This interview excerpt about the lessons on gunfighting, supposedly said by the legendary lawman, gunfighter, and frequent movie subject, Wyatt Earp, comes from a 1994 book written by Stuart Lake, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. You can find the book online at a hefty price since it’s long out of print.
Lessons On Gunfighting From The Legendary Wyatt Earp
Some people commenting on the book have questioned some of the historical accuracies, but the interview itself seems to get high marks for being right from Earp. You can read the whole thing – about 1,525 words – online (http://bit.ly/2waEHAQ among other places). For a man who learned his lessons on gunfighting in the mean and dusty streets of some tough cowtowns, Earp’s teachings ring true today, nearly 90 years after his passing. (Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848, and died – peacefully, not from bullets – on January 13, 1929.) I have shortened this for length, but have not altered his words, with my comments below each quoted section.
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“I was a fair hand with pistol, rifle, or shotgun, but I learned more about gunfighting from Tom Speer’s cronies during the summer of 1871 than I had dreamed was in the book. Those old-timers took their gunplay seriously, which was natural under the conditions in which they lived. Shooting, to them, was considerably more than aiming at a mark and pulling a trigger. Models of weapons, methods of wearing them, means of getting them into action and operating them, all to the one end of combining high speed with absolute accuracy, contributed to the frontiersman’s shooting skill. The sought-after degree of proficiency was that which could turn to most effective account the split-second between life and death. Hours upon hours of practice and wide experience in actualities supported their arguments over style.”
Marshal Earp is being crystal-clear here: the right gun, the right holster, the right way to carry it on your body, getting out of the holster and either into the low-ready position or right on target, knowledge of your gun’s mechanical systems (and knowing how and why to correct problems when the machinery fails), and how to use it safely, quickly, effectively, and accurately. Lots of quality-time practice, at indoor and outdoor ranges, in all lighting and weather conditions.
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“The most important lesson I learned from those proficient gunfighters was the winner of a gunplay usually was the man who took his time. The second was that, if I hoped to live long on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting — grandstand play — as I would poison. When I say that I learned to take my time in a gunfight, I do not wish to be misunderstood, for the time to be taken was only that split fraction of a second that means the difference between deadly accuracy with a sixgun and a miss. It is hard to make this clear to a man who has never been in a gunfight. Perhaps I can best describe such time taking as going into action with the greatest speed of which a man’s muscles are capable, but mentally unflustered by an urge to hurry or the need for complicated nervous and muscular actions which trick-shooting involves. Mentally deliberate, but muscularly faster than thought, is what I mean.”
He’s saying it true here: fast and accurate, using your trained and developed powers of concentration, which comes through regular practice, to create the required muscle memory.
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“From personal experience and numerous six-gun battles which I witnessed, I can only support the opinion advanced by the men who gave me my most valuable instruction in fast and accurate shooting, which was that the gun-fanner and hip-shooter stood small chance to live against a man who, as old Jack Gallagher always put it, took his time and pulled the trigger once.”
In our modern context, he’s not talking about the number of rounds you can put on the paper or human target, but the accuracy of those rounds. Not just “spraying and praying” and hoping one lands where you wanted it, but a practiced, measured shot each time. Sight picture, straight pull of the trigger to the fire, move to the trigger reset quickly, adjust the sight picture off the recoil, and prepare to do it again.
“In the days of which I am talking, among men whom I have in mind, when a man went after his guns, he did so with a single, serious purpose. There was no such thing as a bluff; when a gunfighter reached for his forty-five, every faculty he owned was keyed to shooting as speedily and as accurately as possible, to making his first shot the last of the fight. He just had to think of his gun solely as something with which to kill another before he himself could be killed. The possibility of intimidating an antagonist was remote, although the ‘drop’ was thoroughly respected, and few men in the West would draw against it. I have seen men so fast and so sure of themselves that they did go after their guns while men who intended to kill them had them covered, and what is more win out in the play. They were rare. It is safe to say, for all general purposes, that anything in gunfighting that smacked of show-off or bluff was left to braggarts who were ignorant or careless of their lives.”
Action is faster than reaction. Even if the bad guy facing you is armed, you can still draw and fire at him, as his (tiny or alcohol or drug-addled) brain is trying to figure out what you’re doing, why you’re not giving up or complying, and why he suddenly sees muzzle flashes and bullets headed his way.
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“Practiced gun-wielders had too much respect for their weapons to take unnecessary chances with them; it was only with tyros and would-bes that you heard of accidental discharges or didn’t-know-it-was-loaded injuries in the country where carrying a Colt’s was a man’s prerogative.”
We learn from our Masters. Be thoughtful about your weapon, be proficient with it, practice with it often, and it will serve you.
What do you think about the lessons on gunfighting from Wyatt Earp? Let us know in the comments section below.
Up Next: The Real Science Behind A Gunfight
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Steve can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht
Excellent article! Very timely and informative. Keep up the good work. Thanks!
Wells said my friend
A very interesting arrival, it may come in handy when tshtf
You have to know where your gun is and how your hand grasps holds cocks points and Fires. I started shooting a handgun in my early twenties and my holster was in the same spot on my belt at all times. When I reach for my pistol I reached for the same spot each time and it was there. Everything after that was automatic. I had a friend by a brand new 44 Magnum switch from a holster mounted on his belt to a shoulder holster. He practice and practice and practice drawing from his shoulder holster. One Summer he was fishing and bumped into an aggressive black bear. His first response was to reach for his gun on his hip; oops. Is the bear was mauling him he pulled the 44 magnum from his shoulder holster and killed it. His first emergency response was to where the gun was not the should have been. Once you learn emergency response with a firearm that is for your firearm should be at all times. Elmer Keith talks about this and some of his books.
How did your friend end up he wasnt to badly injured i hope ?
Great article, thanks.
I think Earp was correct in describing the manner in which serious gun handlers went about their business, such as lawmen and some as criminals, sometimes unable to tell which was which. I don’t think he was describing the “Hollywood Middle of the Street” shoot out. Most historical accounts infer much less “honor” in a gun fights and suggest that many participants opened fire whenever they thought they had an advantage, from where ever they were, without regard to what others might think. Survival was the goal. Some of those involved in gunfights were not particularly nice men and “honor” didn’t figure much in their decision making at the instance. I was a LE officer for many years and fortunately never had to actually shoot someone. I practiced at the range regularly ( drawing, pointing, locked wrist and center mass targeting and counting rounds, speed reloading without speed loaders (revolver days) and agree that the muscle memory does work. I carried my weapon in the same place always. I still carry it there in CC, it seems natural. I frequently carry an ankle .380 as well. I now regret not having been taught real gun-fighting techniques by the departments and academy. The standard 4,7,15,25 yard stand and point target shooting doesn’t seem very logical when I think about it. I have changed the way I practice for doing CC. I’ve incorporated a moving, below eye-level, point shooting method so I can look at a target and hit it from any angle without having to stand rigid and simply replicate off hand target shooting methods I was taught.
I have done some stress shooting and found that excitement and heavy physical breathing can make you virtually ineffective when trying to hit a target. A pounding heartbeat can wipe out your accuracy in an instance. I’ve just made the changes and I’m not proficient in my new system yet. A lot more practice to come.
I have a friend who was one of the most well read on Wyatt Earp and the old west, and did shows about Wyatt. One of the sayings he like to use that came from Wyatt was: ” The three most important things to remember in a gunfight, the lease important is shooting fast (it doesn’t matter how fast you shoot if you can’t hit what your shooting at), the next is being able to hit what you are shooting at, and lastly, the most important thing is to remain calm when someone else is shooting back at you. ( He love to say ” In a gunfight, take your time in a hurry”) ” Thanks to James and Ray for all the great history.
Lesson to be learned: When you have immediately determined that you are facing a life or death situation – “There was no such thing as a bluff; when a gunfighter reached for his forty-five, every faculty he owned was keyed to shooting as speedily and as accurately as possible, to making his first shot the last of the fight.”
To me, that is the lesson to be learned from this article. We all should always practice “. . . making his first shot the last of the fight.”
Be prepared to tell the police officer . . . “I truly believed he wanted to kill me – so I shot first!”
I loved this article and it was a well needed message.
A week or so ago I had a meth head try and break into my house while I was watching tv one night. I went out the back and circled around the to the side yard. With my handy tarus.40 loaded and ready. As I shined the light on him I fired a warning shot in the air. Turned out he had a gun and dropped it and followed my commands until police show up. Moral to that story is if you draw your weapon protect yourself !!! Never know what they may have in them.
Do you know where that warning shot you fired into the air happened to land? You should know better.
I agree…never fire a warning shot. If you truly feel a real fear for your life, you draw your weapon and when the deadly perpetrator makes a furtive movement to raise his weapon, you aim fast your front sight to his center of mass and double tap him at a minimum till the threat has been neutralized. I really appreciate the words from Marshall Earp. He has been there and done that.
As a retired LE officer, I would offer several comments. First, in the situation you described, you should have remained inside your house and called 911 and let LE officers who confront criminals for a living do their job. You, in civilian clothing, at night, in limited lighting, carrying a gun cannot be distinguished from the criminal breaking into your house. Over the years, a fair number of victims of burglary, become victims of “shot by an officer” when the P.O arrives on the scene. Second, you are not a police officer and if you shot the burglar (attempted burglar) out side, it will be a much more difficult task to defend yourself in criminal and civil court trials. Third, there is no such thing as a “Warning Shot!” A gun is not a bluffing tool. It has a specific purpose and when you point it at someone you had better be ready to kill who you point it at. If you are not, you will probably be the one found dead in your own yard
Fourth, you didn’t say whether you had family inside your house at the time. If you did, and you feature yourself as their protector, you just left them undefended and unprotected, particularly if you get disabled or killed. Don’t be a “hero.” If the intruder enters your home while you are waiting for LE to arrive, then you can still provide some level of protection for your family and yourself. Fifth, if you are in your house when the police arrive, DO NOT APPROACH THEM WITH A GUN IN YOUR HAND!!!
The arriving officer(s) don’t have a clue of who you are. Standing with a gun in your hand in that situation is asking for disaster and placing a very heavy burden upon the responding officer(s) to make the “shoot-don’t shoot” decision. Any movement with a gun will not end well for you. Think about what your actions can cause. Most police officers don’t want to shoot anyone and to shoot someone in that situation and then learn he/she shot the homeowner is something that can haunt an officer for the rest of their life. I’ve been in the situation of responding to a “prowler” call and guarantee you that the officer will be “ramped up” to some degree, because of the dangers involved in those incidents. Don’t make matters worse; fall back into a “self defense” mode and let LE handle it. You won’t be a “chicken” You’ll be making an intelligent response that we hope prevents a serious or fatal injury to anyone. Remember, the crime of burglar is a property crime, not a crime against a person and does not carry a penalty of death, if the burglar is convicted. You only have the right of self defense if you are in genuine belief you are about to be severely injured or killed, not to have your TV stolen,
Watch the movie “The tin star” starring Henry Fonda.This article as a movie,Fonda reciting Earps words as if it were Earp instead of Fonda.Read and learn. your life will depend on what you know ,on practice,on your knowing your gun on taking care of your gun and ammo.May you never need to use against another person,but be confident in your self if you do.
It sounds as it should be required reading for handgun owners. And many reply’s are well thought out. Except ‘ FIRING A WORNING SHOT ‘ It might be a good idea if Don Helms might need a time out for training and a new test .
Wyatt Earp must have known just what he was talking about; after all he lived through, at least, 2 gunfights where bullets were raining towards him, and he was never hit. His clothes had bullet holes in them, but his body was missed. One of those very gunfights was at the O.K. coral. The gunfight at the coral was on October 26th, 1881.
I was told by one of my uncle, that his Dad, said; “If you whoop a man bad enough, you will not have to fight him again.” I can see how this could apply to a gun fight. An inscription on a pistol; “Fear no man beneath the skies, for I will equalize.” A more sobering one; “Live by the sword and you will die by the sword.” Any tool should be learned to proficiency. Take good care of it and it will take good care of you.
I learned the quote as from being from Mr. Colt: “Fear no man, no matter what his size, just call on me, and I shall equalize.”
As my last student told me after one of his shoots, “I’ve never gotten off so many rounds in such a short period time while I felt that I was in slow-motion.” “Speed is dependent on the economy of motion.” Many shooters have to re-adjust their grip and sights after the recovery when the trigger is in the forward position. All of this should be completed while the trigger is going forward. When the trigger is forward to the point that the gun mechanism has recycled, the weapon is ready to be fired . . . so fire it. The trigger must remain under pressure against your finger in both the rearward and forward movement. Think of the trigger as an old piston, moving back and forth, back and forth, with a 1/2 second pause on each end of the cycle. The infinite pause at the rear is even more important than the pause in the front position of the trigger. That piston is constantly working, back and forth, back and forth, constantly working. So should your trigger until you decide to stop shooting.
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