How Real Gunfighters Carried
First, a note on terminology. Most 19th century Texans did not refer to a man known to be dangerous with a gun as a gunfighter. They were called shootists, or simply “bad men.” Gunslinger is a term invented in Hollywood.
By the time the time the twentieth century rolled around, misconceptions about how gun fights actually went down were being etched in the national psyche by dime novelists.
One man, identified only as “a visitor from Texas” had been around for the real thing and tried to set the record straight in an article that was printed in papers across the country.
Here’s what he had to say:
“Gun fighting used to be an exact science and men became skilled in it just as they might in any of the handicrafts. Marksmanship had little or nothing to do with it, for nearly all personal encounters were face to face.
The great point was to get ‘quick action’ and the fellow who drew and fired first generally won the fight. That fact led to all sorts of schemes for pulling a gun with the least possible delay.
One of the earliest was the shoulder holster, which consisted of a strap suspending the pistol just over the left chest. A man expecting trouble would stand carelessly (meaning casually) grasping his right lapel, and a sudden dive inside his coat placed the weapon in his hand. It was much quicker than reaching back to the hip, and moreover was usually a surprise.
Carrying a derringer in the pocket of a sack coat and firing through the cloth without drawing was a trick that spoiled many a garment and cost many a man his life. At last it became difficult for a man with his hands in his coat pockets to get near enough to a victim to make sure of hitting him and a frontier genius invented a variation.
He simply cut the right pocket out of an alpaca coat (a summer weight suit jacket) and carried his gun in a holster at his hip. The thin, flapping alpaca showed plainly it concealed no weapon, but when he put his hand in the pocket he could reach clear through and secure his pistol from the holster. When the hand came out the pistol came came with it, greatly to the astonishment of his adversaries.
Another trick was to carry the pistol up the sleeve, with the end of the barrel resting against the half-bent palm. I once saw a desperado kill a man by that device. His hands seemed to be perfectly empty, and when a weapon flashed in his grasp it was like a piece of magic.
Later another fellow in camp tried the same thing, dropped the gun and got a bullet in his stomach for his pains.”
In 1906 the editor of the Hereford Brand (Deaf Smith County) offered his own advice on carrying a gun: don’t do it.
I’ll let him explain…
“A man may make a fool of himself in a fist fight, or get the worst of it, but when it is done, the few bruises soon heal, but the passion that leads to fist fighting will also lead to gun fighting if a gun is handy.
Don’t have it handy. Let the other fellow do the shooting. Then when his magazine is empty, if you still survive, take away his gun and smash his face. It will be a good lesson for him and healthy exercise for you.”
I’m no authority, but that feels like a flawed strategy.