Gunfighting is pretty much an American phenomenon. The trans-Mississippi West conjures up dust-blown streets, fixed gazes, and worn steel drawn from weathered leather. No other country has a gunfighting history equal to ours.

Today, the equipment has evolved far beyond anything those Old West leadslingers could have envisioned. The average enthusiastic shooter probably fires more rounds in a single year than those men of yesteryear did in a lifetime. First, there wasn’t an overabundance of “shells” to practice with. An average store probably sold rounds by the singular box and not the case, and no one could afford a case of shells. One simply could not afford to throw away hard-to-find cartridges on everyday practice.

Then there was the problem of having your trusty shootin’ iron break down. Most probably a local blacksmith had to fix the contraption. I don’t know what an armorer consisted of back then, but I doubt there were structured classes to keep the gunfighters up and running. Experience was hard to come by.

Then of course, there’s the problem of having parts in inventory. Imagine being in Dodge City looking for a pair of Colt Birdshead stocks or a firing pin spring, trigger leaf spring, etc. Ordering parts consisted of locating a catalog of some sort of gun parts, scraping together funds, sending the order off through the Pony Express, hoping the rider wasn’t turned into an arrow pincushion, waiting half a year or more for the order to come through, and then getting the wrong part anyway (some things do not change).

The storied gunfighter of yesteryear would no doubt be astounded at what can be accomplished with a modern firearm in the hands of a skilled operator. He would be absolutely floored by someone who fired 300 rounds in a day.

There is a major difference, however, between you and me and those long-ago guys who threw lead across rut-lined, tumbleweed-choked Main Streets with carefree abandon.

Most, if not all, the Old West historical figures we glorify were right on the edge, if not over it, of being stone-cold sociopathic killers. As they said of John Wesley Hardin, “He’d kill you at the drop of the hat and drop the hat himself.”

These men had no qualms about dropping the hammer and throwing lead if they in any way perceived you as a threat to them. Reach quickly into your coat—dropped. Sneeze—dropped. Glance too long—dropped again! If you protested the manner in which they had acted, they’d probably drop you for that too. The law meant little to them, as the transcripts from the OK Corral shooting inquest demonstrate.

There’s another aspect of Old West gunfighters that many overlook: They were all acutely aware of the inherent risks posed by any immediate non-life-threatening gunshot wound.

There were no antibiotics, no sterile operating rooms, no EMTs on scene, no well-trained nurses on hand and, as for the doctors themselves…. The attending doctor was most probably a second-rate hack dentist from God knows what university or college back East who’d come West on a whim and regretted it ever since.

Anesthetic was laudanum, a really long pull on a bottle of whiskey, or a wooden mallet. Yep, if you pulled through any injury, it was pretty much due to a strong dose of luck. This is why they didn’t take chances with anyone.

Historical documents were not to the standards of today’s court procedures. This is to say that, when the myth transcends the truth, print the myth. Who really knows how many opponents of the Western gunfighters were dry gulched or set up prior to their untimely demises? Sides were often taken when someone was perforated, so the historical accuracy of the witness statements of yesteryear is questionable.

My point is that these men were probably much less proficient overall than many of today’s shooters. Their equipment was substandard by modern calculations. The law was loosely interpreted and subsequently enforced. These guys would go to guns and throw lead in a New York (or Dodge City) minute.

In some regards, they were fearless and seemed to throw caution to the winds once they decided to throw down on you. Outfit them with today’s hardware and a little practice, and you would be in big trouble.

It would be utterly fascinating to transpose one of these figures into today’s era and get their take on modern gunfighting.

They would look askance at our rules of engagement. They would scoff at the restrictions imposed by prevailing laws. Less-lethal options would really throw them for a loop. Pepper spray would probably be put on their steaks for extra flavor. They would, however, be first into the fight without backing down or giving an inch.

They would be truly dangerous men if armed even with what would be considered antiquated equipment. Get out of line in the least, and it would be your last move with an “Adios amigo…” It has always been the man—not the equipment—that makes the difference.

Scott Reitz is a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and director of the highly acclaimed International Tactical Training Seminars. Course information and schedules are available at their website at Looking Back, a free monthly newsletter, is available by email at [email protected].

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