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.
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.
9. Wyatt Earp
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.
8. King Fisher
One the lesser-known but more notoriously violent gunslingers of the Old West was John King Fisher, who was in and out of prison from the age of sixteen. In the early 1870s, Fisher became known as a bandit when he started running with a group of outlaws who raided ranches in Mexico. Fisher was known both for his flamboyant style, which saw him wear brightly colored clothes and carry twin ivory-handled pistols, as well as for his propensity for violence. He famously gunned down three members of his own gang when a dispute arose of money, and then killed seven Mexican pistoleros shortly after that. In his most famous gunfight, Fisher is said to have taken on four Mexican cowboys single-handedly. After hitting one with a branding iron, he supposedly outdrew another and shot him. In his typical brutal style, he then shot two of the man’s unarmed accomplices. In 1884, Fisher was ambushed and killed, along with Ben Thompson, by friends of a man whom Thompson had previously killed in a gun battle.
7. Dallas Stoudenmire
Although not as well known as someone like Wild Bill Hickok or Wyatt Earp, Dallas Stoudenmire was a feared lawman in his day, and is known for participating in more gunfights than most of his contemporaries. After being wounded several times while fighting in the Civil War, Stoudenmire moved to the lawless city of El Paso, Texas to serve as sheriff. Only three days into his tenure, he became involved in one of the West’s most legendary battles, what is common known as the “Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight,” in which he shot three men. A few days after the fight, friends of the men Stoudenmire had shot hired the town drunk to assassinate him. But Dallas was able to get the drop on him and supposedly shot the man eight times, killing him. This only marked the beginning of what would be a bloody campaign for Stoudenmire as sheriff. 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. Stoudenmire’s luck would not last forever, though, and in 1882 he was killed when a discussion between he and a group of his enemies escalated into a gunfight in which he was shot three times.
6. 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.
5. Wild Bill Hickok
One of the most legendary figures of the Old West, Wild Bill Hickok was an actor, gambler, lawman, and gunfighter who was regarded as one of the most skilled gunslingers of his day. Hickok got his start as a constable and rider for the Pony Express, but he gained a reputation for being handy with a gun after he killed outlaw David McCanles with a single bullet from 75 yards away. Hickok has the distinction of being one of the few gunfighters to ever participate in a real “Western-style” quick-draw duel, when he killed a man named Davis Tutt, Jr. over a dispute concerning gambling debts. In 1869, Hickok was elected sheriff of Ellis County Kansas, and is said to have killed two men in his first month on the job. Although many of his exploits are legendary, probably the most famous aspect of Wild Bill’s life is his death, which occurred in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876. Hickok was playing poker when he was shot in the back of the head by a gambler named Jack McCall, 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. Clay Allison
Known for his mercurial personality and violent temper, Clay Allison was a gunfighter who is remembered as one of the most notorious and downright deranged outlaws of the Old West. Allison fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, but was discharged after a blow to the head started causing erratic behavior in him. It is this ailment that many historians have said explains his shockingly brutal actions, which included once beheading a man he suspected of murder and carrying the head into his favorite bar. After this, which cemented his reputation as one of the most murderous figures of his day, Allison went on to participate in a number of gunfights against fellow gunslingers. The most famous of these 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.” For a man who led such a dangerous lifestyle, Allison met a rather ironic and unimpressive death in 1887, when he fell off a wagon and broke his neck. His gravestone is said to read: ”Clay Allison. Gentleman. Gun Fighter. He never killed a man that did not need killing.”
3. Jim “Killer” Miller
One of the most downright murderous figures of the Old West, Jim “Killer” Miller was an assassin and gunfighter who is credited with killing at least 14 people, though legend has it that the number is somewhere closer to 50. One of the most famous stories about him involves a confrontation he had with a sheriff named Bud Frazer over Miller’s alleged involvement in the murder of a cattle rancher. Miller pulled his gun on Frazer, who proceeded to shoot him six times. Killer’s friends managed to escape with him, only to find that he had been wearing a metal plate under his shirt, which had blocked all of Frazer’s bullets. Two years later, Miller tracked the Sheriff down and killed him with a shotgun. 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. His days of bloodshed finally came to an end in 1909, when he was arrested for the murder of a U.S. Marshall. After a mob of some forty people broke into the prison, Miller and three other outlaws were dragged to a nearby barn and lynched. In his typical maniacal fashion, prior to being hanged Miller is said to have shouted, “Let ‘er rip!” and voluntarily jumped off the box to his death.
2. Tom Horn
Tom Horn spent a good portion of his life legitimately employed both as a lawman and a detective, but in actuality he was one of the most cold-blooded killers of the Old West. In the 1880s, Horn made a name for himself as a scout and tracker, and was responsible for the arrest of many feared criminals. This caught the attention of the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency, and Horn worked for them for several years as a tracker and bounty hunter. Though known as being eerily cool under pressure, Horn was considered to have a dangerous capacity for violence, and in 1894 he was forced to resign his post as a detective after he became linked to the murders of 17 people. Following his resignation, he developed a reputation as a killer for hire, and is said to have been responsible for the deaths of some 20 cattle rustlers over the course of several years. Horn was finally caught and hanged in 1901 after being linked to the murder of a 14-year-old boy. Ironically, some modern historians have claimed that on this particular occasion Horn was actually innocent. Still, there is no denying that he was responsible for a great many other killings. Some historians have reasoned that he may have had a hand in as many as 50 murders.
1. John Wesley Hardin
In a relatively short life, famed outlaw and gunslinger John Wesley Hardin established himself as easily the most bloodthirsty figure of the Old West, and is credited with the deaths of no less than 42 people. The son of a Methodist preacher, Hardin displayed a capacity for violence early on in life when he stabbed a fellow student in the schoolyard at the age of 14. At 15, he gunned down an ex-slave, and then proceeded to kill three Union soldiers before going on the run. He 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. Hardin was eventually arrested at age 17 for the murder of a Texas City Marshal, but he was able to procure a gun while in jail, and when transferred he killed one of his guards and again went on the lam. Now a celebrated gunfighter, he made his way to Abilene and fell under the tutelage of Wild Bill Hickok. But Hardin was forced to flee the city soon after his arrival when he is said to shot and killed a fellow guest at his hotel because the man’s snoring was keeping him awake. At 25, Hardin was finally arrested by a team of Texas Rangers, and eventually served a total of 16 years in prison before being released at the age of 41. Reformed form his years behind bars, Hardin began studying law and even passed the bar, but his old reputation eventually caught up with him. In 1895, he was killed after being shot in the back by a lawman in El Paso, Texas.