The 5 Greatest Gunfights of the Old West
These are the most legendary shootouts in the history of the American frontier
5. 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.
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.
4. 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.
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.
3. 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.
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.
2. 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.
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.
1. 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.