Were there fast gun artists in the old west? Sugar Guns? Quick as the blink of an eye? Hollywood would have us think so.
I’m visualizing two steely-eyed antagonists facing off in the street, hands hovering over their shootin’ irons and honoring the code of the west—waiting for the other to make the first move. Both have killed men. Neither have a drop of sweat on their palms. Confident. Deadly.
Then, Val Kilmer totally blows out all your nerve endings and turns your legs to jelly with his little smirk and famous, “Say when.” Or, Clint Eastwood saying, “You going to pull them pistols, or whistle Dixie?”
Along about this point someone realizes their challenge issued wasn’t just a real good idea.
Reading accounts and journals of “Ye Olde West”, the stylized standoff in the middle of the street rarely happened—and why should it?
Now, all you old west gun experts don’t start railing on me. I get the NRA gun of the day news feed too. There were a plethora of firearms for just about every use. These are the one’s I’m choosing to talk about. Run of the mill, readily available shootin’ irons.
The cap and ball pistols, and later conversions to brass cartridges, were heavy and cumbersome. A case in point is the .44 mag pictured here. It’s close in size and weight to older cap and ball pistols and weighs in at three pounds and change. Until the shorter barreled pistols came on the market, the longer pistols like the Dragoon Colt and Remington were just plain hard to get out of your holster, pants, or coat pocket. If you thought it was going to be needed, like as not it was already in your hand.
Folks carried pistols in a variety of ways, because for most it was a tool, for varmints and such—or an occasional runaway horse. If you’re dumped from the saddle and your boot is caught in the stirrup, you better hope you can get to your pistol.
But when it comes to arguments between men it’s like the old adage says, “don’t strap it on unless you’re willing to use it—don’t use it unless you’re prepared to kill.” And, that could happen by accident.
Think of trying to shoot the gun out of the hand of your opponent, happens all the time in the movies, right? Well, a little harder trigger pull might move the barrel of your gun over a fraction and you’ve just punched his ticket.
Or, you might start fanning the hammer and hit him, his uncle Jake, three bystanders standing by the saloon, and the team mascot in the butt. Is that six? Of course, you might miss them all.
However, even with the inception of Sam Colt’s finest—all men are not created equal. I’m sure there were plenty of lawmen and outlaws whose eye-hand coordination was a sight to see, unless it was the last thing you saw.
But, did it really happen like Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke? Rarely. Some accounts tell of troublemakers showing up saying they’re going to kill the marshal, or what they’ll do if he shows up. Typically called a loudmouth—we’ve all seen them. Then the lawman steps out with his gun already drawn and shoots the poor misguided soul with no warning. Unfair? Depends on your point of view.
I can just see it now. A gambler or gunman steps out in the street with his Peacemaker .45 or sheriff’s version—they’re short barreled and you can get them out fast. The other gunman is standing about fifty yards away with a long barreled Dragoon, or Remington—maybe that Buntline Special. Much more accurate. As a case in point:
GUNFIGHTERS OF THE OLD WEST
by Norman B. Wiltsey
From the 1967 Gun Digest
In his celebrated duel with Dave Tutt in Springfield, Mo., in 1865, Wild Bill displayed the cool nerve and accurate marksmanship his legion of admirers claim was always his. The shootout even went off according to fictionalized protocol, to a degree. After an argument each warned the other that the next time they met there’d be powder burned.
Hickok killed Tutt at an estimated range of 75 yards the next day; Bill on one side of the town square, Dave on the other. Tutt, tensed and nervous, drew first and got off 4 shots – all misses—before Bill, steadying his 1860 Army Colt with both hands, fired one shot that drilled Tutt dead center.
That would have been a Dragoon Colt with a long barrel.
Or, maybe out steps Chuck Connors with his rifle. Well, that’s not fair!
For more information on Hickock and Tutt you should mosey over to Tom Rizzo’s blog page. http://tomrizzo.com/duel-to-death/ Or, his Facebook page . Good stuff either place. https://www.facebook.com/thomas.rizzo.writes
From the marshal’s point of view, his job was to keep the peace and rid the town and territory of riff raff... not engage in some kind of contest about who has faster hands. There were a lot of cranky lawmen and it wasn’t smart to say anything bad about them that might catch their attention. Many bad guys and law officers alike were shot in the back just for that reason.
But, it goes farther than that. Anyone that goes into harm’s way will tell you—if they need someone to watch their back, they don’t care if that person CAN shoot, how many trick shots they can make, or how proficient they are with a firearm. Give me someone who WILL shoot. I think that was the difference between the normal cowboy and the badman. That line in their mind was already crossed by one of the men. While the normal person was thinking, the gunman was already doing. He didn’t need to be fast.
This question is explored in my western Hallowed Ground. Is it murder to kill a man that you know isn’t as fast or good as you, even if they are trying to kill you.
A not so famous frontier character was Frank ‘Pistol Pete’ Eaton. He reportedly killed eleven men by the time he was sixteen. At seventeen he was a U.S. Deputy Marshal working for Judge Parker out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Just to the west of Ft. Smith the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (Farther north I think this was the KATY) was the start of no-man’s land, or Indian Territory—later to be Oklahoma. Posters tacked on trees stated any law officer would be killed that came that way.
This outlaw territory was patrolled by Eaton, and the likes of Heck Brunner, Bud Ledbetter, Grant Johnson, Bill Tilghman and sometimes Pat Garrett. These men served warrants into the territory frequently.
Quoting from the U. S. Marshals service: On April 15, 1872, eight deputy marshals were shot and killed in what came to be known as the Going Snake Massacre, which occurred in Tahlequah, Indian Territory.
In 1872 it was reported over a hundred marshals died serving warrants in the territory. Some reports put it at two hundred. Now, I’m betting these marshals that survived didn’t walk up to the bad guys and challenge them to a shootout on a dusty street. I’m thinking the badman was cut out of the herd, one way or another. Logic tells me the lawman would have the ‘drop’ on them and give them a choice to surrender or die. Many times I’m betting there was no choice given at all, since all they had to do to take the outlaw off Judge Parker’s list is provide some identification, in some cases even ears, as proof.
I heard it said by a Marine General, “Anyone engaging the enemy in a fair fight is showing a serious lack of preparation.” I’m thinking that would be a good rule for ‘way back then’, and today. Think James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff. Now there was a man prepared. I can still see him blowing up Madam Orr’s house.
Oh, by the way, Pistol Pete died at the ripe old age of 97.
Does ‘ripe old age’ mean old folks start to smell? I need to do a sniff test.
So, back to the fast draw.
Google Cowboy Fast Draw and you’ll find tons of information. There are several clubs and associations for quick gun artists today. Everything is about weight, no trigger guards, aluminum alloy barrels, and types of holsters. Body angle and least amount of movement play a big part. Methods of firing go from fanning the hammer of the revolver to thumbing and ‘slap cocking’.
Looking over the listed times, the fastest seems to come in at about a third of a second to a quarter of a second.
So there you are. That’s fast. Real fast. Sugar guns. In the blink of an eye. Especially if the other guy is wondering if the loop is still on his hammer.
Could those fast draws have been duplicated in the old west? Maybe.
Maybe it depends on how scared they were.