The terms “gunfighter” or “gunslinger,” as they are most often called today, are actually more modern words utilized in films and literature of the 20th Century. During the days of the “real” Wild West, men who had gained a reputation as being dangerous with a gun were more commonly called gunmen, pistoleers, shootists, or bad men. That being said, Bat Masterson, a noted gunfighter himself, who later became a writer for the New York Morning Telegraph, sometimes referred to them as “gunfighters” but, more often, as “man killers.”
Though our Complete List of Old West Gunfighters provides the names of hundreds of gunmen, many might not term them true “gunfighters” in the widespread sense of the word today. No, they didn’t squarely face off with each other from a distance in a dusty street, like movies and television would like us to believe. In actuality, the “real” gunfights of the Old West were rarely that “civilized.” Many of the men listed on our Gunfighters pages fought in the Old West’s many range wars and feuds, which were far more common than the “stand-off” gunfight. Most of these were fought over land or water rights, some were political, and others were “old Hatfield-McCoy” style differences between families or lifestyles.
Of those that fit more easily into the perception of the “gunfighter,” rarely did they kill as many men in gunfights as most were given credit for. In many instances, their reputations developed from one particular instance, and as the rumors grew, so did their prowess with a gun. In other cases, their reputations were enhanced by self-promotion. Such was the case with Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok.
Other lesser-known shootists who saw just as much, if not more, action than their well-known counterparts were Ben Thompson, Tom Horn, Kid Curry, Timothy Courtright, King Fisher, Scott Cooley, Clay Allison, and Dallas Stoudenmire, to name a few.
It was often difficult to identify the gunfighters, whose occupations ranged from lawmen to cowboys, ranchers, gamblers, farmers, teamsters, bounty hunters, and outlaws. In many cases, these violent men could move quickly from fighting on the side of the law to utilizing their talents in a life of crime.
Though about a third of the gunman died of “natural causes,” many died violently in gunfights, lynchings, or legal executions. The average age of death was about 35. However, those gunmen who used their skills on the side of the law would persistently live longer lives than those who lived a life of crime.
“Never run a bluff with a six-gun.”