Becoming and Expert Shot—Past Masters and Present

The following information on expert handgun shots comes from Section 27 of Shooting by J. Henry FitzGerald. Shooting is also available to purchase in print.

Many stories have been written about the old gunmen of the West and many of the stories are of impossible feats performed with the hand gun. I do not believe that such stories were ever told or even thought of by the settlers of the West, but that they originated in the mind of some ambitious writer who did not have a working knowledge of firearms and their uses. Even in this day of jazz we hear of men being shot with an automatic revolver in calibers ranging from .28 to .58. We also hear of some desperate criminal who is at large with several revolvers in his possession who will kill any one who tries to arrest him, but when he is rounded up he is usually captured without a shot being fired.

I may cite a case which happened several years ago. A writer came to me and asked if I would go to the range with him, and through questions and a demonstration of trick shooting and quick-draw work give him material for a story. I consented and we journeyed to the range. I answered the questions which he asked and, after the exhibition, I asked him to show me the copy before it was published. Two days later I was given the story to read and what a story that was. One paragraph credited me with firing at two targets fifty yards away with a .45 automatic in each hand and placing several hundred bullets in each target that a teacup would cover. Another stated that I fired from the hip at the same distance, registering hits so fast that they could not be counted. It is needless to say that the story never was published in that form.

I believe that I know the possibilities of the hand gun and when statements such as the foregoing are made I do not blame the person about whom the story is written as much as I do the inexperienced writer who wishes to produce a sensational story. We may mention the case of Wild Bill Hickok. I do not believe he was ever responsible for the stories of the many impossible feats which he was supposed to have accomplished. We will never know the exact number of men that were killed by him, but we must admit that any man who has killed in single combat between fifty and one hundred men, who in their own mind, at least, were considered his superior in speed and accuracy, was not only an expert in the game of life and death with a revolver, but possessed pluck as well.

It is true that the men who settled the West were not target shots and the eastern standard seems to measure all men by their ability to hit a target. The old gun fighter would give a sorry exhibition at this kind of shooting, and sadder still would be the story of a target shooter meeting one of the quick-draw artists at a distance of six to ten feet. There is only one answer to this; the target man would be killed before he knew what it was all about. In target work men shoot for pleasure and in quick draw and protection work they shoot for keeps. For speed and accuracy at short range and the ability to protect themselves when their lives were in danger, the old Western gunmen were grand, and I know personally many of the present-day peace officers in the new West and South who are just as fast as any of the old school. In fact with the modern arms they are superior to any of the men of fifty years ago.

An old friend of mine, in relating a gun fight which he had with a colored man whom he was trying to arrest, said: “Well, Fitz, you know I never could hit one of those darn targets, but I hit this bird three times and that’s the first three shots I ever fired that were all in the black.” This same quick-draw shooting for our present-day peace officers is a life saver, and I shall never be convinced that, at short range, inside of fifteen feet, with the low hammers used on modern double-action revolvers, that an officer should shoot single action.

This theory is taught by our target shooters and not by experienced man hunters. I know many officers who have grown old in service who never could hit a target, but they have come through several gun fights always getting their men and they shoot double action.

Our present crime situation is little changed from that encountered by the peace officers of the old West. When guns are used the fastest man wins; single or double action, the loser is dead just the same. In the old days the East would have developed just as fast men with the hand gun as the West, if occasion required it, but it did not. Such men are developed by necessity. While eastern men were living in comparative safety, the western men were fighting their battle against heavy odds. The sturdy pioneers and their families, who journeyed to the promised land beyond the law, knew the value of the hand gun and relied upon it at all times. It was their constant companion.

Colt's Patterson Revolver 1836

Colt’s Patterson Revolver, Model 1836

Whether East or West, the man who takes the time to perfect himself in any branch of shooting will become an expert in that work. It does not follow that because he is an expert target shot he is expert in the use of the revolver in quick draw, hunting or trick shooting; he must practice each branch until he has mastered it. We cannot compare the quick-draw artist with the target expert; neither can we compare the rifle shot, who only shoots at a target, with the hunter who shoots at moving game.

I do not agree with many of the writers that Wild Bill, Billy the Kid, and others of the old West were born, not made. It was necessary for them in their calling to attain accuracy and speed with the hand gun and this they were able to do because they were naturally quick of motion and they took their practice seriously. They were brave men, as were also many of the men they killed, but a brave man who is slow of motion is no match in a gun fight for a man who is quick of motion and equally brave. A large per cent of the killings in the West were due to the desperado or bad man. Indians were not the only menace which the pioneers encountered in their efforts to establish homes for their families and themselves. The bad man appearing on the scene, coming from all parts of the world, lured by the prospect of an easy life and the absence of law and order, was a sufficient reason for the settlers to perfect themselves in the use of the hand gun.

Law and order is the salvation of any new settlement, but this usually comes from a condition of lawlessness which becomes unbearable to the home builder. Such was the condition in California when the Vigilantes were formed to enforce the law. The outraged citizens knew of no other course to pursue. Judges and public officials were corrupt and the end of justice could only be reached by the methods they employed. The same methods would be of great assistance today. We have in our modern cities too many murderers and gang leaders who, with permits to carry arms in their pockets, walk the streets in comparative safety as far as our laws are concerned, only fearing death from the hands of rival gangsters. Three cheers for the gang wars; they rid the country of men whom the law cannot seem to reach. When one gangster kills another we are fifty per cent a winner, and if, as it sometimes happens, the law should apprehend and execute the murderer then one hundred per cent efficiency is reached.

The old frontier men were working under a handicap in the powder and ball days, due to the weight of the weapons, time consumed in loading, etc. This condition continued until about the year 1870 when the Colt Single Action Army was brought out in the .45 caliber. This arm was at once the favorite and is to this day with many of the old-timers. This arm was adopted by the United States Government in 1873 in a .45 caliber; later on it was brought out in a .44/40 caliber and so on down through the small calibers.

The old Westerner still takes great pride in his ability to draw and shoot accurately at short range and well he might. There is no man feared by the criminal as much as the man who has the reputation of being a fast man with the hand gun. He is let severely alone by this element. He enters a dangerous locality with an air of superiority and sureness of purpose, which at once notifies the persons present that he is not a safe man to fool with. The greatest of all human persuaders, the eyes, the swing of shoulders, position of hand and revolver all show this to even the person unversed in gun lore. We owe our beautiful West to the quick-thinking, fast-shooting pioneers, the greatest body of men the world has ever known. May they rest in peace.

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Becoming and Expert Shot - Past Masters and Present

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