The Myth of Gunfights in The Old West

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Mostly due to western movies we all tend to picture the west to be full of gunslinging outlaws who are looking for any reason to pull out their six shooter and take a shot. There are all types of different gun fights portrayed in western movies, one on one duels, to one person having to shot  his way out of many people or two different parties shooting away at each other. But the truth is these things weren’t as common as they are portrayed to be. The likelihood of you finding oneself in a gunfight was pretty rare. We also tend to have this image that once the gunfight was over whoever had survived just got up and left, no criminal charges or lawsuits. Turns out most of these myths are not true and in fact the west was not as lawless and violent as it is often perceived to be.
Silverton, Colorado was once known for the recreations of gun fights that took place in the town in the 1800’s they would reenact as the narrow gauge train drove by. But this all changed because “Theatrical value aside, the gunfights were no more by the 1970s. A group of history-minded citizens had gained influence, and rejected the charade as an inaccurate portrayal of their town’s history”1. The people realized that while these gunfights put on for show might be cool they have no real historic value and were made up for show. Silverton wanted to people to realize that the history of the west involves much more than the gunfights that the movies tend to portray. It’s not that gunfights didn’t exist in the west its just they were not nearly as common as people think as this other quote shows “Even in late 19th Century Silverton, a rough-and-tumble mining town if there ever was one, gunfights were extremely rare. There were incidents in the region of gangs battling lawmen, and the occasional shot fired in anger in a saloon. Full-on fights, in which the butcher, baker and candlemaker were also involved, were virtually unheard of, however”2.
So gunfights were not as common as people think but they still did exist in the west. One of the most famous gunfights that has been portrayed in countless movies and T.V. shows is the gunfight of O.K Corral. This gunfight started when “Four sworn officers intended to arrest a handful of civilians who were carrying guns within city limits without a permit”3. The outlaws then proceeded to shoot and fight the officers. The gunfight lasted all of thirty seconds and its said that 30 bullets were shot also. The fight left three civilians dead and three officers wounded. In a newspaper article from the time the author wrote that it was “a day to always remember as witnessing the bloodiest and deadliest street fight that has ever occurred in this place”4. So the citizens were obviously not used to seeing this gun violence like we think people were. But also after gunfights in the western movies people just move on with their lives, you never see a lawsuit after. This was not the case with the gunfight of O.K. Coral because shortly after the shoot out “Ike Clanton filed first-degree murder charges against the Earps and Holliday.  Sheriff Behan, who might have been expected to file the charges, seemed content to let Clanton take the initiative, leaving him to the job of testifying against the Earps”5. It is actually the citizens who were carrying the guns that pressed murder charges against the sherrifs. Something that is never portrayed in western movies. In western movies if the sheriff decided to shoot someone then that was that, the sheriff saw a problem and took care of it, but that doesn’t seem to be how things really played out in the west.
1Thompson, Jonathan. “The Wild and Not so Gun-loving West.” High Country News. January 3, 2013. Accessed October 15, 2015
2Ibid., “The Wild and Not so Gun-loving West.”
3”Gunfight at the OK Corral 1881.” Down by the River Bed and Breakfast. January 4, 2013.     Accessed October 15, 2015.
4Russell, Mary. “Why a 30-Second Gun Fight in 1881 Still Captures Our Imaginations.” Zocalo Public Square. October 13, 2015. Accessed October 15, 2015.
5Linder, Douglas. “The Earp-Holliday Trial: An Account.” 2005. Accessed October 15, 2015.

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