The 1850s to the early 1900s marked a tumultuous period in the American West. The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 permitted the forcible removal of Native Americans to reservations. This left large swaths of previously claimed land open for the taking, and many white settlers packed up and headed to the frontier to stake their claim.
The lack of federal oversight during this westward expansion led to some notoriously lawless and dangerous areas, where shootouts over land, cattle, and even card games were not uncommon. While town sheriffs and marshals attempted to keep order, vigilante justice was commonly served by outlaws and gunslingers. Here are the guns that won the old West.
To compile a list of famous gunfighters of the American West, 24/7 Tempo consulted numerous sources including History.com, Biography.com, and Britannica. A few famous sharpshooters who never killed anyone have been included, as have a small number of outlaws from the East.
Some of the most notorious gunfighters, including Wild Bill Hickock and Wyatt Earp were sheriffs, marshals, and deputies who became famous for maintaining order and carrying out justice. Most, however, were bandits who robbed trains, banks, or stagecoaches, either alone or with a posse. Some were also cattle rustlers or horse thieves, while a few crossed the line from lawmen to outlaws.
Many have become legendary figures, with famous films and television shows dramatizing their hard lives and fantastical deaths. (For example, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” which follows two famous outlaws from the Wild Bunch Gang, is one of the most successful movies of the 1960s.)
> Life: June 16, 1829 – Feb. 17, 1909
Nobody knows how many men the Apache warrior Geronimo killed, but he is remembered as an excellent marksman. His weapon of choice was an 1873 Springfield full-length, single-shot rifle, which he used to evade capture by the U.S. Army in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.
> Life: 1832 – Dec. 5, 1914
Mary Fields was a Star Route carrier contracted by the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail by stagecoach in northern Montana. Known for her fearless and fiery temperament, she carried both a rifle and a revolver and successfully defended her parcels from bandits for eight years until her retirement.
James “Wild Bill” Hickok
> Life: May 27, 1837 – Aug. 2, 1876
One of the most famous lawmen of the frontier, Wild Bill Hickock was involved in numerous gunfights and is said to have killed over 100 people, including some infamous outlaws and criminals. His weapon of choice was a Colt 1851 Navy revolver.
> Life: 1838 – Jan. 12, 1910
Born into slavery, Bass Reeves went on to serve in the Civil War and become one of the first Black deputy U.S. marshals, patrolling what is now Arkansas and Oklahoma. During his service, he arrested over 3,000 criminals and killed 14 in self defense.
> Life: Sept. 2, 1841 – July 3, 1887
Deranged cattle rancher and gunslinger Robert Clay Allison had a reputation for strange antics and violence. He supposedly once beheaded a man and brought the head to a bar to have a drink. He may have killed over 20 people during his life, and his tombstone reads, “he never killed a man that did not need killing.”
> Life: Dec. 11, 1845 – Sept. 18, 1882
Dallas Stoudenmire was a feared town marshal in El Paso, Texas, who carried two guns and was known to be incredibly accurate with both hands. His most famous gunfight lasted only five seconds, and at the end, four men lay dead – three by his hands. He killed a total of 10 men in the line of duty before he was fatally shot in a gunfight.
> Life: 1845 – 1872 (estimated)
An outlaw in Robeson County, North Carolina, Henry Berry Lowry was a Lumbee Native American and leader of the Lowry Gang, who were known for robbing rich white settlers in the area and sharing the spoils with the poor. The gang hid out in swamps to avoid being conscripted into forced labor, and they avenged the executions of Henry’s father and brother.
> Life: Sept. 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882
The infamous Missouri outlaw Jesse James was leader of the James-Younger Gang, known for robbing trains, banks, and stagecoaches, and evading capture for 10 years. James himself was responsible for up to 17 deaths. He was eventually betrayed and murdered by his accomplice Robert Ford, who was after the hefty bounty.
> Life: March 19, 1848 – Jan. 13, 1929
The gambler and lawman Wyatt Earp served as a marshal in multiple boomtowns, including Wichitaw and Dodge City, but he is best remembered for his time in Tombstone, Arizona. There, he and his brothers got into the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral that ended in the deaths of three members of a rival gang.
> Life: Feb. 5, 1848 – Feb. 3, 1889
An outlaw in Texas and Oklahoma Territory, Belle Starr was known as a criminal mastermind who committed bank robberies and horse thefts, and also harbored other known criminals, including Frank and Jesse James.
> Life: July 21, 1851 – July 21, 1878
A bandit and gang leader, Sam Bass orchestrated the largest train robbery to date when his gang stole $60,000 in gold from a Union Pacific train. He also robbed banks and stagecoaches. He was mortally wounded in a shootout with Texas Rangers before a bank robbery, dying a few days later at age 27.
> Life: Aug. 14, 1851 – Nov. 8, 1887
John Henry Holliday was a skilled gunslinger, a dentist, and a friend of Wyatt Earp. In Tombstone, Arizona, he participated in the famous shootout at the O.K. Corall. After Wyatt’s brother Morgan was murdered, Holliday accompanied Wyatt on his deadly “vendetta ride.”
> Life: May 1, 1852 – Aug. 1, 1903
A sharpshooter who dressed in men’s clothing, Martha Jane Cannary was a rough-edged carouser and associate of Wild Bill Hickock, as well as a humanitarian who nursed smallpox patients in Deadwood. Calamity Jane served as an Army scout during her early days, and later appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
John Wesley Hardin
> Life: May 26, 1853 – Aug. 19, 1895
A notorious quick-draw gunslinger, John Wesley Hardin killed his first man at age 15 and went on to kill at least 26 more during his lifetime. He carried two pistols in chest holsters, and once he shot a man through a hotel wall for snoring too loudly.
> Life: October 1853 – March 11, 1884
John King Fisher was a Texas gunfighter known for his flamboyant dress and his violent temper. He conducted frequent raids in Mexico and allegedly killed three members of his own gang after an argument about how to split their loot. He later became sheriff of Uvalde County.
> Life: 1858 – Oct. 3, 1900
Isam Dart was a skilled bronco buster, cowboy, and cattle rustler who worked in Wyoming, Texas, and Mexico. Tired of being an outlaw, he settled down in Colorado, only to return to the lucrative trade of cattle theft. He was eventually shot dead, possibly by detective Tom Horn, who was hired to rid the area of rustlers.
Billy the Kid
> Life: Sept. 17, 1859 – July 14, 1881
Orphaned at age 14, Henry McCarty, also known as Billy the Kid, spent the rest of his short life engaged in criminal activity, including thefts and murder, and rode with a vigilante group called the Regulators. He is said to have killed 21 men before he died, although the real number may be closer to nine.
Tom Horn Jr.
> Life: Nov. 21, 1860 – Nov. 20, 1903
As a Pinkerton agent, Tom Horn was known for his propensity toward violence. He eventually became a detective and hitman hired by large ranching operations to assassinate cattle rustlers and small-time homesteaders. He is known to have killed 17 people, but some sources cite numbers as high as 50.
> Life: 1860 – 1894 (estimated)
Once a scout for the U.S. Army, the Apache Kid was eventually imprisoned for desertion and escaped, becoming a fugitive and renegade in the borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico. Despite a bounty on his head, he evaded capture while conducting raids and has become a legendary figure of the Southwest.
> Life: Aug. 13, 1860 – Nov. 3, 1926
Born Phoebe Ann Moses, the sharpshooter known as Annie Oakley began hunting and selling game at a young age to support her family. At age 15, she outmatched a professional sharpshooter, who she subsequently married. Although she never shot another person, she twice offered to train women sharpshooters for the U.S. military.
Jim “Killer” Miller
> Life: Oct. 25, 1866 – April 19, 1909
Known by a handful of names, including “Killer Miller,” James Brown Miller was a lawman, outlaw, and hired assassin. Cold to the core, he once said that he would kill anyone for money, and he is said to have murdered at least 14 men. He was hanged by a lynch mob after killing a former U.S. marshal.
> Life: April 3, 1866 – Nov. 7, 1908
An infamous train and bank robber, and leader of the Wild Bunch gang, Butch Cassidy (born Robert Leroy Parker) once stole $21,000 from a Telluride bank and participated in numerous shootouts. Constantly on the run from the law, he eventually fled to South America with his friend and fellow outlaw the Sundance Kid.
The Sundance Kid
> Life: 1867 – Nov. 7, 1908
Harry Longabaugh earned his nickname after being imprisoned for stealing a horse in Sundance, Wyoming. Along with Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, he participated in the longest string of successful bank and train robberies in American history. He was known as the best shot and fastest gunslinger of the Wild Bunch.
> Life: 1871 – December 30, 1955
A Canadian-born outlaw, Pearl Hart wore men’s clothing and a short haircut while robbing a stagecoach with her partner. The two were caught and jailed but Hart managed to charm her way out – only to be recaptured. Hart went down in history as having committed one of the last stagecoach robberies in America.
> Life: February 8, 1876 – March 17, 1896
Crawford Goldsby, also known as Cherokee Bill, was an outlaw and gang leader who kept company with other criminals, including Billy the Kid and Henry Starr. He robbed trains, banks, and stores, and killed at least seven people during his reign as the toughest and meanest outlaw in Indian Territory.
Rufus Buck Gang
> Life: August 1, 1895 – July 1, 1896
A gang of Creek Indian and Black Americans, the Rufus Buck Gang held up stores and ranches in what is now Arkansas and Oklahoma. Their crime spree began with the killing of a U.S. marshal and ended with their capture and hanging.
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