8/29/12 - the myth of the gunfighter

In today's excerpt - the gunfighters of the American West neither dressed, fought nor behaved as they were depicted in Hollywood movies and pulp novels:

"As a class, gunfighters did not conform to the stereotyped image of the motion picures. Generations of Western fans have seen them portrayed as cowboys, gamblers and occa­sionally in the guise of a frontier scout com­plete with buckskins. But the cowboy image dominates. From the earliest appearance of the Western film in 1903, the dress and manner of the gunfighter has been reflected in the image of the cowboy. The huge sombrero, neckerchief, double or single gunbelt, knee high boots (worn with pants tucked in or pulled down over them), and jingling spurs, all served to create a false image of the man behind the gun. In reality, most gunfighters dressed normally according to the current fashions of the time, and would probably be missed in a crowd. Only when they openly carried pistols would they command much attention. In fact, the editor of the Kansas City, Mo. Journal on 15 November 1881 made a point of describing the 'man-killer' or 'civilizer' that today we call the gunfighter:

The gentleman who has 'killed his man' is by no means a rara avis ... He is met daily on Main street, and is the busiest of the busy throng. He may be seen on change, and in the congregations of the most aristocratic churches. He resides on 'Quality hill', or perhaps on the East Side . . . This ubiquitous individual may be seen almost anywhere. He may be found behind the bar in a Main street saloon; he may be seen by an admiring audience doing the pedestal clog at a variety theatre; his special forte may be driving a cab, or he may be behind the rosewood counters of a bank ... He is usually quiet in demeanor, sober ... [and] ... he may take a drink occasionally, but seldom gets drunk ... He is quiet -- fatally quiet... Your gentleman who has dropped his man is, therefore, no uncommon individual. . .

"The editor's graphic portrait of the typical gunfighter refutes the loud-mouthed, trouble-making 'shoot at anything that moves' Texas cowboy of the 1860s and early 1870s. Neverthe­less, there were cowboy-gunfighters but they were the exception. ...

"The gunfighters, or perhaps their gunfights, loom large in America's folklore and remain the subject of debate a century or more since they last squeezed a trigger. Some died with their boots on and others in bed, but so fasci­nating is the subject that it has inspired a modern six-shooter cult that dwells primarily upon how fast on the draw certain individuals might have been rather than their accuracy and what first provoked them to kill.

"The gunfighter arose out of the turbulent conditions that existed in the frontier West, when a man's best friend and hope of salvation was a gun, for there were many remote parts of states or territories where law and order was either overextended or unheard of. The clas­sic gunfight of fact, fiction and the silver screen, which depicts two or more individuals facing each other down in a high noon duel, is now an accepted part of Western folklore. In reality, the gunfight was loosely based upon the old-time code duello, but it lacked the rules of the original and instead relied on the cold-blooded science of getting the drop on an opponent. The importance of the 'drop' was paramount. 'One must always have the drop on an antagonist,' noted the Topeka Daily Com­monwealth, on 23 September 1871, 'or nothing more than an exercise of the vocal muscles en­sues. The code of chivalry seems to be to fight only a smaller man who is unprepared and un­suspecting. Shoot him in the back, bite his ear or nose off as a memento, and your reputation as a fighting man is made . . .' Among men of reputation, however, such brawling was rare, A man's 'honor' was set above everything else. And it was a trait that can be traced right back to earlier times when duelists fought hand-to-hand encounters that would have appalled some of the latter day six-shooter virtuosos who depended upon the drop and the killer instinct for survival....

"History changes yet it remains the same. Despite revision and review old myths and fables concerning the American West and its gunfighters are perpetuated. While historians strive for the truth, they often find that people prefer legends. It is much more exciting to read that Billy the Kid killed twenty-one men -- one for each year of his life -- or that Wild Bill disposed of 'considerably over a hundred bad men', than to be told that the Kid killed per­haps six people, and Wild Bill's tally was closer to ten than 100. In each instance legend took care of the remainder and it is the legend that appeals to most people and not the facts."


Joseph G. Rosa


Age of the Gunfighter: Men and Weapons on the Frontier, 1840-1900


University of Oklahoma Press


Copyright 1992, 2002, 2007 by Salamander Books. Ltd.


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