My hopes for this paper are to clear up some misconceptions on the ideas of gun fighting in the American “wild West”. Our views and ideas of gun fights in the West, are so far off, thanks to Hollywood’s rendition of them. In reality, they were rare, usually involving injury to bystanders and shooters alike. They almost never ended after the first shot, only ending when their guns were empty. These occurrences were nowhere near as glorious as Hollywood has portrayed them.
Some of the information that I am including in this paper are from my own experiences with western reenacting and shooting black powder weapons, something that my grandfather introduced me to several years ago. Also from talking to gentlemen who have been reenacting and researching western gunfights for years.
Thanks to Hollywood, our image of the Western gunfights are radically different then what actually happened, this paper will serve as an attempt to pay tribute to the Western gunfight and to give it the respect it deserves .
Hollywood tends to portray gunfights as civilized and romantic occurrences. One where after a confrontation, (usually over a girl or being called a cheat, thief or a liar), two men would decide to settle it in a gunfight. The men would then decide to meet at a designated time in a specific location. The popular location was in the center of town in the middle of the street, which was lined with onlookers. The men would then stand a certain number of paces away from each other, face each other and perform a quick draw and shoot. Usually one of the men was killed in the first blast.
In all actuality, gunfights were anything but romantic and civilized. They were almost always spur of the moment, and born of anger induced by alcohol. The two men, whom the confrontation was between would go out onto the street and stand sideways to each other, (as was customary for dueling at the time), with a distance of about 25-30 yards separating them, (pistols that were period to the time were not very accurate). The men would then draw their guns and proceed to fire at each other, usually emptying their guns. After the smoke cleared, (black powder, when fired, produces a thick cloud of black smoke that makes it almost impossible to see), the effects of the barrage could be noted. Sometimes not one shot found its mark, but often it did and one or even both of the shooters would be hit. Occasionally even a bystander was hit by a wild shot.
As an example of one of the few gunfights that even closely resembles Hollywood’s renditions, I will use the 21 July, 1865 shootout between “Wild Bill” Hickok and Davis K. Tutt. This shootout took place in the town of Springfield, Missouri. It is believed by some that Hickok did not want the shooting to happen, but was forced by honor to oblige. (Farrow, 2003, p. 1)
The shootout in question occurred as a result of a gambling debt that led to, as far as Hickok was concerned, the risk of public humiliation. It is a well-known fact that Hickok was an avid gambler, and on this particular instance, Hickok was on a winning streak. Tutt, whom Hickok had been friends with for some time but had had a falling out with, seeing that Hickok was doing very well demanded that Hickok repay some old loans. When Hickok claimed the amounts owed were not correct, Tutt took Hickok’s gold pocket watch which was lying on the table, as collateral. Hickok then warned Tutt not to wear it in public, as to not cause Hickok embarrassment. Tutt ignored this and Hickok later seeing him on the street while wearing it, told him not to come near him with it. (History.com Staff, 2009, p.1) Tutt’s response was to lower his hand to his revolver, at which point both men drew and fired at virtually the same time. It is reported that Tutt fired first, but missed Hickok completely, while Hickok fired second and put a bullet through Tutt’s chest at a distance of about 75 yards, (no one is really sure of the exact distance, but it was an impressive feat for the time nonetheless). Tutt is reported to have said after he was shot, “Boys, I’m killed”, Hickok was arrested and tried for murder, but was later acquitted.
I hope this paper helped to clear up some of the discrepancies between Hollywood’s gunfights and the gunfights that actually occurred in the American West. The men that made up the American West deserve to be remembered not as bloodthirsty men prone to violence at the drop of a hat, but as men that were living in rough times, doing what they had to do to survive.
Not all were roaming around looking for trouble intentionally, of course there were a few that did, but for the most part they tried to stay out of trouble. However they wouldn’t back down if they got themselves into trouble. Most of these situations happened so fast that they were over and someone was dead or dying before a rational decision could be made.
1) Farrow, Connie, (2003, October 2009). London Scholar Tracks Legacy of Wild Bill Hickok. Southeast Missourian, 1. Retrieved October 29, 2015, from http://www.semissourian.com/story/123221.html3221.html
2) History.com Staff, (2009). Wild Bill Hickok fights first western showdown. History.com, 1. Retrieved November 7, 2015, from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/wild-bill-hickok-fights-first-western-showdown
3) Alexander, David, Weiser-Alexander, Kathy, Bill Hickok-David Tutt Shootout (1865). Legends of America, 3. Retrieved November 11, 2015, from http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-gunfights3.html#Bill Hickok-David Tutt Shootout
4) (1883). Killing of Dave Tutt by “Wild Bill”. In History of Greene County Missouri (pp. 763-766). St Louis: Western Historical Company