, but they sure are entertaining!
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Great post. While I love a good Hollywood-style gunfight (on screen, that is, not in real life), I've always found the true stories behind the old west's gunfights more interesting. I've been to Tombstone, AZ a few times and I'm always drawn to Boot Hill cemetery. The epitaphs on some of the markers hint at some really interesting stories.
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