Western Gunslinger Myths

Marksmanship in the Old West

by Joe Zentner


Photo by Belefront

Part of the American credo is a belief that famous shootists of the West were expert marksmen. Much early Western literature deals with seemingly incredible shooting that has never been equaled. The very names of the pistol experts are ones that people have traditionally regarded as “the cream of the crop” when it comes to handling a gun. They include, for instance, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill Cody and numerous others. But, were these guys really that good? It can truthfully be said, of all the myths foisted upon the public, the one about frontier sharpshooting is the most exaggerated. And probably the most ridiculous.

Wild Bill Hickok

Take James Butler “Wild Bill Hickok,” who once showed up for a gunfight wearing a black cutaway coat, wide trousers and two ivory-handled 45s. Hickok was born on a farm in La Salle County, Illinois, on May 27, 1837. He died on the afternoon of August 2, 1876, in Saloon No. 10, on the main street of Deadwood, in Dakota Territory, when a bullet fired by Jack McCall plowed through the back of his head, coming out through his cheek. During his lifetime, Hickok did some remarkable deeds, and they were even more remarkable after being embroidered by his adoring fans. And himself. When he died, he was holding two pair of cards—aces and eights—a combination known ever since as “the dead man’s hand.”



Today, Wild Bill’s fame as a marksman seems secure, partly because of the publication, in the 1930’s, of three biographies. In those, the celebrated “marksman” never missed his man. Moreover, we learn that Wild Bill could hit a running man with a bullet from his revolver every time at 100 yards and that he could crease a friend’s hair at 50 paces, with no damage to the hair. Or its owner. According to his biographers, Wild Bill never made an outright poor shot.

One time in Mesa, Arizona, a pair of murderers fled from him. A Hickok biographer states that, “One was running up the street, and the other down the street, in the opposite direction. Bill fired at the men simultaneously and killed them both.”

Wild Bill HickokAnother biographer says that, “Wild Bill shot an evenly spaced row of holes along the outside of a hat brim as it was falling off a man’s head, before it touched the ground.” To fully appreciate this miracle of marksmanship, one must remember that Hickok was shooting with black powder. (Smokeless powder did not come into general use until about 1893.) Each time he fired, therefore, Wild Bill put a puff of black smoke between himself and his target. After his first shot, the “marksman” could have barely seen the target, if at all.

Judged by modern standards of marksmanship, Wild Bill Hickok was a poor shot. Support for this judgment is found in the targets that have come down to us from frontier times - specifically, when those targets are compared with the targets that are being hit today on pistol ranges all across America. If alive today, Hickok would be viewed as a shooting neophyte, at best.

Jesse James

Jesse James was the leader of a gang of thugs who, over the course of 15 years, held up 11 banks, seven trains, three stagecoaches, one county fair and a payroll courier, in the process stealing some $200,000 and killing at least 16 men. Frank James, Jesse’s brother, was, in fact, a much better shot than Jesse himself. In support of this statement, we have Frank James’ most accurate target from his target practices preserved. It is, indeed, signed by Frank James. No target of Jesse’s can compare with Frank’s in terms of accuracy.

As a shooting performance, however, it wouldn’t get much notice today, because the best Frank James could do, was to keep 20 shots inside an eight-inch circle at 20 yards. Anyone today who pretends to be a pistol expert could place those shots within a four-inch circle.

In making these assertions, I am not ridiculing frontier marksmen. All things considered, they performed admirably, with the tools at hand.

Buffalo Bill Cody

America has produced no more romantic character than this showman. He was known as “Buffalo Bill,” after killing 5,000 buffalo in eight months to fulfill a contract to supply Kansas Pacific Railway workers with meat. Cody later served as a scout in the Sioux Indian Wars and, beginning in 1883, toured with his Wild West Show.

Concerning marksmanship in the Wild West, Buffalo Bill once remarked: “We did the Wyatt Earpbest we could, with the tools we had.” In that comment is the essence of why myths about frontier marksmanship are precisely that: myths. The marksmen didn’t possess guns that were capable of the performance claimed for them.

One wonders what Wyatt Earp's last 30 years must have been like. This man who had seen the wild frontier up close had to give up his guns for a world that was changing fast.

Earp saw the coming of electric lights, telephones, motion pictures, airplanes, cars, radio, battleships, comic strips and neon signs.

William Barclay (Bat) MastersonIn its heyday, an amazing number of gunfighters drifted through Tombstone; many stirred up trouble and some never left. An equally amazing number of well-known marshals and sheriffs started or added to their reputations there. Among them was William Barclay (Bat) Masterson, lifelong friend of Wyatt Earp.


Pistols Then and Now

Since Wild West days, a bullet’s speed has at least tripled, and the accuracy increased six to seven times. On the frontier, with a cap and ball muzzle-loading pistol, the best shooting possible was six bullets in a six- to eight-inch group. That was the best a weapon would shoot under ideal conditions. With a modern revolver, six bullets in a one-and-a-half-inch group would be average. In other words, today’s marksman owns a weapon that is vastly superior to those that the Western legends owned.

The Best There Was

Probably, the best Wild West marksman was a mild-mannered soldier whom you have never met in any of the literature, because he doesn’t appear there. He was, in fact, too busy soldiering to talk to journalists. Nonetheless, miraculous stories are told about this man’s shooting prowess.

His name was Frank North. Commanding officer of the Pawnee Scouts, a group of Indian soldiers who served during the Indian campaigns, his brother, Captain Luther North, was a military colleague and his closest friend.

In an interview with Luther about frontier marksmanship, he was asked: “Did you ever see Wild Hill Hickok shoot?”

“Many times.”

“Was he good?”

“Yes, but Frank was better. Even Bill said so.”

“Just how well could they shoot?”

“About as well as anyone, with the guns they had. Both men lived up to the test of good marksmanship. Frank better than Bill. You put a letter envelope ten paces away, and if you could put all six shots in the envelope, you were considered good. One of the shots had to be in the stamp, which was pasted on the back of the envelope, in the center.”

“How big were the envelopes?”

“Five inches square. And the stamp, an inch square.”

“That doesn’t sound hard.”

“It isn’t today,” Captain North commented. “It was then. We didn’t have very good guns.”

“You’ve seen Hickok and your brother in shooting-matches?”

“Many times.”

“And your brother usually won?”

“I never saw him lose.”

“What did Hickok think about that?”

“He would say: ‘Frank, you can beat me when it comes to shootin’ at these little black dots, but I can beat you when it comes to hitting men.’ And that was true. Frank didn’t shoot at men. Hickok did.”

That statement explains why Hickok, Jesse James and other frontier gunmen were superior to their foes—and would be superior to modern-day marksmen. It wasn’t marksmanship that kept them on top; it was disregard for life.

At the shoot-out site, behind the OK Corral, fiberglass figures show the location of the protagonists.

The Two-Gun Shootist

Another part of Western mythology is the two-gun shootist, who stalked into the literature at an early date with a pair of enormous revolvers strapped around his hips. At the first sign of trouble, he pulled both guns with a movement so fast that the eye often missed it. He allegedly fired both guns simultaneously, swiftly and accurately.

The reality is that the two-gun shooter, as popularly portrayed, never existed. The character is a myth. No person, no matter how talented, can use two guns effectively at the same time; moreover, it was tiring enough to carry one four-pound gun, let alone two.

There were, of course, real two-gun men on the frontier—but of an altogether different stripe than the blazing figure depicted on pulp-magazine covers. They carried two guns, but only used one at a time. The second gun involved a deadly trick that was used against adversaries. For example, a gambler in a desert casino would be decked out with his regular holster weapon, usually, a large Colt revolver. He wore it outside, where everyone could see. Other gamblers were similarly attired. None believed in giving the other fellow a break. Thus, they developed a way to kill with a minimum of risk to themselves. They carried a second, small gun, oftentimes a derringer. It was concealed in a hat crown, a sleeve, or the top of a boot. Once a hapless cowboy, more than likely drunk, realized that he had been robbed of his hard-earned wages by crooked cards, he got mad. He reached for his holstered revolver, but the gambler, moving instantly toward his hat, sleeve or boot, beat him to it.

The cowboy didn’t have a chance. He rarely managed even to get his gun drawn. Three out of four shooting deaths in the Wild West were caused, not by hip-holster revolvers, but by small, concealed second guns.

From the Hip

Search popular Wild West literature as hard as you want, you will not find a picture of a cowboy shooting his revolver by holding it at eye-level and using sights. Rather, everybody, supposedly, pulled a gun from the holster, leveled it from the hip and fired. Hitting a one-inch bull’s eye at 100 paces was, we are told, commonplace; shooting birds on the wing was also. All from the hip.

In fact, however, accurate hip shooting can’t be done. It just isn’t humanly possible. A shooting enthusiast once paid $500 to learn how to shoot a revolver well enough from the hip to hit a one-foot circle occasionally at ten feet. At longer ranges, he said, this style of shooting was impossible to do with any degree of accuracy.


And then there’s hip-shooting’s first cousin and an even more spectacular feat: fanning. Instead of firing a pistol from the hip by pulling the trigger, a shootist ties the trigger back, or removes it altogether, and then moves the heel of his hand over the hammer, pulling it back, letting it fall, and then repeating the motion. Alas, all that anyone ever accomplished by fanning was to create a lot of unnecessary noise.

No one can fan a six-gun and hit anything. In outdoor magazines of the 1920s, a controversy surrounded the subject. It was settled by one individual in a forthright manner. He posted a $1000 certified check, to go to anyone who could fan a revolver and hit a target, even at ridiculously short ranges. The offer was widely publicized, but the check was never claimed.

Quick Draw

What about the myth of the quick draw? The average time involved to draw and fire, obtained after hundreds of time trials using a stopwatch connected to an electrical device, which recorded the exact time a hand touched the butt of a gun, and the exact time a cartridge was fired, was one and two-thirds seconds, not a fifth of a second, as some quick-draw artists would have you believe.

There are other frontier gun myths that could be mentioned, but you can discount about 90 percent of what is claimed.

Ned Buntline

How did the myths get started? The answer goes back to a man named Edward Z. C. Judson. Possessing boundless imagination and unlimited confidence in the gullibility of people, he wrote Western novels, all covering subjects about which he knew nothing. Judson signed the books, “By Ned Buntline.” A few old-timers may recall the name.

“Buntline” authored many tales about the Wild West. A “Buntline” hero could do anything with a gun that “Buntline” wanted him to. He shot from the hip, fanned, and slew Indians with his revolver while riding a hard-charging mustang. Readers’ eyes bulged as they followed the adventures of a “Buntline” hero. Many people believed, literally, what they read. Consequently, right under Americans’ eyes, a mythology was created—the mythology of frontier marksmanship.

The Gunfighters


Related DesertUSA Pages


Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms


Enter Email:

Shop desert store



Copyright © 1996- DesertUSA.com and Digital West Media, Inc. - -