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Monday, August 19, 2013

How Wild West fistfights really went down

Movies and comics have taught us that fistfights in the Wild West were simple punch-ups where the good guy almost always won (unless vastly outnumbered) and that the loser got away with little more than a black eye and some lost status in the local saloon. In the old Western movies, the guys somehow always managed to keep their hats on too.

The reality was a bit nastier. It was considered manly to "mark" your opponent by giving him some sort of permanent scar or injury. Wild Bill Hickok used the popular tactic of stomping on people's faces with his bootheel. The spurs came in handy to add a little extra flair to the "mark."

Another popular tactic was eye gouging. Regular fighters would often grow a thumbnail specially for gouging people's eyes out and would "brine" (sharpen) it to make it more effective. This was especially common among the early riverboat and mountain men and got less common as laws began to take hold in the West.

Of course nobody really wants to see that in a movie!


  1. Rather gross what people will do in a fight. I had never heard of the fingernail weapon - sheesh. Gouging out eyes sounds more like undead or zombie tactics.

    Western tv shows and movies were watered-down versions of reality, consistent with the mores of the day, or of the milder west, rather than the wild wild west.
    Interesting, Sean!

  2. Yikes! Thanks for the interesting info. I think Scorsese would love to make a movie about this. lol

  3. Huh, I feel like the Little House on the Prairie books should have been better preparation for that knowledge, but nope, still a little grossed out!

  4. Ugh -- a special thumbnail for eye gouging and spurs in the face, huh? I'm not surprised though. History was much uglier than we see in the movies.

  5. I'd like to see a few references on that (arrest and or medical records compared with current day records). I don't know if people were nastier when fighting then, but I bet people were just as prone to exaggeration as they are now.

    1. One good source is Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth, which has an eyewitness report of his boot stomping and also mentions brined thumbnails. I've come across lots of mentions of eye gouging in early accounts. People still do gouge out eyes in fights, especially here in England. No, I doubt they were any nastier then than now, but it does undermine the squeaky clean cowboy image a wee bit.

    2. Two other good sources are The Dixie Frontier and Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri.


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