The Most Deadly Gunslingers of the Old West

By James R. Coffey.

The gunslingers of the Old West have become as famous as any figures in American history. In fact, names like Jessie James, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid are more easily recognizable that the names of many U.S. Presidents. They have come to represent not just the period during which the Wild West was “won,” they represent the pioneering spirit that was needed to tame a land fraught with countless inherent dangers.

The gunslingers of the American Wild West have become as famous as any figures in American history.  In fact, names like Jessie JamesWyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid are more easily recognizable than the names of many U.S. Presidents.  And while many of the most notorious men (and women) of this era are remembered for their fast tempers and even faster guns, they have come to represent not just what many consider the most violent period of American history, they represent the pioneering spirit that tamed a frontier fraught with inherent dangers.  A romantic spirit that lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Old West enthusiasts even today.

But, who can be said to have been the “deadliest” gunslinger of them all? The one with the most kills?

The one said to have been the fastest?

Or perhaps, the one with the reputation for being the most ruthless?

Whatever the measure, here are ten men and women who came to define what it meant to be “bad to the bone” during this age when men (and women) lived by the gun.

1. Thomas “Tom” Horn, Jr.  (37 to 50 kills)  November 21, 1860–November 20, 1903

Respected lawman and Pinkerton detective Thomas Horn was in actuality one of the most cold-blooded killers of the Old West. After making a name for himself as a scout and tracker in the late 1880s, Tom was hired as a tracker, bounty hunter, and then promoted to detective by the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency. Quickly becoming known for his volatile temper and propensity for violence, he was forced to resign his position with the Agency after becoming linked to the murders of 17 people. Following his resignation, Horn quickly developed a reputation as a killer-for-hire, and is said to have been responsible for killing some 20 cattle rustlers over the course of several years. Horn was finally caught and hanged in 1901 after being linked to the murder of a 14-year-old boy, who, ironically, some historians believe he was actually innocent of killing. Even so, Tom Horn is believed to have committed as many as 50 murders in his 43 years of life.

2. James B. “Killer” Miller, aka “Deacon Jim” (14 to 50 kills)  October 25, 1866–April 19, 1909

One of the darkest and most sadistic figures of the Old West was James “Killer” Miller, a paid assassin and gunslinger known to have killed at least 14 people, though legend has that number closer to 50. Also known as “Deacon Jim” because he regularly went to church and did not smoke or drink, Miller openly stated that he would kill anyone for money, his rate reportedly somewhere between $150 to $2,000 per kill, and is rumored to have gunned down everyone from political figures to famed Sheriff Pat Garrett. One legendary tale involves a confrontation with Sheriff Bud Frazer over Miller’s alleged involvement in the assassination of a cattle rancher. Though Frazer is said to have fired first, Miller proceeded to shoot him six times. It was later reported that the clever Miller had been wearing a metal plate under his shirt, which had blocked Frazer’s bullets. Described as “cold to the core,” Miller’s murderous days finally ended in 1909 when he was arrested in Oklahoma for the murder of A. A. “Gus” Bobbitta, a U.S. Marshall. After a lynch mob of some 40 people stormed the prison, Miller and three other outlaws were dragged to a nearby barn and hanged. Prior to being hanged, Miller–who insisted on being allowed to wear his hat–is said to have shouted, “Let ‘er rip!” and voluntarily jumped off the box to his death. His body and the bodies of the other three men lynched that night were left hanging for hours until a photographer could be found to immortalize the event.

3. John Wesley Hardin  (5 to 42 kills)  May 26, 1853—August 19, 1895

The son of a Methodist preacher, John Wesley Hardin was named after the founder of the Methodist faith, but from the very beginning of his life, was anything but pious. At age 14, John stabbed a boy in the schoolyard for taunting him. A year later, he shot and killed an ex-slave who had been his friend, but who had sought revenge after Hardin allegedly scratched his face during rough-housing. To avoid arrest, he then went into hiding and though warned by his brother that authorities knew his whereabouts, chose not to run, killing all the Union soldiers who tried to take him into custody. Becoming known for carrying two pistols in holsters strapped to his chest (which enabled him to be one of the fastest guns in history), he then shot down three more men in various gunfights while on the lam. Several arrests and subsequent escapes later, he ended up in Abilene, Kansas, where he befriended “Wild Bill” Hickok. While in Abilene, one of the most notorious of his escapades took place while staying at the American House Hotel. Reportedly, when the stranger in the next room wouldn’t stop snoring, John fired twice into the ceiling; the first shot merely waking the man, the second one killing him. After many skirmishes with the law, Hardin was finally captured in 1878, convicted, and sent to jail for seventeen years. During his time incarcerated, ironically, he earned a law degree and even practiced as a lawyer after his release. Shot in the back of the head while playing dice in El Paso, Texas, Hardin died August 19, 1895. In his relatively short life, John Wesley Hardin is credited with killing of no fewer than 42 people.

4. Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp  (8 to 30 kills)  March 19, 1848–January 13, 1929

One of the most famous lawman of all time, Wyatt Earp was also an accomplished gunslinger who was greatly feared by the outlaws of the era. After traveling the boomtowns of Wichita, Dodge City, and the famous city of Tombstone–where he became one of the most feared and respected lawmen of all time–he then participated in some of the most legendary shootouts of the Old West, most notably the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881, where he and brothers Morgan and Virgil, and close friend Doc Holliday confronted a group of cowboys who’d recently robbed a stagecoach. Three of the cowboys were killed in the fight, and everyone but Wyatt was wounded. The gunfight caused a huge scandal, with compadres of the cowboys soon retaliating, wounding Wyatt’s brother Virgil and killing Morgan. Earp and Holliday then led a team of gunfighters on what has become known as their “Vendetta Ride,” during which they killed an estimated 30 men connected with the murders. All told, Earp is credited with killing between 8 to 30 outlaws (depending on the source), and his exploits remain among the most famous stories in the annals of the American Old West.

5. Henry McCarty, aka “Billy the Kid,” Henry Antrim & William H. Bonney (21 kills)  November 23, 1859–July 14, 1881 (reportedly)

The most legendary of all gunslingers, Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty started his life of crime with petty theft and horse thievery, but is said to have made his first kill at the age of eighteen. Though often portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, history shows that he actually entered a life of crime out of necessity, not meanness. In fact, people who knew him called him brave, resourceful, loyal, and possessing a remarkable sense of humor. In 1877 during the so-called “Lincoln County War,” Henry was deputized and rode with lawmen seeking to arrest a group of corrupt businessman including Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, known to be responsible for the murder of an innocent rancher, John Tunstall. Billy’s group “the Regulators,” however, soon became known for their unprovoked violence, and were themselves labeled outlaws. Unaffected by their new status, the Regulators then proceeded to go on a killing spree during which three people were mercilessly gunned down in the course of just three days, including a sheriff and his deputy. Hounded by law enforcement, the group was eventually disbanded, with Billy managing to elude capture. A short time later he formed a gang and increased his notoriety by shooting down a gambler in a New Mexico saloon. After a number of run-ins with authorities, Billy was finally captured and sentenced to death, but managed to escape after getting hold of a weapon and gunning down the two men guarding him. After three months on the lam, he was killed in 1881 by the equally famous, Sheriff Pat Garrett. All told, Billy the Kid is said to have killed a total of 21 men, one for each year of his life, though this number is often regarded as exaggerated. After his death, such a mystique had surrounded this famous gunslinger that numerous men claimed to be him in hopes of garnering celebrity–even at the risk of being gunned down themselves.

6. John King Fisher (16 kills)  1854–March 11, 1884

One the lesser-known but more violent pistoleros of the Old West, gunfighter and one-time lawman John King Fisher was in and out of prison from the age of sixteen. By the early 1870s, Fisher become known as a bandit when he joined a group of outlaws whose specialty was raiding ranches in Mexico. Though quickly becoming known for his flamboyant style of dress, (always seen wearing brightly colored clothes), and signature twin ivory-handled pistols, it was his propensity for aggression that singled him out. Among his many exploits, he was known for gunning down three members of his own gang during a dispute over money, and then killing seven Mexican bandits a short time later. In his most famous gunfight, Fisher is said to have taken on four Mexican cowboys single-handedly, which after hitting one with a branding iron, outdrew another. Then in his well-documented sadistic style, then shot the other two who were unarmed. In 1884 Fisher was ambushed and killed, along with gunslinger Ben Thompson, by friends of a man Thompson had previously killed in a gunfight.

7. Dallas Stoudenmire (10 kills)  December 11, 1845–September 18, 1882

Although not as well known as many of the others, Dallas Stoudenmire was a feared lawman in his day, and is known for participating in more gunfights than most of his better-known contemporaries. After serving in the Civil War, during which he was wounded several times, Stoudenmire moved to El Paso, Texas to serve as sheriff, a town famous for having no law whatsoever. Only three days after signing on, Dallas was involved in one of the West’s most legendary gunfights, the infamous “Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight,” in which he shot four men dead–demonstrating his extraordinary prowess with a six-shooter. A few days later friends of the men Stoudenmire had gunned down, hired the town drunk to assassinate him. Dallas, who by some accounts had foreknowledge of the plan, got the drop on the man and shot him eight times. This marked the beginning of what would become a blood spree perpetrated by Stoudenmire, killing six more men in gunfights over the next year, gaining a reputation as one of the most fearless lawmen in all Texas. In 1882 Stoudenmire was shot to death by group of outlaws during a verbalconfrontation.

8. Myra Maybelle Shirley-Reed-Starr, aka “Belle Starr” (3 to 5 kills)  February 5, 1848–February 3, 1889

Born in Carthage, Missouri, Myra Maybelle Shirley grew up with Cole Younger and later befriended the James brothers. When the James-Younger gang needed a place to hide out, they often stayed at the Shirley family farm, earning her the nickname “The Bandit Queen.” In 1866, Belle married Jim Reed, a former Confederate Army guerrilla, who tried to live the respectable life of a farmer, but when that failed, fell in with the Starrs, a Cherokee Indian family known for horse-stealing. Along with his wife’s friends the Jameses and Youngers, Myra and Jim planned and executed many successful heists. Jim, however, was killed while trying to escape from a deputy sheriff who had arrested him for one such robbery. After the loss of her husband, Belle made her living organizing and planning robberies, as well as fencing stolen goods, and is said to have shot at least three men during these years. Known for seducing law enforcement officers to get what she wanted–when she couldn’t bribe them, she then married Sam Starr in 1880, who after two years of horse rustling, were caught and convicted of stealing horses. Released a year later, the two went right back into crime, with Belle said to have murdered at least two more men who got in her way. Belle was herself shot to death on Feb. 3, 1889, two days before her 41st birthday, while riding home from the general store. Her killer has never been found.

9. James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (4 kills)  May 27, 1837–August 2, 1876

One of the most legendary figures of the Old West, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was an actor, gambler, lawman, and gunfighter who was regarded as one of the most skilled gunslingers of all time. After making a name for himself as a constable and rider for the Pony Express, Hickok gained a reputation for being handy with a gun after he killed outlaw David McCanles with a single bullet from 75 yards away. More accurately called a “shootist,” Hickok was one of the very few gunslingers who participated in actual, out-in-the-street “Western-style” quick-draw duels, the first of which killed a man named Davis Tutt, Jr., following a dispute over gambling debts. In 1869, Hickok was elected sheriff of Ellis County Kansas, and is said to have killed two men in his first month on the job–giving each a chance to draw against him. Acclaimed as much in death as in life, Wild Bill was killed in 1876 in Deadwood, South Dakota, while playing poker, shot in the back of the head by a gambler named Jack McCall, supposedly in retaliation for a prior insult. Hickok is said to have been holding a pair of Aces and Eights at the time, a combination forever known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.” Despite his notoriety as one of the fastest guns of the Old West, Wild Bill is believed to have only killed four men in all his career, and all in fair fights.

10. Ben Thompson  (3 kills)  November 2, 1843–March 11, 1884

Gambler, (reluctant) gunfighter, and sometimes lawman, though lesser known than many of his contemporaries, Ben Thompson was well acquainted with most of the famous gunslingers of the Old West. Starting his criminal career at the age of 17, he stabbed and killed a fellow gambler whom he caught cheating him at poker. Known for being lightning fast on the draw, Thompson gained a reputation as a gunfighter after killing two men in a shootout on Christmas Eve, 1876. Trying to escape this reputation, he then tried to go straight, taking a job as marshall of Austin, Texas, but was forced to resign after killing a local theater owner named Jack Harris during an argument. Thompson was himself killed in 1884, along with gunfighter John King Fisher, when friends of Harris gunned the two down while watching a performance at an opera house.

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