When I was a boy I was enthralled by stories of American cowboys but rather disappointingly it turns out that the romantic image of a Wild West filled with countless gunfights was a bit of a myth generated primarily by dime-novel authors in the late nineteenth century. There were some gunfights of course and the most notable and well known of these took place in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas but the truth is they weren’t taking place every day on every street corner as the television programmes seemed to suggest.
One gunfight that did take place however was The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral which was a gunfight that took place on Wednesday October 26th 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. It is estimated that about thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds and it is generally regarded as the most famous gunfight in the history of the Old West and has come to represent a time in American history when the frontier was open range for outlaws in the absence of effective law enforcement.
The gunfight was relatively unknown to the American public until 1931 when author Stuart Lake published what has since been determined to be a largely fictionalized biography, ‘Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal’, two years after the lawman’s death. Despite its name, the gunfight actually occurred in a narrow lot six doors west of the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral on Fremont Street.
Famous gunfighters all had their favourite weapons. Wyatt Earp used a Colt 45 Peacemaker, Buntline Special with a twelve inch barrel which might sound a bit unwieldy but he claimed that it never impeded his draw. Bat Masterton on the other hand had the same hand gun but with a sawn off barrel because he thought that it slowed him down. Other famous gunmen who favoured the Colt 45 were Wild Bill Hickok and Pat Garrett who killed Billy The Kid with a Peacemaker in 1881. The Kid himself preferred the double action lightening colt with sawn off barrels of only three inches and John Wesley Harding and Jesse James used the heavier caliber Colt Army revolver.
Most Old West men who were labelled as being gunfighters did not kill nearly as many men in gunfights as they were given credit for, if any at all. They were often labelled as such due to one particular instance, which developed from rumours into them having been involved in many more events than they actually were. Often their reputation was as much “self-promotion” as anything else, such was the case of Bat Masterson.
It follows then that few men actually died as a result of a one to one gunfight and many well-known gunfighters were so feared by the public because of their reputation that when they were killed, they died as a result of ambush rather than going down in a ‘blaze of glory’. Others died secluded deaths either from old age or illness. Gunfighters King Fisher, John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok all died as a result of ambush, killed by men who feared them because of their reputation.
Hickok was generally regarded as the most skilled and fastest gunfighter of all but this didn’t help in the end. On August 2nd 1876 in Deadwood at the Nuttal & Mann’s saloon Wild Bill was shot whilst enjoying a glass of whiskey and a game of poker. Legend has it that Hickok could not find his favourite empty seat in the corner, where he always sat in order to protect himself against sneak attacks from behind, and instead sat with his back to one door and facing another. This was unlucky for him because this night he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall.
Gunmen Kid Curry, Jim Courtright, Dallas Stoudenmire and Dave Rudabaugh were killed in raging gun battles, much as portrayed in films of the era, and usually against more than one opponent. Bill Longley and Tom Horn were executed. Famed gunman Clay Allison died in a wagon accident. Gunmen Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday all died of natural causes, living out their lives on reputation and avoiding conflict in secluded retirement.