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"What is a Gunfighter"

By Dave Spaulding

The term gunfighter is batted around as often as the over-worked terms “Operator” or “Warrior”, which is too bad, as gunfighter is a name that holds deep historical significance in American society. I am a serious student of the Old West. I have made the “pilgrimage” to such places as Tombstone to see where the gunfight behind the O.K. Corral took place; to walk the ground where the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday confronted the Cowboys. I went to Deadwood to see where Wild Bill Hickok met his demise, and “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson allegedly confronted two men at the same time in front of the cemetery at the end of town. I have tried to find out what Bat Masterson, Tom Horn, Luke Short, Pat Garrett, Ben Thompson and their like thought and felt about the “business” they had undertaken in their own words, a task that is all but impossible due to the lack of “literary quality” at the time. Writers were not interested in the truth as much as they were interested in selling papers and dime novels…something that remains unchanged to this day.

Still, there is much to learn from the gunfighters of yesterday, as not that much has changed. As a matter of fact, I would go so far as to say that most everything we need to know about gun fighting was invented between 1840 and 1940, with little being new since that time. My grandmother liked to say, “What is old will be new again”, and I’ll be darned if she wasn’t right! If you want to learn something new, read an old book as it is probably in there. Weaver or Isosceles stance?! Nothing new here. I have a book from 1929 that shows a line drawing of a shooter with two hands on a revolver. Point shooting?! Nope! It didn’t start with Eric Sykes (Fairbairn often gets the credit, but the methodology taught was Sykes) as a member of “Shootists” from the 19th Century talk about “directing their fire” via body index. While it is true that men like Sykes and Jeff Cooper refined the techniques and quantified their value, little is really new in regards to pistol shooting.

What separated the gunfighter of the Old West was not technique or the weapons they used; it was their ability to be willing to stand up and exchange rounds with another human being! It wasn’t lack of fear as much as it was an ability to control it, swallow it and put it out of their mind that made them dangerous. Bat Masterson, the legendary law man from Dodge City, Kansas once said that the three attributes of a gunfighter were 1. Deliberation 2. Accuracy 3. Speed, in that order. While accuracy and speed are obvious, the word “deliberation” needs to be explored just a bit. Trying to discover what Masterson meant by this is challenging, but I believe that I have a grasp of it based on his writings and the writing of historians who studied his life. I think that Masterson meant deliberation as the personal attribute possessed by the gunman who would confront and deliberately fight another human being, knowing they could lose their life while doing so, but still undertaking the task. The level of deliberation required to confront another armed and dangerous human being, knowing that you could lose your life, is huge and cannot be minimized…few men have the “sand” to do so, even to this day.

In the novel The Shootist, main character J.B. Books puts the concept into perspective when he tells young stable boy Gillom, “It’s not about being fast or even accurate that counts…it’s being willing! Most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They’ll blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger and I won’t” Yep, it’s about being ruthless enough to KILL another human being face-to-face, but only with due cause. What is a gunfighter? He’s a man (or woman!) who understands that his lifestyle might take him into harm’s way and prepares for it, not only by buying the best gear possible, but by “steeling” their mind to confront those that would do them harm. They make ready for this by training and practicing for potential conflict, but they are not overly paranoid…they are prepared!

In the coming weeks and months, Templar Custom Arms will continue to offer this series of Preparation Tips, most of which will be authored by my good friend, Vince Barnes. Vince is a life-long law enforcement officer and student of armed conflict, having graduated from a number of advanced shooting schools. I hope that you will check back regularly and learn from the lessons that Vince will provide. I don’t think you will be sorry. Stay safe, alert and check your 360 often!

Dave Spaulding is a retired Lieutenant with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Dayton, Ohio. He worked in all facets of law enforcement, including SWAT, training, undercover operations and violent crime investigations. He is a graduate of most of the better known shooting schools, and the author of over 1,000 articles in firearm and law enforcement publications. He is the author of the two best selling books Defensive Living and Handgun Combatives.