Gunfighter, also gunslinger, is a name that was given to men in the American Old West who had gained a reputation as being dangerous with a gun.
Noted amateur etymologist Barry Popik has traced the term "gun slinger" back to its use in the 1920 Western movie Drag Harlan. The word was soon adopted by other Western writers such as Zane Grey and became common usage. In his introduction to The Shootist, author Glendon Swarthout says that "gunslinger" and "gunfighter" are modern terms and that the more authentic terms for the period would have been "gunman", "pistoleer", "shootist" or "bad man". While Swarthout seems to have been correct about "gunslinger", Bat Masterson used the term "gunfighter" in the newspaper articles he wrote about the lawmen and outlaws he had known.
Often the term was applied to men who would hire out for contract killings or at a ranch embroiled in a range war where they would earn "fighting wages." Others, like Billy the Kid, were notorious bandits and still others were lawmen like Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp. A gunslinger could be an outlaw, a robber or murderer who took advantage of the wilderness of the frontier to hide from, and make periodic raids on, genteel society. The gunfighter could also be an agent of the state, archetypally a lone avenger, but more often a sheriff, whose duty was to face the outlaw and bring him to or, more likely, personally administer justice. The title is often misused in historical accounts to describe men killed in gunfights. For instance, the Gunfight at the OK Corral victims Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury were called "gunfighters", when the three were simply cowboys and ranchers, as that fight was their first and only.
Gunslingers frequently appear, along with cowboys, as stock characters in Western movies and novels. In Western movies, the characters' gun belts are often worn low on the hip and outer thigh, with the gun having an exposed trigger and grip for a smooth fast draw. This type holster is a Hollywood anachronism. Twirling one's revolvers is a trademark trick of gunslingers, and drawing and spinning the pistol from time to time, without intending or being expected to shoot, is a commonly portrayed habit or compulsion. Fast-draw artists can be distinguished from other movie cowboys because their guns will often be tied to their thigh. Long before holsters were steel-lined, they were soft and supple so they could be comfortably worn all day long. Tie-downs were used to keep the pistol from catching on the holster as it was drawn.
Most gunfights are portrayed in films or books as having two men square off, waiting for one to make the first move. This was rarely the case. Often, a gunfight was spur-of-the-moment, with one drawing his pistol, and the other reacting. Often it would develop into a shootout where both men bolted for cover. Other times, one or both were drunk and missed several normally easy shots. Many times the shootout was little more than one taking advantage of the other's looking away at an opportune moment. Regardless of popular folklore, the men who held noteworthy reputations as a gunfighter were not anxious to match up against another gunman with the same reputation. On the contrary, in cases where two men held a similar reputation, both reputable gunmen would avoid confrontation with one another whenever possible. They rarely took undue risks, and usually weighed their options before confronting another well-known gunman. This respect for one another is why most famous gunfights were rarely two or more well-known gunmen matched up against one another, but rather one notable gunman against a lesser known opponent or opponents.
Generally, two well-known gunmen coming into contact with one another would result in either the two keeping a distance but being social, or avoiding one another altogether. In cases where one well-known gunman was a lawman, and another was merely in town, the one that was visiting would avoid problems. He avoided confrontation with the gunman serving lawman.
How famous gunfighters died is as varied as each man. Many well-known gunfighters were so feared by the public because of their reputation that when they were killed, they died as a result of ambush rather than going down in a "blaze of glory". Others died secluded deaths either from old age or illness.
Gunfighters King Fisher, John Wesley Hardin, Ben Thompson, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok all died as a result of an ambush, killed by men who feared them because of their reputation. Gunmen Kid Curry, Jim Courtright, Dallas Stoudenmire and Dave Rudabaugh were killed in raging gun battles, much as portrayed in films of the era, and usually against more than one opponent. Bill Longley and Tom Horn were executed. Famed gunman Clay Allison died in a wagon accident. Gunmen Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Commodore Perry Owens, and Luke Short all died of natural causes, living out their lives on reputation and avoiding conflict in secluded retirement.
Most Old West men who were labeled as being "gunfighters" did not kill nearly as many men in gunfights as they were given credit for, if any at all. They were often labeled as such due to one particular instance, which developed from rumours into them having been involved in many more events than they actually were. Often their reputation was as much "self-promotion" as anything else, such was the case of Bat Masterson.
Wyatt Earp, for example, has been said to have been involved in more than one hundred gunfights in his lifetime. In reality, less than ten would be more accurate. His fame was mostly due to his involvement in the Gunfight at the OK Corral, and his Vendetta Ride afterward. Although history has since portrayed him as having been legendary and well known when that gunfight took place, he in fact was not well known until after that, and due to that. Doc Holliday, another figure whose fame mostly derived from his involvement in the events leading up to and after the Gunfight at the OK Corral, was known in fact to have killed only one man prior to that gunfight, therefore it was more his reputation than any actual deeds that led to his notoriety.
Johnny Ringo, as supported by noted author Louis L'Amour, has no factual deeds to support the reputation he developed. Of the men who are actually known for a fact to have been killed by him, all were unarmed, and he has no actual evidence to support his having been in even one gunfight. Yet because of the Earp - Clanton feud in Tombstone, Arizona, and his association with that, he is well remembered as a "gunfighter".
There were others, however, whose lifestyle definitely lived up to the reputation they had. Jim Courtright, for example, did in fact kill several men, as did Dallas Stoudenmire, in gunfights both as lawmen and as civilians. Clay Allison and Ben Thompson also lived up to their reputations. At the same time, gunmen like Scott Cooley are all but unknown, when they actually led a life reflective of what most would consider a gunfighter to be. In other cases, certain gunfighters were possibly confused, over time, for being someone else with a similar name. The most well known of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch gang, the Sundance Kid, was in reality only known to have been in one shootout during his lifetime, and no gunfights. Some historians have since stated that it is possible that over time he was confused with another Wild Bunch member, Kid Curry, who was without a doubt the most dangerous member of the gang, having killed many lawmen and civilians during his lifetime before being killed himself. Hence, it is the Sundance Kid who is better known.
The image of a Wild West filled with countless gunfights was a myth generated primarily by dime-novel authors in the late 19th century. However, gunfights did occasionally occur. The most notable and well known of these took place in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. They each varied in what led up to them. Some were simply the result of the heat of the moment, others were the result of long standing feuds, while others were between outlaws and lawmen. There were also various other reasons that resulted in gunfights. Some of these shootouts became famous, while others simply faded into history with only a few accounts of them left today. Listed below are some of the more notable and remembered gunfights that did receive wide acclaim:
In many cases the term gunfighter was applied to constables. Despite Hollywood and at times history painting a more noble picture of a town's constabulary, there are very few instances where lawmen were dubbed "gunfighters" but were working only as policemen. Unlike contemporary peace officers, they were generally either both lawman and gambler, or lawman and business owner/operator, or lawman/outlaw. These very different means of employment, held at the same time, were often the reason for many of their shootouts, rather than their noble enforcement of the law. It is often difficult to separate lawmen of the Old West from outlaws of the Old West. "Curly" Bill Brocious, always referred to as an outlaw, did serve as a deputy sheriff under Sheriff Johnny Behan.
Tom Horn, historically referred to as an assassin, served both as a deputy sheriff and as a Pinkerton detective, a job for which he was quite well suited and in which he killed seventeen men in the line of duty, before going on to kill better than twenty two 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 during their lifetime. "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. Typically, this move was successful.
These gunmen/lawmen would generally be very 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 during cattle wars. Although technically "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 deputizing the gunmen. Case in point, the service of the Jessie Evans Gang, and outlaw Jessie Evans himself, working for the "Murphy-Dolan" faction during the Lincoln County War. While they were 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. Once order was restored, however, the town would tactfully indicate it was time for a change to a more politically correct lawman who relied more on respect than fear.
In others, the gunman would simply become bored as the times changed and move on. A good example of both these scenarios was the 1882 decision by the El Paso, Texas, town council to dismiss Town Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire. Stoudenmire entered the council hall and dared them to try and take his guns or his job, at which point they immediately changed their mind, telling him 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 fateful gunfight with gunman and saloon owner Luke Short, in which Courtright was killed.
There is historical dispute about the authenticity of the records of most of these men, and there is evidence that a select few stand out as masters. They all, however, had a reputation as dangerous gunfighters. In fiction the term gunslinger has anachronistically been tied to them. Since most served as a lawman at one time, they can not be easily separated into categories of lawman or outlaw.