Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fast Guns and Wyatt Earp


In the Old West cowboys wore their guns on their hips, not low-slung on their thighs. That was a Hollywood invention designed to enable fast-draws and trick shooting.  After World War II, the U.S. military adopted the thigh holster - life imitating art.  The screenwriters fell in with this Hollywood fad with dialogue to match - "faster than greased lightning", and The Fastest Gun Alive Alive, the title of a Glenn Ford movie in which the eponymous lead character proves just how fast he is by having someone hold a beer glass a couple of feet above the ground and then drawing and shooting the glass after it is dropped and before it hits the ground.

To see modern day fast draw check out this YouTube clip, Fastest Shooter in the World


The book, Frontier Marshall about the life of Wyatt Earp, ghost written by Stuart M. Lake, was published in 1931.

Frontier Marshal was so popular it became the most-read book, aside from the Bible, by U.S. troops during World War II.

The 1955 television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was based on the book and made Lake into one of the first television moguls.

In the Gary Cooper movie, The Westerner,  Stuart Lake is credited as story creator - but not as screenwriter.


The following is a description of Earp from the San Francisco Newsletter and California Advertiser, April 2, 1892:

'He is fully six feet tall, but of a light build, a blonde complexion and the possessor of a drooping blonde mustache, and a cold grey eye.  He drinks lemonade.  All in all, Earp is as mild a mannered man as ever scuttled ship or cut a throat.'

Wyatt was arrested for claim-jumping in the Searles Valley north of San Bernardino.  Federal Receiver Austin and three armed men came into the camp and ordered the 'claim jumpers' to leave.  Wyatt Earp stepped forward and snatched a rifle from one of the Austin men and then faced Austin's revolver... Then Earp retreated to a hut and came back with a rifle ready for action. Rasor, an engineer who witnessed this, said of it, "It was the most nervy thing, Earp's act, that I ever saw".

(The Potash Wars commenced shortly after the arrest.  Be patient. The link takes a few seconds to download.  It talks about Wyatt Earp and the Potash Wars with fascinating old photos.)

Here's the story as told by the other side:

"Before I got very far a tall man with iron grey hair and a mustache pushed his way to the front and in a loud voice demanded why I had come into their camp with armed men.  At the same time he grabbed hold of my shotgun held by the boy on my left and attempted to take it away from him.  At this attack on us I drew an automatic and ordered him to let go.  He did so and then ran to a building nearby saying "I'll fix you."  Before he could secure a rifle, however, the cooler-headed members of the party surrounded him and calmed him down."

Court records from 1916 state that Wyatt was acting on the request of LAPD Commissioner Tom Lewis.

Wyatt Earp is on the left.


Towards the end of his life Wyatt Earp moved to Hollywood.

He became an unpaid film consultant for several silent cowboy movies.  On the set of one movie, he met Marion Morrison (who later became famous under the assumed name of John Wayne).  Morrison served Earp coffee on the sets, and later told Hugh O'Brian, who played Earp in the TV series that he based his image of Western lawmen on his conversations with Earp.

John Wayne became Wyatt Earp, adapting the way Wyatt walked, and the way Wyatt talked — slowly, enunciating every word. Wyatt Earp had a voice like a foghorn.

Wyatt was  an extra in a crowd scene of the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks feature, 'The Half Breed'.
If anyone can find this scene, please submit an image to this blog.


Wyatt apparently wrote a movie script.  The following paragraph is from a letter to the film star, (and Wyatt's good friend), William S. Hart, dated Nov. 18, 1927:

'I have just received word that the script which I am having written will be ready in a short time.  As soon as I receive the same, I will immediately forward it to you as I am very anxious to get your judgment on it.  I know there is not one better qualified to pass upon it than yourself.  I am in hopes that the material in the script will be available for your use.'
"I am sure that if the story were exploited on the screen by you, it would do much towards setting me right before the public which has always been fed up with lies about me."

He died bitter, believing that his reputation was tarnished.  He did not live to see how kind history would be toward him; and could never have imagined the legend he would become.

In Kevin Costner's movie, Wyatt Earp single-handedly backs down a lynch mob that wants to break into Wyatt's jail to drag out and hang a prisoner.  Years later on ferry to Alaska, at the end of the movie, Wyatt says, "Many people say it didn't happen that way."  And right there we see the bitterness of Wyatt's later years.


So what does Wyatt Earp, who was the real article, have to say on the subject of fanning your gun or shooting from the hip as depicted in the Hollywood westerns?

The following Popthems are from the book 'Frontier Marshall' in Wyatt's own words:

The most important lesson I learned was that the winner of a gunplay usually was the man who took his time.  The second was that, if I hoped to live long on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting -- grandstand play -- as I would poison.


Take your time -- in a hurry

When I say that I learned to take my time in a gunfight, I do not wish to be misunderstood, for the time to be taken was only that split fraction of a second that means the difference between deadly accuracy with a sixgun and a miss.

Perhaps I can best describe such time taking as going into action with the greatest speed of which a man's muscles are capable, but mentally unflustered by an urge to hurry or the need for complicated nervous and muscular actions which trick-shooting involves.

Mentally deliberate, but muscularly faster than thought.


In all my life as a frontier police officer, I did not know a really proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun-fanner, or the man who literally shot from the hip

A skillful gun-fanner could fire five shots from a forty-five so rapidly that the individual reports were indistinguishable, but what could happen to him in a gunfight was pretty close to murder. (Today we would use the term 'suicide')


(Wild Bill was a trick shooter - but not when he got down to the serious business of a gun fight.)

Hickok knew all the fancy tricks and was as good as the best at that sort of gunplay, but when he had serious business at hand, a man to get, the acid test of marksmanship, I doubt if he employed them.  At least, he told me that he did not.  I have seen him in action and I never saw him fan a gun, shoot from the hip, or try to fire two pistols simultaneously.  Neither have I ever heard a reliable old-timer tell of any trick-shooting employed by Hickok when fast straight-shooting meant life or death.


From personal experience and numerous six-gun battles which I witnessed, I can only support the opinion advanced by the men who gave me my most valuable instruction in fast and accurate shooting, which was that the gun-fanner and hip-shooter stood small chance to live against a man who, as old Jack Gallagher always put it, took his time and pulled the trigger once.


That two-gun business is another matter that can stand some truth before the last of the old-time gunfighters has gone on.  They wore two guns, most of six-gun toters did, and when the time came for action went after them with both hands.  But they didn't shoot them that way

Primarily, two guns made the threat of something in reserve; they were useful as a display of force when a lone man stacked up against a crowd.  Some men could shoot equally well with either hand, and in a gunplay might alternate their fire; others exhausted the loads from the gun on the right, or the left, as the case might be, then shifted the reserve weapon to the natural shooting hand if that was necessary and possible.  Such a move -- the border shift -- could be made faster than the eye could follow a top-notch gun-thrower, but if the man was as good as that, the shift would seldom be required.

Whenever you see a picture of some two-gun man in action with both weapons held closely against his hips and both spitting smoke together, you can put it down that you are looking at the picture of a fool, or a fake.  I remember quite a few of these so-called two-gun men who tried to operate everything at once, but like the fanners, they didn't last long in proficient company.


In the days of which I am talking, among men whom I have in mind, when a man went after his guns, he did so with a single, serious purpose.  There was no such thing as a bluff.

When a gunfighter reached for his forty-five, every faculty he owned was keyed to shooting as speedily and as accurately as possible, to making his first shot the last of the fight. He just had to think of his gun solely as something with which to kill another before he himself could be killed.

The possiblity of intimidating an antagonist was remote, although the 'drop' was thoroughly respected, and few men in the West would draw against it. I have seen men so fast and so sure of themselves that they did go after their guns while men who intended to kill them had them covered, and what is more win out in the play. They were rare.

It is safe to say, for all general purposes, that anything in gunfighting that smacked of show-off or bluff was left to braggarts who were ignorant or careless of their lives.


(concerning the Hollywood notion of 'notching' kills on the handle of the gun)

I might add that I never knew a man who amounted to anything to notch his gun with 'credits,' as they were called, for men he had killed.  Outlaws, gunmen of the wild crew who killed for the sake of brag, followed this custom.

I have worked with most of the noted peace officers -- Hickok, Billy Tilghman, Pat Sugher, Bat Masterson, Charlie Basset, and others of like caliber -- and have handled their weapons many times, but never knew one of them to carry a notched gun.


Two other points about the old-time method of using six-guns most effectively that do not seem to be generally known.

One is that the gun was not cocked with the ball of the thumb.  As his gun was jerked into action, the old-timer closed the whole joint of his thumb over the hammer and the gun was cocked in that fashion.  The soft flesh of the thumb ball might slip if a man's hands were moist, and a slip was not to be chanced if humanly avoidable.

On the second point, I have often been asked why five shots without reloading were all a top-notch gunfighter fired, when his guns  were chambered for six cartridges.  The answer is, merely, safety.  To ensure against accidental discharge of the gun while in the holster, due to hair-trigger adjustment, the hammer rested upon an empty chamber.  The number of cartridges a man carried in his six-gun may be taken as an indication of a man's rank with the gunfighters of the old school.  Practiced gun-wielders had too much respect for their weapons to take unnecessary chances with them; it was only with tyros (novices) and would-be's ('wanna-be's of today) that you heard of accidental discharges or 'didn't- know-it-was-loaded' injuries. 


More images of Wyatt Earp can be seen at elizabethguthrie.  It's worth a look!


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