Gunfighters of the Wild West: Duels and the Fast-Draw Myth: Fastest Gun in the West

Gunfighters of the Wild West: Duels and the Fast-Draw Myth: Fastest Gun in the West

A deeply ingrained image of the Wild West is that of two men approaching each other with hands on their gun butts, determined to prove who can draw and fire faster. Exciting stuff, but it seldom happens that way.

In this classic showdown, usually outside the town saloon, the two scowling scoundrels stand motionless. After a blur of movement and two nearly simultaneous gunshots, one man drops, hit by the first bullet. Variations of this scenario include one gunman shooting his adversary in the hand or, with even greater sportsmanship, letting his opponent draw first.

In 1865, Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt met in front of an expectant crowd for a pre-arranged pistol duel in Springfield, Missouri. At a distance of 75 yards, Tutt fired and missed. Hickok steadied his revolver with his left hand and triggered a slug into Tutt’s heart. It’s a stereotypical depiction, but this sort of face-off was actually uncommon.

In Western gunfights, the primary consideration was accuracy, not speed. Gunfighters usually didn’t even carry their weapons in holsters. Pistols were shoved into hip Pockets or waistbands, and a rifle or shotgun was usually preferred over a handgun. A study of almost 600 shootouts indicates that in one gun fight after another, men emptied their weapons at their adversaries without hitting anyone, except perhaps, for a luckless bystander, or inflicting only minor wounds.

During the first decade of the 20th century, western movies became a staple of the burgeoning film industry Hollywood pounced on the handful of duels such as Hickok versus Tutt, and soon the fast draw contest became an integral part of the genre. Like modern detective films without car chases, westerns were incomplete without the famous fast-draw duels.

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