6 (In)Famous Gunslingers of the Wild West

As heroes and villains, the gunslingers of the Wild West have entered American history as larger-than-life characters, forming an integral part of American folk history.

Dec 31, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
famous gunslingers wild west

 

The American West in the late 19th century was a land of open prairies, deserts, pioneers, and opportunity. It was also a difficult place to police. Stagecoaches were easy prey for robbers, and cattle rustling became a popular pastime as adventurous people with questionable moral compasses turned to a life of crime in their quest for fortune.

 

With bank robberies and other nefarious activities spiking in the West, towns needed lawmen, and communities needed bounty hunters.

 

To survive, outlaws and lawmen alike had to become expert gunslingers.

 

1. Wild Bill Hickock

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Wild Bill Hickock, from Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Born on May 27, 1837, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok would accrue fame and infamy during his 39 years of living as a gunslinger who had been through it all. He worked as a stagecoach driver on the lawless frontiers of Kansas and Nebraska until the American Civil War when he spent his time as a spy for the Union Army.

 

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Not one to be humble, Hickok was known to use any opportunity to spread his fame through stories, and he grew to be a well-known gunslinger in America’s Wild West. Before his time in the army, he was involved in a shooting with the McCanles Gang, and although he killed a man, he was found to have acted in self-defense. Shortly after, while working as a freight driver, he got into a fight with a bear, which he narrowly managed to kill by slashing its throat.

 

During his time in the army, he was a spy and a scout. He also developed a penchant for gambling as well as a drinking habit that earned him the reputation of being a swaggering ruffian.

 

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One of Wild Bill Hickock’s revolvers, via Buffalo Bill Center of the West

 

His lifestyle led him to several disagreements, one of which ended with him killing a man in the first recorded quickdraw duel. He was arrested for murder, but the charge was downgraded to manslaughter, and the jury voted to clear his name.

 

His career next took him on a path to enforcing the law instead of breaking it, and he served as a marshal and a sheriff. During this time, he killed many men in shootouts, and his exploits, though many, were exaggerated in print, spreading his fame throughout the West.

 

Throughout his career, he made many enemies and was eventually shot dead on August 2, 1876. After a gambling disagreement with Jack McCall, Hickok was shot dead while playing poker in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 in the town of Deadwood. McCall approached him from behind and fired point blank into the back of Wild Bill’s head, killing him instantly. In Hickock’s hand at the time were a pair of aces and a pair of eights, which in poker has since been called a “dead man’s hand.”

 

2. Wes Hardin

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John Wesley Hardin, from Robert G. McCubbin Collection, via True West Magazine

 

Becoming one of the most notorious outlaws, John Wesley Hardin was born in Bonham, Texas on May 26, 1853. His father wanted his son to become a preacher, but Wes had different ideas. He was influenced by Southern political culture from a young age, and he tried to join the Confederate army at the age of nine. The developments of the following years would see the young Hardin become violently racist and anti-Yankee. He killed his first man, who had been formerly enslaved, at the age of 15.

 

While still a fugitive, Hardin’s next victims were a man with whom he had argued over a gambling matter and a pimp who accosted him. Demanding money from Hardin while he was with a prostitute, Hardin threw money on the ground and shot the man as he bent to pick it up.

 

He was later arrested for the murder of a Texas marshal, which Hardin denied. He escaped custody, killing a man in the process and another three who came after him later. His career of killing includes the murder of eight Union officers and four Black policemen.

 

In September 1877, he was finally caught in Florida and was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor. He was pardoned in 1894 and went to live with his three children. His wife had died while he was in prison, and he remarried but soon left his second wife. In his last years, he lived the life of an itinerant traveler, thieving wherever he could. On August 19, 1895, while standing at the bar of Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas, he was shot in the back of the head by John Selman, Sr., a policeman and a thief with whom Hardin had had a disagreement.

 

3. Buckshot Roberts

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Marker for Blazer’s Mill, where Buckshot Roberts was killed, via Historical Markers of New Mexico

 

Andrew L. “Buckshot” Roberts was born in 1831, although the exact day, as well as details of his childhood, are mysteries. He served as a Texas Ranger and fought in the American Civil War, although it is unknown on which side he fought. He reached the rank of sergeant, and after the war, he made a living hunting buffalo. It is believed he was an associate of the famous Buffalo Bill Cody.

 

Buckshot Roberts earned his nickname after being shot. He suffered from buckshot permanently embedded in his upper right arm, and as a result, he could not lift his right arm above his pelvis. This resulted in him having to create a unique and awkward method of firing his rifle.

 

Roberts was a loner, but he worked for James Dolan, a key figure in the Lincoln County War between the Murphy-Dolan-Riley Faction and the Tunstall-McSween-Chisum Faction, also known as the Regulators (which included Billy the Kid). Roberts was drawn into the conflict and caught in a gunfight at Blazer’s Mill.

 

He was set upon by the Regulators and fought heroically. Despite receiving a gunshot wound to the stomach, he managed to cause several injuries before barricading himself in a building from where he managed to kill another gang member, Dick Brewer, by shooting him in the eye.

 

The Regulators retreated to avoid more casualties, but Roberts’ wounds were grave, and he died the next day.

 

4. Annie Oakley

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Little Sure Shot, Annie Oakley by Morgan Weistling, via Picture This Gallery

 

The subject of several films and stage productions, Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses on August 13, 1860. She didn’t grow up to be an outlaw or a law(wo)man, but her sharp-shooting skills were the envy of every gunslinger in the Wild West.

 

She was born into a poor family and was bound to another family who treated her poorly. Her life was miserable, and she began hunting as a way to provide food and income for her family. This proved remarkably successful, and by the time she was 15, she had paid off her mother’s mortgage on her farm.

 

Her career as a sharpshooter exhibitionist began after she won a bet against another sharpshooter named Frank E. Butler, whom she married in 1876. The couple began touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and Annie adopted the stage name of “Annie Oakley.” At only five feet tall, she was also referred to as Watanya Cicilla (Little Sure Shot) by Sitting Bull, who also starred in the show.

 

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A poster advertising Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, via PBS

 

Annie Oakley became America’s first female star and earned more than anybody else in the show, with the exception of Buffalo Bill himself. She went on tour in Europe and performed for the heads of state of several countries, including Queen Victoria. Her abilities were legendary, and she performed trick shots which included shooting the cigarette out of her husband’s mouth as well as dimes and playing cards thrown into the air. She could even split a playing card edge-on.

 

Annie and Frank were in a car crash in 1922. Annie was badly injured and forced to wear a steel brace on her right leg. Despite the handicap, she recovered and continued to set records. By 1925, suffering from anemia, her health began to deteriorate, and she died in 1926. Her husband was so distraught that he stopped eating and died 18 days later.

 

Throughout her life, Annie Oakley was a determined philanthropist and campaigned for women’s rights. It is believed that throughout her career, she taught 15,000 women how to shoot.

 

5. Wyatt Earp

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Wyatt Earp, from Bettmann/Corbis, via The Daily Beast

 

One of the most famous gunslingers of the Wild West, Wyatt Earp is most well-known for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Born the fourth of eight children on March 19, 1848, Wyatt Earp grew up in Illinois and Iowa before his family moved to California. Most of the family, including Wyatt, moved back to Illinois in 1868. He got married in 1870 and was elected the local constable of Lamarr, Missouri. His wife died when she was pregnant, and Wyatt, in grief, entered a difficult period in which he had numerous run-ins with the law.

 

He tried settling down in Peoria, Illinois but was frequently arrested due to his involvement with prostitution. It is possible he worked as a bouncer for a brothel at this time. Following this part of his life, he chose a path on the other side of the law, and worked as a police officer, first in Wichita and then in Dodge City. In 1879, he moved to Tombstone, where he worked as a saloon guard, and his brother, Virgil, was the town marshal.

 

On October 26, 1881, a conflict with the outlaw Clanton Gang came to a head in Tombstone with a shootout at the O.K. Corral. The gunfight lasted only 30 seconds, but it became a massively infamous event and led to the deaths of three outlaws.

 

6. Billy the Kid

There is debate over exactly when Henry McCarty was born in New York’s East Side. Sources suggest it was either on September 23 or November 23, 1859. When he was a child, his father died, and his family moved to Indiana, where his mother, Catherine, met William Henry Harrison.

 

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Billy the Kid, from Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

 

After moving to Wichita with her family, the two got married, and they moved with the family to various locations in New Mexico. When Billy was 14, tragedy struck again, and his mother died of tuberculosis.

 

In his teens, he turned to a life of thievery and lawlessness, traversing the towns of the Southwest and northern Mexico. After robbing a Chinese laundry, he was captured, but he escaped jail and continued his life of crime, eventually culminating in the Lincoln County War, which was sparked by the killing of English businessman John Henry Tunstall. Billy the Kid, who also went by the name of William H. Bonney, ran with a gang of outlaws called the Regulators and was involved in a shootout at Blazer’s Mill, the gunfight which claimed the life of Dick Brewer and Buckshot Roberts.

 

Wanted for the murder of three men, Billy the Kid was captured by legendary sheriff Pat Garrett. He was put on trial and sentenced to hang, but before the execution could be carried out, Billy the Kid escaped. He was hunted down by Pat Garrett, who finally caught the fugitive and shot him dead.

 

Before he died, Billy the Kid claimed that he had killed 21 men, but scholarly opinion states that it is likely he killed fewer than ten.

 

The Wild West was a dangerous place in the late 19th century. It frequently erupted in violence as outlaw gangs and sheriff’s posses went head to head, battling for supremacy. Those who took part in these conflicts often led short and brutal lives. Earning fame and notoriety, these people made a name for themselves in American history as unforgettable heroes and villains.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.