Title: Skill with a Six-Shooter | Some Remarkable Shots Made by "Wild Bill," The Famous Plainsman

Periodical: The Washington Post

Date: November 10, 1912

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Skill With a Six-Shooter


A MOST interesting and readable article purporting to be written by Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) appeared in the Chicago Inter-Ocean on October 15, 1911. The article is entitled, "Reminiscences' of Wild Bill Hickock, Early Western Gun Fighter." Some of the statements made there in are so widely at variance with logic based on the observation and experience of practical gunmen, that in the interest of historic accuracy the writer is disinclined to let these statements pass without comment. The article may have been written by Mr. Cody himself, but it is more than likely that some reporter, over-confident of his memory, got the facts from Mr. Cody, and, being himself somewhat shy on gun lore, unwittingly permitted a few technical errors to creep in between the telling and the publishing of the story. Mr. Cody, like a true Westerner, pays many tributes to the physical perfections, proved courage and unmatched skill with firearms, of his old comrade for the trail. After describing the magnificent physical proportions and panther-like movements of this intrepid plainsman, Mr. Cody says: "Wild Bill was one of the best revolver shots ever produced in the West. He certainly was the best revolver shot in a fight. It is one thing to shoot accurately at a target, and another thing to be able to shoot accurately at a man who is shooting at you. Bill was absolutely fearless. He was wholly devoid of nerves, his mind was clear, his hand steady and his marksmanship certain in the most desperate situation. He never became excited. A cool man is often a phlegmatic man; but Wild Bill was the reverse. He was not only perfectly cool, but he was alert and nimble of wit and in action was as quick as lightning. Nothing better illustrates his mental alertness and physical quickness than one of his adventures. I have forgotten names and dates, but the incident is true to the last detail. * * * 'A man who nursed a grudge against Wild Bill swore to kill him. He stood concealed in a doorway, stepped out and confronted Bill as the latter passed, and leveled a pistol at his head. 'I've got you now, Wild Bill.' he said. 'and I'm going to kill you, but I'll give you one minute to pray.' 'Well,' said Bill with an easy smile, 'It does look like the jig's up.' Suddenly Bill peered over the man's shoulder and waved a deprecatory hand. 'Don't hit him, Andy,' he said. The man wheeled to protect himself from the supposed enemy in his rear. He gazed on empty space. There was no Andy or anyone else behind him and before he could turn around again, Wild Bill had killed him.'"

"I have seen Wild Bill perform acts of marvelous marksmanship many a time. With a bullet fired at 90 feet, he used to drive a cork through the neck of a bottle and on through the bottom without breaking the neck or sides. He won many bets on his ability to hit a silver dime at 30 feet. Many men could hardly see the tiny bit of money at that distance. With his sixshooters in their holsters at his sides, he would toss a tomato can into the air and then draw his guns and hit the can 12 times before it struck the ground. The difficulty of this feat can better be appreciated when it is remembered that the sixshooters of those day were not automatic, but had to be cocked for each shot.

"General Sheridan once asked Bill to prove the marksmanship of which he had heard such wonderful stories. Bill, a modest hero, held back, but General Sheridan insisted, and finally Bill pointed to a grocery sign 100 yards away and said he would shoot at the white center of the "O." He drew his revolver, seemed to take no aim at all, and fired six times rapidly. Upon examination of the sign it was found that the six bullets had passed through the center of the letter, each bullet leaving its own distinct impression about the edges of the single hole."

It is not the purpose of the writer to belittle, or cast doubt on even the most seemingly impossible feats of marksmanship of our early border heroes. It would be a more congenial task to be able to prove them genuine and possible of accomplishment. When, however, the performance credited to an individual excels the possibilities of human skill or capabilities of the type of weapons used we feel that it is the duty of those entrusted with the making and compiling of permanent records to accept only what is well authenticated, or consistent with natural laws. It is claimed by Mr. Cody and others that most of the victims of Wild Bill's uncanny accuracy with the sixshooter were struck in the forehead almost squarely between the eyes. One may well believe that most of Wild Bill's victims, killed in close encounters, were shot in the head, but the writer is of the opinion that Mr. Hickock's extraordinary physique had as much to do with the position of the holes made by bullets fired from his sixshooters at close range, and under stress on his part. It should be kept in mind that Wild Bill was fully 6 feet 1 inch in height, considerably taller than the average man. The style of high-heeled boots universally worn by frontiersmen at that period would add fully another inch to his stature. Thus with arm extended in a natural shooting position his weapon would be about the height of the average man's face. As the shooting of those days usually followed a dispute at double arm's length, a barroom quarrel, or across a gambling table, the gun play might be intuitive or aimed according to the skill of the marksman, his coolness or his ability to correctly judge conditions. On the single occasion which the writer was priviledged to witness the methods of Mr. Hickok in the handling of his sixshooters, I was deeply impressed with his almost exasperating deliberation. No matter how elusive the target, even when shooting at objects tossed in the air, he never seemed hurried. This trait was, of course, natural, and in part due to his superb physique and superior mentality, which, combined with and supplemented by his ethods of practice and free, wild life in the open, developed in him that perfect co-ordination of hand and eye which is essential to perfect mastery of the one-hand gun. Wild Bill's physical power, grace and freedom of movement have been compared to that of a wild animal, and I can think of no simile more fitting. In his description of Mr. Hickock's mystifying speed and marvelous accuracy of aim, Colonel Cody has not exaggerated; nor do I believe it possible to adequately describe the natural and acquired skill of that peerless master of the short gun. But either Mr. Cody's memory is failing or he has been misquoted by some imaginative newspaper man who has supplied the vital points of the story from a fervid and overworked imagination. Putting a bullet from a 44 or 45 caliber Colt sixshooter into the neck of a bottle at a distance of ninety feet (30 yards) with plain open sights (the kind Hickock habitually used) is evidently an error of memory or in statement. It is entirely possible at 30 feet, but at 90 feet, it would be encroaching on the limit of accuracy for revolver taking the army .43 and the frontier .44 cartridges. Assuming that the neck of the bottle was of the size usually found in saloons. Hitting a silver dime at 30 feet comes nearer the realm of reason, but the marksman who could put a bullet nearly half an inch in diameter through a glass circle scarcely one quarter larger at three times the distance would hardly care to waste his time shooting at a silver dime, approximately three quarters of an inch in diameter at one third the distance. Putting six consecutive shots in the letter O, on a sign board at 100 yards rapidly, is rather an indefinite statement. Assuming that the O was eight inches in diameter, the accuracy required to hit it is wholly within the capabilities of the arm used; but it would necessitate a most deliberate and carefully aimed fire. However, Colonel Cody's statement further says that "each of the bullets left its own distinct impression about the edges of the single hole." This would mean that the six shots were so closely grouped that they all broke into one hole. Giving the famous marksman the advantage of the full cross-section of the bullet, the group would still be considerably less than 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The capacity for accuracy of the .45 Colt single action army revolver is approximately a four-inch circle at 50 yards, and for the .44-caliber frontier a three-inch circle at the same range. The shooting described in Colonel Cody's article is far beyond the accredited records of either the .44 or .45 caliber revolvers with any ammunition, and it would be a very creditable performance with a rifle, from a fixed rest with magnifying sights. The writer has himself seen Mr. Hickock shoot, using a Colt single action revolver in either hand firing simultaneously or alternately, and I am prepared to believe any story of his skill or prowess that does not conflict with the laws of gravitation and physics. Wild Bill is credited by Colonel Cody with having hit a tomato can (presumably a quart size) tossed in the air, 12 times before it returned to earth. As 45 feet in the air would be about the limit to which a can would be thrown and at which Mr. Hickock could begin shooting, starting with both shooters in the holster. The can would require at least two (2) seconds to make its descent to earth. To fire 12 aimed shots in two seconds would be equivalent to one shot for each one sixth of a second, from the instant the can began to descend from a forty-eight-foot altitude, or a shot at the can for each four feet average of its drop. I have seen Wild Bill fire two shots simultaneously using both hands at stationary targets, and alternate shots with either hand at moving objects, for a limited number of shots and score with each shot. It was while giving an exhibition of his skill with the sixshooter that I saw him hit a quart tomato can while in the air, with two single action Colt sixshooters. He did not seem to be hurried, and I feel sure he could have fired another shot with his left hand, but I firmly believe that four shots (two with each hand) fired with an aim sufficiently accurate to be effective, would be the absolute limit for the type of weapons used by Wild Bill. Mr. Adolph Topperwein, the Winchester Company's famous expert with firearms, can hit a quart can from five to seven times while in the air with a 22-caliber Winchester automatic rifle, and this, I think, represents the maximum limit of speed, with accuracy, that has yet been attained by any one at aerial targets of reasonable dimensions. But this unique arm differs materially from a single action one-hand gun in so far that after the first shot at an object tossed in the air a fair aim may be maintained by gauging the speed of the target, leading slightly in the direction of its travel and rapidly manipulating the trigger. I am convinced that Mr. Topperwein's performance represents the maximum speed at which fire-controlling triggers of automatic arms of any type or double action revolvers may be worked. The shooting fraternity of America may take at its face value the statement of Colonel Cody in regard to the position of the bullet hole in the forehead of the unfortunates whom Wild Bill put out of action. Those of us who have practiced snap shooting assiduously and have become prominent in the art will recall that it is not a difficult stunt to hit barrel bungs, smash small fruits or marbles an inch or less in diameter with a properly tuned pistol or six-shooter at easy distances from the marksman and at heights in the air that would make Wild Bill's forehead shots seem tame, simple and commonplace by comparison with a spring trap set to throw the targets anywhere from the height of the average man to a reasonable height at which one might care to practice with a view to practical work. Undoubtedly most of Mr. Hickock's practice with rifle and revolver was conducted along lines calculated to render him more skillful at the style of shooting which his adventurous life rendered imperative. The assertion of Colonel Cody that most of Wild Bill's bullets were aimed at the head of his antagonists it but another proof of his mental preparedness, and instant and unfaltering co-ordination. His eye naturally sought that of his enemy and his hand trained to but one line of action followed the direction of sight instinctively.

Some of the old generation of frontiersmen contemporaries of Wild Bill have tried to account for his fearlessness in the presence of danger by claiming that he wore a bullet-proof shirt at all times. The legend is that Hickock sent to Philadelphia and obtained a sufficient number of silver quarters to completely cover a leather vest, something on the order of a mailed shirt of the feudal ages. This story was given the writer by a professional man of unimpeachable veracity. His informant was a fellow townsman of Wild Bill, when the famous scout was Marshal of Abilene, Kan., and was considered wholly reliable. Undoubtedly, a flexible leather vest shingled with overlapping silver quarters could stop a .44 or .45 caliber bullet, but it is a well-authenticated fact that Wild Bill was desperately wounded by both bullet and knife on several occasions. The velocity of the .44-40-200 bullet fired from a revolver is approximately 1,000 foot seconds and the striking energy is about 500 foot pounds. The .45-40-250 has a velocity of 923 foot seconds with a striking energy of about 472 pounds. These were the most powerful pistol cartridges known in Wild Bill's day and the ones then in general use, and while they might not penetrate the silver-leather combination, the writer for one, would not covet the job of serving as backstop for the magic vest. A bullet-proof garment such as described would weigh several pounds, and in addition to being hot and cumbersome, would impede and hamper the naturally free and untrammelled movements of its wearer. Wild Bill may have owned and sometimes worn such a garment as a partial protection against pistol or knife wounds, but we believe the dauntless frontiersman depended largely on his superior skill and alertness for his seemingly mysterious immunity from wounds by hand weapons. Wild Bill's philosophy was not unlike that of David Harum, "Do the other fellow or he'll do you, but do him first."

Title: Skill with a Six-Shooter | Some Remarkable Shots Made by "Wild Bill," The Famous Plainsman

Periodical: The Washington Post

Date: November 10, 1912

Keywords: Ambushes and surprises American frontier Ammunition Firearms Gunfighters Gunfights Heroes Revolvers Rifles Sharpshooters Shooters of firearms Shooting contests Targets (Shooting) Winchester Repeating Arms Company Wounds and injuries

People: Hickok, James Butler "Wild Bill", 1837-1876 Sheridan, Philip Henry, 1831-1888

Sponsor: This project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Geraldine W. & Robert J. Dellenback Foundation.

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