Lessons on Gunfighting From Wyatt Earp

This interview excerpt about the lessons on gunfighting, supposedly said by the legendary lawman, gunfighter, and frequent movie subject, Wyatt Earp, comes from a 1994 book written by Stuart Lake, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. You can find the book online at a hefty price since it’s long out of print.

Lessons On Gunfighting From The Legendary Wyatt Earp

Some people commenting on the book have questioned some of the historical accuracies, but the interview itself seems to get high marks for being right from Earp. You can read the whole thing – about 1,525 words – online (http://bit.ly/2waEHAQ among other places). For a man who learned his lessons on gunfighting in the mean and dusty streets of some tough cowtowns, Earp’s teachings ring true today, nearly 90 years after his passing. (Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848, and died – peacefully, not from bullets – on January 13, 1929.) I have shortened this for length, but have not altered his words, with my comments below each quoted section.


“I was a fair hand with pistol, rifle, or shotgun, but I learned more about gunfighting from Tom Speer’s cronies during the summer of 1871 than I had dreamed was in the book. Those old-timers took their gunplay seriously, which was natural under the conditions in which they lived. Shooting, to them, was considerably more than aiming at a mark and pulling a trigger. Models of weapons, methods of wearing them, means of getting them into action and operating them, all to the one end of combining high speed with absolute accuracy, contributed to the frontiersman’s shooting skill. The sought-after degree of proficiency was that which could turn to most effective account the split-second between life and death. Hours upon hours of practice and wide experience in actualities supported their arguments over style.”

Lesson 1

Lesson 1 | Lessons on Gunfighting From Wyatt Earp

Marshal Earp is being crystal-clear here: the right gun, the right holster, the right way to carry it on your body, getting out of the holster and either into the low-ready position or right on target, knowledge of your gun’s mechanical systems (and knowing how and why to correct problems when the machinery fails), and how to use it safely, quickly, effectively, and accurately. Lots of quality-time practice, at indoor and outdoor ranges, in all lighting and weather conditions.


“The most important lesson I learned from those proficient gunfighters was the winner of a gunplay usually was the man who took his time. The second was that, if I hoped to live long on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting — grandstand play — as I would poison. When I say that I learned to take my time in a gunfight, I do not wish to be misunderstood, for the time to be taken was only that split fraction of a second that means the difference between deadly accuracy with a sixgun and a miss. It is hard to make this clear to a man who has never been in a gunfight. Perhaps I can best describe such time taking as going into action with the greatest speed of which a man’s muscles are capable, but mentally unflustered by an urge to hurry or the need for complicated nervous and muscular actions which trick-shooting involves. Mentally deliberate, but muscularly faster than thought, is what I mean.”

Lesson 2

He’s saying it true here: fast and accurate, using your trained and developed powers of concentration, which comes through regular practice, to create the required muscle memory.


“From personal experience and numerous six-gun battles which I witnessed, I can only support the opinion advanced by the men who gave me my most valuable instruction in fast and accurate shooting, which was that the gun-fanner and hip-shooter stood small chance to live against a man who, as old Jack Gallagher always put it, took his time and pulled the trigger once.”

Lesson 3

In our modern context, he’s not talking about the number of rounds you can put on the paper or human target, but the accuracy of those rounds. Not just “spraying and praying” and hoping one lands where you wanted it, but a practiced, measured shot each time. Sight picture, straight pull of the trigger to the fire, move to the trigger reset quickly, adjust the sight picture off the recoil, and prepare to do it again.


“In the days of which I am talking, among men whom I have in mind, when a man went after his guns, he did so with a single, serious purpose. There was no such thing as a bluff; when a gunfighter reached for his forty-five, every faculty he owned was keyed to shooting as speedily and as accurately as possible, to making his first shot the last of the fight. He just had to think of his gun solely as something with which to kill another before he himself could be killed. The possibility of intimidating an antagonist was remote, although the ‘drop’ was thoroughly respected, and few men in the West would draw against it. I have seen men so fast and so sure of themselves that they did go after their guns while men who intended to kill them had them covered, and what is more win out in the play. They were rare. It is safe to say, for all general purposes, that anything in gunfighting that smacked of show-off or bluff was left to braggarts who were ignorant or careless of their lives.”

Lesson 4

Action is faster than reaction. Even if the bad guy facing you is armed, you can still draw and fire at him, as his (tiny or alcohol or drug-addled) brain is trying to figure out what you’re doing, why you’re not giving up or complying, and why he suddenly sees muzzle flashes and bullets headed his way.


“Practiced gun-wielders had too much respect for their weapons to take unnecessary chances with them; it was only with tyros and would-bes that you heard of accidental discharges or didn’t-know-it-was-loaded injuries in the country where carrying a Colt’s was a man’s prerogative.”

Lesson 5

We learn from our Masters. Be thoughtful about your weapon, be proficient with it, practice with it often, and it will serve you.

What do you think about the lessons on gunfighting from Wyatt Earp? Let us know in the comments section below.

Up Next: The Real Science Behind A Gunfight

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Steve can be reached at drsteve@drstevealbrecht.com or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht

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