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Thread: How proficient were the man killers of old?

  1. #1

    How proficient were the man killers of old?

    [While this topic is not about revolvers directly I think it would be of interest to the folks in this forum more than the others. My apologies if this is not appropriate.]

    The Bat Masterson Colt thread reminded me of something I have been thinking about over the last several months. A book I was reading made the statement (paraphrased), "in a time when most men were good shots, Capt. Frank Hamer was an exceptional shot." Capt. Hamer was no doubt an excellent marksman (among other things) as attested to the fact that he was involved in approximately 2,453 gunfights during his career but he died at 71 of something other than lead poisoning. I was more focused on the author's earlier statement about the the general proficiency of marksmen in the 19th Century U.S. Was marksmanship generally better back then or is this more Old West myth?

    I'd have to think that if you were a settler on the frontier in the 19th century being proficient with a firearm was a matter of life-or-death. But how much practice could you get? Powder and lead was expensive and likely difficult to find most of the time. Even more so with the introduction of cartridges. If you did have access to ammo and the money to afford it, you had the pleasure of dealing with black powder and it's ability to start to gum up revolver and rifle actions after just a few shots. And the sights on most firearms, particularly revolvers, were not great by our standards today. I would imagine that the average participant on any of the common gun forums today practices shooting significantly more (in quantity at least) than anyone from the 19th century frontier solely due to economics.

    There are many accounts of marksmanship exploits among civilian, law enforcement, and the U.S. military of the 19th century. I have read fewer accounts of firearms training but this could just be my selection of reading (I am certainly open to suggestions if you have any). I recall that Capt. Hayes would have the Rangers practice hitting a fence post at a gallop on horse back with their Colt Patersons. The book I was reading this anecdote stated that this type of practice was unusual. There was another book that talked about the Plains Indians typically not being afraid of the U.S. Cavalry soldiers because of their poor marksmanship. I believe the author stated that the Army didn't practice shooting very often due to limited supplies and not wanting to waste ammunition.

    I was thinking here about "pure" firearm proficiency rather than just the ability to kill people due to, mindset, tactics, close range, familiarity with violence, the fact that everyone is drunk all the time, health/vision problems etc. I am also aware that this period is heavily romanticized, both then and now, and accurate accounts (of shootings and training) that are not embellished are mostly few and far between.

    But if Bat Masterson was transported to next week's local IDPA revolver match, a CAS or SASS meet, or metallic silhouette event would they impress the modern participants with their performance?

    If you gave Wild Bill a Glock 17 (or a brace of Glock 17s to make him feel more comfortable) and a couple months to practice would he be above average at a local shooting event?

    If you randomly selected a Private in the Frontier Battalion and a random revolver forum participant and ran a couple defensive drills with Colt SAAs who would come out ahead?

    Just something I have been curious about, certainly nothing important.

  2. #2
    An associate of mine and I were talking about training etc....
    He mentioned a number of people he had known that were very good fighters but did not have much if any formal training. BUT, they were the survivors of many truly brutal conflicts. The survivors were hardened, experienced fighters with no hesitation. The losers died.

    In the American west post civil war many had a lot of experience. The winners were experienced. Experience has value if you will learn the right lessons from it.

    Several of the people I trained under / with said: about their 3rd or 4th gunfight, it got easier and less stressful. I lack that experience but have no reason to doubt it.

    I believe in good training but do not discount experience.

  3. #3
    BIDET MUAD'DIB LittleLebowski's Avatar
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    Feb 2011
    I would expect the answer is not so much technical proficiency, but rather "mindset". However, I don't know and I do look forward to the discussion.

  4. #4
    Member John Hearne's Avatar
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    I've seen Ayoob referencing newspaper article that Wyatt Earp was winning local shooting competitions, no idea what the course of fire was.

    I don't know how to tag someone but someone needs to ping Randy Harris.
    • It's not the odds, it's the stakes.
    • If you aren't dry practicing every week, you're not serious.....
    • "Tache-Psyche Effect - a polite way of saying 'You suck.' " - GG

  5. #5
    How far back are we talking?

    Things that would effect it, in my mind:
    No electricity/refrigeration (more hunting).
    Time between shots loading, mean take your time setting up.
    Getting the lead you shot back and remaking a round later costs time.
    Are we talking pistols or rifles?
    And of course, death from being shot, verses death from infection, lack of medical care, etc.

  6. #6
    Blah blah revolvers blah Stephanie B's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by LittleLebowski View Post
    I would expect the answer is not so much technical proficiency, but rather "mindset". However, I don't know and I do look forward to the discussion.
    A very long time ago, I read the biography of Bill Tilghman which was written by his second wife just after WW2. IIRC, she wrote that he learned to shoot with a cap and ball Colt .36, primarily by snap-shooting on vermin.

    Bill Hickock shot and killed Davis Tutt in a fast-draw duel in 1865, reportedly at 75 yards.

    Show them how to run a M&P or a Glock, let them get the feel of it and I'll bet that those guys would clean up an IDPA or USPSA match. They were used to shooting fast, accurately, coolly, and nobody would be shooting back at them in a match.
    Former professional pain-in-the-@ss.

  7. #7
    Secutor veritatis sum wvincent's Avatar
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    Mar 2013
    I would like to see Jelly Bryce on the timer, I bet his splits would be amaaaazing.

  8. #8
    Site Supporter Malamute's Avatar
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    I think there was a wide variety of people and abilities, and willingness to practice. Saying "settler" or the popular "cowboys" still leave vast gulfs of end abilities and there was a wide variety of people that lived in the west or frontier areas. Even those experienced in war had widely varying experiences. Infantry from the period (Civil War) may not be very experienced in pistol shooting, or even what wed call individual combat experience. Some particular Civil War cavalry outfits were known for their pistol use and abilities, some carrying many pistols on them and their horses.

    Looking at the roster of known arms on some wagon trains heading west, the list was pretty pitiful in some cases, a loose group of cheap surplus guns, little ammo (I believe less than 20 rds per gun in at least one case I recall). Others, such as the scouts at the Wagon Box Fight that had the most modern repeaters available and a case of 1000 rds of ammo between them, or the participants of the Beechers Island fight, were chosen for their experience on the frontier and fighting inclinations, were quite different than the farmers or non-frontier type people.

    Skill with pistols was important to some, to others, it wasnt a priority, even if they carried one. Some cowboys/ranch hands were said to spend a fair amount of their pay on ammo for practice, others did stupid things like pull fence staples with the front sight, tighten wire with the barrel, hammer nails with the butt, etc. The ones that truly excelled were probably similar to today, I think they were the ones that it was a personal thing, whatever reason they may express for their being interested or motivated to pursue it, they did it because they liked it and were interested in becoming good. Just saying it was important to survival may not really cover it. Lots of people could be in that same category, but werent motivated to be good as we think of it.

    I think some were scary good, many somewhere in the middle, many were really poor.

  9. #9
    Site Supporter Bill Nesbitt's Avatar
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    Feb 2011
    I'm 73. I was born in 1945. I have been interested in shooting since I was a wee tot.

    There were no formal training schools such as we know until Jeff Cooper in the 1960's or 1970's. The only formal organized shooting matches were LEO only PPC. IPSC started in the 1970's.

    Mike Dillon revolutionized the shooting industry when he invented the affordable progressive loading press. People practiced a lot less before that. Affordable mail order ammo also got people shooting more.

    Rob Leatham and Brian Enos changed shooting forever with their experiments on how to shoot.

    I think I read somewhere that Elmer Keith only fired 12 rounds a week through his .44 Mags.

    Go and watch the original Dirty Harry movie. It pretty accurately shows the speed and accuracy of the average shooter of the time.

    The skills of the average shooter today are far above the skills of the average shooter only a few years ago. Before Cooper and Jack Weaver there was a lot of one handed shooting.

    So, if you gave Bat or Wild Bill a couple of Glocks, a few cases of ammo and unlimited YouTube, I predict that in a short while they could be solid C Class shooters if they could lower themselves to play the game.

  10. #10
    Site Supporter David S.'s Avatar
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    Sep 2011
    Quote Originally Posted by John Hearne View Post
    I don't know how to tag someone but someone needs to ping Randy Harris.
    @Randy Harris

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