These duels did occasionally happen, as in the case of the Luke Short — Jim Courtright duel , but gunfights were typically more spontaneous, a fight that turned deadly when one side reached for a weapon, and no one knew who actually won the fight for several minutes until the air finally cleared of smoke.
When a gunman did square off, it rarely was with another gunfighter. Gunslingers usually gave each other a wide berth, and it was uncommon for two well-known gunslingers to face off.
In Western films and books, young toughs often challenge experienced gunmen with the hopes of building a reputation, but this rarely happened in real life. A strong reputation was enough to keep others civil and often would spare a gunfighter from conflict. Even other gunslingers were likely to avoid any unnecessary confrontation. In the days of the Old West, tales tended to grow with repeated telling, and a single fight might grow into a career-making reputation.
Corral made legends of Wyatt Earp and the Outlaw Cowboy gang , but they were relatively minor figures before that conflict. Some gunslingers, such as Bat Masterson , actively engaged in self-promotion. Johnny Ringo built a reputation as a gunslinger while never taking part in a gunfight or killing unarmed civilians. Most gunfights are portrayed in films or books as having two men square off, waiting for one to make the first move. This was rarely the case. Often, a gunfight was spur-of-the-moment, with one drawing his pistol, and the other reacting.
Often it would develop into a shootout where both men bolted for cover. On the contrary, in cases where two men held a similar reputation, both would avoid confrontation with one another whenever possible. This respect for one another is why most famous gunfights were rarely two or more well-known gunmen matched up against one another, but rather one notable gunman against a lesser-known opponent or opponents.
These fights were usually close-up and personal, with a number of shots blasted from pistols, often resulting in innocent bystanders hit by bullets gone wild.
Much of the time, it would be difficult to tell who had "won" the gunfight for several minutes, as the black powder smoke from the pistols cleared the air. Many well-known gunfighters were so feared by the public because of their reputation that when they were killed, they died as a result of ambush rather than going down in a "blaze of glory". Mythology and folklore often exaggerate the skills of famous gunfighters. Most of these historical figures were not known to be capable of trick shooting, nor did they necessarily have a reputation for precision sharpshooting.
Such tropes that are frequently seen in Westerns include shooting the center of a coin, stylistic pistol twirling, glancing shots that intentionally only graze an opponent the bullet through the hat being an example , shooting an opponent's belt buckle thus dropping his pants , a bullet cutting the hangman's rope, or shooting the guns out of opponents' hands typically as an alternative to killing.
The last was debunked by Mythbusters as an impossibility, as unjacketed bullets tend to shatter into fragments that can hurt or even kill. In Western movies, the characters' gun belts are often worn low on the hip and outer thigh, with the holster cut away around the pistol's trigger and grip for a smooth, fast draw. This type of holster is a Hollywood anachronism. Long before holsters were steel-lined, they were soft and supple for comfortable all-day wear.
A gunfighter would use tie-downs to keep his pistol from catching on the holster while drawing. Most of the time, gunfighters would just hide their pistols in their pockets and waistbands. Dubbed the "Gun that Won the West", it was widely used during the settlement of the American frontier. Shotguns were also a popular weapon for " express messengers " and guards, especially those on stagecoaches and trains who were in charge of overseeing and guarding a valuable private shipment. Quick draw and hip shooting was a rare skill in the West,  and only a handful of historically known gunslingers were known to be fast, such as Luke Short , John Wesley Hardin , and Wild Bill Hickok.
Jonathan R. Davis carried two revolvers in his iconic gunfight,  while Jesse James himself carried over half a dozen revolvers in many of his gunfights. Bill Longley and Tom Horn were executed. Famed gunman Clay Allison died in a wagon accident. Rare are the gunfighters who, like William Sidney "Cap" Light , died accidentally by their own hand. The image of a Wild West filled with countless gunfights was a myth generated primarily by dime-novel authors in the late 19th century. An estimate of 20, men in the American West were killed by gunshot between and ,  and over 21, total casualties during the American Indian Wars from to Lawless violence such as range wars like the Lincoln County War and clashes with Indians were also a cause.
To prevent gunfights from happening, many cities in the American frontier, such as Dodge City and Tombstone , put up a local ordinance to prohibit firearms in the area. It lasted only 30 seconds, contrary to many movie adaptations. Both parties simultaneously drew their guns, which added to the confusion of who fired first.
It is not known who fired the first shot, but Wyatt's bullet was the first to hit, tearing through Frank McLaury's belly and sending McLaury's own shot wild through Wyatt's coattail. Billy Clanton fired at Virgil, but his shot also went astray when he was hit with Morgan's shot through his ribcage. Billy Claiborne ran as soon as shots were fired and was already out of sight. Ike Clanton panicked as well and ran towards Wyatt pleading for his life.
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Doc instantly killed Tom with blasts from his shotgun. Frank was running to Fremont Street, and he challenged Holliday for killing his brother, but Doc dropped his shotgun, drew his pistol, and shot Frank in the right temple.
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Wyatt responded by sending several rounds into Billy. On April 14, , lawman Dallas Stoudenmire participated in a gunfight in El Paso, Texas which many dubbed the Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight , in which he killed three of the four fatalities with his twin. One of those killed was an innocent Mexican bystander. Another well-documented gunfight resulted in the most kills by one person in a single event, when Capt.
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Davis shot eleven bandits single-handedly on 19 December As Captain Davis and his companions trudged on foot, the bandit gang charged out of the brush, pistols flaming. James McDonald died instantly, without time to draw his revolver or react in any way. Bolivar managed to get his six-shooter out and fire twice at the highwaymen before he dropped, badly wounded. Captain Davis later described himself as being "in a fever of excitement at the time. He shot down his assailants, one after another.
The outlaws' bullets tore at Davis's clothing, but caused only two slight flesh wounds.
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Within moments, seven of the bandits were dead or dying on the ground and Davis's pistols were empty. Four of the remaining robbers now closed in on the captain to finish him off. Davis whipped out his Bowie knife , and quickly warded off the thrusts from the two of the bandits.
He stabbed one of them to death; the other he disarmed by knocking the knife from his grasp and slicing off his nose and a finger of his right hand. The two last attackers were the men who had been wounded in a previous bandit raid.
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Despite their weakened condition, they foolishly approached Davis with drawn knives. The captain reacted in an instant. Slashing with his heavy Bowie, he killed them both. On December 1, , a town sheriff named Elfego Baca came face-to-face against 80 gunmen which became known as the Frisco shootout.
The battle started when Baca arrested a cowboy who had shot him. In turn the cowboy called upon 80 of his associates to murder Baca. Baca took refuge in an adobe house, and over the course of a hour siege, the gunmen put bullet holes in the house some accounts say a total of 4, shots without touching Baca.
He in turn killed 4 of them and wounded 8. When the shooting was over as the attackers finally ran out of ammo, Baca strolled out of the house unscathed. Baca went on to a distinguished career as a lawyer and legislator and died in his bed in , age He sent two deputies to arrest Ike Clanton.
Wyatt Earp searched for Ike Clanton in his vendetta, but never found him — Ike moved north to Apache County to continue rustling cattle and killing.