The Wild West is well known for its colorful history, and it’s often portrayed as a place that was replete with saloons, gambling and gunfights. And whether lawmen or outlaws – nobody was anyone in the Old West unless they knew how to handle a gun. Some applied their skills as gunslingers to robbing trains, others combined quick-draw shooting with fiery tempers or a seemingly psychotic need to kill, and yet others used their abilities to enforce the law – even though their conduct was often questionable. Still, while we may not admire them for their exploits, we can certainly appreciate the skill of these renowned gunfighters. Here’s a look at 10 of the deadliest Wild West gunslingers.
10. Billy the Kid
Legend has it that famous outlaw Billy the Kid had killed as many as 26 men by the time he died, aged just 21 years old, although the total seems more likely to have been under 10. While there’s conflicting information about Billy the Kid’s true name and origins, he is widely reported to have been excellent with a gun. It seems most likely that he was born in an Irish district of New York City on November 23, 1859 and then settled in New Mexico in 1873, after being moved around the country by his mother.
In 1877 – following his engagement in criminal activity such as livestock rustling – Billy the Kid was hired by a wealthy English cattle rancher named John Tunstall in Lincoln County, New Mexico. The Kid’s job was to protect Tunstall and watch over his animals. And he was known for his lightning-fast draw, his lithe frame, and his readiness to fight with his fists if necessary. The Kid is said to have thought highly of his boss, and the two had a mutual respect. So when Tunstall was murdered in cold blood, Billy vowed to exact revenge on the killers.
Billy the Kid’s favorite gun is believed to have been a .44 caliber Colt “Peacemaker,” and he became notorious due to his involvement in the Lincoln County War. Much violence and many escapades ensued, and on July 14, 1881, he was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
9. James “Killin’ Jim” Miller
James “Killin’ Jim” Miller was born in Van Buren, Arkansas on October 25, 1866, but his family moved to Texas when he was a baby. Miller’s parents died when he was young, and he moved in with his grandparents. Yet he was orphaned for a second time when his grandparents were murdered, with Miller himself arrested for the crime, even though he was only eight years old. In the end, he wasn’t charged, and he went to live with his sister and her husband. Later, as a teenager, Miller blasted his sister’s husband in the head with a shotgun after a quarrel. He was handed a life sentence for the murder but escaped justice owing to a technicality.
Next, Miller was implicated in another shotgun attack, this time on Ballinger City lawman Joe Townsend. Following this incident, “Killin’ Jim” spent time traveling and ran a saloon. He then turned lawman himself, eventually becoming the marshal of Pecos. In 1894, an ongoing feud between Miller and Pecos sheriff George A. “Bud” Frazer led to Frazer shooting Miller in the arm, groin and chest – but thanks to a steel plate under his shirt, Miller survived.
“Killin’ Jim” went on to become a Texas Ranger as well as a professional assassin. However, on April 19, 1909, following the murder of former Deputy US Marshal Allen “Gus” Bobbitt, Miller was hanged. Apparently, he screamed, “Let ‘er rip,” before stepping off the box. This outlaw once claimed that he’d killed 51 men; other sources say he dispatched with 12 in gunfights.
8. John Wesley Hardin
According to an article in True West magazine, a contemporary of John Wesley Hardin’s claimed that Hardin “could get out a six-shooter and use it quicker than a frog could eat a fly.” And describing Hardin’s skills, Texas Ranger James B. Gillett said, “The quick draw, the spin, the rolls, pinwheeling, border shift – he did them all with magical precision.” Hardin is also said to have been a crack shot from horseback, able to unload his ammo into the knot of a tree trunk while galloping past.
Hardin favored cap-and-ball six-shooters and, on at least one occasion, a double-barreled shotgun. Unfortunately, he used his skills for ill. Born on May 26, 1853, this Texan desperado and gunfighter shot and killed his first victim in 1868, when he was just 15 years old. Publications of the period say that he dispatched with 27 men during his lifetime. However, he got his comeuppance on August 19, 1895 when he was shot and killed at the age of 42 by outlaw-cum-constable John Selman.
Interestingly, whilst he was a teenager going by the alias Wesley Clemmons, Hardin encountered another individual covered in this article, “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hardin was captivated by Hickok and in awe of his gun-fighting reputation.
7. Dan Bogan
Born in Alabama in 1860, Dan Bogan relocated and grew up in Texas, where he started working as a cowboy from an early age. Bogan seemed to have a quick temper, and he was always on the lookout for a fight, which earned him a reputation as a troublemaker. He later left Texas for Wyoming after being blacklisted in a wage dispute.
It is believed that by 1886 this cowboy had taken the lives of three men. What’s more, Bogan’s rabblerousing didn’t end there, and on January 15, 1887 he murdered Constable Charles S. Gunn, shooting the onetime Texas Ranger with a revolver. Before he could get away, though, Bogan was himself shot in the shoulder and then captured – although he managed to make a getaway in the midst of a raging blizzard.
Bogan later turned himself into the authorities because his wounds had caused him to get sick. However, in October 1987 he succeeded in breaking out of jail. And although famous detective Charlie Siringo pursued him, Bogan vanished without leaving much of a trace and possibly escaped to Argentina. While Bogan is not as well known as some of his contemporaries, author Robert K. DeArment considers him among the Old West’s most underestimated gunslingers.
6. William “Wild Bill” Longley
William Preston Longley – better known as “Wild Bill” Longley – is regarded as one of the most lethal gunfighters of the Old West. He had a notoriously short fuse and killed upon the slightest provocation. In fact, he may even have been what today we’d call a psychopath. By his own account, he was instructed from an early age to “believe it was right to kill sassy Negroes,” and by the age of 17 he had committed his first murder.
Longley was born in Austin County, Texas on October 6, 1851 and grew up on a farm close to Evergreen in Lee County, where he mastered the art of shooting. This dangerous gunfighter was known to carry two Dance .44 caliber revolvers, but he used a shotgun as well. At the time of his hanging, on October 11, 1878, Longley said that he had killed eight people – although he earlier claimed the figure was 32. Either way, CBS News calls him “one of the first two-gun fast draw experts.”
5. Harvey “Kid Curry” Logan
Born in Tama County, Iowa in 1867, Harvey Logan – otherwise known as “Kid Curry” – was caught up in criminal activity such as robbery from a young age, and in 1894 he got on the wrong side of the law in Montana. As the story goes, a miner and lawman named Powell “Pike” Landusky believed that Logan was involved with his daughter and accused him of assault. Logan was taken away by police and beaten. So on December 27, the 27-year-old Logan confronted Landusky in a saloon and shot and killed him with a pistol. Forced to flee, Logan would ride with outlaw Black Jack Ketchum, form his own gang, and eventually join Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch.
According to some, Logan was considered “the fastest gun in the West” and is thought to be the basis for the Sundance Kid character as depicted by Hollywood. Logan participated in a series of robberies in South Dakota, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado, and Wild West magazine even claims that he was “the wildest of the Wild Bunch.”
This gunman escaped from prison on two occasions and allegedly killed nine men in various shooting incidents during his time. In the end, on June 17, 1904, Logan took his own life after being wounded in a gunfight in Parachute, Colorado – perhaps to evade capture one last time.
4. Luke Short
Fast-drawing gunslinger and killer Luke Short was born in Mississippi in 1854 but was raised in Texas. Leaving home whilst in his teens, Short worked as a cowboy, an illegal whiskey trader and a professional gambler. He also later invested in various saloons. Short had practiced with a gun in his early years and would acquire a reputation for his skill, but the most famous event he was involved in was probably the so-called Dodge City War.
After buying shares in the Long Branch Saloon, Short was branded “undesirable” by the Dodge City, KS authorities, and they made attempts to get rid of him. However, determined not to go down without a fight, Short reached out to prominent Old West lawman Bat Masterson, who in turn got in touch with Wyatt Earp. Earp then descended on Dodge City with a posse of desperados. And in order to prevent any conflict, Short was allowed back into Dodge and given permission to reopen his saloon – all without a single gunshot sounding. Short is also famous for winning a duel against Jim Courtright on February 8, 1887 in Forth Worth, Texas, where his ability to pull a pistol saved his own life – and ended Courtright’s.
3. Dallas Stoudenmire
Dallas Stoudenmire was born in Aberfoil, Alabama on December 11, 1845. As a 15-year-old, he spent time in the Confederate Army – although he was discharged when officers found out that he was underage. Still, undeterred, Stoudenmire signed up again and fought in the Civil War, and he later operated as a Texas Ranger for three or more years. Armed with two guns, Stoudenmire was an accurate shot with both hands, and he had a reputation for being tough and dangerously short-tempered when he had a drink inside him.
In April 1881, Stoudenmire became marshal of El Paso, Texas – this being an infamously lawless and violent town at the time. On his third day on the job, Stoudenmire killed three men with two .44 caliber Colt revolvers in a famous incident known as the “Four Dead In Five Seconds” gunfight. By February the following year, he had dispatched with a further seven men in gunfights. Although the crime rate in El Paso fell significantly, and Stoudenmire earned himself repute as a legendary lawman and gunslinger, he also made himself a lot of enemies. On September 18, 1882, he was shot and killed during a shootout with the Manning brothers, the culmination of a feud. He was 36 years old.
2. William “Curly Bill” Brocius
Born around 1845, William Brocius, better known as “Curly Bill” Brocius, may well be Arizona’s most famous – or infamous – outlaw. He was involved in multiple gunfights and related incidents, including the accidental shooting of Tombstone town marshal Fred White on October 27, 1880 and the March 8, 1881 killing of a cowboy named Dick Lloyd.
Brocius may have also been mixed up in the March 18, 1882 assassination of Morgan Earp. Whether or not this was the case, what is certain is that Brocius was good with a gun. In fact, a contemporary said he was capable of shooting coins from between people’s fingers and could comfortably take down fleeing jackrabbits. He was also said to have the ability to snuff out a candle by firing at it with his pistol. In the end, though, on March 24, 1882, Wyatt Earp killed Brocius during a shootout involving the Earp posse, Brocius and several other cowboys in Iron Springs, Arizona.
1. James “Wild Bill” Hickok
Deadly gunman and Old West folk hero James “Wild Bill” Hickok was born in Illinois on May 27, 1837. Hickok is said to have been a great shot, even as a youngster, and was well known for his marksmanship with a pistol. In 1855, after a fight Hickok mistakenly believed had ended with the death of his adversary, the 18-year-old headed west. He first found work as a stagecoach driver, prior to working as a lawman in Kansas and Nebraska. Hickok then spent some time fighting for the Union Army – possibly as a spy – during the Civil War.
In 1865, “Wild Bill” was involved in an iconic public quick-draw duel with David Tutt. Harper’s Magazine featured it in a story, which elevated Hickok to hero status. Hickok’s weapons of choice were a brace of 1851 Colt pistols with ivory handles and silver plating, which he kept in his belt or sash and drew in a reverse “cavalry” style.
On April 15, 1871, Hickok took over as the marshal of Abilene, Texas. However, in December that same year he was discharged of his duties following a string of dubious shooting incidents – including the accidental killing of his deputy. After that, Hickok traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show for a few years, performing as himself. He also tried to support himself as a gambler and was even arrested for vagrancy on a few occasions. Fate caught up with Hickok on August 2, 1876 when a man named Jack McCall walked into the Deadwood, Dakota saloon in which Hickok was playing poker and shot him in the head from behind.