God created man, but Sam Colt made them equal. With its distinctive plow-blade shaped handle and large front sight, no one has to be a gun expert to easily recognize Colt’s Model 1873 Single-Action Army revolver. This gun became so popular it quickly became known as the Peacemaker (Colt’s dealers coined the name). Almost every western movie and romance novel hero carries one as he faces down the villain gunfighter in a climatic, guns blazing shoot out.
The term single-action simply means that there is only one way to fire the gun, by cocking the hammer then pulling the trigger.
The original Colt Peacemaker, which was issued to the army in 1874, was designed with a strap across the cylinder and a one piece walnut grip. It came in two barrel lengths, the 7 ½ inch Cavalry model and the 5 ½ inch Artillery model. Both were designed and sighted for a .45 caliber, black powder cartridge.
Most westerners carried their revolver in a leather holster with a loop at the top which threaded through and hung from their cartridge belt. Shoulder holsters were often used in winter so the gun could be easily reached under a slicker or heavy coat. This also kept the gun warm which kept the oil from thickening up.
The movie image of the man wearing two guns strapped to each hip so he could shoot both with accuracy was either a myth or a very green newcomer. Professional gunmen sometimes carried two guns, but if he did, he didn’t let anyone see the second one and would carry it in a hide-away holster under his arm.
The Single-Action Army Colt was never intended for precision work. On the open range the revolver was a survival tool. It was used for defense, hunting game, and killing wolves and coyotes. For amusement cowboys would shoot tin cans in the air or roll them along the ground with bullets. Another game was to rapid fire at a post from the back of a horse at a full gallop. The winner was the man who placed the most shots, closest together. Some cowboys practiced a lot, but for most the extra ammunition was expensive and men kept their spent shells to be reloaded in their free time around the bunkhouse.
Most cowboys were fairly good shots. For hunting, when accuracy counted from a distance, they held the gun with both hands, straight in front of their body.
The movie image of the hero pinned down in the rocks, firing one-handed at the outlaws with his trusty Colt, was a myth. The fixed sights of the Colt 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.
Most westerners were good natured men, but there were a few bullies and men on the dodge from the law. A gunman was what the old west called the outlaw who had a reputation with a weapon. He liked to get close then using speed, fire his weapon. He tended to be more of a bully or a brawler.
Throughout the west there were two kinds of gunfights, close range and distance. Across a bar room or card table in a range of 6-7 yards (the normal range of the relaxed human eye), where the target is the size of a human, it wasn’t necessary to aim, just instinctively point and shoot. In this case time and the quick-draw mattered and the Colt Single-Action Army had the best grip ever designed for quick straight pointing. Outside that 7 yard circle however, the eye has to accommodate and the ability to aim was vital.
To aim means to locate the target, point your weapon at it and mentally make all the adjustments and corrections before pulling the trigger. The gun fighter was the lawman or hero who didn’t shoot first, not because of honor, but because he shot back with accuracy and took the time to aim. When old timers spoke of ‘taking time’ to draw their weapon they referred to the split second it took to make these decisions. This dispels the quick draw myth because 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 too quick. Take time. I’ve known many a feller slip up for shootin’ in a hurry."
Hickok also believed that no one could out run a bullet, so if one was coming it was better to face it. And aim for the body rather than anywhere else. It might not be fatal, but it will give him a shock that will paralyze his brain and arm so much the fight will is all over.
Also at this period in American history the word ‘fast’ was not a term used to describe the time it took for someone to pull his gun from its holster. The word ‘fast,’ was generally applied to a loose woman or a town with no morals and no law. Quick was the term more commonly used, but even this was second to getting ‘the drop’ on a man.
Some men could draw, shoot and hit their target from 10-12 yard in ¼ of a second, however this is against a target that is not shooting back. No one knows how fast anyone shot in a gunfight because they were never timed. All any gunfighter ever said was that when the gun is drawn in a gunfight the brain switches from peace time to wartime. Karl Von Clausewitz, Prussian soldier and German military theorist, said, "of a sudden you find yourself operating against a terrific resistance, like a swimmer in molasses, a man trying to run through deep mud."
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