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What is a Gunslinger?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 17, 2024
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A "gunslinger" is a modern term used to describe a professional gunman of the Old West in the United States. Nineteenth-century gunslingers worked on both sides of the law and might be bandits, contract killers, sheriffs or Pinkerton detectives. In that era, the term "gunslinger" was not yet in popular use, and these men were more likely to be referred to as gunmen, shootists, pistoleers or bad men. Although rooted in history, this role has since taken on mythic forms, populating western films and literature alongside other stock character types such as the cowboy and the prospector.

In films, the gunslinger often possesses a nearly superhuman speed and skill with the revolver. Twirling pistols, lightning draws and trick shots are standard fare for the gunmen of the big screen. In the real world, however, gunmen who relied on flashy tricks and theatrics died quickly, and most took a much more practical approach to their weapons. Real gunslingers did not shoot to disarm or to impress, but to kill.

Another classic bit of cinema, the showdown at high noon, where two well-matched gunslingers agreed to meet for a climactic formal duel, largely is a matter of myth as well. Often, gunfights were more spontaneous, a fight that turned deadly when one side reached for a weapon, and the drinking of alcoholic beverages often was involved. Gunfights could be won by simple distraction, or pistols could be emptied as gunmen fought from behind cover without injury. When a gunman did square off, it rarely was with another gunfighter. Gunslingers usually gave each other a wide berth, and it was uncommon for two well-known ones to face off.

The gunslinger's reputation often was as valuable as any skills possessed. In the western films and books, young toughs often would challenge an experienced gunman with the hopes of building a reputation, but this rarely happened in real life. A strong reputation was enough to keep others civil and often would spare a gunfighter from conflict. Even other gunslingers were likely to avoid any unnecessary confrontation.

In the days of the Old West, tales tended to grow with repeated telling, and a single fight might grow into a career-making reputation. For instance, the Shootout at the O.K. Corral made legends of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, but they were relatively minor figures before that conflict. Some gunslingers, such as Bat Masterson, actively engaged in self-promotion. Johnny Ringo built a reputation as a gunslinger despite never taking part in a gunfight.

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Discussion Comments
By wesley91 — On Nov 13, 2010

@alex94: In the movie “Wyatt Earp”, it showed Urilla died from typhoid while she was pregnant. The more I read about it, the more the articles seemed to contradict this fact. Some say she died of typhoid fever before they could have children. Other articles say she died from typhoid during childbirth. It was also mentioned that Urilla was pregnant when she and Wyatt got married. If that were the case, that would explain why her parent’s blamed Wyatt for her death.

By alex94 — On Nov 13, 2010

How did Urilla Sutherland Earp die?

By dega2010 — On Nov 13, 2010

@CellMania: Wyatt Earp was best known as an American peace officer. Wyatt worked in various Western frontier towns. He was a farmer, teamster, buffalo hunter, gambler, saloonkeeper, miner and boxing referee. He is most famous for his participation in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He has become an iconic figure in American history.

The tension between the Earp’s and the Cowboys came to a head on Wednesday October 26, 1881. This caused the famous fight at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Morgan Earp came at the request of their brother Virgil Earp for assistance. Billy Claiborne, Ike Clanton and the other cowboys had been wanting to fight the Earp’s and Holliday.

Wyatt Earp lived to be 80 years old. He died in Los Angeles of chronic cystitis.

By CellMania — On Nov 13, 2010

Who was Wyatt Earp?

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