gunfighting in the old west -- 9/6/17

Today's selection -- from Cattle Kingdom by Christopher Knowlton. Hollywood notwithstanding, there was not much gunfighting in the Old West:

"But it was no accident that [legendary lawman and showman] Wild Bill Hickok chose to carry a sawed-off shotgun to defend himself after [a] shootout ... in Abilene. A shotgun was a much better weapon than a re­volver in a gunfight, and it easily surpassed the six-shooter as an aid to law enforcement. The historian Lewis Atherton cited the case of perhaps the most successful law-enforcement officer of the cattle era, Nathaniel K. Boswell, a former drugstore owner who served as a sheriff in the Territory of Wyoming for a decade beginning in 1869, while doubling as deputy U.S. marshal at Laramie. Boswell later be­came a long-serving chief detective for the Wyoming Stock Grow­ers Association.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and
William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody in 1873,
dressed for the stage

"His weapon of choice was a Parker or Remington double-barrel shotgun, not a six-shooter. (The pump shotgun was not introduced by Winchester until 1893.) Boswell never engaged in reckless shootouts, choosing instead to conceal himself before apprehending culprits. Consequently, he never failed to make an arrest and never let an arrested man escape. Furthermore, he never received so much as a scratch during his many years of service, earning a deserved reputation for both bravery and resourceful­ness. So much for the image of the lawman as a daring gunslinger! This myth, largely invented by the press, later became a staple of the western, both on television and in the movies. Most cattlemen who lived long enough to watch these programs considered them 'highly unrealistic in their use of gun play.'

"In fact, most cowboys did not carry weapons at all. If they did own an expensive six-shooter, it was likely the Colt Single-Action Army, introduced in 1873 and known as 'the Peacemaker.' Its price -- a hundred dollars per pair -- would have been a huge amount of money for a cowboy. The cowboy who did own a revolver usually kept it in his bedroll because a loaded six-shooter worn around the waist was both cumbersome and heavy when riding or walking. And most cowboys knew that wearing a six-shooter in a cattle town was an invitation to gunplay; most preferred to avoid altercations. Cowboys tended to settle a dispute with a fistfight. A revolver was best used to kill snakes, put wounded animals out of their misery, or signal for help. As Leon Clare Metz wrote in The Encyclopedia of Lawmen, Outlaws, and Gunfighters, 'The image of the ordinary Western cowboy as a fast and accurate gun-fighter has practically no validity.' ...

Nathaniel K. Boswell

"Some cowboys simply disliked guns. Surprisingly few ever saw actual gun violence in the towns that they visited. Indeed, cowboys were highly motivated to stay out of trouble. If caught committing a crime, they faced the most rudimentary and arbitrary forms of criminal justice. The local justice of the peace or the police-court judge handled all minor cases, and these men were, as likely as not, also the local saloonkeepers. District judges, who handled federal and state crimes, from robberies and holdups to rapes and murder, served the larger territories. But these judges had to travel vast dis­tances to dispense justice, and they struggled to convene juries; an offender had no guarantee of a timely trial, let alone a fair one. ...

"Life might be cheap in a cattle town, and the law only erratically enforced, but the towns were hardly deadly if you went about your business and took care to avoid trouble. In fact, no one was killed in Abilene in 1869 or 1870. Ironically, no one died in a cattle-town gun­fight until the arrival of the sheriffs and marshals, who were hired to prevent such murderous acts. Even in Dodge City's worst year, 1878, only five men died in gunfights. The historian Robert Dykstra counted only forty-five homicides in all of the Kansas cattle towns during the cattle era, an annual average of 1.5 homicides. Thirty­nine were from shotguns, and only six from handguns. Of the forty-five victims who suffered bullet wounds, less than a third returned fire. ...

"The eastern readers of dime novels would have been shocked to discover how little gunfighting actually went on in the cattle towns."



Christopher Knowlton


Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2017 by Christopher Knowlton


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