The terms “gunfighter” or “gunslinger,” as they are most often called today, are actually more modern words utilized in films and literature of the 20th Century.
During the days of the “real” Wild West, men who had gained a reputation as being dangerous with a gun were more commonly called gunmen, pistoleers, shootists, or bad men. Gunslingers weren’t even called gunslingers during the ‘Wild West’ period. They didn’t wear the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig’ of a low-slung hip holster tied to their thigh for a faster draw. The terms “gunfighter“ or “gunslinger“ are more commonly synonymous to a hired gun who made a living with his weapons in the Old West.
Here’s a look at 10 of the deadliest Wild West gunslingers.
1. John Wesley Hardin
Some say the worst bad man that Texas ever produced.
John Wesley Hardin was easily the deadliest gunfighter of all time and one of the darkest characters in the Old West. He was a kind of a guy who will shoot first and ask questions later. This American outlaw and gunfighter claimed to have killed 42 men though the newspapers attributed only 27 killings. He was so quick tempered with a gun that it has been said that he once killed a man for snoring.
Hardin committed his first murder in 1868, when he was just 15 years old (gunned down an ex-slave) and then proceeded to kill three Union soldiers before going on the run. Hardin was known for carrying two pistols in holsters strapped to his chest, which he claimed facilitated the quick draw, and he used them to gun down three more people in various gunfights soon after his flight. At age 17, he was arrested for the murder of a Texas City Marshal, but he was able to escape. At 25, he was finally arrested by a team of Texas Rangers, and eventually served 17 years in prison before being released at the age of 41. Shortly after his release, he was shot in the back of the head by John Selman Jr. in the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas, while playing dice.
2. Jim “Killer“ Miller
James “Killin’ Jim“ Miller, also known as “Killin’ Jim“, “Killer Miller“ and “Deacon Jim“, was an American outlaw and assassin of the American Old West who is credited with killing at least 14 people, though legend has it that the number is somewhere closer to 50. As a teenager, Miller blasted his sister’s husband in the head with a shotgun after a disagreement. He was handed a life sentence for the murder but escaped justice owning to a technicality.
Described as being cold to the core, Miller famously declared that he would kill anyone for money, and is rumored to have gunned down everyone from political figures to famed sheriff Pat Garrett. On April 19, 1909, following the murder of former Deputy Marshal Allen “Gus“ Bobbitt, he was arrested and his days of bloodshed finally came to an end. Before he died, he made two requests. He wanted his ring to be given to his wife (who was a cousin of John Wesley Hardin) and to be allowed to wear his hat while being hanged. Both requests were granted. He also asked to die in his black frock coat; this request was denied. Apparently, he screamed, “Let ‘er rip,“ before stepping off the box. His body was left hanging for hours until a photographer could be found to immortalize the event.
3. James “Wild Bill” Hickok
A legend in his own time.
James Butler Hickok (a.k.a. Wild Bill) was the most notorious man in the Wild West. A gunfighter, gambler, civil war spy, Indian fighter, peace officer, Hickok was said to have killed more than 100 men. At the age of 17, he left home and worked as a “canal boat pilot“ in Utica, Illinois. Got his nickname “Wild Bill“ from fighting in the Union army during the Civil War. During this time, he provided many services, such a spy, scout, and a sharpshooter.
In 1865, on the streets of Springfield, Missouri, he gained a reputation for being handy with a gun after he killed David Tutt with a single bullet from 75 yards away (first classic “Wester-style“ quick-draw duel). Suddenly he could not go anywhere without being recognized. On August 2, 1876, Deadwood, South Dakota, Hickok was playing poker when he was shot in the back of the head by a gambler named Jack McCall (better known as “Crooked Nose Jack“), supposedly in retaliation for a prior insult. Hickok was supposedly holding a pair of Aces and Eights at the time, a combination now known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.“
4. Tom Horn Jr.
Thomas “Tom“ Horn, Jr. was a respected lawman and detective, but he was one of the most cold-blooded killers of the Old West. In the 1880s, Horn made a name for himself as a tracker and a bounty hunter. He was eventually hired as a detective by the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency and was responsible for the arrest of many feared criminals. Quickly becoming known for his volatile temper and dangerous capacity for violence, he was forced to resign his position with the Agency after becoming linked to the murders of 17 people.
Following his resignation, he developed a reputation as a hitman and is said to have been responsible for as many as 50 murders in his 43 years of life. Thomas Horn was arrested, tried in a controversial trial and hanged the day before his 43rd birthday in 1903. A retrial was held in 1993 in which he was declared innocent. The New York Times described the trial, “Once Guilty, Now Innocent, But Still Dead.“
5. Clay Allison
Robert Clay Allison was a Texas cattle rancher and gunfighter. Known for his unpredictable personality and violent temper, Clay was a gunslinger who is remembered as one of the deranged outlaws of the Old West. Allison fought in the Civil War, but was discharged after a blow to the head started causing unpredictable behavior in him. Historians believe this event explains some of his shockingly brutal actions, which included once beheading a man he suspected of murder and carrying the head into his favorite bar to share a drink.
After this incident, which bond his reputation as one of the most dangerous figures of his day, Allison was participating in a number of gunfights against fellow gunslingers. The most famous of these gunfights was against outlaw Chunk Colbert, whom Allison shot in the head when the other drew his gun on him following a meal they had shared. When asked why he had eaten with a man who wanted to kill him, Allison replied, “I wouldn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.“ He died in 1887 when he fell from his wagon and broke his neck. His gravestone is said to read:
“Clay Allison. Gentleman. Gun Fighter. He never killed a man that did no need killing.“
6. Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was an American gambler, deputy sheriff, and deputy town marshal inTombstone, Arizona. He spent most of his life roaming the West, supporting himself with police work, mining, gambling, saloon-keeping, and real estate deals.
Famed lawman Earp is perhaps the most storied figure of the Wild West, but he was also an accomplished gunslinger who was greatly feared by the bandits of the time. Earp had a violent 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.
Best known for his participation in the controversial “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,“ which took place at Tombstone, Arizona, on October 26, 1881. The famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a 30-second gunfight between the semi-outlaw group “The Cowboys“ (Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury) and lawmen (Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and Doc Holliday), that is generally regarded as the most memorable shootout in the history of the American Wild West and the greatest gunslinger moment of all time (the outcome of the shootout: Earp, Virgil, and Morgan wounded; Doc Holliday grazed; Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton killed.). The shootout and the bloody events that followed resulted in Wyatt Earp acquiring the reputation as being one of the Old West’s toughest and deadliest gunmen of his day. All told, Earp participated in numerous gunfights in his life, killing anywhere from 8 to 30. He would become the fearless Western hero in countless novels and films.
7. Dallas Stoudenmire
Dallas Stoudenmire was a feared lawman and is known for participating in more gunfights than most of his contemporaries. Stoudenmire earned himself repute as a legendary lawman and gunslinger, but he also made himself a lot of enemies. Armed with two guns, he was an accurate shooter with both hands, and he had a reputation for being tough and dangerously shot-tempted when he had a drink or two. After being wounded several times while fighting in the Civil War, Stoudenmire moved to the lawless and violent city of El Paso, Texas, to serve as sheriff. On the third day on the job, he killed three men with his two 44 caliber Colt revolvers in a famous incident known as the “Four Dead In Five Seconds“ gunfight.
Witnesses generally agreed that the incident lasted no more than five seconds after the first gunshot though a few would insist it was at least ten seconds. Marshal D. Stoudenmire was responsible for three of the four fatalities with his “twins.“ Less than a year after these incidents, he would kill as many as six more men in gunfights while in the line of duty, eventually gaining a reputation as one of the most feared lawmen in Texas. In 1882, Stoudenmire was shot to death by a group of outlaws during a verbal confrontation.
8. Billy The Kid
Henry McCarty, a.k.a. William H. Bonney or just “Billy the Kid,” started his life of crime with petty theft and horse thievery, but is said to have first killed a man at the age of eighteen. In 1877, he was deputized during the so-called “Lincoln County War” and rode with lawmen who were seeking to arrest a group of corrupt businessman responsible for the murder of an innocent rancher. Billy’s group, called, “the Regulators,” became known for their wanton violence, and were themselves soon regarded as outlaws.
The group was unfazed by their new classification as bandits and proceeded to go on a killing spree, gunning down three people in the course of just three days, including a sheriff and his deputy. The group was eventually broken up by law enforcement, but the Kid managed to elude capture. He formed a gang and increased his notoriety after shooting down a gambler in a New Mexico saloon. After a number of run-ins with the law, the Kid was again captured and sentenced to death, but he managed to escape after he got a hold of a weapon and gunned down the two men guarding him. After three months on the run, he was killed when Sheriff Pat Garrett and two deputies shot him to death in 1881. All told, Billy the Kid is said to have killed a total of 21 men, one for each of the years of his life, though this number is often regarded as inaccurate and exaggerated.
9. King Fisher
One the lesser-known but more violent pistoleers of the Old West, gunfighter, and one-time lawman John King Fisher was in and out of prison from the age of sixteen. By the early 1870s, Fisher became known as a bandit when he joined a group of outlaws whose specialty was raiding ranches in Mexico. Though quickly becoming known for his flamboyant style of dress, (always seen wearing brightly colored clothes), and signature twin ivory-handled pistols, it was his propensity for aggression that singled him out.
Among his many exploits, he was known for gunning down three members of his own gang during a dispute over money and then killing seven Mexican bandits a short time later. In his most famous gunfight, Fisher is said to have taken on four Mexican cowboys single-handedly, which after hitting one with a branding iron, outdrew another. Then in his well-documented sadistic style, then shot the other two who were unarmed. In 1884, Fisher was ambushed and killed, along with gunslinger Ben Thompson, by friends of a man Thompson had previously killed in a gunfight.
10. Sam Bass
Sam Bass started out an honest man. He had a simple and modest dream of moving to Texas and becoming a cowboy. Eventually he did just that but decided after one season he didn’t like it. While transitioning from simple farmer to famed outlaw might be a stretch for some, Bass did it seamlessly. He began robbing banks and stagecoaches and became rather proficient at it.
After his 7th stagecoach robbery, Bass and his gang turned their sights on bigger prizes and decided to rob trains. They eventually robbed the Union Pacific gold train from San Francisco, netting over $60,000, which is to this day the largest single robbery of the Union Pacific. He was wounded by Texas Rangers on the way to rob a small bank in Round Rock and died two days later on his 27th birthday.