Wild West Podcast

Grit & Gunpowder: A Deep Dive into Wild West Gunfighters and Their Deadly Iron

April 21, 2022 Michael King/Brad Smalley
Wild West Podcast
Grit & Gunpowder: A Deep Dive into Wild West Gunfighters and Their Deadly Iron
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Are you ready to kick up the dust and step into the world of Wild West gunfighters and their iron? Brace yourself as we take you on a gritty journey back in time to explore the deadly skills of the gunslingers who won the West, often at the end of a pistol barrel. We promise you'll be riveted as we unravel tales of legendary figures like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp, dissecting the truth behind the myths of infamous gunfights. We don't just stop at the stories, but we also delve deeper into their preferred weapons and techniques, so you can understand the art of gunfighting in all its deadly glory.
 
This episode will illuminate the level of skill and practice these gunslingers needed to maintain their reputation and expertise. We explore the controversial practice of gun fanning, the importance of steady aim as preferred by the likes of Earp, and the legend of the Buntline Special. We'll also debunk some myths, like gunfight notches and the bluff in a gunfight. So saddle up, listeners, as we take you on a wild ride into the captivating world of Wild West gunfighters and guns. We promise it will be an adventure you won't forget.  Also see our Website "Guns of the West."

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Speaker 1:

Foot walk.

Speaker 2:

God did not make all men equal, westerners were fond of saying Colonel Colt did. When it came to the use of shooting irons, however, some men were more equal than others, a fact gunfighters knew well. So to improve the odds of landing on the right side of this equation, they exercised meticulous care in selecting their firearms from among the weapons available. Wild West Podcast proudly presents Gunfighters and Guns in the Old West, including excerpts from Wyatt Earp Frontier Martial by Stuart N Lake. The law of the West comes in the form of a pistol more often than a badge. As a result, those who know well how to handle it typically rule the day. The Gunslinger was one of the most feared individuals in the Wild West. Whether lightning fast with a six-shooter or possessing deadly accuracy with a rifle, the Gunslinger knew his craft and was a deadly adversary. July 21, according to American History books, is the anniversary of the first Western gunfight. On this date in 1865, james B Hickock faced Davis Tutte in Springfield, missouri. Following an argument over loaned money in a pocket watch, the two men faced each other across the city square. Both men reached for their weapons. Hickock's shot hit Tutte in the chest. The man had enough life left to exclaim Boys, I'm killed and staggered to the courthouse steps before collapsing. Telling fantastic yarns was a staple of entertainment on the frontier. Life at the edges of Western society was so rough and unpredictable it made it hard for newcomers to distinguish between pernicious lies, recreational lies and sometimes astonishing truth. There are several misnomers about these romanticized gunfights, the first of which is that very rarely did the gunfighters actually plan a gunfight to occur, calling out their enemy for dueling action in the street. Instead, most of these fights took place in the heat of the moment, when tempers flared with a bit of bottle courage. They also didn't occur at a distance of 75 feet, with each gunfighter taking one shot, one falling dead to the ground and the other standing as a hero before a dozen gathered onlookers. Instead, these gunfights were usually close up and personal, with several shots blasted from pistols, often resulting in innocent bytanders hit by a bullet gone wild. It would be difficult to tell who had even won the gunfight for several minutes, as the black powder smoke from the pistols cleared the air. A wannabe gunfighter's career left as little as possible the chance and spent long hours refining their skills with weapons. In later life, batmasterson described the rigorous training necessary to enable him to throw lead quick and straight, as though by instinct. Bat maintained his reputation and expertise through constant practice. As his public and potential opponents looked on, that would spend hour after hour shooting in empty cans and sweetening his guns. We used to file the notch off the hammer, he later recalled, till the trigger would pull sweet, which is another way of saying that the blamed gun would pretty near go off. If you looked at it, stewart Lake's November 1, 1930 Saturday Evening Post article of Guns and Gunfighters provided an illustration by Wyatt Earp of the importance of practice. According to Earp, a shoot is needed to accustom his hands to the pistols of those days. The man who coveted a reputation as a gunslinger started his practice early. They practiced with their guns just like a card. Sharp practices with his cards In a shell game. A man drills his fingers to manipulate the elusive pee, or a juggler must practice acquiring proficiency. So did the gunslinger practice with his guns. He could draw, caulk and fire all in one smooth, lightning-quick movement. He could then detach his mind from that movement and concentrate on accuracy. Wyatt states he was a fair hand with a pistol, rifle or shotgun, but he learned more about gunfighting from Tom Spears' cronies during the summer of 71 than I had dreamed was in the book. Those old-timers took their gunplay seriously, which was natural under the conditions in which they lived. According to them, was considerably more than aiming at a mark and pulling a trigger. Models of weapons, methods of wearing them, means of getting them into action and operating them all to the one end of combining high speed with absolute accuracy contributed to the frontiersman shooting skill. The sought-after degree of proficiency was that which could turn to the most compelling account of the split second between life and death. Members, upon hours of practice and broad experience, in actualities supported their arguments over style. Wyatt Earp emphasized the importance of being a proficient gunfighter over a grandstand play by stating the most important lesson I learned from those proficient gunfighters was the winner of a gunplay usually was the man who took his time. The second was that if I hoped to live long in the frontier, I would shun flashy trick shooting grandstand play as I would poison. When I say that I learned to take my time in a gunfight, I do not wish to be misunderstood, for the time to be taken was only that split fraction of a second. That means the difference between deadly accuracy with a six gun and a miss. It's hard to make this clear to a man who has never been in a gunfight. Perhaps I can best describe such time taking as going into action with the greatest speed of which a man's muscles are capable, but mentally unflustered by an urge to hurry or the need for complicated, nervous and muscular actions which trick shooting involves. Mentally deliberate, but muscularly faster than thought is what I mean. One example we find in history about being mentally deliberate in a gunfight is when Bat Masterson tested this skill in Sweetwater, texas, in 1876, bat Masterson became confronted by a man enraged with jealousy over a saloon girl. The details of that fight were never fully unraveled, but Bat took his time to lay out his shot. What is certain is that Bat took a Sweetwater girl named Molly Brennan from under the nose of her former lover, a retired US Army sergeant named Melvin King, and when King found them together one night in a saloon, he opened fire on Bat. As the story goes, molly threw herself in front of Bat to protect him. King's bullet passed through her body, killing her instantly, and lodged in Bat's pelvis. But as Masterson fell with the sergeant cocking his pistol for another shot, bat took steady aim and fired back. King died at an army camp the following day. Bat suffered a slight permanent limp from his wound and took to carrying a cane, at first out of necessity, later for adornment alone. Wyatt Earp continues his story about the Western gunfighter, giving his personal experiences on how the Sixth Gun is used in a gunfight, while comparing the franning method to direct aim and shoot. Wyatt begins by stating In all my life as a frontier police officer I did not know a proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun fanner or the man who literally shot from the hip. However, in later years I read a great deal about this type of gunplay, supposedly employed by men noted for their skill with a.45. I can only support the opinion advanced by the man who gave me my most valuable instruction in fast and accurate shooting, which was to avoid the method of gun fanner and hip shooter. But old Jack Gallagher once told me this type of shooter stood a slight chance to live against a man who, as old Jack Gallagher always put it, took his time and pulled the trigger once. Cocking and firing mechanisms on new revolvers were almost invariably altered by their purchasers in the entrance of smoother, effortless handling, usually by filing the dog which controlled the hammer, some going so far as to remove triggers entirely or lash them against the guard. In those cases the guns were fired by thumbing the hammer. This method is not to be confused with fanning, in which the triggerless gun is held in one hand while the other is brushed rapidly across the hammer to cock the gun and firing it by the weight of the hammer itself. A skilful gun fanner could fire five shots from a 45 so rapidly that the individual reports were indistinguishable. But what could happen to him in a gunfight was pretty close to murder. Bat Masterson, sheriff of Ford County, wrote about the gun fanning method when he described the incident between Levi Richardson and Cockad Frank Loving Now Cockad Frank was so called because one of his optics bore a northeast direction to the other. He was about 19 years old when he reached Dodge City and a noted cowhand turned professional gambler. The Ford County Globe said professional gamblers like Frank Loving are desperate men. They consider it necessary in their business that they keep up their fighting reputation and never take a bluff. Levi Richardson was from Wisconsin. He was a friend of mine. Levi came to southwest Kansas to make his fortune buffalo hunting and I knew him from the buffalo hunting grounds. To some, he was an unpleasant man. Richardson was thoroughly familiar with the use of firearms and an excellent shot with either pistol or rifle. Moreover, he was a high strung fellow who was not afraid of any man. On this occasion, as Richardson baited Loving, richardson appeared supremely confident. He stood by the hazard table like a great cat about to pounce, his right hand poised close to his gun butt. Damn you, he growled at Loving. Why don't you fight? The young gambler eased his weight from the table, facing the other man squarely. Why don't you try me, levi said flatly. Richardson's 45 cleared leather. With one swift, fluid motion of his right hand, his left hand flashed across the gun hammer with the speed of a rattlesnake's darting tongue. Richardson fanned off five shots, filling the long branch with gun smoke and one continuous roar. And as his hammer fell in an empty chamber, there stood Loving before him, unharmed, except for a minor scratch on his hand. Loving raised his pistol and pumped three bullets into Richardson, who slid to the floor and was dead within a few minutes. Richardson's death resulted from his lack of deliberation, which Bat always stressed as essential in the makeup of a successful and long-lived gunfighter. Richardson didn't take sufficient time to see what he was doing, and his life paid the penalty. No one, however, who knew both men could truthfully say that Loving possessed a greater degree of courage than Richardson, or that he was a better marksman with a gun. Under ordinary conditions, loving simply had the best nerve, which is a quality quite different from courage. Courage, generally speaking, is daring. The nerve is steadiness. White Earp continues his story about the Western gunfighter by giving personal experiences from numerous six-gun battles he learned about or witnessed. No man in the Kansas City group was Wild Bill's equal with a six-gun. Bill's correct name, by the way, was James B Hickok. Legend and the imaginations of certain people have exaggerated the number of men he killed in gunfights and have misrepresented how he did his killing. At that, they could not very well outdo his skill with pistols. One of the rare instances is the Bill Hickok David Tutt shootout in Springfield, missouri. It wasn't a planned event, but rather it occurred when Wild Bill ran into Tutt in the street and was insulted. Bill Hickok, a tall and broad-shouldered man with penetrating eyes, seemed to search out the innermost being of others. His long hair, flowing like a mane, and accented by his preference for ruffled and fancy clothing and broad-brimmed hats made him an imposing figure. Nevertheless, he was a gentleman with a deep fondness for the ladies, treating them with personal attention and flawless courtesy, until he met up with a gambler in Springfield, missouri. The incident between Bill Hickok and David Tutt occurred in July of 1865, when Bill Hickok met up with a 26-year-old gambler to whom Hickok lost at the gaming tables. Dave Tutt took Hickok's gold pocket watch for security. When Bill couldn't pay up, hickok growled that he would kill him if Tutt so much as used the timepiece. However, on July 21st 1865, the two met in the public square and Tutt was proudly wearing the watch for all to see. This insult, of course, soon led to a gunfight and at a distance of about 75 yards the two faced off. Tutt shot and missed, but Hickok's hit Tutt in the chest. The wounded man then stumbled for about 20 feet before falling to the ground dead. Two days later Hickok was arrested and tried for manslaughter. His trial began on August 3rd, in which Hickok claimed self-defense. Three days later he was acquitted of all charges. Widerup explains how gunfights in the West did not always occur in a faceoff between two brave gun-toting men, but in reality the opponents were more often scampering for cover. The gunfights were not usually clean either, as the fighters were drinking and missing. Usually easy shots continued to shoot until they had emptied their pistol. Of those gunfighters that genuinely had a reputation as skilled shooters, they were not usually anxious to match their skills with another gunman with a similar reputation. Instead, they tried to avoid confrontation and undo risks whenever possible. Hickok knew all the fancy tricks and was as good as the best at that sort of gunplay, but when he had serious business at hand a man to get the acid test of marksmanship I doubt if he employed them. At least he told me that he did not. I have seen him in action and I never saw him fan a gun, shoot from the hip or try to fire two pistols simultaneously. Never have I ever heard a reliable old-timer tell of any trick-shooting employed by Hickok when fast, straight shooting meant life or death. Hickok's ivory-handled revolvers were made expressly for him and were furnished in a manner unequaled by any ever-before manufactured in this or any other country. It is disclosed that a bullet from them never missed its mark. Remarkable stories are conveyed of the dead shoot his skills with these guns. He could keep two fruit cans rolling, one in front and one behind him with bullets fired from these firearms. This is only a sample story of the hundreds related to his incredible dexterity with these revolvers. While Bill generally carried his pistols actually revolvers or six-shooters, but often referred to as pistols butt-forward and a belt holster or scabbard, the butt-forward gun position permitted either a cross-draw, reverse or underhand draw common to the planes. Although it has been recorded in history, while Bill did shoot from the hip when demonstrating his skills in public with a variety of trick shots, on a particular day Hickok was on Tom Spears' bench showing a pair of ivory-handled six-guns which Senator Wilson had given him in appreciation of his services as a guide on tour of the West. As Tom Spears tells it, bill's two favorite exhibitions of marksmanship driving a cork through the neck of a bottle with a bullet, the other splitting a bullet against the edge of a dime, both at about twenty paces. Oh and Tom asked Bill what he could do with the new guns. He added that he did not mean it close range, but at a distance. That would be a real test. Bill then pointed out a capital letter O mounted on a sign about a hundred yards away from where Tom and Bill were sitting. The sign with the O ran off at an angle from Hickok's line of sight, yet before anyone guessed what his target was. While Bill had fired five shots from the gun in his right hand, shifted weapons and fired five more shots. Then he told Tom to send someone over to look at the? O. The report of Bill's skills of the shooting came back with all ten of Bill's slugs found inside the letter's ring. Liadierp explains why two guns were used by a gunfighter. That two-gun business is another matter that can stand some truth before the last of the old-time gunfighters has gone on. They wore two guns most of the six gun toters did and when the time came for action went after them with both hands. But they didn't shoot them that way. Primarily, two guns made the threat of something in reserve, that they were useful as a display of force when a lone man stacked up against a crowd. Some men could shoot equally well with either hand and might alternate their fire and gunplay. Other men exhausted the loads from the gun on the right or the left as the case might be then shifted the reserve weapon to the natural shooting hand if that was necessary and possible. Such a move as the border shift could be made faster than the eye could follow a top-notch gun thrower, but if the man were as good as that, the shift would seldom be required. Whenever you see a picture of some two-gun man in action, with both weapons held closely against his hips, with both guns spitting smoke together, you can put it down that you're looking at a fool or a fake picture. I remember quite a few of those so-called two-gun men who tried to operate everything at once but, like the fanners, they didn't last long in proficient company. Here Wyatt Earp explains why in a gunfight there was never a bluff. In the days of which I am talking among men to whom I have in mind, when a man went after his guns, he did so with a single serious purpose. There was no such thing as a bluff. When a gunfighter reached for his.45, every faculty he owned was key to shooting as speedily and accurately as possible to make his first shot the last of the fight. He just had to think of his gun solely as something with which to kill another before he himself could be killed. The possibility of intimidating an antagonist was remote, although the drop was thoroughly respected and a few men in the West would draw against it. I've seen men so fast and so sure of themselves that they did go after their guns, while men who intended to kill them had them covered. The result was more of a win-out, with the gun in play, over the man who bluffed over the cover of his guns. They were rare. It's safe to say for all general purposes that anything in gunfighting that smacked of show-off or bluff was left to braggarts who were ignorant or careless of their lives. Wyatt Earp explains why notching a man's gun to keep count of the number of many killed was more myth than legend. I might add that I never knew a man who amounted to anything to notch his guns with credits, as they were called for. Many had killed Outlaws. Gunmen of the wild crew who killed for the sake of Bragg followed this custom. I have worked with the most of the noted peace officers Hickok, billy Tillman, pat Shagru, bat Masterson, charlie Bassett and others of light caliber have handled their weapons many times, but never knew one of them to carry a notched gun. To expand the idea of notches on a gun, we go back to a story Bat Masterson, the humorist, once told about a rapacious souvenir's collector. The experience, as Bat Masterson tells the story, became the beginning of a wild tale about gunmen and how they notched their guns for every man they killed. Bat's sense of humor was responsible and he regarded the joke so highly that he told about it. He didn't dream of the possible consequences. A collector of gunfighter souvenirs pestered Bat half to death with his request for one of the six guns that Bat had used on the frontier. This collector finally called on Bat in his New York office and, as Bat said afterward, was so insistent about the gun that Bat decided to give him one, just to get rid of him. Bat did not want to part with the ones he had actually used, so he went to a pawn shop and bought an old.45 which he took to his office in anticipation of the collector's return. With the gun lying on the desk, bat was struck with the idea that while he was providing a souvenir, he might as well offer one worthy of all the trouble it had caused. So he took out his penknife and then and there, cut twenty-two credits in the pawn shop gun. When the collector called for his souvenir and Bat handed it to him, he managed to grasp an astonished question as to whether Bat had killed twenty-two men with it. I didn't tell him yes and I didn't tell him. No, bat said and I didn't exactly lie to him. I simply said I hadn't counted either Mexicans or Indians. And he went away tickled to death. However, it wasn't long before Tales of the Old West, with tales about Bat Masterson's notched gun and the twenty-two men he had killed, began to creep into print. His case may offer a fair example of how all the others got started. According to Stuart N Lake, wyatt Earp made a statement of caution when he was asked the question of why five shots without reloading were all a top-notch gunfighter need when his guns were chambered for six cartridges. The answer is merely safety To ensure against accidental discharge of the gun. While in the holster the hammer rested upon an empty chamber. The empty chamber method was used due to hair trigger adjustment as widely as this was known. In practice, the number of cartridges a man carried in his six gun may be taken as an indication of a man's rank. With the gunfighters of the old school, practiced gun wielders had too much respect for their weapons to take unnecessary chances. So it was only with Tyros and Woodbees that you heard of accidental discharges or didn't know it was loaded injuries in the country when carrying a Colt was a man's prerogative.

Speaker 1:

Brad, when we talk about the use of the gun in the Old West, the Buntline Special comes to mind. Who was Ned Buntline?

Speaker 2:

As we know, ned Buntline, who was best known for his dime novels about the Old West. He is also remembered as the namesake of the legendary Colt Buntline Special, a 12-inch barreled.45 caliber single-action army revolver that he is alleged to have commissioned from Colt's manufacturing company. He then, according to legend, gave these specially made revolvers as gifts for Wyatt Earp and four other well-known Western lawmen Bat Masterson, bill Tillman, charlie Bassett and Neil Brown.

Speaker 1:

Brad, is the Buntline Special, a myth or a?

Speaker 2:

legend. According to legend, Ned Buntline presented the Buntline Special revolvers to the five lawmen and thanks for their help in contributing local color to his Western yarns. However, historians have not been able to discover any reliable evidence to confirm that Buntline ever ordered the guns or that Colt Patton Firearms Manufacturing Company ever manufactured them during that time period.

Speaker 1:

Brad, what else do you know about the Buntline Special?

Speaker 2:

Well, first off, it makes me sad actually that the only time we ever hear Ned Buntline's name come up in history is with this dumb gun story. Buntline himself was worthy of a great epic movie. The man was a pure adventurer in the style of Jack London and those guys. His life and career from a young man and a seafarer is just great, fantastic Western story. Until he eventually got himself in show business and writing and sort of became famous on a different level. Which brings us back to the gun story. The earliest sort of version of this does come from Stuart Lake in his interviews with Wyatt Earp, and of course, wyatt Earp being the self promoter that he was telling the story to another man who was very self promoting in his own right, wanting to be the first biographer of Western legend Wyatt Earp, the story really grew. Now, to Lake's credit, he did try to do his due diligence, after Earp's death and before the book was published, in trying to track down the facts of the story, wondering what happened to all of these guns that were supposedly to exist. One letter that he wrote to the Neil Brown family inquiring as to whether the gun did exist or not, his response was they had no idea what he was talking about. Now, as far as Colt's role in the plot line, yes, colt did manufacture several long barreled single action army firearms from the 1870s all the way up until just before World War II. Now these guns were often sold with the barrel that could be attached separately, and they would. You could pay for however long you wanted the individual barrels.

Speaker 1:

Well my question there would be did Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson or Bassett, any of those guys carry that?

Speaker 2:

type of weapon, not that we really ever have record for, not that they they couldn't, because the guns did exist, but were no one ever commented on them until after they were all dead. The biggest evidence that we have for why they could have is we do know that Ned Buntline was present at the the big fair of 1873, as were many of the other lawmen that are noticed. So it could have easily. And Colt did have a booth there as well. So Buntline could have easily purchased guns from Colt directly at that 1873 fair and later presented them to the gunman. But that would have been an earlier date than he would have been interested in them. There are even stories that he possibly offered those guns to the man as bribes to try to replace Wild Bill, buffalo Bill and Texas Jack in the play that he had written that they were performing in. So it's one of those print the legend kind of stories. It doesn't really matter at the end of the day and it's just a great story to tell. The references used to incorporate historical facts for this episode of gunfighters and guns in the Old West includes the Kansas Historical Quarterly summer of 1976 entitled why it Erp in the Buttline Special Myth by William Schellenberg and the November 1930 edition of Saturday Evening Post Guns and Gunfighters by Stuart Lake. I think that's it for now. Remember to check out our Wild West podcast shows on iTunes podcast or at Wild West podcast dot buzzsprout dot com. Thank you for listening to our podcast. Join us next time as we take you back to the life and times of Bat Masterson, part 2, the Red River War. You can learn more about the legends of Dot City by visiting our website at worldfamousgunfightersweeblycom. If you'd like to purchase one of our books, you can go to worldfamousgunfightersweeblycom. Slash books dot html.

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The Myth of the Buntline Special