The Old West holds a special place in the hearts of many (myself included). Truthfully, the image most of us probably have of the Wild West is heavily romanticized and embellished thanks to Hollywood. Almost every aspect of that era was different than the image we perceive of it and that includes gunfights. Gunfights didn’t happen all day every day like we imagine and they didn’t usually involve the famed one-on-one duel, quickest draw wins.
That being said, gunfights did take place. And they not only fascinate us now, but they also fascinated the people back then who wanted to read in gory detail about how they went down. So, obviously, newspapers reported on them and they embellished whenever possible to make the gunfights more action-packed. Some of them were also turned into dime novels which helped create legends out of some infamous gunslingers, both good (Wyatt Earp, Will Bill Hickok) and bad (Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). So, at this point, it’s going to be pretty tricky to distinguish myth from fact but, still, let’s give it a try and look at some of the most infamous gunfights of the Wild West.
1. The O.K. Corral
Might as well start off with the one everyone heard of. This one took place on October 26 1881 in the town of Tombstone, Arizona. From one point of view, it was pretty epic. After all, it involved eight people, 4v4. On the other hand, the entire gunfight lasted just about 30 seconds and furthermore, it didn’t actually take place at the O.K. Corral. It took place on Fremont Street which was next to the Corral.
In one corner, we had the Earp brothers: Virgil, Morgan and the famous Wyatt, plus Doc Holliday (who, incidentally, was genuinely a dentist). In the other corner, we had four members of a notorious gang called simply the Cowboys: brothers Ike and Billy Clanton and brothers Frank and Tom McLaury. You can get a really detailed description of the action here but the gist of it is that the Cowboys always had a strenuous relationship with the Earp brothers since the lawmen were always interfering with their business. However, on this specific occasion, it was actually an argument between Ike Clanton and Doc Holliday that led to the gunfight.
Like we said, the whole thing lasted about 30 seconds. When the dust was settled (and that’s not just an expression; those guns created a lot of smoke which actually made it pretty hard to see in a gunfight), three of the Cowboys were dead and two Earp brothers were injured. It was a triumphant victory for the good guys, specifically for Wyatt Earp who eventually became a legend thanks to the O.K. Corral. And this, actually, is a bit weird. Why was Wyatt singled out? If anything, Virgil deserved a lot of the recognition. He was actually the City Marshal when the gunfight happened and Wyatt was just his temporary assistant marshal.
2. Wild Bill Hickok vs. Davis Tutt
From one western legend to another, this time in Springfield, Missouri, 1865. This is the event that turned Wild Bill Hickok into a household name and a folk hero. Furthermore, this is also one of the few documented gunfights that took place like the duels we see in the movies: a quick-draw competition in the middle of the street with two gunslingers facing each other. Afterwards the story was retold countless times in dime novels, newspapers and radio shows so this is likely the main inspiration for that classic western trope.
The argument here was over an unpaid debt. Tutt claimed that Hickok owed him more money than he actually did and stole Hickok’s gold watch as collateral until the debt was settled. He did this in plain sight of everyone around them because he had a posse and Hickok was all alone. If Hickok responded violently now he would have been gunned down.
This entire event was very humiliating for Hickok, but it posed another problem. If Hickok were to develop a reputation of not paying back his debts, he would find it very hard to make any money as a professional gambler. For the next few days, Tutt kept taunting Hickok with the stolen watch until the latter couldn’t take it anymore and met Tutt in the street for a duel. Supposedly, both men fired one shot: Tutt missed; Wild Bill didn’t.
Here’s the part that usually gets left out of western stories. The next day an arrest warrant was issued for Wild Bill Hickok for murder. This might have been the Wild West, but you still weren’t allowed to gun down a man in plain day in the middle of the street. Eventually, the murder charge was brought down to manslaughter. Hickok’s entire argument was pleading self-defense. It all came down to who shot first, Han/Greedo style. Witnesses were all over the place here. Because both men shot at almost the exact same time, most witnesses weren’t sure that two shots were even fired. However, eventually most of them agreed that Tutt initiated the conflict by stealing the watch, so Wild Bill was released, making his way into western legend.
3. Long Branch Saloon Shootout
Now we’re looking at a gunfight which became famous mostly due to its location, not necessarily the people involved. It took place at the notorious Long Branch Saloon in the equally-notorious city of Dodge City, Kansas. One of the men involved in the gunfight, Frank Loving, had a somewhat famed reputation of a gunslinger and was known to associate with the likes of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Actually, this is the gunfight that earned him that reputation, along with his nickname, Cockeyed Frank.
The other man involved was Levi Richardson. He wasn’t really all that popular because he was very mean and had an ongoing rivalry with Loving because of advances he made on Mattie Loving, Frank’s wife. Most of the time, this resulted only in a few harsh words, although one time the two did start fighting one another.
The actual gunfight took place on April 5, 1879. Richardson came into the Long Branch Saloon looking for Cockeyed Frank. Frank wasn’t there so Levi decided to kill the time with a bit of poker. When Loving did eventually arrive and sat at a table, Richardson joined him and the two sat at opposite sides. For the next few minutes, the two talked to each other in a low, calm voice until, finally, Richardson got up and pulled his gun. Loving did the same and each one fired five or six rounds. Once it was all said and done, Richardson was sitting on the floor dying while Loving had only been grazed by one bullet. It’s quite miraculous that Loving was only grazed considering Richardson fired five bullets at very close distance. Either that or Richardson was a terrible shot.
4. The “Four Dead in Five Seconds” Gunfight
Yes, that is the actual name the gunfight is referred by. Spoiler alert: four people die in five seconds. But let’s start at the beginning. The events take place in El Paso, Texas, April 14, 1881. Before this, two vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) had been killed in the city while tracking down some stolen cattle. A heavily armed, Mexican posse of 75 came into town looking to find the missing vaqueros. They found their two bodies near a ranch belonging to one John Hale, suspected cattle rustler.
Eventually, two of Hale’s men were convicted of the murders and the Mexican posse left with the bodies of the vaqueros, satisfied with the result. However, Hale wasn’t happy and his anger was directed towards the city’s Constable Krempkau who, in his mind, sided with the Mexicans and even acted as interpreter. Another man involved would be George Campbell, former Marshal and friend of Hale’s. And there’s also Dallas Stoudenmire, the current Marshal who will actually do most of the shooting.
Now we arrive at the actual gunfight itself. Krempkau was in a saloon when Campbell confronted him over his alleged ties with the Mexicans. That’s all he wanted to do, even though he was carrying two guns. However, Hale also joined the fray and he was drunk so, eventually, he grabbed one of Campbell’s guns and shot Krempkau. That’s one.
Dallas Stoudenmire heard the shots from across the street and rushed guns blazing into the saloon. His first shot missed Hale and actually hit an innocent Mexican bystander called Ochoa. That’s two. Afterwards he took better aim and shot Hale right between the eyes. That’s three. In the meantime, Krempkau, who’d been shot by Hale but still alive, pulled out his own gun and shot Campbell. That’s four.
So there you have it. Four people dead in five seconds. Probably more than that, but that’s how the story was remembered.
5. The Gunfight at Hide Park
This one is also called the Newton Massacre because of the high body count and also because it took place in the town of Newton, Kansas, in 1871. Hide Park was the name of the area where “Tuttle’s Dance Hall” was located, the saloon where (almost) the whole thing took place.
However, this gunfight actually happened in two parts. We start off with an argument between two men: Mike McCluskie and Billy Bailey. The two of them were arguing over politics and eventually got into a fight. The fight spilled into the streets and this is where McCluskie pulled out his gun and shot Bailey dead.
Initially, McCluskie left town immediately, but he returned a few days later hoping to claim self-defense. He went to a saloon to unwind where he was approached by four cowboys, friends of Bailey’s. One of them, Hugh Anderson, called McCluskie a coward and began threatening him. A friend of McCluskie’s, Jim Martin, stood up to try to defuse the situation, but it was no use. Anderson pulled out his gun and shot McCluskie in the neck. Then, when McCluskie fell to the floor, he shot him several more times. The other three cowboys also began shooting into the air to keep back the crowd.
Now we move on to another character in the story, James Riley. Riley was a young man, about 18 years, who had been taking in by McCluskie. He was in the saloon when Anderson killed McCluskie but was sitting at a different table. Although he had never been involved in a gunfight before, he pulled out his guns and started firing, hoping to hit the cowboys (although with all the smoke caused by the shooting, this was difficult). He ended up hitting seven men: the four cowboys, Jim Martin and two bystanders. Two of the cowboys, Martin and one bystander died while the others were injured, but survived. After this, Riley skipped town and was never heard of again.