Monday, June 8, 2009

Old West Gunfighter -- Reality or Myth?


The gunfighters who are portrayed in the movies, the television screen, the dime novel and popular folklore are a myth. The drama of two gunslingers meeting in the street at high noon, the lightning fast draw, the roar of exploding powder, the impact of bullets, the crumpling of a body; these situations were, and still are illusions. What we see today and even in yesteryear has little if anything to do with reality.

Of course there were shootouts in the old West. Many card games erupted into violence. Guns flashed and people died; especially innocent bystanders. These opponents were not gunmen in the accepted sense of the word nor were they skillful with a revolver. A bonafide gunfighter rarely allowed himself to get drawn into a ‘showdown.’ Instead he’d wait until the odds were in his favor before he drew his weapon. In fact, most shootings took place between cowhands, farmers, businessmen, drifter; men usually under the influence of liquor and were certainly not professional gunmen.

The term “gunfighter” didn’t even exist one hundred years ago. Newspapers usually referred to such characters a “gunmen” or “shooters.” “Gunfighter” and “gunslinger” are modern terms cranked out by Hollywood wordsmiths and popular fiction writers.

The fast draw is also a modern innovation. It didn’t exist in what we know as the Wild West. in the period between the late 1860’s and the early 1890’s (heyday of the gunfighters), few towns had been terrorized by roving outlaw gangs and almost none had ever seen a gunfighter.

Practically all towns west of the Mississippi had laws against carry weapons. People ignored these ordinances but, nevertheless kept their six-shooters out of sight. Guns were either tucked inside a belt, slung from a shoulder holster or shoved in a pocket. Those who did wear belt holsters usually rode them high on the hip where it was more comfortable. Gunmen dressed about like everybody else; they wore city clothes. They never worried about blinding speed but sought to gain the advantage, drawing and shooting when the opponent least expected it.

True, the western gunfighter is a myth, but he is an indelible part of our folklore. Today, because of new interpretations, he stands at a crossroads. Many years ago he began as a defender of the opposed, a man who had the strength of ten because his heart was pure. As he largely appears in books or on the silver screen, he still has the strength of ten, but his heart is no longer pure. He is often epitomized as a brutal killer.

The gunfighter is here, to stay. He still makes for a good story in today’s Western novels, and he will continue riding into the sunset for a very long time to come.
Now Available: Lawmen and Outlaws Anthology. Shawn from Gotta Read Reviews says, "This is a need to be read book."

10 comments:

Paty Jager said...

Loretta, you and I must research in the same places. LOL That's the same information I give in my talk about Characters of the West, which I'm giving this fall at the Emerald City conference.

Yes, Hollywood and novel writers glorified gunslingers. I think it first started with the dime novels to make them sell and be exciting.

But the truth, as usual, is not nearly as dramatic as what we writers can come up with!

Fun blog!

Congrats on the anthology! What a great read!

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Paty, I have a wonderful reference book titled "The Shooters" by Leon Claire Metz. It is filled with fabulous information about the American West. I always enjoy your comments.

Cheryl said...

Hi Loretta,

Love the blog post you did!!! I know it's mainly myth, but I still enjoy writing about them and creating my own gunfighters, too! Congratulations on your anthology story!

Cheryl

Celia Yeary said...

Loretta- the gunslinger plays a huge role in many westerns. He was at once glorified and vilified, wasn't he? Remember one of John Wayne's last movies--"The Shootist." He was a gunslinger, and Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN. You know, a gunslinger turned rancher who had to strap on the guns one more time. Oh, sends chills down my spine--I love, absolutely adore those old movies. Celia

Donna Confer said...

Loretta: Once again, a wonderful informative article on your blog. Disappointing as well since I was raised on the old west movies og gunfighters and gunslingers like Wyatt Earp. I love the movie Tombstone and the stories of the Earp's, Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate and the OK Corral, etc. WE have visited Tombstone a number of times and have watched the staged 'gunfights' in the streets and have seen innocent bystanders 'shot down'. So well acted you thought you were there. Hence my disappointment!!! Time to grow up, LOL, I guess!!!

Donna Confer said...

Loretta: Once again, a wonderful informative article on your blog. Disappointing as well since I was raised on the old west movies og gunfighters and gunslingers like Wyatt Earp. I love the movie Tombstone and the stories of the Earp's, Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate and the OK Corral, etc. WE have visited Tombstone a number of times and have watched the staged 'gunfights' in the streets and have seen innocent bystanders 'shot down'. So well acted you thought you were there. Hence my disappointment!!! Time to grow up, LOL, I guess!!!

Linda LaRoque said...

So true, Loretta. Television and the movies have really distorted some of history, but are so entertaining. I like knowing the truth though.
Wonderful post!
Linda
www.lindalaroque.com

Lauri said...

Great post, Loretta. Hollywood can glorify just about anything can't they, but then again, that's sometimes the fun of it all. LOL.

Cheers!
Lauri

Tanya Hanson said...

Wonderful post, Loretta. I have all the myths in my head and psyche too but agree with Paty, truth is not always as much fun as fiction.

oxox

Liz said...

I'm a newbie here -- I love all the book sites I find online! I'll never be able to read all the great books I hear about... But in any case, I found your post very informative. (I'm a little disappointed, but it was STILL informative.) Wouldn't you save "Unforgiven" was a more realistic look at the old West? And the time period you talked about is pretty much the one covered by a Western that's been a huge seller on amazon, and which I read recently, The Shopkeeper. It's about a store owner from NY who sells the shop in the late 1870s and heads to West for adventure. Naturally, he finds it. And he shoots two hired thugs, not in the High Noon kind of thing, but in an impulsive street fight, more along the lines of what you talked about. In any case, it's a fun read --and a Western hero women will love.