By Jesse Wolf Hardin
For all his many confrontations, practiced enemies and capable adversaries, John Wesley Hardin never faced a greater opponent or more serious threat than his own formidable self. While claiming his every violent act was out of the “first law of nature: self preservation,” again and again he made choices more likely to jeopardize than secure his fiery mortal spark. And contemporary historians have even implicated him in his own fall and destruction.
In a vintage 1924 article, John Hunter quotes John Wesley Hardin’s midwife as predicting he would either turn out to be a “great hero” or a “monumental villain.” In truth, he was wholly neither…. and a little of both.
Hardin was a prime example of that special breed of men known collectively as “gunfighters.” Given the proliferation of firearms in the Old West of the 1860s, 70’s and 80’s, just the fact of packing a Colt wasn’t near enough to qualify someone as a true gunslinger. Nor did a single occasion of firing a gun in defense or anger make one an accomplished gunfighter.
We all know that the Western gunfight seldom if ever occurred the ways it’s been commonly portrayed by historically illiterate Hollywood writers and directors: the mannerly encounter at high noon, revolvers holstered until the very last second. Giving one’s opponent the chance for a fair draw. Guns shot out of hands, without a bloody shattering of fingers and palms…. or apologizing to a downed hombre in the Virginian’s dusty drawl. It is nonetheless a fact that there once was, and probably still exists a certain special breed of men whose violent encounters involve face to face action– men who hold that they’re right, who insist on looking their antagonists in the eye, and being the last thing they see on the day of their death.
A “shootist” was neither a bushwhacker, robber nor assassin per se– but rather, a highly effective and often volatile individual whose violent deeds usually arose spontaneously and out of reaction to a perceived insult or slight. He was more likely to be a loner than either a gang or posse member…. and when reprising the roles of Sheriff or outlaw, white hat or black, he usually filled the part well. Silent, pleasant or petulant– he fairly exuded both character and style. He felt safer and perhaps saner outside the general fraternity and shallow associations of civilized men– and likely trusted his own intuition, discernment, skill, instincts and responses above anyone and everything else. Slow to enter into alliances of purpose or convenience, the shootist adhered to the classic martial dictum that “offense is the best defense.” He seldom backed down– not because he was inhumanly fearless, but rather, because he knew how to use his fear as fuel for assertive and sometimes explosive action. Whether objectively right or wrong, the shootist acted out of a moral certainty…. adhering to his own personal code of honor even when breaking existing laws and cultural taboos.
By this measure, Wyatt Earp was more entrepreneur and vigilante than archetypal shootist. On the other hand Doc Holliday qualifies, even though his willingness to inflict harm could be considered a far greater determining factor than his occasional acts of violence and few resulting victims. The gregarious Billy the Kid had four confirmed kills in fourteen fights, but for all his bravado we know he would have preferred a life of dancing at Mexican “fandangos,” and making love to warm Señoritas instead of fingering cold grey revolvers!
Jesse James was a thief even if a partially politically motivated one, he always worked with a sizable gang, and apparently got over any intrinsic compunctions about shooting from a “hide” or pumping bullets into turned and quivering backs.
Clay Allison, however, was mostly an upfront shootist…. if also an unredeemable, homicidal maniac who once literally “shot himself in the foot.” And no one can doubt that lawman James “Wild Bill” Hickok was a prime example of the classic gunfighter. His total of eleven kills is impressive, averaging as he did one kill per fight. But then his record might have been a lot bloodier if not for his penchant for using the butt of his revolver to “brain” or “buffalo” those miscreants he aimed to arrest, instead of just shooting them where they stood.
Both Hardin and Hickok were ungodly accurate, as well as the prerequisite willing – willing not only to take someone’s life at the drop of a hat, but willing if necessary to die. Even the supposedly profficiant Ben Thompson had only four kills in over fourteen altercations. Seventy-five percent of the rounds fired at the famous The “Gunfight At The O.K. Corral” was actually the “Gunfight In The Alley Behind Fly’s Photography Studio, with the combatants firing some thirty-two rounds at distances of no further than twelve to fifteen feet…. and yet only twelve of those shots even connected.
Truth is, most gunmen on both sides of the law were notoriously poor shots, partly due to the scarcity and expense of ammunition and the scant practice they got a result. Shooting one handed made hits less likely than if they had known to use a modern two handed “Weaver” stance. In a closed room the black powder smoke from the first shots would make it even more difficult to identify and connect with their target. And alcohol was often a major factor. Take for example Wyatt Earp’s brother Warren. In Willcox, Arizona in 1900 he got the worst of a gunfight by drunkenly standing up to challenge someone…. before realizing he’d forgotten his gun!
In a closed room the black powder smoke from the first shots would make it even more difficult to identify and connect with their target. And alcohol was often a major factor. Take for example Wyatt Earp’s brother Warren. In Willcox, Arizona in 1900 he got the worst of a gunfight by drunkenly standing up to challenge someone…. before realizing he’d forgotten his gun!
Like the rest of his memorable ilk, Wes Hardin was cast hot from a meteoric iron mold. From this ancient crucible has poured not only a host of villains, but also the likes of Beowulf and other Celtic heroes. The intense and brilliant Sioux, Crazy Horse…. misunderstood even by his own people. Conscientious war resistor Alvin York, who went on to single handedly capture hundreds of German soldiers during the hottest days of World War I. “Braveheart’s” courageous and betrayed Sir Wallace. To the degree it’s found in Western movies and TV, it lives not so much in the sanitary goodness of Johnny Mack or Tom Mix as in the solitary determination of The Brave Cowboy, the righteousness of Billy Jack, the all consuming fire in Thelma and her incorrigible cohort Louise.
There was probably no authentic Western character more proficient with their chosen handguns nor more willing to put them to deadly use than John Wesley Hardin. His lightning draw and unerring marksmanship was oft witnessed and judicially documented, and many an addition to local graveyards had Wes to thank for that last bumpy ride. While only eleven kills in eighteen fights can be independently verified, his probable tally of upwards to thirty or forty victims killed in face-to-face gunfights likely exceeds that of all other known shootists…. though certainly not all other killers.