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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 (disambiguation).
"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 /ˈɡʌnslɪŋər/, 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 has participated in gunfights and shootouts. Gunman was a more common term used for these individuals in the 19th century. Today, the term gunslinger can be used to denote someone who is good and fast with pistols,[1] but can also refer to riflemen and shotgun messengers.

Gunfighters range from occupations such as a lawmen, outlaw, duelist, but is commonly more synonymous to a hired gun. Like cowboys, gunfighters have become a cultural icon in modern times, and is an image of the American people abroad and of American warrior culture.[2][3]

Origin of the term[edit]

Etymologist Barry Popik has traced the term "gun slinger" back to its use in the 1920 Western movie Drag Harlan.[4] The word was soon adopted by other Western writers such as Zane Grey and became common usage. In his introduction to The Shootist, author Glendon Swarthout says that "gunslinger" and "gunfighter" are modern terms and that the more authentic terms for the period would have been "gunman", "pistoleer", "shootist" or "bad man" (sometimes written as "badman"). While Swarthout seems to have been correct about "gunslinger", the term "gunfighter" has existed in several newspapers in 1874, and as such the term existed in the 19th century.[5] Bat Masterson used the term "gunfighter" in the newspaper articles he wrote about the lawmen and outlaws he had known. However, Joseph Rosa noted that even though Masterson used the term "gunfighter", he "preferred the term 'mankiller'" when discussing these individuals.[6]Clay Allison (1841–1887), a notorious New Mexico and Texas gunman and cattleman originated the term, "shootist".[7]


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, and make periodic raids on, genteel society. 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, or more likely personally administer, justice.

The term is also widely confused to being synonymous with cowboy. In reality, only a few historical cowboys were actual gunfighters like the Outlaw cowboy gang who participated in the bloody Skeleton Canyon Massacre.[8]

Depiction in culture[edit]

Gunslinger from The Great Train Robbery

Gunslingers frequently appear, along with cowboys, as stock characters in Western movies and novels. Often the hero of a Western meets his opposite "double", a mirror of his own evil side that he has to destroy.[9] Western gunslinger heroes are often local lawmen or enforcement officers, ranchers, army officers, cowboys, territorial marshals, a nomadic loner, or a skilled fast-draw artist. 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 certain individuals and communities from them 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, etc.).[9]

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 kill.[10] Twirling their revolver is a trademark trick of movie gunslingers, and drawing and spinning the pistol from time to time, without intending or being expected to shoot, is a commonly portrayed habit or compulsion.

" I always make it a rule to let the other fellow fire first. If a man wants to fight, I argue the question with him and try to show him how foolish it would be. If he can't be dissuaded, why then the fun begins but I always let him have first crack. Then when I fire, you see, I have the verdict of self-defence on my side. I know that he is pretty certain in his hurry, to miss. I never do."

Ben Thompson

Another classic bit of cinema, the showdown at high noon, where two well-matched gunslingers agreed to meet for a climactic formal duel, largely is a matter of myth as well, although rarely these duels actually happened, at least in the case of the Luke Short – Jim Courtright duel. Typically, gunfights were more spontaneous, a fight that turned deadly when one side reached for a weapon, and the drinking of alcoholic beverages often was involved. 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.[10]

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.[10]

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 despite never taking part in a gunfight and killing unarmed civilians.[10]

Fact and fiction[edit]

Gunfighters fighting off an Indian attack

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. Other times, one or both were drunk and missed several normally easy shots. Many times the shootout was little more than one taking advantage of the other's looking away at an opportune moment. 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.[8] Generally, two well-known gunmen coming into contact with one another would result in either the two keeping a distance but being cordial, or avoiding one another altogether. In cases where one well-known gunman was a lawman, and another was merely in town, the one that was visiting would avoid any confrontation with the law-serving gunman.

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.[11] 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.[12] Ed McGivern dispelled the myth of the inaccuracy of pistol fanning by shooting tight groups while fanning the revolver.[13]

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.[14] 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 popularize the butt-forward holster type, which worked better in horseback.[14] Other gunfighter would use bridgeport rigs that gave a faster and easier draw.[15] Films also depicted historical gunfighters as wearing cowboy hats as a standard fashion of the Old West, even to those who weren't a cowboy. Many gunfighters such as Wyatt Earp, Ben Thompson, and Butch Cassidy actually wore bowler hats. Cowboy hats were largely worn by gunfighters who worked and traveled outside the cities.[16] Revolvers were a popular weapon to gunfighters who were horsemen, cowboys, and lawmen because of their concealability and effectiveness on horseback.[17] The winchester rifle was also a popular weapon among gunfighters. Dubbed as the "Gun that Won the West", it was widely used during the settlement of the American frontier.

Although quick draw and hip shooting was an important skill in the West, only a handful of known gunslingers were known to be experts such as Luke Short and Doc Holliday.[14] Shooting a pistol with one hand is normally associated with gunslingers, although this was a standard way of holding a pistol in 19th century warfare, as the other hand was used for sabres.[18] Its also a standard for gunslingers of the era to carry two guns and fire ambidextrously. Jesse James himself carried over half a dozen revolvers in many of his gunfights.[19]

Gunfighters King Fisher, John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok 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, Commodore Perry Owens, and Luke Short all died of natural causes, living out their lives on reputation and avoiding conflict in secluded retirement. Rare are the gunfighters who, like William Sidney "Cap" Light, died accidentally by their own hand.

Famous gunfights[edit]

For a list of notable Old West gunfighters, see List of Old West gunfighters.

"The most important lesson I learned...was that the winner of a gunplay usually was the one who took his time. The second was that, if I hoped to live on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting--grandstand play--as I would poison...In all my life as a frontier peace officer, I did not know a really proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun-fanner, or the man who literally shot from the hip.."

Wyatt Earp

The image of a Wild West filled with countless gunfights was a myth generated primarily by dime-novel authors in the late 19th century. Only an average of five murders are recorded in a year. This is due to the fact that gunfights, crime, and other violent activities were largely undocumented, as many of the settlements in the American frontier had little ways to record their everyday happenings.[8] Over 20,000 men in the American West were killed by gunshot between 1866 and 1900.[20] The most notable and well-known took place in the states/territories of Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. When gunfights do 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, bandit raids, and clashes with Native Americans were also a cause. Some of these shootouts became famous, while others faded into history with only a few accounts surviving.[8] 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.[21]

The Gunfight at the OK Corral between the Earp Brothers together with Doc Holliday and the Clanton-McLaury gang, is a famous example of a real-life western shootout. It lasted only 30 seconds, contrary to many movie adaptations. The gunfight itself didn't actually happen in the corral, but happened 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 ran. Doc instantly kills Tom with blasts from his shotgun. Frank, who was running to Fremont Street, challenges Holliday for killing his brother, but Doc drops his shotgun, draws his pistol, and shoots Frank in the right temple.[22] 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 was dubbed by many as 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.[23] 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, which resulted in the most kills by one person in a single event, was Capt. Jonathan R. Davis' shooting of eleven bandits single-handedly on 19 December 1854.[24] 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, town sheriff named Elfego Baca became face to face against 80 gunmen which became known as the Frisco shootout. The battle started when Baca arrested a cowboy who have shot him. In turn the cowboy called upon 80 of his associated 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 when 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.[25]

In many early western films and literature, Native Americans were often portrayed as savages; having conflicts and battles against gunfighters and white settlements. In reality, only 300 to 400 settlers and civilians died in clashes with Native Americans. During the same period, settlers killed over 400 Native Americans.[26] Gunfighters in history did fought Native Americans during the American Indian Wars. Among them was civilian Billy Dixon, who made on of the longest recorded sniper kill, 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.[27]

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 tries to draw his pistol before Patton kills 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 commanding officer.[28]

Real-life Wild West duels[edit]

Wild Bill Hickok after killing Davis Tutt in a duel. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, February 1867

Although the image of two gunslingers with violent reputation squaring off in a street in a duel; where both draw his pistol and try to kill the other is a Hollywood invention, Wild West duels, though rarely, did occur in real life and as such not entirely a myth contrary to many beliefs.

The most famous and well-recorded duel occurred on 21 July 1865. Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt quarrelled 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.[20]

Doc Holliday himself has been to five one-on-one pistol duels. At one point, Holliday was seated 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 misses. Holliday then draws his pistol and shot Gordon at long range with one shot. He then went back to his saloon. Gordon died the next day and Holliday fled.[29] Doc Holliday has also been credited at wounding and shooting a pistol off 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 any gunslinging 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.[30]

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.[31] 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.[32]

On March 9, 1877, gamblers Jim Levy and Charlie Harrison argued over a game of cards in a saloon in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Levy challenged Harrison to take it outside, Harrison agreed, and the two squared off in the street. Western novelist James Reasoner claims in a recent issue of Esquire that this was "the most 'Hollywood' showdown". During the duel, Harrison shot wild, while Levy took more careful aim and shot him. He then approached the dying Charlie and shot him again. Many accounts claimed that Harrison fired at Levy while sprawled on the ground, but contemporary opinion held that Levy had shot the man while he was down. Harrison died 13 days later.[33]

In January 7, 1874, notorious gunman and murderer Clay Allison killed a fellow gunman named Chunk Colbert in Colfax County, New Mexico when both sat down together for dinner. During their meal, Colbert suddenly tried to draw his pistol to shoot Allison; however, the barrel struck the table. Allison then drew his own revolver and fired one shot, striking Colbert in the head. Asked why he had accepted a dinner invitation from a man likely to try to kill him, Allison replied, "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach".[34]

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.[35]

In June 2011, a soldier named Sgt. Brent McBride played a game of quick draw with his fellow soldier and roommate; Sgt. Matthew Gallagher. The incident happened in their small trailer-like room in Al Kut, Iraq. During the game, McBride drew his pistol and shot Gallagher in the head at close range. Sgt. Brent McBride pleaded guilty at a Fort Hood, Texas, court martial in March 2012 to involuntary manslaughter.[36]

Living on reputation[edit]

Most Old West men who were labelled 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 labelled 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.[11]

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."[37]

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.[38] 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 Marshall and Deputy U.S. Marshall 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.[39] As city marshal, Virgil made the decision to disarm the Cowboys in Tombstone and requested Wyatt's assistance.[40] 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, for 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[edit]

It is often difficult to separate lawmen of the Old West from outlaws of the Old West.[8] 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.

A cowboy action shooter brandishing his revolver

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. Sometimes the gunman would simply become bored as the times changed and move on. 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. Another example was the dismissal of Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens in Holbrook, Arizona, after which the local county commission also withheld his last paycheck. Owens entered the county building and forced them to pay him at gun point, and he received no resistance. In the case of Marshal Jim Courtright, for example, he did "clean up the town" while serving as town marshal for Fort Worth, Texas. However, it was his habit of strong-arming local businesses in the area into paying him for protection that ultimately led to his fatal gunfight with gunman and saloon owner Luke Short.[8]


Modern gunslinger[edit]

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.[41]

Today, the quick draw which gunfighters help popularize, is still an important skill in the American military.[42]

In popular culture[edit]

Jonah Hex: A famous comic book gunslinger

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.[43] 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 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 gunfighter pitted against fantasy-themed monsters and enemies. Inspired by the "Man with No Name" and other spaghetti-western characters, he himself is a detached or unsympathetic, often reacting uncaring or angry at signs of cowardice or self-pity, yet he possess a strong sense of heroism, often attempting to help those in need, a morality much seen in Westerns.

Jonah Hex, from the 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 settings 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 timeline, most notably She-Hulk.

Many Japanese manga and anime has also adopted the western genre. Yasuhiro Nightow is known for creating the manga Trigun, which also was adopted into an anime. 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-totting 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 includes Cowboy Bebop and Kino's Journey, both who incorporate knight-errant adventure themes.

Modern-day western gunslingers have also caught attention, having skills, challenges, and attitude seen more in the Old West.[44] 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 riding frontiersmen. But Chigurh is the complete opposite of Raylan Givens, and represents more of the ruthless outlaw on the hunt and against local authority. Additionally, the comic book character Vigilante is a self-proclaimed gunfighter born in the 1940s.

Gunfighters has 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, is ranked #7 on Game Informer's "Top 10 Heroes of 2005" list.[45] Another well-known video game Western protagonist is John Marston, who was nominated in Spike's Video Game Awards 2010. Network World stated: "John Marston is a complicated character, having been a bad person who is trying to make things right."[46] 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."[47] The main character Caleb in the video games Blood and Blood II: The Chosen is also a former Old West gunfighter.[48]

Gunfighter is a callsign for a group of two Apache Helicopters in the video game "Medal of Honor (2010)". They appear on mission named "Gunfighters" and the player will act as Captain Brad "Hawk" Hawkins from 1st Aviation Regiment.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Oxford defination: Gunslinger". Oxford. Retrieved April 12, 2014. 
  2. ^ Bill O'Neal. Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 9780806123356.  Introduction
  3. ^ Microsoft Encarta 2007 edition
  4. ^ The term "gunslinger" and "showdown" were unknown in the Wild West. Gunslinger (or Gun Slinger)
  5. ^ Rosa, vi.
  6. ^ Rosa, vii.
  7. ^ Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison: Portrait of a Shootist (Seagraves, Texas: Pioneer, 1983)
  8. ^ a b c d e f Tales of the Gun: Gunslingers
  9. ^ a b
  10. ^ a b c d Wisegeek
  11. ^ a b Old West Gunfight archives
  12. ^ "MythBusters: Hollywood Gunslingers". Discovery Channel. Retrieved February 2, 2014. 
  13. ^ Ed McGivern's Book of Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Skyhorse Publishing Inc. ISBN 978-1-60239-086-7.(2007) pp. 101–103
  14. ^ a b c "Old West Myths...And Things Little Known". Retrieved February 2, 2014. 
  15. ^ McLachlan, Sean (2013). Tombstone – Wyatt Earp, the O.K. Corral, and the Vendetta Ride 1881–82. Osprey Publishing. p. 50. ISBN 978-1-78096-194-1. Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
  16. ^ Nakamura, Kevin. "5 Ridiculous Wild West Myths". Cracked. Retrieved February 2, 2014. 
  17. ^ America: The Story of Us Episode 6: Heartland
  18. ^ Lock N' Load with R. Lee Ermey: Pistols
  19. ^ The Arsenal of Jesse James and other Bushwhackers
  20. ^ a b Spartacus Educational "Wild bill vs Tutt duel". Spartacus. Retrieved February 2, 2014. 
  21. ^ "The Law in Tombstone". Retrieved 8 March 2014. 
  22. ^ Tombstone Nugget; October 27, 1881 article
  23. ^ El Paso Times article documenting the event
  24. ^ Fournier, Richard. "Mexican War Vet Wages Deadliest Gunfight in American History", VFW Magazine (January 2012), p. 30.
  25. ^ Petzal, David. "Five Greatest Gunfights of the Old West". Retrieved April 14, 2014. 
  26. ^ "History Trails: Indian". Oregon Trail. Retrieved April 19, 2014. 
  27. ^ Raynor, Jesica. "Billy Dixon". Retrieved April 19, 2014. 
  28. ^ "6 Real-Life Gunslingers Who Put Billy the Kid to Shame". Cracked. Retrieved April 14, 2014. 
  29. ^ This Day in History: Doc Holliday
  30. ^ Legends of America
  31. ^ Long Branch Saloon Shootout
  32. ^ Gunfights: Long Branch Saloon Shootout
  33. ^ Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters
  34. ^ See Colbert's entry – Legends of America
  35. ^ Grady, David P. (July–August 1996). "American Cowboy". American Cowboy: 64. Retrieved 28 June 2012. 
  36. ^ No Parole for Shooter in 'Quick-draw' Death
  37. ^ Dworkin, Mark. "Charlie Siringo, Letter Writer". Western Outlaw Lawman Association Journal. Winter 2003, Vol. XI (4): 16–18. 
  38. ^ Gatto, Steve. "Wyatt Earp History Page". WyattEarp.Net. Retrieved February 25, 2011. 
  39. ^ Ashford, David (September 3, 1994). "First action hero: Wyatt Earp was an elderly movie groupie who failed to make it as an extra...". The Independent (London). Retrieved January 10, 2011. 
  40. ^ Douglas Linder (2005). "Testimony of Virgil Earp in the Preliminary Hearing in the Earp Case". Famous Trials: The O. K. Corral Trial. Retrieved 2011-02-06. 
  41. ^ CSA
  42. ^ "Point shooting". l. Retrieved February 2, 2014. 
  43. ^ Filmsite
  44. ^ The Script Lab
  45. ^ "Top ten Heroes". Game Informer. 
  46. ^
  47. ^ Schiesel, Seth (May 17, 2010). "Way Down Deep in the Wild, Wild West". The New York Times. 
  48. ^ Monolith Productions. Blood PC. GT Interactive. "In an age and a region renowned for cruelty and violence, Caleb was legendary. Born in western Texas in 1847, he had sealed a reputation as a merciless gunfighter by the age of 17."