BY Cheri Clifton
Gunslingers and gunfighters.
We’ve read those literary words in our historical western books; heard and seen them characterized, both factual and fictional, in movies and television.
But where did the term, gunslinger, originate? Etymologist Barry Popik traced the word back to its use in a Western movie in the 1920’s. Western writers, such as Zane Grey, soon adopted the word and it became common usage. However, many writers thought “gunslinger” was a more modern term and more authentic words used during the Old West period would have been “gunman”, “pistoleer”, “shootist”, or “badman.”
Often those words have been applied to men who would hire out for contract killings or at a ranch embroiled in a range war. Others, like Billy the Kid and Jesse James, were notorious bandits; still others were lawmen like Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp. A gunfighter could be an outlaw, or he could be a sheriff whose duty was to face the outlaw and bring him to justice.
The Hollywood image of a gunfighter/gunslinger was usually characterized with their gun belts worn low on the hip and outer thigh, with the holster cut away around the pistol’s trigger and grip for a smooth, fast draw. However, historically much of the time, gunfighters would just hide their pistols in their pockets or waistbands. Wild Bill Hickok popularized the butt-forward holster type, which worked better on horseback.
Though movies and television would like us to believe otherwise, it was very rare when gunfights occurred with the two gunfighters squarely facing each other from a distance in a dusty street. This romanticized image of the Old West gunfight was born in the dime novels of the late 19th century and perpetuated in the film era. In actuality, the "real” gunfights of the Old West were rarely that "civilized.” Very rarely did the gunfighters actually "plan” a gunfight, "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, and more often than not, with the aid of a little bottled 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.
The gunfights were usually close-up and personal, with a number of shots blasted from pistols, often resulting in innocent bystanders hit by a bullet gone wild. Much of the time, 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.
Revolvers were a popular weapon to gunfighters who were horsemen, cowboys, and lawmen because of their concealability and effectiveness on horseback. Also the Winchester rifle was popular among gunfighters. Dubbed the “Gun that Won the West,” it was widely used during the settlement of the American frontier. Shotguns were popular weapons for “express messengers” and guards, especially those on stagecoaches and trains who were in charge of overseeing and guarding passengers and valuable shipments.
So whether your hero or yes, even your heroine might be known to “sling a gun,” I thought it interesting to learn the history and separate some of the facts from the fiction regarding the words, “gunslingers” and” gunfighters” of the Wild West.
Happy Trails To You,