Saturday Snippet: Two renowned gunfighters on the keys to their craft


In an age when many police forces and law enforcement agencies are hobbled by politically correct restrictions, it’s galling to realize that our safety against criminal attack lies in our own hands.  Nobody’s going to come to save us – at least, not right away.  The old saw that “When seconds count, police are only minutes away” is (yet again) proving all too true.

Self-defense requires having the tools and the training for the job.  A firearm is often the last line of defense when lesser means have failed – but far too many people regard it as some sort of magic talisman, requiring no training or experience to use.  That’s the opposite of the truth.  The late, great Jeff Cooper famously said:

“Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician.”

You have to know how to use your instrument in order to make the best use of it.

Two of the leading lights of gunfighting in the Old West were Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.  Both have left us their thoughts on gunfighting and self-defense.  I thought it might be educational, as well as entertaining, to read them.

Stuart Lake‘s book “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal“, published two years after Earp’s death in 1931, has been heavily criticized for relying more on the author’s imagination than on its subject’s actual accounts (Lake interviewed him only eight times).  It also glosses over material unfavorable to its subject, while emphasizing some accounts that are more hagiographic than factual.  Nevertheless, it remains a primary source on Earp’s life, and does contain a great deal of core material.

Here’s what Earp had to say about gunfighting.  This excerpt from Lake’s book was published on Primary & Secondary Forum a few years ago.

The most important lesson I learned from those proficient gunfighters was the winner of a gunplay usually was the man who took his time. The second was that, if I hoped to live long on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting—grandstand play—as I would poison.

I was a fair hand with pistol, rifle, or shotgun, but I learned more about gunfighting from Tom Speer’s cronies during the summer of ’71 than I had dreamed was in the book. Those old-timers took their gunplay seriously, which was natural under the conditions in which they lived. Shooting, to them, was considerably more than aiming at a mark and pulling a trigger. Models of weapons, methods of wearing them, means of getting them into action and operating them, all to the one end of combining high speed with absolute accuracy, contributed to the frontiersman’s shooting skill.

The sought-after degree of proficiency was that which could turn to most effective account the split-second between life and death. Hours upon hours of practice, and wide experience in actualities supported their arguments over style.

When I say that I learned to take my time in a gunfight, I do not wish to be misunderstood, for the time to be taken was only that split fraction of a second that means the difference between deadly accuracy with a sixgun and a miss. It is hard to make this clear to a man who has never been in a gunfight.

Perhaps I can best describe such time taking as going into action with the greatest speed of which a man’s muscles are capable, but mentally unflustered by an urge to hurry or the need for complicated nervous and muscular actions which trick-shooting involves. Mentally deliberate, but muscularly faster than thought, is what I mean.

In all my life as a frontier police officer, I did not know a really proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun-fanner, or the man who literally shot from the hip. In later years I read a great deal about this type of gunplay, supposedly employed by men noted for skill with a forty-five.

From personal experience and numerous six-gun battles which I witnessed, I can only support the opinion advanced by the men who gave me my most valuable instruction in fast and accurate shooting, which was that the gun-fanner and hip-shooter stood small chance to live against a man who, as old Jack Gallagher always put it, took his time and pulled the trigger once.

Cocking and firing mechanisms on new revolvers were almost invariably altered by their purchasers in the interests of smoother, effortless handling, usually by filing the dog which controlled the hammer, some going so far as to remove triggers entirely or lash them against the guard, in which cases the guns were fired by thumbing the hammer.

This is not to be confused with fanning, in which the triggerless gun is held in one hand while the other was brushed rapidly across the hammer to cock the gun, and firing it by the weight of the hammer itself. A skillful gun-fanner could fire five shots from a forty-five so rapidly that the individual reports were indistinguishable, but what could happen to him in a gunfight was pretty close to murder.

I saw Jack Gallagher’s theory borne out so many times in deadly operation that I was never tempted to forsake the principles of gunfighting as I had them from him and his associates.

There was no man in the Kansas City group who was Wild Bill’s equal with a six-gun. Bill’s correct name, by the way, was James B. Hickok. Legend and the imaginations of certain people have exaggerated the number of men he killed in gunfights and have misrepresented the manner in which he did his killing. At that, they could not very well overdo his skill with pistols.

Hickok knew all the fancy tricks and was as good as the best at that sort of gunplay, but when he had serious business at hand, a man to get, the acid test of marksmanship, I doubt if he employed them. At least, he told me that he did not. I have seen him in action and I never saw him fan a gun, shoot from the hip, or try to fire two pistols simultaneously. Neither have I ever heard a reliable old-timer tell of any trick-shooting employed by Hickok when fast straight-shooting meant life or death.

That two-gun business is another matter that can stand some truth before the last of the old-time gunfighters has gone on. They wore two guns, most of six-gun toters did, and when the time came for action went after them with both hands. But they didn’t shoot them that way.

Primarily, two guns made the threat of something in reserve; they were useful as a display of force when a lone man stacked up against a crowd. Some men could shoot equally well with either hand, and in a gunplay might alternate their fire; others exhausted the loads from the gun on the right, or the left, as the case might be, then shifted the reserve weapon to the natural shooting hand if that was necessary and possible. Such a move—the border shift—could be made faster than the eye could follow a top-notch gun-thrower, but if the man was as good as that, the shift would seldom be required.

Whenever you see a picture of some two-gun man in action with both weapons held closely against his hips and both spitting smoke together, you can put it down that you are looking at the picture of a fool, or a fake. I remember quite a few of these so-called two-gun men who tried to operate everything at once, but like the fanners, they didn’t last long in proficient company.

In the days of which I am talking, among men whom I have in mind, when a man went after his guns, he did so with a single, serious purpose. There was no such thing as a bluff; when a gunfighter reached for his fortyfive, every faculty he owned was keyed to shooting as speedily and as accurately as possible, to making his first shot the last of the fight. He just had to think of his gun solely as something with which to kill another before he himself could be killed. The possibility of intimidating an antagonist was remote, although the ‘drop’ was thoroughly respected, and few men in the West would draw against it.

I have seen men so fast and so sure of themselves that they did go after their guns while men who intended to kill them had them covered, and what is more win out in the play. They were rare. It is safe to say, for all general purposes, that anything in gunfighting that smacked of show-off or bluff was left to braggarts who were ignorant or careless of their lives.

I might add that I never knew a man who amounted to anything to notch his gun with ‘credits,’ as they were called, for men he had killed. Outlaws, gunmen of the wild crew who killed for the sake of brag, followed this custom. I have worked with most of the noted peace officers — Hickok, Billy Tilghman, Pat Sughre, Bat Masterson, Charlie Basset, and others of like caliber — have handled their weapons many times, but never knew one of them to carry a notched gun.

There are two other points about the old-time method of using six-guns most effectively that do not seem to be generally known. One is that the gun was not cocked with the ball of the thumb. As his gun was jerked into action, the old-timer closed the whole joint of his thumb over the hammer and the gun was cocked in that fashion. The soft flesh of the thumb ball might slip if a man’s hands were moist, and a slip was not to be chanced if humanly avoidable. This thumb-joint method was employed whether or not a man used the trigger for firing.

On the second point, I have often been asked why five shots without reloading were all a top-notch gunfighter fired, when his guns were chambered for six cartridges.

The answer is, merely, safety. To ensure against accidental discharge of the gun while in the holster, due to hair-trigger adjustment, the hammer rested upon an empty chamber. As widely as this was known and practiced, the number of cartridges a man carried in his six-gun may be taken as an indication of a man’s rank with the gunfighters of the old school. Practiced gun-wielders had too much respect for their weapons to take unnecessary chances with them; it was only with tyros and would-bes that you heard of accidental discharges or didn’t-know-it-was-loaded injuries in the country where carrying a Colt was a man’s prerogative.

(We should note, concerning the carrying and use of two handguns in the Old West, that it was encouraged by the very slow reloading times of Civil War-era “cap and ball” revolvers.  It could take upwards of a minute to reload all six chambers in those weapons.  The advent of self-contained cartridges speeded up the process, but even then, to reload a Colt Single Action Army revolver – the famous “Peacemaker” – took several seconds per chamber.  In the stress of combat, fumbling for cartridges, it might take twenty to thirty seconds to recharge the weapon;  and all that time, one’s opponent(s) would be shooting back.  This was not optimum for survival.  For that reason, a second handgun might be a life-saver;  instead of trying to reload the first, one simply drew the second and continued the fight.)

Bat Masterson, referenced in Earp’s discussion above, was an equally famous Western lawman and gunfighter, although his actual number of gunfights was considerably less than legend ascribed to him.  He took part in the legendary Second Battle of Adobe Walls, where 28 bison hunters defended their position against Kiowa, Cheyenne and Comanche attackers described as several hundred strong.  In later years he was a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas and other towns.  The last decades of his life were spent as a reporter and raconteur, and he had plenty of opportunity to discuss his past and the things he had learned.

Before we discuss Masterson’s views on gunfighting, here’s what he had to say about Wyatt Earp.  These excerpts are from an article published in Human Life magazine in 1907.  You can read the whole thing here, which I highly recommend.

Thirty-five years ago [1872] that immense stretch of territory extending from the Missouri River west to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Brazos River in Texas north to the Red Cloud Agency in Dakota, knew no braver or more desperate man than Wyatt Earp, the subject of this narrative.

Wyatt Earp is one of the few men I personally knew in the West in the early days, whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of physical fear. I have often remarked, and I am not alone in my conclusions, that what goes for courage in a man is generally the fear of what others will think of him — in other words, personal bravery is largely made up of self-respect, egotism, and an apprehension of the opinion of others.

Wyatt Earp’s daring and apparent recklessness in time of danger is wholly characteristic; personal fear doesn’t enter into the equation, and when everything is said and done, I believe he values his own opinion of himself more than that of others, and it is his own good report that he seeks to preserve.

. . .

[Wyatt] was not one of those human tigers who delighted in shedding blood just for the fun of the thing. He never, at any time in his career, resorted to the pistol excepting in cases where such a course was absolutely necessary. Wyatt could scrap with his fists and had often taken all the fight out of bad men, as they were called, with no other weapons than those provided by Nature.

There were few men in the West who could whip Earp in a rough-and-tumble fight 30 years ago, and I suspect that he could give a tough youngster a hard tussle right now, even if he is 61 years of age.

. . .

He always arrayed himself on the side of law and order, and on a great many occasions, at the risk of his life, rendered valuable service in upholding the majesty of the law in those communities in which he lived. In the spring of 1876, he was appointed Assistant City Marshal of Dodge City, Kansas, which was then the largest shipping point in the North for the immense herds of Texas cattle that were annually driven from Texas to the northern markets. Wyatt’s reputation for courage and coolness was well known to many of the citizens of Dodge City — in fact, it was his reputation that secured for him the appointment of Assistant City Marshal.

. . .

While he invariably went armed, he seldom had occasion to do any shooting in Dodge City, and only once do I now recall when he shot to kill, and that was at a drunken cowboy, who rode up to a Variety Theatre where Eddie Foy, the now-famous comedian, was playing an engagement. The cowboy rode right by Wyatt, who was standing outside the main entrance to the show shop, but evidently he did not notice him else he would not in all probability have acted as he did.

The building in which the show was being given was one of those pine-board affairs that were in general use in frontier towns. A bullet fired from a Colts 45 caliber pistol would go through a half-dozen such buildings, and this the cowboy knew. Whether it was Foy’s act that angered him, or whether he had been jilted by one of the chorus we never learned; at any rate he commenced bombarding the side of the building directly opposite the stage upon which Eddy Foy was at that very moment reciting that beautifully pathetic poem entitled “Kalamazoo in Michigan.”  The bullets tore through the side of the building scattering pieces of the splintered pine-boards in all directions. Foy evidently thought the cowboy was after him, for he did not tarry long in the line of fire.

The cowboy succeeded in firing three shots before Wyatt got his pistol in action. Wyatt missed at the first shot, which was probably due to the fact that the horse the cowboy was riding kept continually plunging around, which made it rather a hard matter to get a bead on him. His second shot, however, did the work, and the cowboy rolled off his horse and was dead by the time the crowd reached him.

. . .

Wyatt Earp, like many more men of his character who lived in the West in its early days, has excited, by his display of great courage and nerve under trying conditions, the envy and hatred of those small-minded creatures with which the world seems to be abundantly peopled, and whose sole delight in life seems to be in fly-specking the reputations of real men. I have known him since the early seventies and have always found him a quiet, unassuming man, not given to brag or bluster, but at all times and under all circumstances a loyal friend and an equally dangerous enemy.

Here’s what Masterson had to say about the importance of deliberation and concentration in gunfighting, from another article in the same magazine.  (You can read an extended and somewhat hagiographic article about him by the magazine’s publisher, here.)

Any man who does not possess courage, proficiency in the use of firearms, and deliberation had better make up his mind at the beginning to settle his personal differences in some other manner than by an appeal to the pistol. I have known men in the West whose courage could not be questioned and whose expertness with the pistol was simply marvelous, who fell easy victims before men who added deliberation to the other two qualities. I will cite a few such instances that came under my own personal observation.

Thirty-five years ago, Charlie Harrison was one of the best-known sporting men west of the Missouri River. He was of an impetuous temperament, quick of action, of unquestioned courage and the most expert man I ever saw with a pistol. He could shoot faster and straighter when shooting at a target than any man I ever knew; then add to that the fact that no man possessed more courage than he did, the natural conclusion would be that he would be a most formidable foe to encounter in a pistol duel.

In 1876 he started for the Black Hills, which was then having a great mining boom on account of the discovery of gold at Deadwood. When Charley reached Cheyenne, he became involved in a personal difficulty with another gambler by the name of Jim Levy, and both men started for their respective lodgings to get their pistols and have it out the first time they met. It looked like 100 to 1 that Harrison would win the fight because of his well-known courage and proficiency in the use of the pistol. Little being known at that time about Jim Levy, Harrison was made a hot favorite in the betting in the various gambling resorts of Cheyenne. The men were not long in getting together after securing their revolvers, which were of Colt’s pattern and of .45 caliber in size.

They met on opposite sides of the principal street of the city and opened fire on each other without a moment’s delay. Harrison, as was expected, fairly set his pistol on fire, he was shooting so fast and managed to fire five shots at Levy before the latter could draw a bead on him. Levy finally let go a shot. It was all that was necessary. Harrison tumbled into the street in a that Harrison was as game a man as Levy could not be doubted; that he could shoot much faster, he had given ample proof, but under extraordinary conditions he had shown that he lacked deliberation and lost his life in consequence. The trouble with Charlie Harrison was just this—he was too anxious. He wanted to shoot too fast. Levy took his time. He looked through the sights on his pistol, which is a very essential thing to do when shooting at an adversary who is returning your fire.

Johnny Sherman, another well-known Western sport and a near relative of the famous Sherman family of Ohio, was another remarkably fine pistol shot. When he happened to be where he could go out and practice with his pistol, he would hunt up a shooting gallery and spend an hour or so practicing with the gallery pistols. In this way he became an adept in the use of the revolver. He was, as everyone who knew him can testify to, as courageous as a lion and yet, when he started in to kill a dentist in a room in a St. Louis hotel, who had, as he claimed, insulted his wife, he emptied his pistol at the dentist without as much as puncturing his clothes, and mind you, the dentist was not returning his fire. Sherman, like Harrison, was in too big a hurry to finish the job and forgot that there were a set of sights on his pistol.

Levi Richardson is another case in point that will serve to show that coolness and deliberation are very essential qualities in a shooting scrape, and unless a man possesses them, he is very apt to fall a victim to the man who does. We were very close friends, and he was thoroughly familiar with the use of firearms and an excellent shot with either pistol or rifle. He was a high-strung fellow who was not afraid of any man. He got a notion into his head one night in Dodge City, Kansas, that a young gambler by the name of Frank Loving, generally known as “Cock-eyed Frank,” had done him some wrong, and forthwith made up his mind to kill him on sight. Frank Loving was a mere boy at the time, but he was not afraid and immediately proceeded to arm himself and be prepared to deal out the best that he had when his man came.

Richardson found Loving sitting unconcernedly on a card table in the Long Branch Saloon and instantly opened fire on him with his Colt’s .45 caliber pistol. He fired five times at his man in rapid success but missed with every shot and was finally shot dead by Loving who took his time about his work. It was the cleanest possible shot. Richardson, like Harrison and Sherman, did not take sufficient time to see what he was doing, and his life paid the penalty. No one, however, who knew both men could truthfully say that Loving possessed a greater degree of courage than Richardson, or that under ordinary conditions he was a better marksman with a gun. Courage, generally speaking, is daring. Nerve is steadiness.

Valuable insights from men who lived by the gun, in an era when that was a fundamental requirement of frontier society.



  1. Read Jim Cirillo's books. He often carried several handguns and used shotguns and sometimes M1 Carbines. A modern gunfighter for sure.

  2. I highly recommend a memoir of WWI called "A Rifleman Went To War" by Capt. Herbert McBride. In that book, toward the end after recounting his time serving in first the Canadian forces and then later the American force, he talks of gunmen and lawmen when he was growing up. He too spoke of how critical the experienced gunman would take aim and fire one deadly shot while the less experienced gunman (usually a bad actor) would fire wildly and often.

    The book is noteworthy for its excellent writing and descriptions of life at the front in WWI, and seen from two different military forces. But it is also a look at American life of his formative years. Highly recommended.

  3. I can't find the book right now as we have moved everything for new carpet. "triggernometry" written in 1924 has quite the history of old west gunmen. He actually interviewed some of them; of course many were not around to be interviewed.

  4. Peter, you've got the wrong "Kalamazoo" poem. The one you linked to is by Vachel Lindsay and couldn't possibly have been the one Eddie Foy was declaiming; it wouldn't have been written yet.

    I went to the Internet Archive, found Foy's autobiography, and, sure enough, it was quoted there, at least in part, as it was one of his signature pieces. It's a parody of the then-famous poem, "Bingen on the Rhine", and the part that was quoted in the book is:

    A bum in front of a theatre door stood waiting for a check;
    The police tried to drive him off, but he firmly stood on deck.
    His stomach yearned for lunch, so he turned and entered a saloon,
    But the barkeep hit him in the eye with an Etruscan brown spittoon.

    The weary bummer faltered as he sadly murmured, "Sure
    You wouldn't treat me thusly, only you know I’m poor.
    Why, I've been mistaken for Vanderbilt, but you can see I’m not the man;
    For I was born in Kalamazoo., Kalamazoo in Michigan.”

  5. Dear 1chota: "Triggernometry" is sitting on my bookcase. The chapter on John Wesley Hardin is my favorite. He was the fastest, flashiest and most homicidal of all the pistoleers. He claimed 100 kills, but probably the real count is around 40. But still…

    He came to a bad end, as did most of these men who lived by the gun.

  6. It is interesting how often the same concepts come up. This is from the Tobler translation and interpretation of the 1452 Rome manuscript of the fencing manual of Johannes Liechtenauer in the "general teaching of the long sword":

    If you are easily intimidated,
    No fencing should you learn.

  7. The lesson of the stories above can be summed up in a something I read once: "Speed is fine. Accuracy is final."

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