From an early age I have always been intrigued by the Old West and western
movies and western culture. Most red blooded American boys grew up watching
westerns on TV and reading about the Old West in books. After all, the American
Culture is somewhat the Cowboy way. We fight for what is right. We put in a full
day's work. We don't let our friends down, and we keep our word when we give it.
We'll fight to right a wrong, but don't go looking for trouble.My heroes have
always been cowboys and I spent many an hour in my childhood with my toy six
shooters keeping my back yard free of rustlers and robbers.
As I got older I began getting into martial arts and specificly the
combative use of the gun. I practiced long and hard to develop my shooting
skills, but there is more to it than the hardware aspect. I looked for books to
read on mindset and technique and tactics and stories of shootings and what
worked and what didn't. What I realized was that even though the west was not
always as WILD as popular culture makes it out to have been, there were a fair
number of folks getting into a fair number of gunfights. Maybe we could learn
something from them? After all, if you learn from those that have done it, then
maybe looking back at some Old West gunfights might be a good place to go for
things that might help keep us alive today.
So What did I find? Well, I started reading everything I could get my hands
on. I soon found that there were a few individuals that were involved in
multiple gunfights and seemed to always come out on top. So the obvious question
was" why?". My research led me to find that the dynamics of the confrontations
are really no different than they are today.So if the dynamics are the same,
then we can look at what they did to survive their fights and apply that to ours
I could go on for many pages using scores of historical gunfight examples
but I will keep this confined to a few examples of fights involving two
individuals. On one hand we have a famous lawman. A Civil War veteran and peace
officer who developed a reputation as the "Prince Of Pistoleers". This man was
James Butler Hickok, better known as "Wild Bill".The other was a man of
considerable skill with a pistol who was just as short tempered as he was fast
and accurate. This man was neither a lawman nor served in the army, but
developed his skill at arms on his own from regular practice and combined that
with a fierce will to win to become possibly the most dangerous man in the Old
West....John Wesley Hardin.
We'll look at Hickok first. In his famous gunfight with Dave Tutt July 21,
1865 in Springfield, Missouri they both met in the street "showdown" style. This
was actually not very common regardless of what TV westerns lead us to believe.
This fight stemmed from a watch won in a poker game,stoked by a rivalry over the
same woman and ended with a man lying dead.
Hickok had lost the watch to Tutt in a card game the previous night due to
the fact that Hickok was unable to pay a debt he owed. Tutt took the watch as
collateral. Tutt also went about town making a spectacle of wearing the watch
and telling all who would listen that Hickok could not pay his debt. Hickok
warned Tutt to cease and desist, but Tutt would not stop. So when they met in
the town square the next day the fight was on. Hickok told Tutt to take the
watch off, Tutt responded by pulling a pistol and firing. Hickok pulled his
pistol, took careful aim and fired, sending a bullet through Tutt's heart from a
distance of about 75 yards! Hickok immediately wheeled and pointed his pistol at
Tutt supporters to his rear and they decided discretion to be the better part of
valor and left.
So what is there to learn here? A non gun culture guy might say "Hickok was
a good shot" and they would be correct, but there is more here. Hickok was
reported to have aimed carefully while Tutt fired wildly at him. Hickok fired a
single decisive shot while his opponent fired wildly hitting nothing. So maybe
accurate shooting wins gunfights? This is what we teach in the long distance
shooting module of our Advanced Close Range Gunfighting class. And we see that
Hickok turned and did a 360 degree scan after his opponent was down. How many of
us practice this today in order to not be the victim of your opponent's possible
accomplices? This is a basic tenet of gunfighting and we drill it in depth in
our Close Range Gunfighting class.
Another gunfight Hickok was involved in was July 17,1870 while he was town
Marshal in Hays, Kansas. In this one the classic saloon brawl turns deadly.
Hickok had previously angered members of the 7th cavalry (Custer's command) by
roughing up and arresting one of their comrades.Three soldiers planned revenge
and approached him, jumped him in a barroom and came close to ending his life.
One jumped on his back another grabbed him by the arms as a third pulled a 1863
Remington Army issue pistol and stuck it to Hickok's head and pulled the
The gun misfired and in the confusion Hickok was able to free his pistol
and shoot two of the soldiers and make his escape back to his hotel room where
he retrieved his rifle in case of further attack. Here we see a case where
multiple assailants end up in a grappling situation with their victim. The
victim has to access his weapon mid fight and shoot his way loose of the
villians. Fortunately the bad guys had a faulty weapon.
Does this sound very similar to what we see today with multiple
assailants. Not all fights are one on one affairs. Sometimes the bad guys bring
friends. And do you work on in-fight weapons access? Anyone can draw a gun from
an exposed holster on the range, but things get more difficult and desperate
when attacked by multiple opponents and you have to fend them off in order to
access your pistol. This is where something like our Zero To Five Feet Pistol
Gunfighting comes into play.
We also see here the intangible element of luck, as the misfire saved Wild
Bill. Sometimes luck is what saves you. Gunfights are dangerous
affairs.Sometimes luck is all that seperates survivors from losers. The last
item here is we see Wild Bill, faced with superior numbers did not stand and
shoot it out. He got clear and armed himself with a rifle in case of further
attack. The rifle has ALWAYS been a more effective tool than the pistol and
still is today. A reason we put so much emphasis on having a rifle handy and
knowing how to use it in our Rifle Gunfighting series of classes.
The final Hickok fight we will look at is the October 5, 1871 gunfight in
Abilene Kansas with Texas gambler/gunman Phil Coe. Phil Coe and Ben Thompson
(another gunman of some fame from Texas) owned the Bulls Head Saloon in Abilene
Kansas.There had never been any love lost between the three as Hickok was a
Union veteran and the two Texans were Confederates. The 6 years since the end of
the war had done little to make feelings any better about the war. Coe had once
bragged to Hickok that he could "kill a crow on the wing" with a pistol, as a
warning to Hickok. Hickok replied "Did the crow have a pistol? Was he shooting
back? I will be". The animosity just grew and grew.
The argument began over the sign in front of the Saloon depicting a bull
in a "indelicate" pose. Hickok ordered that part of the sign be painted over and
Coe said "no". Hickok requisitioned 2 painters to paint over the bull's
offending anatomy and Coe was infuriated. He began stirring up trouble for
Hickok among the texas cowhands in town and a general disturbance insued. That
night as the cowhands all but rioted in the street Coe stood in front of the
saloon firing his pistol. Hickok came up asking who was firing. Coe said he had
shot at a stray dog. Hickok demanded his pistol, and in a flash Coe fired at
Hickok. Hickok returned fire striking Coe in the stomach. Coe shot too quickly
and the bullet had gone between Hickok's legs striking the dirt. A fast miss is
no match for a solid hit. This is a basic concept that we convey in our
Defensive Pistol Skills classes.
As Hickok turned and did his 360 degree scan to insure he was not shot from
behind ,a man with a pistol ran toward him. Hickok aimed and fired. Suddenly he
realized he had just shot Mike Williams -his own deputy- who had heard the
shooting and came running to Hickok's aid.
From this we can learn a few more things. When we scan for other opponents
we need to look closely so we do not shoot without identifying the target first.
This can prevent a friendly fire incident from happening.The guy approaching
with a gun may very well also be wearing a badge. We can also apply the reverse
of this. It might not be a bad idea to present our gun "low profile" as we turn
and scan. That way we will be less likely to get shot by responding
officers. Again we see Hickok taking aim and making good center of mass hits.
Accurate shooting still stops opponents...unfortunately even friendlies
We see most of Hickok's fights generally being line of duty affairs where
he is trying to either apprehend someone or disarm them. On the other hand the
majority of John Wesley Hardin's fights were a case of an argument turned
deadly, or him trying to keep from being apprehended.
John Wesley Hardin grew up in a very violent period in east Texas during
and just after the Civil War. Back then there was little order and what order
there was , was the occupation force of the union army and afterwards their
political appointees backed up by federal troops. This was during the lawless
days of reconstruction. Hardin grew up with gun in hand and a resolve to
survive. It would serve him well in the years to come. Whether Hardin was a
homicidal maniac or just a guy with a quick temper that gambled and drank is
open for debate, what is not open for debate is his skill with a pistol or his
We will now take a look at a couple of Wes Hardin's fights. His first
gunfight was at the age of 16 in November 1867. He had been visiting an uncle
and had gotten into a friendly wrestling match with an ex slave named Mage who
was employed there chopping cotton. Hardin and his cousin both wrestled Mage who
happened to be a very large man. Somewhere along the way Mage got angry and
threatened to kill the two boys. The next day as Hardin rode his old horse home
he was confronted on the road by the ex slave. Hardin says Mage charged him with
a large stick.Mage took hold of the reigns and tried to hit him with the stick.
Hardin drew his pistol and fired, but Mage kept coming. Hardin fired several
shots finally felling the attacker. Mage died later that month. We see pistols are not terribly powerful stoppers.
Here we see a large attacker with a contact weapon who requires more than
one or two rounds to stop. Isn't that what we work in Force on Force drills
today? Shoot until the threat is down. Hardin is believed to have been carrying
a Colt Dragoon. So even multiple rounds from a .44 didn't immediately stop this
enraged attacker. Something else to consider. Maybe placement is more important
than bore diameter? It is also interesting to note that after this Hardin was
more likely to shoot for the head. Many of his future victims were felled with a
bullet in the brain. This is why we teach a burst to the chest followed
immediately by a burst to the head if the assailant is still up. This is a basic
tenet of our Close Range Gunfighting curriculum.
We now skip ahead a few years to late 1870 and see Hardin travelling. The
hotel he has stopped in has a bar and a very attractive woman sits in there
apparently upset. Hardin approaches her and strikes up a conversation. She
claims to be having relationship problems and he tries to comfort her. She asks
if he'd like to go upstairs and apparently the prospect of a pretty and
vulnerable young woman was more than he could resist. Upon enterring the room
however there is a loud banging on the door. She says it is her boyfriend and he
will kill Hardin. The boyfriend enters and confronts Hardin, pistol pulled.
Hardin says he didn't know she was his girl and apologizes. The man asks Hardin
to hand over his money.Hardin agrees and says he does not want any trouble.
Hardin then drops the money at the man's feet . As he takes his eyes off
Hardin and bends down to pick up the cash, Hardin draws a pistol and fires a
round through the man's head. Turns out the man and woman had been running this
same scam for some time.
Here we see how not all bad guys are even guys and you can be rused into
really bad situations if you are not careful.Girls can be bad guys too! However
Hardin showed calm under duress and was able to use misdirection and a ruse of
his own to reclaim the initiative and shoot a man who had him held at gunpoint.
This "under the gun" situation is exactly the type situation we look to solve in
our Zero to Five Foot Pistol Gunfighting classes.
Next we will look at an incident in 1871 on a cattle drive to Abilene.
Hardin's herd has been getting mixed up with a mexican herd that was coming up
the trail behind them. An argument insued and Hardin was shot at by one of the
vaqueros. He rode back to his own camp and with his cousin, armed himself with a
pair of pistols. As the mexicans got closer Hardin and his cousin mounted their
horses and charged them. Hardin ended up killing 5 of the 6 vaqueros, his cousin
killing the other.This made Hardin a bit of a celebrity and word of this exploit
soon found its way to Abilene and Marshal Hickok.
Not exactly the best way to handle a livestock dispute these days, but if a
fight is imminent it is best to be on the offensive not the defensive. That is
something that Hardin was always prepared to do. He had no qualms about shooting
first when a fight became apparent. If we wait too long to act, we can dig
ourselves into a hole we cannot get out of. We all have to develop our "line in
the sand" where if it is crossed we are prepared to fight. Otherwise we end up
so far behind the curve that we can never catch up. That is why being able to
pick up on pre assault cues and see the fight coming is so important. Once you
know the fight is about to be on it is time to get proactive, not reactive!
The final one we will look at is the May 26,1874 killing of Brown County
Texas deputy Charles Webb. This was the shooting for which Hardin was convicted
and sent to prison in 1877. That day Hardin had spent his birthday gambling on
horse races and generally carousing and having a good time. That evening he was
approached by a deputy from another county while standing in front of a saloon.
He recognizes the man who approaches with one hand behind his back. Hardin
asks Webb if he has any "papers" on Hardin and Webb says no that he is not there
on business he was just there to enjoy a night on the town. Hardin asks him then
to join him for a drink and turns to walk toward the doors of the saloon.As Webb
approaches he points the pistol he was holding behind his back and fires hitting
Hardin in the side.At that moment one of Hardin's friends yells for Hardin to
"look out"! Hardin lunges sideways at the same moment drawing and firing from
probably a retention type position and shoots Webb in the face with his Smith
and Wesson .44 American.
Just looking at sheer dynamics and not getting bogged down in the
obvious questions surrounding the shooting of a law enforcement officer (even if
he was not on official police business and shot first from ambush), we have an
assailant with pistol already drawn employing a ruse to get close to the victim.
When the victim turns , leaving an opening, the assailant raises and fires his
pistol. The "victim" here got off the line of attack and was hit with a
peripheral hit instead of center of mass and was able to draw and return fire
from a "stanceless" retention position while getting out of the way and score a
headshot to end the altercation. This is very similar to what we teach with the
Pistol Inquartata technique . How similar is that to a mugging/murder attempt in
an alley in any city in America today? The ability to get off the "X", get your
gun into play and fire quickly is just as important today as it was back then.
While not all the scenarios are still something we would run into on a
daily basis (I doubt I'll ever get in a dispute over cattle) they all do share
characteristics of dynamics that we do still encounter in physical confrontation
today in 2011. Just as it was in 1869 accurate shooting still ends fights.Hits
to the chest and head stopped people then and tend to do the same today whereas
peripheral hits may or may not.
Sometimes you will not be able to just "Don't let them get close and shoot
well" like is taught in some places, but may have to physically fight off
multiple assailants in order to even access your weapon and shoot from
retention to make space to get away. Rifles are still best if they can be
accessed. When the shooting is over make sure no one is coming up behind you by
doing a 360 degree scan. And LOOK at who is coming not just glance and shoot if
someone is approaching! The life you save may be a brother officer or a family
We also see where we need to be aware of our surroundings and don't be
quick to trust unknown contacts. They may just be employing a ruse to get close
enough to be able to overtake you. If the fight is on, then the fight is on! Get
proactive! You owe them no mercy.Get off the "X" and shoot them to the ground!
If you are hit, keep fighting! Handguns are still underpowered when compared to
long guns. Even if you get hit, odds are you will survive. But only if you keep
from getting hit multiple times. Finish the fight! And practice is essential.
Both Hickok and Hardin practiced with their armaments religiously. It is an
interesting side note that both men were eventually killed by ambush from
behind. They had developed the skill that made their killers so fearful of their
ability that they had to resort to shooting them from behind.
It is interesting to look back at where we came from. Sure we carry Glocks
and AKs today and not 1851 Navy Colts and Winchesters. We have smokeless powder
and 15 to 20 rd mags,instead of six shooters and big clouds of smoke when we
pull the trigger, but the software hasn't really changed much since Cain
and Abel. People still fight much the same.The dynamics of confrontation are
still the same.The badguys still get close to rob rape or pillage and often
bring friends. You still are less likely to get hit if you move. You still have
to hit the badguys in important places to reliably stop them.
So maybe looking back at where we came from will help keep us safe while
we get to where we are going.