Parsing the words of famed Old West lawman and OK Corral gunfighter Wyatt Earp.Story and Photo by Paul Pawela
In the April 2021 issue of American Shooting Journal, we talked about renowned gunfighters of yesteryear, how they used revolvers in gunfights, and how those hard fought lessons are still applicable to this day. We looked in-depth at the life of James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill, and his famous exploits in gunfighting.
This issue, in continuation of our exploration of famous gunfighters and their lifesaving endeavors, we will cover perhaps one of the most well-known gunfighters ever, Wyatt Earp. Wyatt Earp is widely regarded as one of the most famous lawmen and gunfighters of the Old West.
He is best known for being one of the last men standing at the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881. In that gunfight, Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and his best friend and fellow gunfighter Doc Holliday confronted five desperados known as Cowboys. They were all confined in a small alleyway no wider than 15 feet and no more than 10 feet away from each other.
Two Cowboys broke and ran away, while the other three ended up in Boot Hill Cemetery, forever immortalized in the most epic gunfight in American history. Three lawmen were wounded in the fight, two with serious injuries, while the hero of the day, Earp, remained unscathed despite 30 rounds total fired at close range. This shootout was not Earp’s first, nor would it be his last.
EARP’S GUNFIGHTS HAVE as much relevance today as they did in his time, and his gunfighting advice has been well documented. Here, we will take a look at some of Earp’s quotes, followed by a modern translation provided by me.
EARP: “I was a fair hand with pistol, rifle or shotgun.” Translation: Wyatt Earp knew how to fight, as most did at that time, with fists, knives and guns. Men of that era were proficient in all aspects of fighting.
EARP: “I learned more about gunfighting from Tom Speer’s cronies during the summer of ’71 than I had dreamed was in the book. Those old-timers took their gun play 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.” Translation: Take shooting seriously when practicing. Don’t go to the range simply to shoot small holes in the target; practice as if your life depends on it!
EARP: “Jack Gallagher’s advice summed up about all the others had to say. It was to wear my weapons in the position most convenient for me – in my case, as far as pistols were concerned, in the regulation open holsters; one on each hip if I was carrying two, hung rather low, as my arms were long …
Some men wore their guns belted high on the waist; others carried one gun directly in front of the stomach, usually inside, but sometimes outside the waistband, and another gun in a holster slung just in front of and below the left shoulder …
Style was a matter of individual preference.” Translation: What has changed in modern times? Absolutely nothing!
EARP: “When mounted on a horse, and ‘armed to the teeth,’ as the fiction writer would have it, a man’s rifle was slung in a boot just ahead of his right stirrup, his shotgun carried on the left by a thong looped over the saddle horn. With the adoption generally of breech-loading weapons, a rider who was equipped with two pistols, a rifle and a shotgun customarily had one of the belts to which his pistol holsters were attached filled with pistol ammunition, the other with rifle cartridges, while a heavier, wider belt filled with shotgun shells was looped around the saddle horn underneath the thong which held that weapon.
He was a riding arsenal, but there might well be times when he would need all the munitions he could carry.”
Translation: Today we travel in modern automobiles instead of horses, so why are our vehicles not mobile arsenals? We should have at our disposal portable weapons like AR pistols, modern shotguns like the Mossberg Shockwave or the Remington Tac-14, as well as plenty of ammo for each weapon system. We should also carry medical kits and fixed blades. If traveling in a vehicle, there should be a way to secure all weapons systems if need be.
EARP: “When I stress the fact 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 an infinitesimal fraction of a second that meant the difference between deadly accuracy with a six-gun and a miss.”
Translation: The first shot/hit is the most important; you will see that again repeatedly.
EARP: “That two-gun business is another matter that can stand some of the light of truthfulness before the last of the old-time gunfighters has gone on. They wore two guns, most of the six-gun toters did, and when the time came for action, went after them with both hands simultaneously. But they didn’t shoot them that way.
Primarily, the two guns were to make the threat of something in reserve; they were useful as a display of force when a lone man [was] stacked up against a crowd. Some men could shoot equally well with either hand, and in a gun play might alternate with their fire; others exhausted the loads from the gun in the right hand, or left, as the case might be; then shifted the reserve weapon to the natural shooting hand if that was necessary and possible.”
Translation: To this day, anyone who carries a gun should carry a backup for several reasons. First, if for whatever reason the primary gun does not go bang, you can default to the backup weapon.
Second, if you’re in a close contact confrontation and the gun is knocked out of your hand, go to the backup.
Third, if you are in big trouble and outnumbered but accompanied by an unarmed friend or family member, give them your backup so they can back you up!
EARP: “In the days of which I am talking … when a man went after his guns, he did so with a single, serious purpose. Where pistols were concerned, there was no such thing as a bluff, and when a gunfighter reached for his .45s every faculty he owned was keyed to shooting as speedily and as accurately as possible, to making his first shot the last one of the fight. Under such conditions he just had to think of his gun solely as something with which to kill another before he himself could be killed.” Translation: Always take the gun seriously! Be ready, as one day you may have to use it in a gunfight, and you must be mentally prepared for that. Remember that the goal is not to be fancy; it is to use the minimum amount of rounds necessary to end the threat and walk away alive!
Editor’s note: Paul Pawela is a nationally recognized firearms and self-defense expert.