Here are 10 romanticized ideas about guns in the Wild West with the truth unfurled.
From paperback Westerns to “Gunsmoke” in your own living room, the Wild West has obtained a certain stigma with gun activity: duels in the streets, crack shots with one blast, and gangs wreaking havoc on every town and settlement. But most of these occurrences are just plain wrong. Here are some of the common misconceptions about guns back in the days of the Wild West.
1. Everyone was packing heat.
While probably most settlers and ranchers did own a rifle or gun of sorts, not every man, woman and child had a gun on their person. A gun was purchased specifically for protection from bandits and hunting at the homestead and one would probably ride with their gun into town in their scabbard, but it is unlikely that anyone would haul their rifle into the grocer or post office. If a man did bring his gun into an establishment, he may have very well been looking for trouble.
Let’s not forget Johnny Cash: “Don’t take your guns to town, son. Leave your guns at home, Bill.” (SPOILER: Bill dies because he did not listen to his mother.)
2. There was little, to no, gun control.
False. In fact there may have been more gun control back in those days than there is now. Up and coming towns were trying their best to draw people in, not scare them off. And the best way to keep settlers to stay was to offer them safety, and local sheriffs did just that. While everyone envisions these Wild Western towns where gunslingers shot the place up and ran amok, some of the first laws in town were gun laws.
Upon coming into Tombstone, one had to check his gun with the sheriff or simply leave it at home. The famous gun fight at the OK Corral (which didn’t even really happen there but in an alley nearby; “Gunfight at the OK Corral” sounds a lot cooler than “Gunfight at the The Alley Behind The OK Corral,” though) was initiated because the McLaurys and Clantons would not relinquish their guns to Wyatt Earp and his deputy brothers.
Years after the squabble is when locals began glorifying the entire incident and painting it larger than life, again to draw people in and fascinate tourists.
3. Duels were commonplace.
We’ve all seen it, a dusty street, a rogue outlaw in spurs and a low hat, waiting for his nemesis to come out and fight. The two stare each other down for several minutes until one draws and the entire thing is over within the millisecond it takes to fire off that one perfect shot. But these kinds of events were rare, if ever. This image is what we know from Western movies, brought on by tall tales from the era, braggarts, and dime store novels. Most of which were told and written to sell tourism.
4. Every man was a crack shot/gunslinger.
Most men at the time were family men heading west to start new lives, make an honest living, provide for their family and protect their land. And just as we covered earlier, the household would have a weapon, however it is not likely that these men were all crack shots. They had not slung pistols their whole lives or could shoot a flying shot glass from twenty yards and would not be able to hit a man in the hand when he went for his pistol. All of these ideas are just really rad story lines for great Western films. Sure there were pistoleros, but they were probably sitting in the saloon quietly playing cards.
“Gunplay did not enter the life of every citizen, although a time might come when a man might be called upon to defend himself, The law, if present, was often beyond call, even as now. Nor was the western man inclined to call for help. He who settled his own difficulties was most respected.” – Louis L’amour, “Buckskin Run”
5. If you carried a gun, you carried a six-shooter.
Not everyone who carried guns were yielding Colt .45s. A rifle or shotgun would provide much more accuracy to a target, especially at a further range. A pistol, which was mainly purchased for killing people, could only fire up to thirty yards. If you wanted to protect yourself from wild animals out on the range or any ne’er-do-wells on your trip to town, you would find that a longer barrel was the way to go.
6. Gangs terrorized and shot up towns all over the west to their liking.
This is back in the day when men were men. They didn’t trim their chest hair or ask if the beer was gluten free and they didn’t take any crap from anybody. These dudes protected their homes, their families and their settlements. If Crazy Joe and his Gang of Hoodlums came into town shooting at dust bunnies and scaring small children, it’s likely that Farmer Ed and even Pastor Tim would rally the troops and drive those idiots out of their town, quickly and quietly, maybe without even having to fire a shot. This was a delicate time for new towns. Gangs of thieves and gunslingers were not welcome into would-be thriving communities.
7. Men carried their pistols at their hips.
In the best attempt to not discredit The Duke, guns were not usually worn at the hip. The fashion was brought on by Westerns and while they wore it well, a low-slung holster at the hip was not practical or easily accessible. If you were a gambler and at the table carrying a pistol on you, chances are it was concealed in a pocket at your waist or belt.
8. There was always a shooting or gun incident.
Even in the wildest of places like Wichita, Abilene and Dodge City, from 1870 to 1885 there are 45 deaths on record in five Kansas towns. In the worst and most violent year in Tombstone, there were five deaths total. So, it’s not like Han Solo, hanging out at the bar, shoots Gredo and everyone goes back to their business…
9. A duel ended in one perfect shot.
If it came down to it and two men did throw down in the street, they were frantically emptying their chambers as quickly as possible, just trying their hardest to kill the other guy first. It is not probable that a man, even a good shot, could – under the circumstances – kill another with one fatal wound. The situation was just too stressful. It was probably messy and haphazard instead of the classic film renditions of one clean shot.
It is possible I just made this word up. But Hollywood did it first. We’ve all seen a Western where a man will cock his lever or pump action and then two minutes later, recock! And no shells are dispensed! This is Hollywood magic. Simply a dramatic effect. Once you have cocked your weapon there is no need to do it again.
While the Wild West was indeed a wild time, most of the stories we know have been dramatized and romanticized into larger-than-life events for the purpose of tourism and filmography. We know that there were duels and shootouts and gangs, but how often those were issues is part of the misconception.