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Average Lawman And The Average Outlaw

Gunfighter! The word alone has magic. It seems to leap from the printed page to produce a complete image in the reader's mind. A deserted sun-baked street in a Western town. Horses dozing at hitching rails in front of suddenly quietened saloons. Faces pressed against windows in horrified anticipation, an air of unbearable tension over all. Slowly, from opposite ends of the street, two hard-faced men in big hats and spurs approach each other, hands hovering over low-slung sixguns, eyes locked. One wears a badge, the other is an outlaw. The lawman, being the "good guy," waits for the other to make his move, then beats him to the draw and guns him down. The timid townsmen rush from their hiding places, shouting, "Are you all right, Marshal?" The noble lawman, gazing down at his defunct adversary, answers quietly, sadly, from the depths of his priceless sense of noblesse oblige. "I'm all right. Take him to Boot Hill and give him a decent burial. He was game. I liked him. I hated to have to kill him."

Only one thing is wrong with this picture; it rarely, if ever, happened. Marshal and outlaw, both equally imbued with nature's first law -. self-preservation -. would have opened fire the instant he was within effective range. The so-called "Code of the West," as described above, was probably an invention of dime-novel writers like Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham, subsequently elaborated upon and polished to a glowing luster by Owen Wister in The Virginian, Zane Grey and Max Brand in scores of books, and a host of other scribblers up to and including the literary hacks who grind out reams of pap for today's television audiences.

The blunt truth is that it was damned hard to distinguish the good gunfighters from the bad gunfighters, and decent hard-working citizens avoided both as they would a rattlesnake. One trait in particular marked the average lawman and the average outlaw: both were oft for the fast easy buck, and neither had any repugnance at taking human life. 

Consider Wild Bill Hickok, the so-called "Prince of Pistoleers." Students of Western lore generally agree that Wild Bill got a cut from the sporting houses of Abilene, Kan., while town marshal there. How else could he have gambled heavily, drunk the best whiskey the town afforded and dressed in such fancy style? Certainly not on the $50 or so a month the town council paid him. 

Wild Bill Hickok shoots Dave Tutt

In what may be the first true western showdown, Wild Bill Hickok shoots Dave Tutt dead in the market square of Springfield, Missouri.

Hollywood movies and dime novels notwithstanding, the classic western showdown–also called a walkdown–happened only rarely in the American West. Rather than coolly confronting each other on a dusty street in a deadly game of quick draw, most men began shooting at each other in drunken brawls or spontaneous arguments. Ambushes and cowardly attacks were far more common than noble showdowns.

Nonetheless, southern emigrants brought to the West a crude form of the "code duello," a highly formalized means of solving disputes between gentlemen with swords or guns that had its origins in European chivalry. By the second half of the 19th century, few Americans still fought duels to solve their problems. Yet, the concept of the duel surely influenced the informal western code of what constituted a legitimate-and legal-gun battle. Above all, the western code required that a man resort to his six-gun only in defense of his honor or life, and only if his opponent was also armed. Likewise, a western jury was unlikely to convict a man in a shooting provided witnesses testified that his opponent had been the aggressor.

The best-known example of a true western duel occurred in 1865. Wild Bill Hickok, a skilled gunman with a formidable reputation, was eking out a living as a professional gambler in Springfield, Missouri. He quarreled with Dave Tutt, a former Union soldier, but it is unclear what caused the dispute. Some people say it was over a card game while others say they fought over a woman. Whatever the cause, the two men agreed to a duel.

The showdown took place the following day with crowd of onlookers watching as Hickok and Tutt confronted each other from opposite sides of the town square. When Tutt was about 75 yards away, Hickok shouted, "Don't come any closer, Dave." Tutt nervously drew his revolver and fired a shot that went wild. Hickok, by contrast, remained cool. He steadied his own revolver in his left hand and shot Tutt dead with a bullet through the chest.

Having adhered to the code of the West, Hickok was acquitted of manslaughter charges.

Hickok was a good man with a gun, but not consistent. In his celebrated duel with Dave Tutt in Springfield, Mo., in 1865, Wild Bill displayed the cool nerve and accurate marksmanship his legion of admirers claim was always his. The shootout even went off according to fictionalized protocol, to a degree. After an argument each warned the other that the next time they met there'd be powder burned. 

Hickok killed Tutt at an estimated range of 75 yards the next day; Bill on one side of the town square, Dave on the other. Tutt, tensed and nervous, drew first and got off 4 shots -. all misses-before Bill, steadying his 1860 Army Colt with both hands, fired one shot that drilled Tutt dead center.

Earp's favorite sidearm was the 12" barreled Buntline Special presented to him by dime-novel writer Ned Buntline. However, despite all the wild claims made about his gun-slinging ability, Earp preferred a double-barreled shotgun stuffed with buckshot when he had to face some hard-case gunman aiming to perforate his hid. The success of this tactic may be judged by the fact that cagey Wyatt died in bed at 83.

Incidentally, Buntline also presented one of his Specials, reputedly made to order for him at the Colt factory, to lawmen Bat Masterson and Bill Tilghman in Dodge City in the fall of 1875, on the occasion of his gift to Earp. Each Colt had "NED" carved into its walnut butt and fitted smoothly into a fine handtooled holster. Each was also provided with a demountable stock and buckskin sling. The value of this fancy extra equipment was obscure to the flattered recipients until Buntline explained that if "a man was caught out on the prairie, surrounded by hostile redskins, he could quickly convert his six-shooter into a rifle and make the rascals bite the dust."

It is often difficult to separate lawmen of the Old West from outlaws of the Old West. In many cases, the term gunfighter was applied to constables. Despite idealistic portrayals in television, movies, and even in history books, very few lawmen/gunfighters could claim their law enforcement role as their only source of employment. Unlike contemporary peace officers, these lawmen generally pursued other occupations, often earning money as gamblers, business owners, or outlaws-as was the case with "Curly" Bill Brocius, who, while always referred to as an outlaw, served as a deputy sheriff under sheriff Johnny Behan. Many shootouts involving lawmen were caused by disputes arising from these alternative occupations, rather than the lawman's attempts to enforce the law.

Tom Horn, historically cited as an assassin, served both as a deputy sheriff and as a Pinkerton detective, a job in which he shot at least three people as a killer for hire. Ben Thompson, best known as a gunfighter and gambler, was a very successful chief of police in Austin, Texas. King Fisher had great success as a county sheriff in Texas. Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid both wore badges as lawmen at least once. "Big" Steve Long served as deputy marshal for Laramie, Wyoming, while the entire time committing murders and forced theft of land deeds. A town with a substantial violent crime rate would often turn to a known gunman as their town marshal, chief, or sheriff, in the hopes that the gunman could stem the violence and bring order.

Known gunmen/lawmen were generally effective, and in time the violence would subside, usually after the gunman/lawman had been involved in several shooting incidents, eventually leading to a substantial and well earned fear that kept everyone in line. At times they were hired by cattlemen or other prominent figures to serve as henchmen or enforcers during cattle wars. Although sanctioned by law enforcement officials, the gunmen were not always actually deputized. Sometimes, however, just to make things "official", they would go through the formality of deputization. A case in point: the service of the Jesse Evans Gang, and outlaw Jesse Evans himself, as agents for the Murphy-Dolan faction during the Lincoln County War. While technically working as lawmen, they were little more than hired guns.

Usually, when a gunman was hired by a town as town marshal, they received the full support of the townspeople until order was restored, at which point the town would tactfully indicate it was time for a change to a less dangerous lawman who relied more on respect than fear to enforce the law. Sometimes the gunman would simply become bored as the times changed and move on. A good example was the 1882 decision by the El Paso, Texas, town council to dismiss Town Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire. He entered the council hall and dared the councilors to try and take his guns or his job, at which point they immediately changed their mind, saying he could keep his job. He resigned on his own a couple of days later. Another example was the dismissal of Sheriff Commodore Perry Owens in Holbrook, Arizona, after which the local county commission also withheld his last paycheck. Owens entered the county building and forced them to pay him at gun point, and he received no resistance.In the case of Marshal Jim Courtright, for example, he did "clean up the town" while serving as town marshal for Fort Worth, Texas. However, it was his habit of strong-arming local businesses in the area into paying him for protection that ultimately led to his fatal gunfight with gunman and saloon owner Luke Short.

It is most enlightening to the researcher in Western Americana to discover that the unglamorous but deadly efficient shotgun played a far more important role in the taming of the West than the writers of the "Draw, you varmint!" school of scribblers care to admit. Tough John Slaughter, Sheriff of Cochise County, Ariz., in the late -.80's put a reporter from a New York newspaper straight on the matter in short order. Somehow the dude scribe got up the nerve to ask Slaughter why he carried a shotgun along with a Winchester 44-40 and a Colt 44 revolver on his manhunts. John's hard black eyes narrowed in contempt. "To kill men with, you damned fool!" he snapped.

Which simple, cold fact explains why so many gunfighters on both sides of the law, packed the lethal scattergun as an essential tool of their dangerous trade. At long range, of course, there was no substitute for the rifle, so John Slaughter, Wyatt Earp and many others packed shotgun, Winchester and six-shooter.

The great advantage of the shotgun to the average man was that with it he was equal -. often superior -. to the professional gunslinger. Shotguns fired by ordinary citizens broke up the James-Younger gang in the Northfield, Minn., bank robbery, and in Trinity City, Texas, John Wesley Hardin, who gunned down 44 men during his bloody career, came within inches of death by a scattergun in the hands of Phil Sublet. Hardin pulled through because of a heave, gold-laden money belt that stopped most of the charge of buckshot, but he was out of action for several months. Stagecoach guards carried sawed-off shotguns in addition to rifles and revolvers, and the phrase "riding shotgun" became an indelible part of Western vernacular and legend."

Ever since the roaring heyday of the Old West, a hot and endless controversy has raged best merited that dubious distinction. Some passionately believe Wild Bill Hickok rated the title. Others hail Ben Thompson, Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson as champion. Clay Allison, the so-called "Wolf of the Washita," has his ardent devotees; so has "Bad Bill" Longley and "Longhair" Jim Courtright. Other and lesser known gunfighters have their cliques of admirers. 

Yet, in the old wild days, as exemplified in the Hickok-Tutt affair, the man who drew first and fired first was often the victim of the steel-nerved gent who took time to aim after he drew. So the controversy remains unsolved, perhaps unsolvable. Since the primary function of a man with a gun is to kill, all the heated arguments are academic if not indeed absurd. Slice it any way you wish, first choice in gunfighters must be dictated by lethal performance with firearms and nothing else. Best gunfighter with a revolver -. John Wesley Hardin. Best gunfighter with a rifle -. Harry Tracy.

Norman B. Wiltsey. Gunfighters Of The Old West. Gun Digest 1967.


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