View Full Version : How accurate were the original cowboy shooters?

El Chimango Pete
February 27, 1999, 08:58 PM
I wonder how accurate shooting really was (or needed to be) in the Old west? - We have the legendary lawmen and/or outlaws that were superb. Wild Bill Hickok killed Dave Tutt with a single shot at 75 yards - notable for being one of the few recorded actual 'duels' and also that Wild Bill used two hands. Perhaps these were rare exceptions. There appears little effort towards our idea of "sight picture", most confrontations with handguns would have been at close quarters, and ammunition must have been scarce for practice… and of course there is the old argument - did they usually shoot one handed?

El Chimango Pete ---- A 44 beats 4 aces

February 28, 1999, 01:50 AM
You basically outline a recent article in American Handgunner (Nov/Dec '98) by Barrett Tillman. He goes right down the line addressing all of your questions and referring to several gunfights (including the one you mention). Can you get the magazine down there?

February 28, 1999, 05:36 PM
Everything I've read seems to indicate that most cowboys were very poor pistol shots. Ammo was expensive on a cowpunchers pay, they had little time to practice, and most avoided deadly social encounters. I remember reading of two cowboys who got into a shoot out with each other while standing at the bar of a saloon. They emptied their pistols at each other and all of the shots missed. Law officers and outlaws would be a different matter.

El Chimango Pete
March 7, 1999, 02:04 PM
Missed that issue of "American Handgunner", pity - will try to order it as a 'back issue'. If they were not overly concerned with accuracy, on the other hand, Colt's, Remington, Starr, et al didn't seem to be supplying their guns accordingly: Quality products, generally better than the 'average' buyer would demand (also considering that guns would be relatively expensive to them). We will not use the term 'saturday night...etc.' (a media aberration) - but you see what i mean.

Ole Buzzard
March 15, 1999, 10:51 AM
I have always read that Hickock had no hesitation about shooting while others might "think about it"

James K
March 31, 1999, 09:41 AM
The guns didn't allow a lot of accuracy as we understand it today, primarily because of very poor sights. Good guns were expensive; a Colt SA was $17.50, over half a month's pay for a cowboy who got 50 cents a day and his meals and horse. (Cowboys rarely owned their horses, the horse belonged to the ranch, and the cowboy took first serve at the remuda line.) So the more usual carry guns were breaktop DAs, old percussion guns,
cheap ($2 - $3 through MW or Sears mail order) pocket revolvers, etc. Also Remingtons, S&Ws, Merwin-Hulberts, etc., etc. In one saloon fight, two groups of rival ranch hands fired over 200 shots at each other. Result - one dead cat!

Incidentally, the old timers didn't worry about lawsuits, so they carried six shots in their six-shooters, but they weren't crazy. They didn't depend on the hammer "safety" notch, but simply dropped the hammer between rounds, like they had done with the old Colts (safety pins) and Remingtons (safety notches in the cylinder.)

July 23, 2006, 08:43 PM
I know this thread is old but I wanted to add something of relevent to it.

I live in Colorado, and as accuracy goes. Let me tell you a story about a mine disbute near Cripple Creek/Victor Colorado. I will share the most important detyails so this a condenced version. then you will understand what my point was.

Near Cripple Creek/Victor Colorado there is a mountian called Battle Mountain. it was named that after so many mine claim disputes ended in alot of shooting.

This mine dispute happened at a mine that was one of the biggest produces on that mountain. It came about after the guards (workig for the other side) let claim jumpers into the mine to sieze it. When the owners and miners that worked there found out, they all proceeded to get up there and had a long shoot out with the claim jumpers. Over 3000 rounds were fired by both sides and it didn't end until the claim jumpers ran out of ammo and the military was called in. No one went to jail and only one person was wounded.

Many would say that their guns were not acurate. But in fact it was most likely a case of they really didn't want to be hung for killing anyone (either side), just because you may think your on the right side doesn't mean you are. So fear would be a good reason to miss.

As for the guns not being acurate. I disagree, I have shot many guns both original and replicas and have found that they are in fact acurate.

Wild bill Hickok was asked why he carried black powder (ball and cap) when everyone else was using cartridge. He responded, "just as acurate".

I used to have 2 1851 44s, I could group 3 inches at 30 yards. They were replicas but decent replicas. What it all comes down to is how much powder you put down the barrel and how round your balls are. Speer makes the best round balls as they are swagged instead of cast. Cast leaves a sprue which has to be centered for best acuracy. Thats hard to do. Also bullet weight makes a big difference in groupings. Weigh your bullets and put them into 3-4 groups. shoot only a group at a time. you will notice how much better a pistol shoots.

My old black powder pistols were funny, full loads gave really bad acuracy. But a load 5 grains less (30 grains) was the best for power and acuracy. Shoot your guns and experiment with powder loads. just avoid mousefart loads. anything less than 20 grains is to light.

I had an italian made 36 navy that was a great gun, except if you fired more than 9 rounds in it the acuracy went to hell in a head basket. Swab the barrel and it was fine again for a few more shots. Oh, I should mention that I used to shoot Pyrodex. 2f or 3f. I still do but now I shoot real black powder too.

hope this helps someone.


June 8, 2012, 12:22 PM
Hickock was a killer not hesitant about. Shooting and not caring if. He only cared about hitting good and stopping the attack against him wasstopped.
He was a great shot capible of pinpoint shooting
The average guy couldn't hold 6" under stressful conditions. I am sure they shot for the whole body.

June 8, 2012, 12:57 PM
Most back then were probably lousy shots, but a good part of the reason was black powder. The smoke prevented a good second shot, especially in an enclosed area like a saloon. I've read a number of accounts where a posse had shootouts in wooded mountainous areas and because they had black powder cartridges and those they were chasing had smokeless, the posse got picked off cause the smoke gave away their position, while they couldn't tell where the outlaws were shooting from.

June 8, 2012, 01:51 PM
I remember reading of two cowboys who got into a shoot out with each other while standing at the bar of a saloon. They emptied their pistols at each other and all of the shots missed.

LOL, well then the only thing to do at that point is to buy the man a beer!

June 8, 2012, 03:33 PM
Just for perspective

5,000 shots per kill in Korea

30,000 shots per kill in Vietnam

250,000 shots per kill Afghanistan/Iraq

On the other hand, snipers and experienced hunters average less than 2 shots per kill

June 8, 2012, 05:30 PM
No full auto back then. Three shot bursts makes more sense too.

Doc Hoy
June 8, 2012, 06:50 PM
They should have bought the beer first and saved the ammunition. (Its easier on the furniture too unless I am the one drinking the beer.)

4V50 Gary
June 8, 2012, 08:27 PM
James K. Tell me more about that 200 shots fired shoot out.

June 9, 2012, 10:49 AM
What Ive read indicates most shooting victims in that era lived ten days on average, so I would have to say most were poor shots.

June 9, 2012, 01:32 PM
Actually penicillin would've been the magic bullet back then. Most people died from infection.

June 9, 2012, 01:52 PM
Some were good, some were bad. Just like now.

June 9, 2012, 02:20 PM
Actually, back then they were worse shots than today. With TV, videos, movies, gun clubs, internet, shooting ranges, shooting instructors, books, etc., todays gun owners are much more informed regarding the shooting sports. In addition, shooting techniques alone have vastly improved, as well as the quality of our weapons and ammunition.

Back then people were either self taught, or were instructed in how to shoot by a parent, or friend. I can't believe their instruction was all that good unless they were qualified by someone like Wes Hardin, or Bill Hickok. I was given a winchester 94 SRC in 38-55 many years ago that belonged to an elderly next door neighbor of my parents. It belonged to his father father and was bought in the 1920's. He had said that because of that rifle and his dad being such a good shot they were able to put meat on the table.

My point is that those who were forced to hunt to live were by the same token forced to learn how to be a good shot. I can't say how well they'd do with a handgun though. Today people are much better shots in general. But that's only my opinion and since the old timers are dead we'll only be able to guess, but we're the bigger wimps.

June 9, 2012, 02:55 PM
in the Old west?
Not everyone was a Cowboy. There were some very good shots back in that day too. Just like now some are good, some think they are good and most aren't. Read more history about actual Lawmen and Outlaws and you'll read of some pretty good shooting. Read some history of Buffalo Bill's show, he had some excellent shots including a little Lady named Annie Oakley. She once shot a cigarette out of the Kaiser's mouth.

June 9, 2012, 03:13 PM
In one saloon fight, two groups of rival ranch hands fired over 200 shots at each other. Result - one dead cat!

Well, the day wasn't a total loss.

June 9, 2012, 03:31 PM
I've read lots about the old west my entire life and it's true that not everyone was a cowboy, which no one said as far as I know. I seriously collect old western guns and do have some personal family connections to the west as well. My grandfather was a trick roper and bronc rider in the 101 Ranch Wild West Show with Tom Mix. His name appears on one of their rosters. During WW1, because of his experience he was a mule skinner in the army in France and was mustard gassed while transporting supplies in no man's land, which drastically changed his life. He was a lousy shot from what my father said and my father had no interest in guns either. As a matter of fact, my father sat on TM's horse Tony when he visited New Boston Illinois in the 1930's. I never said no one could shoot back then, only there's better shots today for what I think were valid reasons that I gave. It's only opinion, that's all.

June 9, 2012, 04:37 PM
In one saloon fight, two groups of rival ranch hands fired over 200 shots at each other. Result - one dead cat!

Well, the day wasn't a total loss.

Sarge, that was the greatest come-back line I've seen in a long time. Bravo.

Doc Hoy
June 9, 2012, 05:53 PM
...That accuracy in small arms combat involving police does not result in very high number of hits.

Can't remember precisely but I think it is under ten percent. It would be easy enough to check.

We (Meaning myself and some other of the emergency response coordinators) were trying to rationalize the school's gun free zone policy. For that effort I interviewed around thirty police officers and every one of them though it was a bad idea to permit guns in classrooms. They supported the gun free zone status to a man.

June 9, 2012, 06:39 PM
Read the book "How I became a Crack Shot" by W Milton Farrow.

Mr Farrow was one of the best shooters in the world, the copy right date of the book is 1882.

Mr Farrow held a 200 yard shooting competition in Glendive Montana, still in the wild and wooly west, for the locals, with, according to him “a sprinkling of Officers from Fort Keogh”.



The target was of the regular Creedmoor pattern for 200 yards, four feet wide and six feet tall, with eight inch bullseye. After a few preparatory shots the practice was begun, and in many cases did the hunters and scouts astonish the celebrated shot (Mr Farrow) and themselves, at the ease and frequency with which they could miss , not only the bullseye, but the entire target.

June 9, 2012, 08:19 PM
Since I have NO idea what I'm talking about, I think I'll join in too. :p

I would say that in history the general populace of THAT day were better shots than the general populace of THIS day for several reasons. There was a larger portion of the population living in rural area than in urban areas. Rural people shot guns more often than city folks. However, city folks of history shot guns much more, as a percentage than city folks do now. (gangster excluded) I didn't say that shooters of that day were better than shooter of TODAY, I just can't see how that's possible.

Therefore, if someone is shooting more often and FOR A REASON (trying to kill their food), then it stands to reason that they would be a better shot than those who never do shoot at all or just shoot for fun one or twice a year, no matter how GOOD the gun or ammo is.

However, the OP question had NOTHING to do with rural vs. urban, nor modern day, but that's not going to stop me-no sir. :)

Today's shooters would be considered very accurate shooters if put in a historical perspective because we have so much more money and so much more time to practice-as has been stated several times in this thread.

Chronologically, as close away as my father and his brothers having to provide meat for the table in the late days of the Depression era, HAD to be good shots. This was NOT that long ago, or so I keep telling myself. So, having to learn how to aim and shoot was part of their everyday life. They were-as I was, born in the rural south. It was a necessity to shoot well for them.

For me, it was just fun. I never HAD to shoot anything to keep meat on the table, my shooting was all for fun. I learned to shot BB guns with my cousins as a young child. We walked "patrol" on dirt roads and (sadly now) shot and killed just about anything that crawled or flew day after day. So, we got pretty good at it. We hunted as kids in a large group of relatives. You shot good because everybody did.

Something else to consider-People can also SEE a whole lot better now than they used to, don't neglect that either in your theories. My Grandfather (b.1899) was considered a very good shot because he could see really well, my Dad (b. 1929)was a bad shot because he had astigmatism. It could come down to simply the fact that people of history didn't have glasses or at least glasses that were much good.

Now back to people who know what they are taking about.

June 9, 2012, 09:28 PM
Not really knowing for sure, but how accurate were the statistics back then, or did anyone even keep records? As a matter of fact, who kept records back then regarding how much people shot? My guess and it's only a guess would be no one. There were more important things to do unlike today.

Gee, I've always read that gun shops and hardware stores weren't everywhere and that's why pistol and rifle ammo in many cases were compatable. Many back then did their own reloading out of necessity and didn't have the opportunity to just walk into the neihborhood Walmart, or Dick's and buy a few boxes of ammo to just practice with. I'm sure that even those who hunted for their food were afraid to waste ammo. Many did live away from civilization and were forced to hunt in order to eat, as well as defend themselves from the two legged threats they encountered, but these people were few and far between, because the population was very low compared to those who lived in towns.

Today it's not so uncommon to see people regularly going to a range and firing 2, or 300 rounds, or more. I would just be guessing, but I think in the 1800's that would probably be considered unrealistic and unaffordable.

There were expert shots during the Revolutionary War and Civil War as well who made with primitive weapons unbelieveable shots. But as good as Annie Oakley was she used gimmicks like shot in her 22's to make those trick shots. They weren't stupid back then either.

June 10, 2012, 10:18 AM
As for shooting with revolvers many did not use the sights on their pistols. They pointed, and shot. It was noted that Jesse James emptied his Scotfield revolver in a bank at a teller, and missed him with all six shots. He then knocked him out by clubbing him over the head with the gun. All the smoke inside of the building made it hard to see more than past the end of the gun itself.

Though there was a case where it was noted that Jesse fired one shot at a man while riding out of town after a bank job, and hit him in the heat dropping him dead on the spot.

Ok now I am off to the range to shoot the Navy .36 today. Last time I shot it I was making decent hits on a B-27 at 100 yards with it. So today I will see if it was just a case of even a blind dog catches a squirrel every now and again.

June 11, 2012, 10:44 AM
For what it's worth, almost all of the pistol shooting done in the Boise Basin area here in Southwest Idaho back in the mid to late 1800s was at close range - not quite spittin' range, but not much more. And most shootings happened in saloons or at mining claims.

After reading Governor McConnell's and John Hailey's histories of the state, I get the impression that gunfights in the area were more common than they might have been because the prevailing wisdom was that if both parties were visibly armed, each could claim self defense. Woe betide, though, the bushwhacker who carried concealed. There was certainly a sense of fair play and hiding one's hogleg was a serious violation.

June 15, 2012, 07:27 PM
quote In one saloon fight, two groups of rival ranch hands fired over 200 shots at each other. Result - one dead cat!
Well, the day wasn't a total loss.

I just wanted you to know I have a cat that thinks he is a dog. He is also coal black. I named him Sarge as the only good Sargent' I had in SEA were all black. They kept me from being stupid and getting killed.

One note the shooter today are not a bit better than they were back then. We figured Overseas that it took at least a thousand rounds to drop one bad guy. So much for one shot one kill. I even wound up the time over there as being a sniper. I did shoot more than two. to rub together.


June 16, 2012, 01:12 PM
Back in the 1880's, a gun, holster and ammo, could cost a poor guy a whole month's wages. So, unless they were naturally born good shots [and there were a few] they didn't have money to waste practising. Reloading cartridge ammo wasn't that common back then. They couldn't carry around the equipment needed for one thing, and secondly, they didn't have the slightest idea how to do it. A box of 25 or 50 rounds might have to last a year! Although, Wild Bill shot and emptied his revolvers each morning with his first whisky. But , he was paid considerably better than most people back then. And he used, and continued to use black powder into the cartridge age.