There’s no more iconic scene in Western movies than the good old-fashioned pistol duel, where the lawman and the outlaw meet at high noon to see who’s faster on the draw. In actuality, this kind of thing very rarely occurred, and the true life Western stories—like Wild Bill Hickok being shot in the back while playing cards—tell a much more gruesome and less gallant tale.
Still, there’s no denying that among the bandits and lawmen of the day there were a number of larger-than-life gunfighters whose exploits helped pave a bloody path for the characters that would later populate Western movies and dime novels. The following are ten of the most famous—and downright deadly—of these Old West gunslingers.
We’re gonna tell you a little about these gunfighters of the Wild Wild West for the next couple of blogs. Hope you enjoy.
# 10. Ben Thompson
Ben Thompson was a gambler, gunfighter, and sometimes lawman who rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous figures of the Old West. He started his criminal career at the age of 17, when he stabbed and killed a fellow gambler whom he had accused of cheating him at cards. Thompson was known for being lightning fast on the draw, and gained a reputation as a gunfighter after killing two men in a shootout on Christmas Eve of 1876. Wanting to escape this reputation, he took a job as the City Marshall of Austin, Texas, but he was forced to resign when he killed a local theater owner named Jack Harris during an argument. Thompson was himself killed in 1884, along with gunfighter King Fisher, when friends of Harris ambushed the two and gunned them down while they were watching a performance at an opera house.
Famed lawman Wyatt Earp is perhaps the most storied figure of the Old West, but he was also an accomplished gunslinger who was greatly feared by the bandits of the time. Earp had a varied career that saw him travel to boomtowns like Wichita, Dodge City and the lawless town of Tombstone to serve as sheriff, and he participated in some of the most legendary gunfights of the 1800s. The most famous of these is undoubtedly the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which occurred in 1881 when Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and friend Doc Holliday confronted a group of cowboys who had recently been arrested for robbing a stagecoach. Three of the cowboys were killed in the fight, and everyone except Wyatt was wounded. The gunfight caused a huge scandal, and friends of the cowboys soon retaliated, wounding Wyatt’s brother Virgil and killing Morgan. Earp and Holliday then led a team of gunfighters on what has become known as their “Vendetta Ride,” and they eventually killed several men connected with the murders before fleeing the territory. All told, Earp participated in numerous gunfights in his life, killing anywhere from 8 to 30 outlaws (depending on the source), and his exploits remain some of the most famous stories of the Old West.