Five Greatest Gunfights of the Old West

Number Five: The Harry Tracy Pursuit


June 9-August 6, 1902, ending at Creston, Washington

This was a two-month running gun battle, matching Tracy against most of the law officers in Oregon and Washington. On
June 9, 1902, Tracy escaped from Oregon State Penitentiary, killing three corrections officers and three civilians in the process. Subject to a massive manhunt, Tracy evaded the dragnet for a month and then set up an ambush near Bothell, Washington, where he killed two more lawmen. Tracy ran, took hostages, and got into a third shootout in which he killed two more posse members.

Harry Tracy's Mugshot
Harry Tracy's mugshot from the Oregon State Penitentiary. Photo from eltiste-kaiser.com.

On August 6, he was cornered and shot in the leg near Creston, Washington, and took his own life rather than be captured. Unlike most desperados, Tracy’s preferred tool was a .30/30 lever-action. He may have had something else going for him. A late friend of mine, a Western historian, believed that Tracy was as crazy as a s***house rat and, under stress, when a normal person would have made a fatal mistake, he simply enjoyed the situation and instinctively did the right thing.

Number Four: The Frisco Shootout


December 1, 1884, Lower San Francisco Plaza, New Mexico

On that date, the self-appointed town sheriff, one Elfego Baca, arrested a cowboy who had shot at him. Baca was in turn attacked by 80 of the cowhand’s friends, and he took refuge in an adobe house.

Elfego Baca
A sculpture of Elfego Baca stands in the center of Reserve, New Mexico in commemoration of the "Frisco Shootout." The sculpture's plaque includes a quote from Baca reading "I will show the Texans there is at least one Mexican in the county who is not afraid of an American cowboy." Photo from Prescott Area Daily Photo.

Over the course of a 36-hour siege, the enraged waddies put 400 bullet holes in the house (legend says a total of 4,000 shots) without touching Baca. He in turn killed 4 of them and wounded 8. When the shooting was over (the attackers finally ran out of ammo) he strolled out of the house unscathed. Baca went on to a distinguished career as a lawyer and legislator and died in his bed in 1945, age 80.

Number Three: Luke Short vs. Longhair Jim Courtwright

February 8, 1887, Main St., Forth Worth, Texas

Most gunfights took place at extreme close range, and this one is typical. Both men were gunfighters, and quarreled over Courtwright’s protection racket. They fought almost at arm’s length. Short fired first, cutting off Courtwright’s thumb.

Longhair Jim Courtright
Longhair Jim Courtright. Photo from Rock Island Auction.

Courtwright, unable to cock his pistol, reacted with extraordinary coolness, throwing his gun to his other hand in what was known as “the border shift.” It didn’t help. Short shot again and killed him.

Number Two: Wild Bill Hickok vs. Dave Tutt

July 21, 1865, the town square, Springfield, Missouri

Dave Tutt, a gambler, won James Butler Hickok’s watch in a card game. Hickock, a poor loser, said that if Tutt so much as looked at the watch he would kill him. Tutt ignored the warning.

"Wild Bill Hickok vs. Dave Tutt" by artist Andy Thomas. For more information on the painting, go here.

The gunfight took place in the town square at a distance of 75 yards. Tutt lost his nerve, drew first, and fired wildly. Hickock, who was a genuinely skilled shot, drew, took careful aim (some versions have him using a fencepost as a rest), and drilled Tutt through the heart. Hickok took back his watch.

Number One: The OK Corral

October 26, 1881, Tombstone, Arizona Territory

Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp and the fun-loving Doc Holiday spent half a minute exchanging gunfire with Ike and Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers. Thirty shots were fired, three men were killed, and this gunfight became the most famous of them all. Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were killed, and everyone else except Wyatt Earp was shot to a greater or lesser degree.

The most famous shootout in history has been depicted on the big screen once or twice. From the top: "Gunfight at the O.K. Coral" (1957) L-R - Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster), Virgil Earp (John Hudson), Morgan Earp (DeForest Kelley). "Wyatt Earp" (1994) L-R - Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid), Morgan Earp (Linden Ashby), Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner), Virgil Earp (Michael Madsen). "Tombstone" (1993) L-R - Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), Virgil Earp (Sam Elliott), Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), Morgan Earp (Bill Paxton).