Hundreds of westerns have etched the image in our minds: Two gunfighters face off on a dusty main street, whip out their revolvers, fire and only one walks away.
It’s mostly wrong, even though gunfighting was a part of the Old West and Texas — the place where a lot of it happened — Texas State Historian Bill O’Neal said.
“It almost never happened like that,” O’Neal said of the face-to-face showdown in the center of town. “That’s pure Hollywood. I think (Wild Bill) Hickok had one like that and maybe another, but it was rare.”
More commonly, gunflights broke out spontaneously to settle arguments or due to drinking.
And while most Hollywood shooters handle revolvers when facing an armed opponent, in the real West, rifles and shotguns were often used, he said.
O’Neal will speak about the gunfighting Old West in his talk “Gunfighterology: Frontier Gunfighters & Shootouts” at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, following author Doug Dukes’ remarks on gun technology of the West. The talk is open to the public for the price of museum admission.
O’Neal, in his third year of “a wonderful, wonderful gig” as Texas State Historian, brings to his talk a dual expertise. He taught Texas history for 41 years at Panola College, retiring in 2011, and the first of the more than 40 history books he’s written was “The Encyclopedia of the Western Gunfighter.”
That book is still in print and he knows one of the reasons is the drama inherent in a gunfight.
“There’s nothing as dramatic as a life-or-death conflict,” he said.
O’Neal documented 590 gunfights by 256 gunfighters in the period between 1860 and 1880.
More than a quarter of those shootouts took place in Texas, a combination of the state’s considerable size and the fact that its frontier, beset by raiding Indian tribes and Mexican outlaws, took time to settle.
“We had frontier conditions longer than any other state,” he said.
Compounding the violence in the state were numerous lynchings, many due to racial hatred; impatient citizens unwilling to wait for the legal process of trial, conviction and punishment; and blood feuds.
The latter was responsible for multiple shootouts in 1877 between Horrell and Higgins family members in Lampasas County. The Horrells were responsible for killing four lawmen in one 1873 gunfight.
That violence, internal and external, was a major reason for the Texas Rangers’ existence, O’Neal said, and the Rangers’ reliance on the revolver played a part in its evolution.
Surprisingly, most cowboys and townspeople of the Old West didn’t carry weapons, he said. Many towns and some large ranches prohibited guns within their limits while many cowboys found carrying several pounds of steel on their waist during long days in the saddle too uncomfortable, O’Neal said.
The state historian looked forward to returning to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, which was one of the last stops in his Traveling Texas History class at Panola College.
“Every time I brought a group in, they were knocked out,” he said.