Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Gunfighter: Man or Myth?

Written by Joseph G. Rosa and published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1969, this book (ISBN 0-8061-1561-0) offers a comprehensive examination of gunfighters in the Old West. It is a scholarly work, with numerous footnotes and a nine-and-a-half page bibliography, so at times the tone is rather dry, but the amount of information presented is huge and it is well worth the effort to read it.

There are two sections to the book; the first is called The Myth and the Man, which explains the origin of the gunfighter and situates him in the period of the Old West. This section also offers a detailed look at many men who were known as gunfighters--both lawmen and outlaws. Much of the text consists of stories and anecdotes of the exploits of these men and one gains an appreciation, if not exactly admiration, for what they did. Using primary sources of newspaper articles and first-hand accounts, the descriptions of life in cowtowns and frontier towns is compelling. Analysis by the author provides perspective to the period accounts.

The second section, called The Pistoleer, describes the weapons used by gunfighters and the companies that produced them. The features of six-guns manufactured by Colt, Smith and Wesson, and Remington are described in great detail, along with their strengths and weaknesses. Again, there is a reliance on primary sources for information. The accoutrements of the gunfighter, bullets and holsters, are also discussed. This section includes a chapter on "The Cult of the Six-Shooter," which takes a look at the concept of a fast draw. The reason for tying a gun down is explained but, according to the author, the fast draw was not practiced by gunfighters in the Old West! And on page 206, the author states, "In the frontier days, when a man without a revolver was only half-dressed..." So Kid's comments in the Pilot and The McCreedy Bust: Going, Going, Gone actually have some basis in historical fact and were not just lines included in the script for a laugh. The book ends with a short explanation of how the gunfighter has lived on in books, movies, and television.

Anyone interested in the Old West who wants to know the facts behind the legends should read The Gunfighter: Man or Myth? It is a fascinating book.