Bass Reeves, an ex-slave turned Deputy U.S. Marshal. He served for 32 years and is considered by many to be the most feared lawman of the Old West.
When I was younger, my father would take me to a variety of historical museums, such as the Jefferson Memorial and the Soldier’s Memorial in St. Louis, MO. It was awesome to see original weapons, clothing, personal accouterments, and even diaries of various periods. Thus began my lifelong fascination with not just history, but with FACTUAL history. I’ve always found the truth to be far more fascinating than the glamorized stories constantly fed to us by Hollywood. One example of the Hollywood version is that every citizen of the Old West carried a .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army (aka Peacemaker) with a 4 ¾ inch barrel and carried it worn low in a tied down Hollywood fast draw rig. In past blogs, I’ve pointed out that this is not a correct image, so in the statistical information that I’m providing here, I will (where possible) list the actual firearm used by the various historical figures listed.
Note how this Texas Cowboy where’s his six-shooter; it’s a long-barreled revolver, worn high on the waist, and there is no tie down.
Also, this is by no means a complete list of Old West Gunfighters or their gunfights, it’s a small representative example. For each, I’m going to list the following: Career (lawman, fugitive, etc.), Length of Career, Reward Amounts (where applicable), Firearms used, # of kills, and how they died.
John Wesley Hardin
Career – Outlaw/Fugitive
Active Career – 9 years
Reward - $25,000
Firearms used – Colt 1860 Army .44 Caliber – 8 in. barrel
S&W American .44 American Caliber – 8 in. barrel
Number of kills – 30 to 40 plus?
John Wesley Hardin is quite possibly the most prolific gunfighter of the Old West. In 1868 he got his start at the age of 15 in Texas when he shot and killed an ex-slave, which brought him to the attention of the state’s reconstruction government. Three Union soldiers came to arrest Hardin, but he shot and killed all three, then went into hiding, but soon found himself in trouble again. Hardin loved to gamble and got into a card game where he won big. Unfortunately, Hardin had taken his revolvers off to get more comfortable and was robbed of all his possessions by a hard case named Bradley. Hardin was later able to borrow a revolver, at which point he confronted Bradley. Bradley fired first and missed, at which point Hardin shot Bradley to death.
In another incident, Hardin was confronted by a burly hardcase who threatened to ‘smash’ Hardin. Hardin told him to go ahead, at which point the hardcase punched Hardin, then tried to draw. Hardin shot the man in the head with a .44, then rode off to the next town, only to run into trouble again. Hardin found himself the intended victim of a robbery, being held at gunpoint by a man demanding all his money. Hardin threw his money on the floor, and when the robber bent down to pick it up, Hardin shot him in the head with a .44, then rode off to the next town……but not before retrieving his money.
Next, Hardin was in a store in Texas having a snack, when he was confronted by two Texas State Policemen, who held him at gunpoint. These two Policemen were both ex-slaves and weren’t experienced enough to realize how dangerous it was to let an experienced gunman touch his guns. They asked Hardin to hand over his revolvers. Hardin slowly pulled his revolvers out and extended them butt forward, and in Hardin’s words, the pistol in his right hand did a cartwheel and shot the first man in the head. The pistol in the left hand did a cartwheel and shot the other man in the teeth as he was running out the door. Later in life, Hardin stated that he befriended that second man, and they talked about the good old days when they were gunfighters. I’m guessing that second man saw things differently.
The incident that got Hardin sent to prison was the killing of Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. Hardin was in a saloon celebrating his 21st birthday when Sheriff Webb came over from an adjoining county, and his presence was made known to Hardin. Webb didn’t possess a legal warrant for Hardin but wanted the reward. When Hardin asked Webb if he intended harm, Webb said no. Hardin then invited Webb into the saloon for a drink, then turned his back to walk through the saloon doors. Webb then drew a revolver and shot Hardin in the back. Hardin then turned and drew in one motion, shooting Webb through the head with a .44. Hardin survived, Webb didn’t. Wounded, Wes made it out of town but was ultimately captured. When he was well enough to travel, he escaped, but left behind the revolver he had used on Webb. It was a Smith & Wesson #3 American Revolver, .44 caliber, with an 8 in. barrel, and Ivory grips. The s.n. was 25274.
Hardin was later arrested by the Texas Rangers and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Hardin served 16 years, studied and passed the BAR while in prison, received a full pardon, then came out and opened a law practice. In 1895, Hardin was in the ACME saloon shooting dice, when a bullet from the gun of John Selman roared through the back of his head. Selman then shot Hardin several more times when he was down. Looking at Hardin’s history and ability, the Coroner’s Inquest at the time stated that deliberately shooting Hardin in the back of the head was good judgment.
Career – Lawman
Active Career – 32 years
Firearms Used – Colt Peacemakers - .38-40 and .45 Colt calibers – 4 ¾ barrels
Number of kills – 14-20
Bass Reeves is now considered by many historians to be possibly the greatest lawman of the Old West, but he started life as a slave. He escaped slavery during the Civil War, and made his way to the Indian Territories, where he married, started a family, and started a prosperous farm. By 1875 he was known to have mastered several dialects of the Indian Territory, and he was also known for his complete mastery of firearms. He won local turkey shoots with such regularity, that he was ultimately barred from entering.
In 1875, he was approached about becoming a Deputy U.S. Marshal for the territories, under the ‘Hanging Judge’ Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Bass accepted the job, and thus began a long, storied career.
When given a warrant to serve, Bass had a saying, that he would “Go get this man, or bring back his boots.”, meaning he would bring back the boots as proof that the warrant was served, and the matter had been concluded. It became widely known that once Bass got on your trail, you would either be captured or killed. There was no third way. Many who heard he had warrants for them simply turned themselves in, but as expected, some chose to fight.
One who chose to fight was a notorious outlaw by the name of Bob Dozier. Dozier was wanted for bank robbery, rustling, robbing stagecoaches, and murder. The Marshals had been after Dozier for years, without success. It was said that Dozier could smell a posse coming a mile away. Reeves therefore determined to hunt down Dozier on his own. Dozier found out that Bass was on his trail and left a death threat for Bass. Undaunted, Bass continued, and soon found himself ambushed by Dozier. In the ensuing gunfight, Bass shot Dozier to death.
Another outlaw who chose to fight it out was Jim Webb, wanted for murder. Bass tracked Webb and his partner Frank Smith down, but they got the drop on Bass. Facing two outlaws with drawn guns, Bass was able to kill Smith and arrest Webb. Webb made bail, then failed to show up for trial. Bass got back on his trail, and in an exchange of gunfire, ultimately killed Webb with a Winchester Rifle – from 500 yards. Before he died, Webb called for Bass to come to him, and Webb’s dying statement was recorded by Jim Bywaters: “Give me your hand Bass. You are a brave, brave man. I want you to accept my revolver and scabbard (holster) as a present, and you must accept them.”
On another occasion, Bass came across the three Brunter brothers, wanted for horse theft and murder. However, they recognized Bass before he recognized them, and he found himself facing three guns! Even so, Bass told them that he had warrants for their arrest, and he wanted them to surrender. This struck them as funny, and they were laughing so hard that it created just the opportunity that Bass needed. He pulled his revolver and shot all three men to death. I guess you really CAN die laughing.
During his 32-year career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Bass made thousands of arrests, but perhaps the act that best typified his devotion to duty was the arrest of his own son. His son Bennie was accused of murder, and none of the Marshals wanted to serve the warrant. Bass grabbed the warrant, then went out and arrested his own son, sending him to prison.
On January 12, 1910, Bass Reeves died at home in his bed of Bright’s disease at the age of 71.
James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok
Career – Lawman
Active Career – 11 years
Pair of 1851 Colt Navy’s – 7 ½ in. bbls. - .36 caliber
Number of kills – 8
Before becoming one of the Old West’s most famous ‘shootists’, Hickok and his family ran a stage on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, helping slaves escape to freedom. In 1855, Hickok moved to Kansas, where he became involved with the Free State Army of Jayhawkers, an Anti-Slavery group during the Border Wars with Missouri, which was a slave state.
The incident that started Hickok’s career as a gunfighter occurred on July 21, 1865. Hickok lost his prized watch gambling with Dave Tutt but warned Tutt not to wear the watch in public, as Hickok intended to win it back. Some say the issue between them was much deeper. At any rate, Tutt appeared on the street the evening of July 21 with the watch, and when confronted by Hickok, Tutt drew and fired, but missed. Hickok then shot Tutt through the heart and killed him. Hickok was arrested but was acquitted at trial when witnesses stated that the shooting was self-defense.
In 1869, Hickok was elected Sheriff of Hays City, Kansas, and was involved in several incidents, including the killing of Samuel Strawhim in September of that year. Apparently, Strawhim was leading a riot and tearing up a beer hall. Hickok inquired as to who was in charge, at which point Strawhim turned on Hickok. Hickok shot him in the head and killed him. No one else wanted to be in charge at that point, so the riot was effectively put down.
In 1871, Hickok was the Marshal of Abilene Kansas, and was charged with keeping control of the wild Texas cowboys that came up the trail. One of the leaders of the cowboy faction was Phil Coe, and there was bad blood between Coe and Hickok. Coe tried to hire Wes Hardin to kill Hickok, but Hardin refused, stating he had no issue with Hickok.
The issue came to a head on the night of October 5, 1871. A large group of cowboys were causing a ruckus in the town, and Hickok knew he would be forced to confront them. He told his deputy, Mike Williams, to leave town, as Hickok wanted to be free to confront them on his own. Someone began shooting out in the street, and Hickok went out, and found himself among a crowd of at least 50 Texas cowboys. Hickok asked who fired the shot, and Coe claimed ‘lots of people fired shots’. Hickok then told Coe that he wasn’t talking to the rest of them, he was only talking to Coe: Under the code of the times, once Hickok singled out Coe, that affectively left the rest of the Cowboys out of it. It was up to Coe to stand up for himself.
From 8 feet, Coe fired two shots at Hickok, but missed. Hickok then drew and drilled Coe through the stomach. Coe dropped, at which point someone came running up behind Hickok, shouting his name. Hickok turned and fired in one motion, drilling that man through the head. It turned out to be Hickok’s Deputy, who hadn’t left town after all. His deputy died instantly, and Coe died in agony three days later. This was Hickok’s last known gunfight. He never fired a shot at another man after that night.
On August 2, 1876, Hickok was playing a game of cards in the No. 10 saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota when he was shot through the back of the head by Jack McCall. Hickok died instantly.
Jesse Woodson James
Career – Outlaw
Active Career – 16 years
Reward - $15,000
Firearms Used – Colt Single Action Army - .45 – 7 ½ barrel
Smith & Wesson Schofield - .45 – 7 in. barrel
Number of kills – Unknown
Prior to becoming one of the Old West’s most famous outlaws, Jesse James got his start during the Civil War, riding with Pro-slavery guerrilla groups. He is known to have ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders, and with Bloody Bill Anderson. After the war, Jesse and Frank James, along with the Younger brothers and a few other wartime buddies, began their career as bank and train robbers, starting with the Clay County Savings Bank in Liberty, Missouri in 1866, and didn’t stop until Jesse’s death in 1882.
One of the reasons that they were successful for so long as that they had quite a bit of respect and admiration among the people, and a lot of this was due to their wartime exploits. They robbed banks and trains, but were generally known to be friendly, and even helpful to people. They were also known to be loyal to those with whom they were associated with. Still, during their outlaw careers they shot and killed a fair amount of people…. bank tellers, train conductors, etc. Pinkerton agents were sent to track, and even try to infiltrate them…. but they wound up dead as well.
Finally, the Missouri Governor posted large rewards, $15,000 for Jesse, and $10,000 for Frank, and made a deal with Bob and Charlie Ford (who had a possibility of joining/infiltrating the gang) to capture or kill Jesse and Frank.
On April 3, 1882, Jesse was at his home in St. Joseph, Missouri, living under the alias of Thomas Howard. He had the Ford’s in his home as they planned a robbery, and Jesse’s wife and small son were home as well. Jesse pulled off his revolvers and laid them on a chair, then climbed on a stool to straighten a picture. A bullet from Bob Ford’s Smith & Wesson New Model #3, .44 Russian caliber slammed into the back of Jesse’s head, behind his ear. Jesse died immediately. Frank later surrendered, and turned over his revolvers, including his favorite, an 1875 Remington Army revolver in .45 caliber, with a 7 ½ inch barrel. Frank was ultimately acquitted at trial.
Career – Lawman
Active Career – 7 years
Firearm Used – S&W American - .44 American Caliber – 8 in barrel
#Number of kills – 4
Wyatt Earp has been covered extensively in Hollywood movies, and in dime novels…and there is a LOT of mythology surrounding him. I can see someone immediately arguing that he carried a Colt Buntline revolver with 10-inch barrel…. because that’s what he carried in the movies. Given his reputation, you might also be underwhelmed by the number of kills he had, vs. his contemporaries.
Even so, Wyatt Earp WAS in fact present at the Old West’s most famous gunfight, the OK Corral, and what Wyatt said he did in that gunfight adds up to what witness statements (even from those hostile to him) said he did. Quite simply, he took his time in that gunfight, used his sights, and shot down his opponents. After his brothers were ambushed, he did in fact go on a vendetta to avenge them, but the highest verified figure that he killed during that vendetta was two….and those were executions, not gunfights.
Wyatt died at his home on January 13, 1929, at the age of 80.
John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday
Career – Gambler/Gunman
Active Career – 9 years
Firearms Used – Colt Single Action Army - .45 caliber – 7 ½ barrel
Colt 1851 Navy Conversion - .38 caliber – 7 ½ barrel
Number of kills – 4
Like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday has been heavily covered and immortalized by Hollywood, so like Wyatt, the lower count of his kills list is surprising, especially as compared to some of his contemporaries.
What did the movies get right? Doc and Wyatt WERE in fact friends, and both were present at the OK Corral gunfight. After Wyatt’s brothers were ambushed, Doc did in fact participate in the Earp vendetta, which basically comes out to two executions…. not gunfights. On his deathbed, Doc gave his Colt Peacemaker revolver to his nephew, and stated that it is the gun he carried in his adventures in the West. The serial number of the revolver is 11301, which dates it to 1875. Incidentally, Doc’s first known gunfight was in 1875, so it all fits. Doc also owned an 1851 Navy Colt Conversion, .38 caliber. It had a 7 ½ inch bbl.
Doc Holliday died in Colorado of Tuberculosis in 1887, at the age of 35.
Top Revolver - Smith & Wesson #3- American
Bottom Revolver – Smith & Wesson #3 - Schofield
As stated at the beginning of this blog, the common image of the westerner is that he carried a shorter barreled revolver in a low, tied down rig. However, longer barreled revolvers worn high up on the waist seemed to be the norm. The Hollywood image is that ‘everyone’ carried a Colt, but the Smith & Wesson was quite popular. Wyatt’s brother, Virgil Earp, carried a Smith & Wesson New Model #3, in .44 Russian caliber (6 ½ barrel). Wyatt Earp carried a Smith & Wesson American in .44 caliber (8 in barrel), as did John Wesley Hardin. Jesse James carried a Smith & Wesson Schofield in .45 caliber (7 in barrel), and Bob Ford killed Jesse with a Smith & Wesson New Model #3 in .44 Russian caliber (6 ½ barrel).
More ‘Shootists’ (I’ll include other notable individuals) and their revolvers:
- 1873 Colt Peacemaker – 7 ½ bbl – .45 Colt - s.n. 55093
- 1873 Colt Peacemaker – 7 ½ bbl - .44-40
- 1873 Colt Peacemaker – 7 ½ bbl - .45 Colt – s.n. 222
- 1875 Remington Army – 7 ½ bbl – 44 Cal – s.n. 5116
- 1873 Colt Peacemaker – 7 ½ bbl - .45 Colt – s.n. 50432
- Smith & Wesson New Model #3 – 6 ½ bbl - .44 Russian
Buffalo Bill Cody
- 1863 Remington Army – 8 in bbl - .44 caliber
- Smith & Wesson American – 8 in. bbl - .44 American
Texas Jack Omohundro
- Smith & Wesson American – 8 in bbl - .44 American
- 1873 Colt Peacemaker – 7 ½ bbl - .44-40 – s.n. 92248
- Smith & Wesson New Model #3 – 6 ½ bbl - .44 Russian
- 1873 Colt Peacemaker’s 4 ¾ to 5 ½ bbls - .45 Colt*
*Bat Masterson’s revolver purchases are well documented within the Colt archives. Over a period of several years (1870s-80s), he ordered eight (8) of them….all nickel plated, with black grips, and extra high front sights. He preferred barrel lengths between 4 ¾ and 5 ½.
The reward amounts for John Wesley Hardin ($25,000), Jesse James ($15,000), and Frank James ($10,000) were quite high. Average reward amounts were much less: Billy the Kid was wanted to the tune of $500, and the notorious Black-Indian (called African-Cherokee at the time) outlaw Cherokee Bill was wanted for $1300. All of the above individuals were ultimately captured or killed, but there was a fugitive in the 1850s-60s who had the HIGHEST reward amount for anyone in the Victorian-Era……wanted to the tune of $40,000! That fugitive was Harriet Tubman. She’s known to have carried a single shot pistol and rifle in the 1850s, and possibly a .36 caliber Colt Navy Revolver (like Hickok) during the Civil War. However, she was never captured, and lived to the ripe old age of 93…..
Who’s the Fastest?
In reviewing the aforementioned gunfights, it’s evident that the first person to draw, and even fire didn’t always win, but this is not uncommon.
On January 7, 1874, in Colfax County, New Mexico, a gunfighter by the name of Clay Allison faced off against another gunman by the name of Chunk Colbert. There was bad blood between the two, and with their hatred for each other thinly disguised, they sat down for a meal together in a restaurant. In a rush, Chunk Colbert drew his gun and fired, but the bullet plowed into the tabletop. Allison then drew and smoked a round through Colbert’s forehead. When asked why he shared a meal with a man who he intended to kill, Allison stated that he didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.
On February 8, 1887, in Fort Worth, Texas, a gunfighter/gambler by the name of Luke Short squared off against a gunfighter named Jim Courtright. Short purchased an interest in a saloon, when Jim Courtright (who ran a local detective agency and protection racket) hit the business up, demanding payment. Short refused to pay, and ultimately sold his interest in the saloon. Still, bad blood persisted, and Bat Masterson tried to patch the quarrel up, and they all met at a local shooting gallery. Courtright whipped out a revolver and jammed it into Short’s stomach and fired…. or at least attempted to. The hammer of Courtright’s revolver got caught in Short’s watch chain, at which point Short drew his own revolver and emptied it into Courtright, killing him.
The Killers who Killed the Killers
Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head while Wild Bill played cards. Initially, McCall got away with it…. he was acquitted when he stated Hickok had killed his brother in 1869. A few months later, he was overheard boasting that he had lied, and he was retried, found guilty, and hung.
Bob Ford shot Jesse James in the back of the head while Jesse was straightening a picture in his home. Bob and Charlie Ford received some of the reward money promised, then went on tour giving plays about the murder, but were often booed by attendees. Charlie Ford ultimately committed suicide. Bob Ford opened a saloon in Creed, Colorado, and offered up a toast every year on the anniversary of Jesse’s death. In 1892, Ed O’Kelly (it was rumored that Jesse had done a favor for Ed’s mother) walked into Bob Ford’s saloon and blew him in half with a double barrel shotgun.
John Selman shot Wes Hardin in the back of the head while Hardin was shooting dice in a saloon. Less than a year later, Selman, who was a Constable, was asked to step into an alley by fellow lawman George Scarborough. Scarborough then shot Selman four times……the same number of shots that Selman had fired at Hardin. Selman died the next day following surgery.
The information listed here in this blog is a tiny piece…just a smidgeon of information that I’ve studied and gathered about the Old West, and I find it fascinating. Hollywood doesn’t hold a candle to it.
Marlan J. Ingram