The typical Western movie or novel ends with a glamorous gunfight on a dusty street. What could be more romantic, than a chance to publicly vindicate yourself, and have a few dozen witnesses to your proficiency with a gun?
But did it ever actually happen? Wild Bill Hickok had public fight on the Springfield, Missouri town square with Davis Tutt (Wild Bill won.) But then, as today, gunfights were not a party. No matter who won, law enforcement would always investigate. And, most gunfighters were on the shady side of the law. Killing somebody on Main Street in front of the whole town wasn’t an ideal situation for a speedy getaway. A few dozen armed witnesses could easily make an altercation pretty sticky.
Professional gunfighters had amazing reflexes and could actually shoot pretty accurately. So when two pros butted heads, someone was likely to killed, if not both. So in that sense, the western movies and novels are accurate when they depict the main character shot within an inch of his life.
The pros, just like in any other profession, had to put in years of practice before they got to where they were. For example, John Wesley Hardin reputedly practiced daily. He wore his guns in a semi cross-draw, because he claimed it was the fastest draw in the world. Modern quickdraw professionals like Cisco Master Gunfighter would agree.
However, most people on western frontier were not gunfighters. They were farmers, cattle and sheep herders and tradesmen. There was also a fair smattering of miners, soldiers, and freighters. While most of them could shoot pretty well with a long gun, they were no match for a professional gunfighter in a ‘standup’ gunfight. The cowboys stood the best chance, as they more than likely had fought Indians and outlaws, which often was a rapidly escalating situation requiring some nerve. But even they would probably get the short end of the stick in an altercation with a pro gunfighter.
There were gunfights on the dusty street- but they were more likely to be a lawman running down a criminal or rowdy cowboy than a scheduled altercation between professional gunslingers.
Andrew Pankratz is a story-teller, historian, and carpenter. He is the author of A Lone Outsider and The Ghost of Shanaghy Jones.