Many movie and TV westerns have a climactic scene in which two men face each other on a street in a dusty town. There’s a lightning-fast draw of pistols, shots are fired, and the bad guy almost always dies. Did this sort of gunfight, with two men drawing on each other, really happen in the old west? Were there really gunfighters known for their fast pistol draws and accuracy? –Chris Rohrs, Novato, California
You figure I’m going to say it’s all Hollywood. Hollywood definitely had a lot to do with it, but even in the classic cinematic depiction, High Noon (1952), Gary Cooper faces off not against a lone opponent but an armed gang. Truth is, the archetypal one-on-one showdown is one of those fixed ideas that doesn’t have much basis in fiction, let alone in fact. Although a few such confrontations did occur, the Wild West had no tradition of formal dueling–the more common approach was to get the drop on the other guy before he got the drop on you. On the other hand, some of what we might guess was showbiz razzle-dazzle–spinning pistols, for one thing–may actually be legit.
Or maybe not. The problem with sorting out old-west fact and fiction is that the mythmaking machinery was cranking from day one. Dime novels were relating the real or imagined exploits of figures like Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, and the James brothers during their lifetimes. Journalists juiced up their accounts to sell more papers (can you imagine?), and ordinary folks and sometimes the participants themselves embellished the truth. Nonetheless, the following showdowns seem reasonably well attested:
That was more typical of old-west gun battles–a fair fight offered too great a chance that the guy starting it might get killed. Other parts of the myth are also, well, mythical. The quick draw from a holster was rare; more often the gunman carried his pistol in his pocket, his belt, or better yet his hand immediately prior to the commencement of hostilities. While some famous shootists were indeed nimble with their weapons–John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Hickok are often cited in this regard–many say the importance of a quick draw has been exaggerated. Accuracy counted more than speed; keeping cool under fire was more important than both.
Still, some seemingly far-fetched elements of gunfighter lore can’t be readily dismissed. In Tombstone, Arizona, in late 1880 Curly Bill Brocius fatally wounded Marshal Fred White. Rumor at the time had it that Brocius had made a show of surrendering his pistol butt first, then employed the “road agent’s spin,” twirling the gun into his hand so he could shoot the lawman. The rumor was unfounded; the shooting appears to have been an accident–but the maneuver itself was well-known, and no one seems to have doubted that gunfighters sometimes used it. Did they? Who knows? Tracking down the Wild West bull isn’t easy when it’s got such a long head start.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.