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Sunday, August 19, 2012

The three traits you need to win a gunfight

In my last post I reviewed Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier by Bat Masterson, who was a gunfighter himself. While I found the book flawed on a couple of levels, it did have some useful information about life (and death) in those days. One interesting passage is about how to survive a Western-style gunfight.

Masterson says every gunfighter needs three traits. The first is courage, which should be obvious. You should also have skill, which is also obvious. But both of these traits are useless without an all-important third trait--a cool head.

Masterson states, "I have known men in the West whose courage could not be questioned and whose expertness with the pistol was simply marvelous, who fell easy victims before men who added deliberation to the other two qualities."

He goes on to give a few examples. Here's one:

"Thirty-five years ago Charlie Harrison was one of the best-known sporting men west of the Missouri River. His home was in St. Louis but he traveled extensively throughout the West and was well-known through the Rocky Mountain region. He was of an impetuous temperament, quick of action, of unquestioned courage and the most expert man I ever saw with a pistol. He could shoot faster and straighter when shooting at a target than any man I ever knew; then add to that the fact that no man possessed more courage than he did, the natural conclusion would be that he would be a most formidable foe to encounter in a pistol duel.

"In 1876 he started for the Black Hills, which was then having a great mining boom on account of the discovery of gold at Deadwood. When Charley reached Cheyenne he became involved in a personal difficulty with another gambler by the name of Jim Levy, and both men started for their respective lodgings to get their pistols and have it out the first time they met. It looked like 100 to I that Harrison would win the fight because of his well-known courage and proficiency in the use of the pistol. Little being known at that time about Jim Levy, Harrison was made a hot favorite in the betting in the various gambling resorts of Cheyenne. The men were not long in getting together after securing their revolvers, which were of the Colts pattern and of 45 caliber in size.

"They met on opposite sides of the principal street of the city and opened fire on each other without a moment's delay. Harrison, as was expected, fairly set his pistol on fire, he was shooting so fast and managed to fire five shots at Levy before the latter could draw a bead on him. Levy finally let go a shot. It was all that was necessary. Harrison tumbled into the street in a dying condition and was soon afterwards laid to rest alongside of others who had gone before in a similar way.

"That Harrison was as game a man as Levy could not be doubted; that he could shoot much faster, he had given ample proof, but under extraordinary conditions he had shown that he lacked deliberation and lost his life in consequence. The trouble with Charley Harrison was just this-he was too anxious. He wanted to shoot too fast. Levy took his time. He looked through the sights on his pistol, which is a very essential thing to do when shooting at an adversary who is returning your fire."

Photo courtesy J.G. Howes. It shows a reenactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.


  1. Just goes to show that knowing how to shoot a gun and knowing how to kill another man in a gunfight are two very different things...

  2. Hope I'm never in a gunfight. Nice to meet you on Alex's blog.


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