The Wild West is well known for its colorful history, and it’s often portrayed as a place that was replete with saloons, gambling and gunfights. And whether lawmen or outlaws – nobody was anyone in the Old West unless they knew how to handle a gun. Some applied their skills as gunslingers to robbing trains, others combined quick-draw shooting with fiery tempers or a seemingly psychotic need to kill, and yet others used their abilities to enforce the law – even though their conduct was often questionable. Still, while we may not admire them for their exploits, we can certainly appreciate the skill of these renowned gunfighters. Here’s a look at 10 of the deadliest Wild West gunslingers.
10. Billy the Kid
Legend has it that famous outlaw Billy the Kid had killed as many as 26 men by the time he died, aged just 21 years old, although the total seems more likely to have been under 10. While there’s conflicting information about Billy the Kid’s true name and origins, he is widely reported to have been excellent with a gun. It seems most likely that he was born in an Irish district of New York City on November 23, 1859 and then settled in New Mexico in 1873, after being moved around the country by his mother.
In 1877 – following his engagement in criminal activity such as livestock rustling – Billy the Kid was hired by a wealthy English cattle rancher named John Tunstall in Lincoln County, New Mexico. The Kid’s job was to protect Tunstall and watch over his animals. And he was known for his lightning-fast draw, his lithe frame, and his readiness to fight with his fists if necessary. The Kid is said to have thought highly of his boss, and the two had a mutual respect. So when Tunstall was murdered in cold blood, Billy vowed to exact revenge on the killers.
Billy the Kid’s favorite gun is believed to have been a .44 caliber Colt “Peacemaker,” and he became notorious due to his involvement in the Lincoln County War. Much violence and many escapades ensued, and on July 14, 1881, he was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
9. James “Killin’ Jim” Miller
James “Killin’ Jim” Miller was born in Van Buren, Arkansas on October 25, 1866, but his family moved to Texas when he was a baby. Miller’s parents died when he was young, and he moved in with his grandparents. Yet he was orphaned for a second time when his grandparents were murdered, with Miller himself arrested for the crime, even though he was only eight years old. In the end, he wasn’t charged, and he went to live with his sister and her husband. Later, as a teenager, Miller blasted his sister’s husband in the head with a shotgun after a quarrel. He was handed a life sentence for the murder but escaped justice owing to a technicality.
Next, Miller was implicated in another shotgun attack, this time on Ballinger City lawman Joe Townsend. Following this incident, “Killin’ Jim” spent time traveling and ran a saloon. He then turned lawman himself, eventually becoming the marshal of Pecos. In 1894, an ongoing feud between Miller and Pecos sheriff George A. “Bud” Frazer led to Frazer shooting Miller in the arm, groin and chest – but thanks to a steel plate under his shirt, Miller survived.
“Killin’ Jim” went on to become a Texas Ranger as well as a professional assassin. However, on April 19, 1909, following the murder of former Deputy US Marshal Allen “Gus” Bobbitt, Miller was hanged. Apparently, he screamed, “Let ‘er rip,” before stepping off the box. This outlaw once claimed that he’d killed 51 men; other sources say he dispatched with 12 in gunfights.
8. John Wesley Hardin
According to an article in True West magazine, a contemporary of John Wesley Hardin’s claimed that Hardin “could get out a six-shooter and use it quicker than a frog could eat a fly.” And describing Hardin’s skills, Texas Ranger James B. Gillett said, “The quick draw, the spin, the rolls, pinwheeling, border shift – he did them all with magical precision.” Hardin is also said to have been a crack shot from horseback, able to unload his ammo into the knot of a tree trunk while galloping past.
Hardin favored cap-and-ball six-shooters and, on at least one occasion, a double-barreled shotgun. Unfortunately, he used his skills for ill. Born on May 26, 1853, this Texan desperado and gunfighter shot and killed his first victim in 1868, when he was just 15 years old. Publications of the period say that he dispatched with 27 men during his lifetime. However, he got his comeuppance on August 19, 1895 when he was shot and killed at the age of 42 by outlaw-cum-constable John Selman.
Interestingly, whilst he was a teenager going by the alias Wesley Clemmons, Hardin encountered another individual covered in this article, “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hardin was captivated by Hickok