Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Gunfighter - Bad Boy With A Big Gun

Welcome fellow western romance lovers! I’m a diehard western fan and—I admit it—I’ve always been fascinated with the myth of the old west gunfighter? Wait a minute…did I just say myth?

Yes, I did. Thanks to the movies and tv, we’re all familiar with the archetypal image of two gunfighters facing off in the middle of a dusty street at high noon. But how accurate was this depiction and how often did it really happen? While it’s true that such showdowns did occur, evidence that there was some kind of unspoken code of behavior between gunfighters seems conflicting, at best. But just as our modern media latch on to human interest stories, the newspapers and dime novels of the day took up the exploits of men such as Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid and sensationalized them until they became ingrained in the very fabric of our history.

In his biography, Wyatt Earp described in detail the correct way for a gunfighter to carry, cock, and draw his six-shooter. He also had little respect for any man who shot from the hip or "fanned" his pistol, which would suggest there was some kind of code among the shooters of the old west. In reality, in most deadly altercations, one guy just tried to get the drop on the other to avoid getting shot himself. The fast-draw wasn’t nearly as important as modern cinema makes it out to be. Many a gunfighter entered a shoot-out with his gun already drawn and in hand. The key to walking away without catching a bullet was accuracy and a cool nerve rather than speed. If you could hit what you were shooting at, you might live to shoot another day. Remember that famous shoot-out down in Arizona called the OK Corral? The facts suggest, between thirty and forty shots were fired that day to kill three men.

Now, don't get me wrong, many of the legends that came out of the old west were not pure fabrication. Here’s just one factual account: In 1865, in the town of Springfield, Missouri, James Butler Hickok, also known as Wild Bill, got into an argument with Davis Tutt over $40 Bill owed him. At approximately 6 PM on July 21, the two men advanced on each other in the town square. When they reached a range of 50 yards, they drew their guns and started firing. Tutt missed and Hickok put a shot through his heart. In the aftermath of the incident, Hickok was tried for manslaughter and acquitted. Then, in 1867, Harper’s New Monthly printed a sensationalized account of the shoot-out and Wild Bill became a national celebrity. At the time the story appeared, there were skeptics because 50 yards is a goodly distance for Hickok to have hit his man, but all the evidence pointed to the story being basically accurate in its facts. And this was just one of the stories that gave fuel to the lore of the western gunfighter, not to mention his prowess and expertise.

Most gunfighters proficient at their trade preferred a distance of about 15 yards from their targets in order to achieve accuracy. And speed often didn’t figure into it. One gunfighter named Turkey Creek Jack Johnson became famous for taking his good ol' easy time. In 1876, in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota, Turkey Creek Jack became embroiled in a row with two men and invited them to take it out in the road so they could shoot it out. Jack’s opponents both had two six-guns strapped around their hips. They faced off at opposite ends of the cemetery fence, a distance of about 50 yards. When they started walking toward each other, Jack’s opponents each pulled a gun and started shooting. By the time they’d covered 10 yards, they’d emptied the chambers and drawn their second gun. Meanwhile, Jack was walking toward them with his pistol drawn but he still hadn’t fired a shot. At 30 yards, he fired his first shot and killed one of the men. At that point, he stood still and waited for the second man to come closer, then fired his second fatal shot.

Gunfighting was a grisly business, what with all the violence and death involved, but the movies and books sure can make it seem romantic. In Angel In The Rain, my first published western historical romance, my hero is a gunfighter. Getting inside his head was sometimes a stretch, but I have to confess, I enjoyed the ride. Writing him was a labor of love and I ended up giving him all the larger-than-life qualities I’d soaked up during a lifetime of reading and movie watching. The following is a snippet from my heroine's point of view as my hero is facing off with two men, preparing to shoot it out:


The transformation she saw in Rane sent icy shivers racing up and down her spine. The wind played with a sable strand of hair that had fallen across his forehead. The elflock gently lifted, moved, a soft contrast against his features that now looked as though they had been sculpted from cold stone.

The absence of expression in his eyes ran her blood cold. They had gone flat and black, until no spark of warmth or emotion remained. The eyes of a deadly predator. Just as they had looked the first time she’d seen him.

Beneath his bronzed skin, a blue vein pulsed at his temple. She looked closely at his uplifted hands, trying to detect if they trembled, if the angry pounding of his blood set up a vibration.

They were as steady as a dead man’s.

And so, with our stories, the legend lives on. Of all the old western heroes, gunfighters have always been my favorite, and I choose to continue believing in the myth. How about you? Has there been a gunfighter in a particular movie or book that you especially liked? If so, I’d love to hear about him...or her.

Thanks for stopping by!
Devon

Devon's blog - Romance in the Wild West

48 comments:

Peggy Henderson said...

Great post, Devon! While I was reading this, the theme song of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly kept playing in my head, which I guess confirms what you wrote about gunfighters and the old west being romanticized in movies. I can't honestly, off the top of my head, think of historical gunfighters other than those you've already mentioned. Maybe the Dalton Gang? The Younger brothers? I keep seeing Clint Eastwood in my head. No matter what the real history was, it's great that we have so much ammunition (no pun intended) for our romance novels!

Kathy Otten said...

I put together some info on the same subject a while back. Hope you don't mind my sharing additional info.

The fixed sights of the Colt Peacemaker were calibrated and set for 50 yards using the .45 caliber ammunition. With its maximum effective range being about 75 yards, it did pretty well grouping shots inside a 6-inch circle from 50 yards. But to have even a slim chance of hitting anyone from 200 yards you would have to aim 8 feet over his head. Also, since the rifling inside the barrel twisted to the left the bullet would drift to the left at approximately 10 inches for every 100 yards.

The lawman or hero didn’t shoot first, not because of honor, but because he took the time to aim. In a gun fight it’s not the first shot that matters but the first hit.

Wild Bill Hickok once said, “When you get into a row be sure and not shoot to quick. Take time. I’ve know many a feller slip up for shootin’ in a hurry.”

Which is why, in looking at accounts of old Western gunfights the young kid with the fast-draw and guns blazing, is killed by the older, slightly overweight sheriff who takes his time and places his shot.

“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” --Wyatt Earp

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Peggy! Good to know you had The Good, Bad, and Ugly going through your head while you read the post. I much prefer the romanticized gunfighter. Many of the shooters who made names for themselves were little more than thugs and bullies, topics for another day. :) Thanks for stopping by!

Ginger Simpson said...

Loved your post. I often wondered how often the Rifleman...remember that series, actually faced someone down with that big old rifle. Those TV westerns of old certainly left a mark on us, didn't they? You've done your research, I see. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Kathy! Great to see you here. Thanks for sharing those quotes and facts. It's such a big topic and I find it all fascinating. In coming months, I plan to blog about the evolution of weaponry in the old west and, specifically, how the introduction of the Colt .45 revolutionized the gunfighter trade. Thanks for stopping by!

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, Ginger! Since, evidently, accuracy was more important than speed or technique the Rifleman actually had an advantage with that big ol' rifle. He sure did make it look cool, didn't he?

Alison E. Bruce said...

I'd rather meet someone holding a rifle than a revolver. Better still, I'd like a shotgun. A shotgun at close range is a hell of a deterrent. Plus, you can shoot from the hip with a shot gun.

Kaki said...

Hi, Devon. Great post! I read somewhere that most saloon shootouts took place at 7 to 15 feet--I guess when emotions are high, accuracy is low. Having spent time at shooting ranges, I can attest that to make a kill shot at 150 feet with an old six-shooter would take a lot of talent, calm nerves, and good eyesight. And yet there were great shootists back then: one man actually hit a moving target at one mile with a Sharps .50. The Cavalry confirmed it, so it must be true,right? But everybody loves the white-hatted gunfighter.

Alison E. Bruce said...

“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.” --Wyatt Earp

I'm making that the quote of the week on my blog: http://alisonebruce.blogspot.ca/

Kathleen said...

Great post, Devon! Like you, I've investigated eyewitness and participant accounts so I can inject at least a smidgen of reality into my stories, but the romantic notion of the Old West gunfighter drummed into us by countless books, movies and TV shows remains a tough kill. Gotta love those bad boys with fast guns.

ANGEL IN THE RAIN is fabulous, BTW. Definitely a keeper. :-)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Kaki! Yes, there were some amazing shooters even then. Mention of the Sharps .50 reminds me of that scene in "Billy Two Hats" when Gregory Peck is running away with Dezi Jr. and the guy back at the trading post is aiming and aiming, until they're nothing much more than specks on the horizon before he takes his shot, and we see the bullet travel all that distance into Greg Peck's back in slo-mo. Thanks so much for stopping by. I've enjoyed all your books immensely and look forward to the next in the "Runaway Brides" Trilogy! :)

Taryn Raye said...

When I think of my favorite gunfighters in movies, I think of John Wayne, especially in True Grit or Rio Bravo, or James Garner as Maverick. I also love your Rane in Angel in the Rain.

Devon Matthews said...

Hey, Kathleen! I'm so glad you stopped by. Yep, gotta love those bad boys of the old west. So happy you enjoyed Angel In The Rain! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Taryn! Rio Bravo was one of my fave John Wayne movies. Also The Searchers. Love them both and have watched them a gajillion times. I know westerns aren't your main cuppa so I'm glad you enjoyed Angel! :) Thaks for stopping by!

And I've just now noticed the "reply" feature on here, thanks to Alison. ;)

Taryn Raye said...

I don't know, I love such a variety of genres, I can easily enjoy just about anything. Western Historical Romance is definitely one of my favorites, though I don't write it. I do so love the cowboys though. ;)

Tanya Hanson said...

Awesome post! I have "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" for my ring tone. I love it. I got to shoot a peacemaker (my first time) at a gun range outside Bandera during the Wild Rose retreat a while back, and I had four kill shots on my little green paper man. I must have the gunslinger gene. Love the excerpt.

Devon Matthews said...

That's great, Tanya! I think anyone who's going to write about shooting a gun should...well, shoot a gun! LOL! When I was younger, I was a dead shot. Still have my pistol (.22 calibre in a Colt Peacemaker frame--very cool looking but without the big kick :) Fond memories and very helpful with my writing. These days, I doubt I could hit the broad side of a barn. Can't see my hand in front of my face without strong glasses.

Paty Jager said...

Wonderful post, Devon. And a great book. IT is amazing how Hollywood and the dime novels glorified the gunfights of the old west.

Kirsten Arnold said...

Loved this post, Devon! There's something to be said for a good myth now and again, and even though I've read the history books, sometimes a good fast draw on the streets of Cheyenne, is just what a story needs! :o) Great excerpt, too, sounds like another book to go on the TBR pile.

Cheri Kay Clifton said...

Thanks, Devon, for such an interesting and informative post. Obviously you know your gunfighters and your research and talented writing shows in your book, Angel in the Rain.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Hi Devon. Thoroughly enjoyed your post. Thinking about the romanticized movie gunfighters immediately brought to mind one of my favorite movies: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF. After out-shooting and killing several gunfighters sent against him, the sheriff, played by James Garner, takes off his gun belt and throws stones at the next gunfighter. This, of course, presupposes that all gunslingers will abide by the rule, you can't shoot an unarmed man.

Kaki, I believe the Sharps rifle was one of the most accurate and reliable rifles of the time.

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, Paty! I think it's been that way throughout history, hasn't it? We always glorify those who do things we consider too dangerous and daring or wouldn't be willing to do ourselves and elevate them to hero status. Thanks for stopping by! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Glad you stopped by, Kirsten! Ah, yes. The myth is always more delicious than the reality.;) I probably should have included the actual shooting in the excerpt but was thinking about how long the post was running. If you give Angel a try, I hope you enjoy!

Devon Matthews said...

LOL! Alison! I loved that movie AND Support Your Local Gunfighter. I have seen a couple where the gunman waited for the other guy to run out of bullets and then shot him. Guess those guys never heard of the Code of the Gun. ;) Thanks for stopping by!

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, Cheri! Good to see you here! :)

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Devon,
I did a two-part blog for Sweethearts of the West on the Peacemaker exclusively, including how to load and fire it. Like you said, it's fascinating stuff and one of the areas of research for historical westerns that is easy to get sidetracked with. Best wishes for mega sales for Angel in the Rain! Looks really good! :)

MK said...

Great post Devon! The first time I heard the term "fanning" in conjunction with a gun was on an episode of The Magnificent Seven - I'll have to pick up Earp's bio.

Devon Matthews said...

Thank you so much for the good wishes, Kathy! I'll have to go track down your posts on Sweethearts of the West. I love this stuff! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, MK! Great to see you here! I wish I could have gone into more detail about some things, but I was leery of making the post too long. About fanning: some gunfighters actually filed off the trigger, but most just held it back with their trigger finger and raked the hammer repeatedly with their other hand in order to fire the bullets in a rapid or continuous burst. The Earp bio is fascinating reading. :)

Anonymous said...

Great post Devon! I'm glad of the fact that the gunfights are romanticized in the books I read, there's too much "artillery reality" in my real world. We hit the practice range quite often, never tried the fanning thing, may have to give that a go! ;) Angel in the Rain is a fantastic book and Rane makes for a wonderful gunfighter-hero!

~Maggie~

Ciara Gold said...

Fascinating! That's one of those things I never gave much thought to and yet, it's very important if you want to portray scenes like these in a more accurate fashion. Thanks so much for posting.

Ellen O’Connell said...

Me too on the super and fascinating post, Devon. For the best cinema gunslinger of all time, The Outlaw Josey Wales. The best with a rifle, Tom Selleck in Quigley Down Under. And if anyone wants to read a straight western with one gunman who is definitely into the accuracy counts and another who relies on a shotgun, pick up Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa.

Devon Matthews said...

Maggie, I'm so happy you made it! Please don't try fanning a gun! You'll destroy your hand. If you do try it, wear a glove. LOL! Thank you for always being so supportive.

I hope you don't mind me telling everyone, you're the person who brought all of us who are now posting as group together to begin with. It's pretty extraordinary. Hugs to you, our fabulous Maggie O! :)

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ciara! I hope something in the post, or even the comments, turns out to be useful. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Thanks, Ellen! I loved both movies you mentioned. Best line ever from Quigley: This ain't Tombstone, and you ain't Wyatt Earp! Loved it! I'll have to take a look at the Robert Parker book. Thanks for the tip! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. :)

Devon Matthews said...

Before I call it a night, I'd like to thank Ginger Simpson for graciously inviting all of us to blog here on Cowboy Kisses. I look forward to giving and sharing information and new friendships in the months ahead. Thank you all for making my first attempt a pleasure. :)

Lisabet Sarai said...

Showing up late, Devon, to say thanks for a highly informative post. One reason I don't write historicals is that I don't want to make dumb mistakes by believing the myths LOL!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you mentioned that Ellen. I'm a HUGE fan of the Late Great Robert Parker's Hitch and Cole series, IMHO that man knew how to write a western! ~Maggie~

Anne Carrole said...

I so enjoyed this post, Devon. It is chockfull of info as are all the comments. Bat Masterson in his book on Famous Gun Fighters of the Western Frontier talks about the need to keep your cool in a gunfight. "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." --Anne

Devon Matthews said...

Welcome, Lisabet! It's nice to meet you. For me, the beauty of writing fiction is exploring the myths to my heart's content, and even coming up with new ones. Thanks for stopping by!

Devon Matthews said...

Hi Anne! I'm so happy to see you here! Terrific quote from one of the legends. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. This is such a fascinating subject. I may have to revisit it sometime because there's just so much ground we could cover with it and I enjoy it so much. Thank you! :)

Jacquie Rogers said...

Devon, I'm sorry to be late to the party--toothache. And my dentist isn't Doc Holliday. :)

I'm actually glad that the myth of the gunfight has been dispelled for the last few years. Honestly, how smart can it be to stand in front of an armed man and bet your life that you're faster on the draw? It has never made sense to me. That said, some of the greatest dramatic moments on the large and small screens have been draws at high noon (including High Noon).

Thanks for posting such a terrific article, Devon!

Devon Matthews said...

Glad you could make it, Jacquie, and sorry about the toothache. Also glad your dentist wasn't Doc Holliday! ;)

Lyn Horner said...

Devon, I'm really late. So sorry! Just had too many distractions yesterday. What a great post, with such helpful info. It's in my reference pile. Hugs!

Devon Matthews said...

Hugs to you, Lyn, and so sorry about your worries yesterday. Glad you finally made it. :)

Teresa Reasor said...

So glad to see you on here Devon!!! Can't wait for your next book to hit the airwaves.
Teresa R.

Amanda Frank said...

This is such a great blog and a great topic! Romance Novels are always a good read and I've always been fascinated with life in the old west and the old outlaws like Jesse James and the Hole in the Wall Gang. Growing up I'd always watch Little House and Dr. Quinn, and I'd think "life seemed so much simpler back then!" Not only that but I'd go to my grandparent's after school every day and for as long as I can remember, my grandfather ALWAYS had westerns on TV or he was reading some sort of western novel! The funny thing is, it's 30 years later and nothing's changed :) A friend of mine told me she just finished a great book called "Legends Lost" by Charlie Mac. http://www.charliemacbooks.com

I read the synopsis and it pulled me right in! I really can't wait to pick it up and read it on rainy days like today. It's about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so I'm really interested in where the story will lead. If you're a western lover, you may like it too. Plus, it seems like a great 'couples read' that you could share with the man in your life! My husband and I do that a lot...read the same book and then talk about it :)

Devon Matthews said...

Teresa and Amanda, thanks for stopping by!