Wyatt Earp, a friend of Doc Holliday and winner of many gunfights, gave an interview on gunfighting sometime in the 1910s. The most amazing thing to me about this interview is that here we sit, 100 years later, and I’m hearing the real deal guys of our time saying some of the same things Wyatt learned in his. Life on the frontier was harsh. The chances you might have to fend off a pack of wolves, comanches, or outlaws with no backup was much higher then. There was no 911, there were no first responders. You were your own first responder. This is not that unlike war or low visibility operations in the non-permissive environment. In both places, you’d best be switched on. By nature, lessons learned in these environments are purchased with the coin of blood. This leads to an evolution of tactics, arms, and gear that simply brutally destroys that which does not work. These hard men, of then and know, simply knew/know truths that others do not. These are not lessons on fancy gunplay, these are not lessons on stalking and hunting game, these are not lessons for Call of Duty, these are lessons for fighting armed humans who have nothing to lose in their death and everything to gain from your death.

So, with no further gilding the lily, let’s look into the lessons Earp learned from the “Old Timers” in the summer of 1871

Lesson 1:

“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.”

Simply being good with a gun won’t cut it. You need to think long and hard on the gear you’re gonna bet your life on. Buying this or that because it’s cheaper is wrong. Relying on a gun manufacturer to stay consistent is wrong(Remington, Kimber, etc. tons of companies have had years of bad quality control). You need to buy quality gear and test it. Running a box of ball through your new gun isn’t testing it. You need to know it can feed whatever rounds you’ve selected for your defensive loading reliably. And you need to take the time to make sure your weapon is operational and stays operational after many rounds have been put through it in a single instance. The same goes for holsters. If there’s something impeding your ability to draw your weapon quickly… get rid of it. If you can’t for contract compliance or department requirements, get ready to invest a lot of time training your draw.

Set up your weapons well. Test any aftermarket parts for reliability and to make sure they make you objectively more effective. Know the operation of your weapon. Know how to clear malfunctions and do proper maintenance. Set up your carry rig well. Wear it and make sure it works for more than a casual hour on the range. Train with it til it becomes second nature, til you feel naked without it. Train and test, discard what doesn’t work.

Lesson 2:

“…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.”

This one is for the ones who think it’s acceptable to get a bunch of C box hits if you’re making time. It’s not. If you group 5 in my gut and I put one in your heart… I may die, but I die last. There’s plenty of “quickdraw” competitors that are fast as hell firing salt or crushed walnut projectiles at balloons that were a few feet away… but one of the only recorded duels in the Old West took place at 70 yards, and Wild Bill won it with one shot. Noise doesn’t win gunfights. Rattlesnake fast misses don’t win gunfights. As Zach Harrison of Northern Red puts it “The true believer is going to fight you with every ounce of his being and he’s not gonna give up until you kill him and the only way to end that engagement is to put accurate kill shots on him, period.” You simply cannot miss fast enough to kill someone. And the people you can get to back down with a lot of fast misses ain’t who you should be prepping to fight anyway. Prepare for the true believer. Train to face the one who has nothing to lose in his death and everything to gain from yours.

Discipline is a muscle. Stress inoculation is a muscle. You need to exercise these muscles so that when the time comes, you will put good, solid, accurate hits on target. Because if you don’t, they’re gonna exploit your off center hit. Lung shots won’t stop a true believer from continuing to try and kill you. Even a heart shot leaves you with some residual blood pressure in the system to work with for a few seconds before you go on to wherever you go. Good hits end fights. There’s no judges or points. It’s knockout (kill) wins only in this ring.

Lesson 3:

“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.”

If you pull your pistol or mount your rifle in anger reacting to another human… you kill that human. And don’t draw on the drop. Let me be clear, the drop is not simply another human with their gun out. The drop is someone aimed and focused on you. Action is faster than reaction. A woman in Chicago recently killed her would be attacker by exploiting his lack of focus. And when she pulled her pistol, she didn’t say anything. She just shot him in the neck and ended it. She pulled her gun with intent to kill, exploited her attackers lack of commitment to killing her, and fired one kill shot. Wyatt would be proud of her.

Lesson 4:

“…when a gunfighter reached for his forty-five…”

“…supposedly employed by men noted for skill with a forty-five.”

“…five shots from a forty-five so rapidly…”

Every time in the interview caliber is mentioned, it is .45. This is either .45 Long Colt or .45 Schofield (both are very similar to .45 ACP), it is not clear. What is clear is that Wyatt and the Old Timers clearly had an affinity for .45 caliber firearms. However, I’m not here to be a caliber snob. Some of Doc Holliday’s guns were chambered in .36 which is very similar in caliber, but slower moving, than modern 9mm. There is some evidence that Doc’s 1851 Colt was converted to .38 centerfire or rimfire. Doc’s derringer was chambered in .41 rimfire. So, while we do see a variance in calibers here, it does give us a good idea of where defensive calibers start. For most of these gunslingers, man-killing calibers start with a 4. If you’re good, like Doc was known to be, they can start with a 3. But they better be on the higher end of the 3s. Modern bullet and propellant design has closed the gap between calibers, that is for sure. But somethings will always be true. Bigger holes affect more tissue and cause more blood loss. A full miss of the heart with a .25 might have affected heart tissue with a larger round. Make sure you’re using enough bullet when it comes time to live or die based on your choice.

Lesson 5:

“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…”

These are dangerous items. Respect that. This is dangerous business. Again, we’re not talking about simple games. We’re talking about killing people trying to kill you. Many have lost their lives, limbs, and minds in this environment. It is not to be taken lightly, and the equipment by which it is conducted is likewise not meant to be taken lightly.

So, to sum up:

  1. Be thoughtful in your gear and weapon selection and setup.
  2. Have the discipline to put well-placed shots in your opponent’s kill box.
  3. Action is faster than reaction and don’t pull a weapon on an armed opponent with anything less than full intent to kill
  4. Use the biggest bullet you can manage
  5. Respect the craft and its instruments

I carry my gun in my waistband, chambered in 9mm most days. This is what’s best given the conditions I face most days. But you can rest assured that if I know a fight is coming, I’ll be wearing my gun low and chambered in .45… like they did in the day.


Author – Seth joined the Army in 2006 and went to Iraq a couple times doing LRRP work for the 82nd Airborne. After that, he played the Private Military Contractor game for a while until he decided to pursue a degree in economics. He now works as a data analyst and firearms instructor.