Everybody knows that people in the past were insane. They wore funny hats, used words like "wherefore," and don't get us started on the pants.
But some of the historic anecdotes we love repeating again and again simply aren't true. As convenient as it may be to think of our ancestors as murder-happy torture enthusiasts, they were crazy, but they weren't that crazy.
6Gun Fights in the Violent Wild West
A gloriously mustached man sits at a card game in an old saloon, surrounded by cowboys and surprisingly fresh-faced prostitutes. He looks up, and notices that the player opposite him is hiding an extra card up his sleeve. He calls him on it, the word yellow is pronounced as 'yeller,' and pretty soon they're facing off in the city square. There's a long moment before the cheater moves for his hip holster, but he's not fast enough. Quick as lightning, the gambler draws his revolver and shoots the cheat dead between the eyes.
The cowboys and prostitutes go back to their drinks, well-accustomed to this sort of random violence, as the man nonchalantly twirls his pistol and says: "Guess he couldn't read my poker face."
A typical western saloon, moments before everyone in the room shot each other.
A hundred years of Westerns have taught us that this is how you lived and died in the Wild West. The quicker draw lived to gun-fight another day. It was essentially a roving single elimination rock, paper, scissors tournament that didn't end until you were dead.
But in Reality...
How many murders do you suppose these old western towns saw a year? Let's say the bloodiest, gun-slingingest of the famous cattle towns with the cowboys doing quick-draws at high noon every other day. A hundred? More?
How about five? That was the most murders any old-west town saw in any one year. Ever. Most towns averaged about 1.5 murders a year, and not all of those were shooting. You were way more likely to be murdered in Baltimore in 2008 than you were in Tombstone in 1881, the year of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral (body count: three) and the town's most violent year ever.
As for the traditional Western gunfight as depicted in movies, the inaccuracy of handguns at the time would have made quick-drawing skill irrelevant: It was simply so unlikely you'd hit a guy on the first, second or third shot that it didn't really matter which guy got out his gun first. The closest history got to high-noon show downs was dueling, where people just stood across from one another with their guns out, aimed and fired until someone got lucky, and someone else was dead. Forget about "fanning," rapidly cocking a single-action revolver between rounds like Clint Eastwood does in A Fistful of Dollars. You'd be lucky to hit a henchman if the duel took place in a closet.
Why Do We Believe It?
Because famous gunfighters like Billy the Kid wanted you to believe it. If you've seen Young Guns on cable, you probably know the guy was gunning somebody down every ten minutes!
"... then I was all like 'pow' 'pow' and all the minotaurs exploded!"
Well according to sources who aren't Billy The Kid, his lifetime kill count was four. Criminals inflated their murder stats for the same reason guys today inflate their sexual experience: It made them look cool. Towns like Deadwood talked up their violent, lawless natures in order to attract adventurous settlers. Books were written about them and movies were made as soon as cameras were invented, and nobody who'd been out west was rushing to correct the misconceptions because, why the hell would they. A century and a half later, we still love that lie.
We believe it because shooting a nameless bad guy in the heart is infinitely more satisfying than filing a complaint with the cops or writing a strongly worded letter to the editor. No checks and balances, no second guessing. Just you and a gun.
Pardon us, we have a certain Bon Jovi song we need to play right now.