Did Western gunfighters really face off one-on-one?

June 25, 2004

Dear Cecil:

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?

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:

  • In 1865 James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill, quarreled with Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri, apparently over a debt. Around 6 PM on July 21, 1865, the two men advanced on each other in the town square, drew their guns at a range of 50 yards, and blasted away. Tutt missed; Hickok didn't; Tutt fell with a ball through the heart. Hickok was tried for manslaughter and acquitted. A sensational account of the incident appeared in Harper's in 1867, making Hickok a national celebrity. Scoffers then and since attacked the story's credibility, in part due to the seeming unlikelihood of hitting a man-sized target with a pistol at 50 yards in 1865, but sufficient evidence has now accumulated to indicate it happened roughly as described. Not that it matters. If only because of the publicity, the notion of lone gunfighters facing each other down became part of western lore.
  • 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"; I beg to differ. Harrison shot wild; Levy took more careful aim, plugged his man, then--in a decidedly unheroic touch--approached his fallen opponent and shot him again. (One account claims Harrison fired at Levy while sprawled on the ground, but contemporary opinion held that Levy had shot a man while he was down.) Harrison died 13 days later. Levy tried for a repeat performance in 1882 when he quarreled with another gambler, John Murphy, in Tucson and challenged him to a showdown the next day, June 5. Shortly after midnight, though, Murphy and two friends spotted Levy in a doorway, decided there was no time like the present, and shot the unarmed man to death.

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.

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