Saturday Snippet: The making of a gunman


A few weeks ago I put up an excerpt from famed Western gunfighter Frank Eaton‘s autobiography, “Pistol Pete, Veteran of the Old West“.

I’ve since finished the book, and enjoyed it very much.  Mr. Eaton was one of the genuine “fast guns” of the Old West, and by some accounts one of the very fastest of them all.  His book may contain some “embroidery”, as did many tales coming out of the Old West, but it’s still a no-holds-barred account of the life of a cowboy and lawman in the Indian Nations and surrounding areas at a time when life was very cheap.

I was struck by Mr. Eaton’s account of how he learned to shoot.  He came by his skills the hard way, after watching his father murdered in front of his eyes shortly after the Civil War.  It goes to show that if you dedicate yourself to the task and work hard, you can achieve true mastery of a firearm, even in the face of others who are also masters of their guns.  Practice does, indeed, make perfect.

Here’s how it began, when Frank was just eight years old.

Mother had gone to bed and Father and I had taken off our boots when we heard the sound of running horses and Father said, “There comes Mose and the boys now; they are early, aren’t they?”

I ran to the door just as the horses stopped. A man called for Father, who was right behind me. There was a burst of gunfire and my father fell to the floor with six bullets through him. I fell on his body screaming. One of the men got off his horse and pulled me away. He kicked me and hit me with his riding whip. Then he emptied his gun into my father’s body and cried, “Take that, you God-damn Yankee!”

Then they galloped away; but I had seen their faces. They were the four Campseys and the two Ferbers.

The Vigilantes

Our nearest neighbor was George Saffles, who lived about a half mile away, and Mother sent me to get him. Just as we got back another body of horsemen rode up and Mose Beaman came in the door. I ran to him crying, “Oh, Mr. Beaman, they killed my father!”

He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke kindly. “Who killed him, son?”

“The Campseys and the Ferbers!”

Mose waited no longer but sent Arthur Duffy and all the others on the trail while he stayed to help us. He went to Hundred-Ten and came back with a coffin and some more men. He did everything he could. They buried my father in a cemetery at Twin Mounds. The coffin was lowered and the last clod of dirt was thrown on top.

As we turned to leave, a column of black smoke arose in the direction of Si Dodder’s place, and I saw Mose look at Perry Manning and nod his head. But nothing could bring back my father!

Mose went home with us and helped with the chores and told Mother not to worry: he would come every day and help her with the work.

When he was ready to leave he took my right hand in his, placed his left hand on my head and, looking straight into my eyes, said solemnly: “My boy, may an old man’s curse rest upon you, if you do not try to avenge your father!”

“I will, Mr. Beaman! Just as soon as I am big enough and learn more about guns and shooting.”

“Don’t worry about guns and shooting,” said Mose, “I will tend to that part. I want you to be good for the job ahead of you or you may not get it all done. You must never stop until they are all accounted for!”


The next day Mose brought me a navy revolver. The army and navy revolvers were the most popular guns in those days. “I brought the navy gun, son,” Mose said, “because it is lighter than the army and the barrel is a little shorter. I think it will be better for you.” It was about eight inches long, and the army gun had about a nine-inch barrel.

The army and navy guns were six-shooters. Mose fired the gun, then held it for me to see. “Now after the shot is fired and the gun is cocked, the chamber revolves and brings a new load under the hammer. That is why they are called revolvers.”

There was an old gun, before the revolver, called the pepper-box gun, in which the whole barrel revolved. But it went out when the revolver came in.

If these guns seem crude, remember that at that time there was no better weapon; it was a matter of knowing how to use them effectively. You know the old flint arrow gave the Indian supremacy over man and beast. It wasn’t much of a weapon compared to the atom bomb, but at that time the bow and arrow was the best weapon available — and the Indian knew how to use it!

Molding Bullets

All the guns used to be cap-and-ball guns — there were no cartridge guns in those days — and we made our own ammunition.

A couple of days after Mose brought me the gun he rode in and when he got off his horse he took some things out of his saddlebags, saying, “Today I am going to start teaching you to mold bullets.” I was very happy about that and looked to see what he had brought. There was a can of gunpowder, three boxes of caps, a lot of lead, a pair of bullet molds and a melting ladle. We put the stuff on a bench beside the house and built a small fire.

Mose put some lead into the ladle, then put it on the fire to melt; when it was hot he poured it into the bullet mold and let it set just a few seconds, then he dropped out the molded bullet. I watched him: as soon as he had finished one he closed the mold and poured it full of lead again. They were perfect but they sure were hot. We had to wait until they were cool enough to handle, then we cut the neck off and the bullet was ready to use. Mose said, “Always save the neck and use it again, for lead is scarce.” Then he let me fill the mold while he watched.

Loading a Cap-and-Ball Gun

Mose told me that as soon as I could mold the bullets by myself he would teach me how to load and fire my gun and sight a target. You had to get the knack of loading a cap-and-ball gun to be fast about it.

We used to keep the gunpowder in a powder horn, to keep it dry. We wore it fastened to a strap that hung over our shoulder. On the small end of the horn was a removable cover, called the charger — the charger was a measure.

In a few days I had a nice stack of perfect bullets for Mose to look at when he came. He inspected them carefully, then patted me on the shoulder and said, “That’s fine, son. Now get your powder horn and I will show you how to load your gun.” I brought my powder horn and my gun and Mose loaded his gun as he showed me how. “First,” he said, “you pour the gunpowder out of the powder horn into the charger. When the charger is full that’s how much powder it takes to fire the bullet. Then you pour the powder into the chamber of the revolver; now put in the molded bullet and ram it down with your ramrod; then put the cap on and you are ready to go.”

I had done everything just as Mose had, while he was talking, and I was proud when he looked at my gun and said, “That’s fine, son.”

Learning to Shoot

Hardly a day passed but Mose was there to go on with my lessons. Patiently he taught me the first steps. Then one day he saw me sight a small jug, on a fence post thirty feet away, empty my gun and hit it with the last shot. He taught me always to be careful in loading and handling my gun. I will never forget his words, “Never aim your gun at anything but what you want to kill!”

He told me always to shoot at least ten or twenty shots a day. He gave me a belt and holster and fitted them to me. He taught me how to draw and shoot without sighting along the barrel of the gun. “You must get used to pointing your gun like you would your finger,” he said. “Look at your target instead of the sights. It may take a long time to master your gun but keep at it and you can shoot with the best of them for you have it in you. Learn to use your left hand part of the time. When you get good with it, I will give you another gun.”

“Another thing,” Mose said earnestly, “when you are older never take a drink of whisky and never gamble, for that would hurt your eyesight and your nerves. You will need them both for the job ahead of you.” I was only eight years old but I gave Mose my word. Gravely, he shook my hand, mounted his horse and rode away.

My days were spent helping Mother and learning to shoot with both hands. Mose kept me supplied with ammunition and in the evenings I molded bullets and put them into the bullet pouch he had given me.

Two Guns

There were hundreds of rattlesnakes along the limestone ledges of the surrounding region. I had a box full of rattles cut from the snakes I had shot.

One day when Mose came to watch me I showed him how I could shoot a snake’s head off with either hand.

True to his promise he brought me another gun, belt and holster complete. It was the same size as the first one and the same molds would make bullets for both guns.

I was proud of my two guns and felt I had lived up to what Mose expected of me. Times were very hard for the snakes after that, but we never killed game unless we needed it for food.

All the guns on the place were cleaned and loaded every day.

But the Campseys and the Ferbers had gone and so had Si Dodder.

. . .


. . .

Council House

Jesse Thompson, the Indian my stepfather had leased our land from, was re-elected as councilman for Cooweescoowee District for a fourth term. There were two factions in the district, one led by Tom Downing, the other by a man named Ross. There was much bad feeling between them. Jesse was on the Downing side.

There was going to be a meeting at the Dog Creek council house, and Jesse had to be there. Jesse’s friend, Mac Jackson, was usually with him everywhere he went; he was a big fellow and a good shot, but this time he couldn’t go. There were a good many Ross men along the road to the council house so Jesse asked my mother and stepfather if I might go along with him. I was now fifteen years old and a pretty good shot.

He gave me a new forty-five Colt revolver and a box of shells. These were no doubt for his own protection but I was very happy. Those were the first shells I ever saw.

As we rode along I killed four wolves and one deer. We put the deer on behind my saddle and took it down to the council house, where we had a big feed for everyone that night. Some of the councilors doubted I had killed the deer with a belt gun but Jesse had me do some fancy shooting and they were soon convinced.

Jim Starr

One of the councilmen at the meeting was Big Jim Starr, a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. He was six feet eight inches tall, weighing over three hundred pounds, and was raw-boned, without an ounce of surplus flesh. He could ride his pony under the limb of a tree, lock his feet under the pony’s belly and lift himself and the pony off the ground with his arms. He was the biggest, strongest man I ever saw.

Jim Starr was the only man who ever made a treaty with a Nation. The Cherokee Nation made a treaty with him that if he would quit fighting they would quit chasing him, and they both lived up to the bargain!

I knew about Big Jim, but this was the first time I ever saw him. He liked me and we were friends. He and Tom Downing gave me another Colt forty-five with two boxes of shells and offered to bet anyone that I could shoot faster and truer than any man at the council meeting. A few tried and were badly beaten. None of the Ross men could come anywhere near shooting with me. I was acclaimed the best shot in Cooweescoowee District, and Jesse Thompson was treated royally all through the council meeting and was elected Speaker and Chairman of the Council for Cooweescoowee District.

Every day I killed squirrels and prairie chickens and they had a big feed in the evening. I made many good friends that were a great help to me in later years. When the council meeting was over even the Ross men shook hands with me and asked me to come and visit them.

Jesse Thompson and I rode home without mishap and for the first time I realized what I had accomplished in all my years of working to be a good shot. I thought of all the hours I had spent in practice and was not content to stop but only encouraged to try all the harder. To be ready for the job ahead of me I had to be better than just good!

My First Job

In the year 1875, soon after the trip to the council house, I began riding the range and looking after the stock for Osage Brown, a cattleman on Mission Creek in the Osage Nation. The line between the Osage Nation and the Cherokee Nation was the ninety-sixth meridian; it runs right over the east side of the round mound west of where the city of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, now stands.

One day, while talking to some of the other riders, I learned that Shannon Campsey, one of the men who killed my father, was down on the Canadian River, southwest of Webbers Falls. So I began laying my plans to pay him a visit. Before I started out on the trail of the killers, however, I wanted to see if I could learn more about shooting. I kept thinking of what Mose Beaman had said that night my father was shot down in cold blood, “I want you to be good for the job ahead of you or you may not get it all done. You must never stop until they are all accounted for!”

I had a duty to perform and could not afford to miss! The men I was after were all good shots. I knew I would have to be better than they were, able to shoot faster and truer — and must be quicker on the draw.

Fort Gibson

There was a garrison of cavalry stationed at Fort Gibson, in the northeast part of the Indian Territory, not far from the Arkansas line. Among the soldiers were some who were noted for their marksmanship. I decided to go there and try to learn more about handling a gun, so I made my arrangements and set out on my pony for Fort Gibson.

. . .

As I came up the road in sight of the fort I was accosted by a soldier who asked my business there. “I want to see the commanding officer,” I replied, and another soldier standing nearby took me to Colonel Copinger, the commanding officer of the fort.

The colonel was sitting on the gallery, at the headquarters building. He looked me over and asked in his kind, friendly manner, “Well, son, what do you want?”

“I have heard that you have in your command the best and fastest shots in the Territory and I came here to see if they would show me some of their shooting and maybe teach me a few things,” I told him.

“You have two guns and you ought to know how to use them.”

“That is why I came here: to be able to use them with the best of them.”

“Who are you, son?” he asked.

“My name is Frank Eaton. I am a stepson of J. N. Goodhue, who was a soldier in the Thirty-second Iowa Infantry. My father, Frank Eaton, was in Stannard’s Vermont Regiment. His brother, my uncle, was killed at Gettysburg.” I was hoping he would not ask me why I was so anxious to learn more about shooting.

“You are too young to join the army now.” He thought I wanted to join the army? Well, that was just fine!

“I know,” I said, “but if I am an expert with my guns I will make a better soldier when I do join, if I ever do. Please let me stay and learn all your men can teach me.”

“All right, son,” he said, “how did you come here?”

“Horseback,” I replied.

Turning to a soldier sitting near him, the colonel said, “Sergeant, take the boy and his pony down to the stables; have him unsaddle and feed his mount and put him in the stall. Then bring the boy back here. I want to talk with him further.”

After putting my horse away, rubbing him down and feeding him some hay, we went back to Colonel Copinger. I was then subjected to a lengthy session of questioning but I gave all the answers straight and true, omitting only my reason for wanting proficiency in gun work.

That afternoon the colonel and a group of soldiers took me to the rifle range and the officer was genuinely surprised at my skill with my guns. I beat them all with the belt guns although they outshot me with the rifle.

In spite of the grim task that had been set before me I was always of a lighthearted, happy disposition. I made friends easily, so I was soon on friendly terms with all the soldiers at the fort.

Colonel Copinger invited me to supper. At the table he poured out a glass of wine for each of the men and offered one to me. I told him I had promised my mother that I would never drink any kind of intoxicating liquor until I was forty years old. She said by that time I would know what it would do to me and I could use my own judgment. I didn’t tell him of the promise I had made to Mose Beaman, not to drink a drop until the last Ferber and the last Campsey were accounted for!

Colonel Copinger was pleased and all the men encouraged me in my good resolution. The meal passed pleasantly. After supper we all went out on the gallery and talked. I sang the old cowboy songs and told them about my home and of my riding for Osage Brown, how Jesse Thompson had given me one of my guns, and Tom Downing and Big Jim Starr had given me the other one, but the holster and belt I had always had.

“I knew you were no novice with shooting irons,” said Colonel Copinger.

I looked down at the holster and belt that Mose Beaman had given me so long ago and wished that he could hear what the colonel had said.

“Why is it,” asked the sergeant, who was sitting on the edge of the gallery, “that you are so willing to tell us all about yourself? Most of the folks we meet won’t even tell us their names.”

“Oh,” I said, “I am not ashamed of my name. My life is an open book and anyone can read it who wants to and those who like it are my friends, and the ones who don’t like it can leave me alone and we will get along anyhow.”

They all laughed and after a little while the colonel said, “Tomorrow we will do some more shooting, on foot and on horseback, too, for I want to see how good you really are.”

“I will do my best, sir,” I said.

The men got up to go to their quarters for the night. They offered me a bunk but I told them I would rather sleep on the grass. I understood the grass but I had never seen an army bunk before.

The next day we had more matches. I outshot them again with the pistols, but again they beat me with the rifles. My Winchester did not have the range their Springfields had, nor the shock and penetration.

After the shooting matches we ran horse races, foot races, had jumping and wrestling matches, pitched horseshoes and had a lot of fun.

The Old Scout’s Draw

There was an old scout named Busby who didn’t talk much but showed a keen interest in all that took place. That evening as I was singing and cleaning my guns the old man came and sat down on the ground beside me.

“I have been watching you,” he said, “and there is something I think I can show you. It is the underhand draw. You already have the knack of pointing your gun at the target without sighting. If you can get this draw as fast as your straight draw you will be a hard kid to beat. It is done this way.” And he put on one of my guns and showed me how it was done.

I watched him closely. He showed me the few moves involved; then, handing me the belt and gun, told me to try it. I did, and on the second attempt made a perfect draw.

“I knew it,” said the old scout, “I knew you could learn quick. Now, son, keep practicing and you will be faster than Wild Bill and he is plenty fast.”

The old scout went on his way to the stable but I kept working on that draw. When I went to bed I lay there trying to figure out a still faster way until I dropped off to sleep. And then I dreamed that I had found it!

Next morning I tried it just as I had dreamed — and sure enough it was a shade faster!

After breakfast Colonel Copinger came out with a marksmanship badge; pinning it on me, he said, “I am giving you this badge for your fine marksmanship and I am going to give you a new name. From now on you are Pistol Pete! What do you think of that?”

“It’s all right with me.” And I thanked him for a fine time and a good name. “If I ever enlist I want to be in your command,” I told him; and I meant it.

“I hope you may be,” said the colonel, “and if I can ever be of any help let me know; I will do all I can for you.”

Thanking him again, I went down to the stables to get my pony and there I met the old scout, Busby, coming out of the door.

“Well, good-by, son,” he said, “be careful and keep practicing that draw that I showed you.”

“I will. And look here.” I threw my gun with the new twist I had learned from my dream.

The old scout looked at me in surprise. “Do that again, son, you were too fast for me that time.” I tried to be even faster than before. He shook his head.

“Son,” he said, “you are a wonder! I have seen some of the fastest men in the country and you sure have them shaded. But don’t get careless and get rusty or some damn fool will outlive you.” He went on toward the. barracks and I saddled my pony and went up to headquarters to tell the boys good-by.

A Good Stunt

I left Fort Gibson feeling able to take care of myself in most any kind of crowd, and determined to master the new draw. Before long I was pretty good, and the time came when I was fast as lightning.

There are people who still remember a stunt I used to do. This is the way it was done:

A four-inch target was placed at twenty feet on an anvil block. A steel disk off a disk plow, or a piece of steel that would ring, was placed on the floor. I stood, with my gun loose in the holster, both hands extended straight out in front of me, directly over the steel disk. A five-eighths metal washer was placed on the back of one hand. With my hands straight out in front of me, backs up, I turned my hands slowly until the washer began to slide. When the washer slid I drew my gun and fired. The report of the gun came before the ring of the washer hitting the metal disk on the floor. The trick was to hit the bull’s-eye every time.

. . .


. . .

Shannon Campsey

This was my first fight and I was eager to get it over with, so I rode at a fox trot for about five miles. I took the trail he had told me. It led up the big hill, then around the hill to another trail, then up the draw.

Coming around the point of the hill I saw the one-room log house where Shannon Campsey lived, about a half-mile ahead in a clearing, at the head of the draw near a little branch. It was daubed with mud on the outside. There was a high paling fence surrounding the house and it had a porch made of logs across the front. Shan could sit up there and look down and see who was coming up the trail.

As I approached I saw Shannon Campsey get up and go into the house and come out with a Winchester. He sat down in the chair with the Winchester across his lap and watched me. I knew he was fast and a dead shot. But I had been trained for this since I was eight years old, since the night when Shannon Campsey had emptied his gun into my father’s body, as he lay dead at his feet, and then had kicked me and struck me with his whip.

I rode up to the fence, which was about thirty feet from the house. Getting off my horse, I called out, “Hello, Shan, don’t you know me?”

At the sound of his name Shan jumped to his feet and raised his rifle to fire, but he was too slow. Like a rattler striking, my hand went to my hip. Before Shan’s gun went off there were two forty-fives through his breast. He fell on his face on the ground with his gun under him.

I got on my horse with my gun still in my hand, looking sharply for other foes. I rode around the house and took the trail to the spring. Halfway there I met Andy Reed and his men riding up the trail to meet me.

“We heard two shots just like one,” he said. “We thought he had shot you.”

“No,” I said, “I fired twice to be sure.”

“How the hell you shoot so fast?” asked Andy.

“Oh, that’s easy when you know how,” I said and fired two shots at a knot in a tree putting both fairly in the center of the knot. Then reloading my gun I stuck it back into the holster.

Frank Eaton (shown at left in his old age) duly tracked down the rest of the men responsible for murdering his father.  He killed five of them, the sixth being killed by someone else before he could get to him.  That’s how things were done in those days.  He went on to a stellar career as a lawman and Deputy U.S. Marshal, cowhand and cattle agent.  He died in 1958 at the ripe old age of 97, having been born as the Civil War began, in the era of horse- and ox-drawn wagons and steam trains, and made it through two World Wars to the atomic and jet age.  What an amazing life he led!

I did some figuring.  Eaton was eight years old when he began to learn how to shoot.  He says he practiced almost every day.  I’m going to assume he fired at least four cylinders of rounds – four times six rounds – on average each day, and that he managed to fit in a practice session at least eight days out of every ten.  That means between the ages of eight and fifteen, when – as we read above – he was given his first Colt .45, he fired plus-or-minus fifty thousand rounds out of old-fashioned cap-and-ball revolvers.  That would explain how he became so fast on the draw and so deadly accurate, able to “shoot a snake’s head off with either hand” by his mid-teens.

Let that be a lesson to all of us in what determination and hard work can achieve.  Thankfully, few, if any, of us will have the same grimly vengeful motivation that drove Frank Eaton.  He may have exaggerated his accomplishments, as many famous figures in the Old West did, but enough of his contemporaries endorsed them – and him – for us to believe he was one of the truly “tough guys”, in every respect.

By the way, the Colonel Copinger who commanded Fort Gibson when Eaton visited there was a brevet colonel, awarded that honorary rank in 1868 “for zeal and energy while in command of troops operating against hostile Indians in 1866, 1867 and 1868”.  You can read more about him here.  He ended his career as a Brigadier-General, died in 1909, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.



  1. Peter,
    Are you familiar with Pinnacle Jake? Nellie Yost was my friend from when I shoveled her walk at age 10. She introduced me to him – as I recall, he was her uncle.
    Since you like authenticity, I'm sure you would like what she wrote about him: Pinnacle Jake by Nellie Snyder Yost
    She wrote some other wonderful historic books. Check her out, if you haven't already.

  2. just like Frederick R. Burnham. Lots of practice, both with the gun and physical.
    He learned alot from old timers.
    Scouting on Two Continents. What an amazing life those men lived.

  3. @Ritchie: I doubt very much whether his original two "navy revolvers" survived seven years of that kind of shooting. I'd expect an 1860's-vintage cap-and-ball revolver, with the inferior metals and less-than-perfect machining of those days, might last up to 5,000 rounds without needing major overhaul, but I doubt it'd make 10,000. That's only a guess, of course – nobody seemed to keep track of round count, etc. in those days.

    I'd be willing to bet Mr. Eaton went through at least two sets of revolvers during those years, and possibly three, before he got his first cartridge weapon.

  4. I do note how the "Reconstruction" years brought about some absolutely deadly gunman. Most of them motivated by injustices served upon them or their families. This went on until about 1878 when the army of occupation was withdrawn.

  5. Thank you. It's great to hear the old stories of these men and their times.
    "Project Gutenberg" offers totally free downloads of 60,000 old books and novels.
    You can go there, enter "cowboys" pick a download and start reading. The
    one I am on now was an autobiographical story written in 1903.

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