The Ten Most Lethal Gunslingers of the Old West

The cowboys, marshals, and outlaws of the Old West make up some of America’s most colorful mythos. Both heroes and villains have come from this time and place and become legends. In the 19th century, out West, horsemen and bank robbers rode across the land, taking the law into their own hands. After the Civil War, their numbers multiplied as cattle raising became a lucrative industry throughout the western territories.

Although many of these legends are praised as heroes, they were all killers. No one made a name in the Old West without being a skilled gunslinger. Whichever side of the law you were on didn’t matter when the dust settled. The winner lived to fight another day, and the loser got a grave. With that in mind, let’s count down the ten most lethal cowboys in the Old West.

Related: 10 Serial Killers Of The Old West

10 King Fisher

John “King” Fisher was born in October 1853, just north of Dallas, Texas. The first time Fisher was arrested was for horse theft at eighteen years old. He served two years in prison for it. After his release, Fisher began working as a cowboy, breaking horses. Because of the constant raids, lootings, and rapes of Texas ranch families by bandits, he soon found himself taking part in posse activities. He developed a reputation for being quick on the draw.

In 1878, Fisher got into a heated argument with four Mexican cowboys. As the legend goes, he clubbed the nearest one with a branding iron. As a second drew a pistol, Fisher drew his own and shot and killed the man. He then spun around and shot the other two, who evidently had not produced weapons and merely sat on the fence during the altercation.

In March 1884, a quarrel broke out while he was out with a friend. A gunfight ensued, resulting in Fisher and his friend Thompson receiving mortal wounds and at least two of the other individuals receiving light to severe injuries. Fisher and Thompson both died at the scene; he had openly admitted to killing 37 men.[1]

9 Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves was born into enslavement in Crawford County, Arkansas, in 1848. His owner moved to Texas while Bass was still a boy. During the Civil War, Reeves’s whereabouts were uncertain. There are several theories on the matter, one of which is that he attacked his owner and escaped. Either way, he became one of the first deputized African-American U.S. Marshals shortly after the Civil War and one of the most badass gunslingers in the West.

While Reeves was an honorable man who fought on the side of the law, he was ruthless and relentless. Reeves killed 14 outlaws and apprehended more than 3,000 throughout his tenure (including his own son), according to contemporary reports. Upon retirement in 1907, he became a city police officer in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Many speculate that Reeves inspired the fictional character “The Lone Ranger.” To that end, a TV series was created about Reeves and his adventures.[2]

8 Jesse James

One of the most famous outlaws of the Old West, Jesse Woodson James, ran a gang of thieves in the mid-19th century. He was born in September 1847 in western Missouri. During the Civil War, he and his brother Frank James joined pro-Confederate guerrillas known as “bushwhackers” in Missouri and Kansas. As followers of William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson, they were accused of committing atrocities against Union soldiers and civilian abolitionists, including the Centralia Massacre in 1864.

After the war, he and his brother joined forces with another family to form the James-Younger Gang. He is said to have killed at least 17 men during his lifetime, although some estimates put the number much higher. James was eventually betrayed by one of his gang members and shot in the back of the head while he straightened a picture on the wall..[3]

7 Tom Horn

Thomas Horn Jr. was a skilled gunslinger and a controversial lawman in the American Old West. Born in 1860, he rose to notoriety for his involvement in the Lincoln County War in New Mexico, where he worked as a hired gunman for cattleman John Chisum. Horn’s prowess with firearms and his unflinching determination made him a feared adversary, earning him the nickname “Tommy.” However, his later career as a Pinkerton detective truly solidified his place in Western lore. Horn was known for his unorthodox methods and willingness to bend or break the law to achieve his ends, leading to both admiration and condemnation from those who knew of his exploits.

Yet it was Horn’s controversial conviction and execution for the murder of a 14-year-old boy, Willie Nickell, that sealed his legacy in the annals of Wild West history. Many believed he was unjustly accused, citing a lack of concrete evidence and the possibility of a setup due to his reputation as a troublemaker for the powerful cattle and mining interests of the time. To this day, the story of Tom Horn remains shrouded in mystery and debate, a testament to the complex and often brutal realities of life on the frontier.[4]

6 James “Killin’ Jim” Miller

“Killin’ Jim” was an American outlaw and title-holder gunfighter said to have killed 12 people during gunfights; he was born in Van Buren, Arkansas, in October 1861. He grew up in Texas, and at nineteen, he was living with his widowed mother, siblings, and brother-in-law. On July 30, 1884, he shot and killed his brother-in-law after an argument. A legal technicality enabled him to evade a life sentence for the crime. Miller’s next victim was lawman Joe Townsend.

After much traveling, “Killin’ Jim” became a saloon owner and a Pecos lawman. After Pecos, he joined the Texas Rangers, but inevitably, he became a professional assassin. He was contracted for a job in 1909, in which he left witnesses, and he was arrested shortly after that. The locals, fearing another acquittal, formed a posse and broke into the jailhouse early on April 19, 1909. Miller and three cohorts were to be hanged.

While his partners begged for their lives, Miller made two final requests. That his diamond ring be returned to his wife and that he wears his black hat while being hanged. The requests were granted, and Miller reportedly shouted, “Let ‘er rip!” and voluntarily jumped off the box.[5]

5 Wyatt Earp

One of the most legendary names in American history, Wyatt Earp, has inspired multiple motion pictures and has been portrayed by numerous Hollywood actors. He was born on March 19, 1848, and lived until January 1929. He was a lawman and gambler in Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone. Earp was involved in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, during which law enforcement officers killed three outlaw Cochise County cowboys.

While Wyatt is often depicted as the key figure in the shootout, his brother Virgil was Deputy U.S. Marshal and Tombstone City Marshal that day. He had considerably more experience in law enforcement as a sheriff, constable, and marshal than Wyatt. Still, Earp is considered a hero, although he killed between eight and thirty men as a lawman. Earp died in Hollywood at the age of 80; he had developed prostate cancer (though the actual cause of death isn’t confirmed) with his common-law wife at his side.[6]

4 “Wild” Bill Hickok

Born James Hickok on May 27, 1837, in Homer, Illinois, Wild Bill is an American folk hero and legend who has appeared in countless movies, TV shows, novels, and comic books. He is known for his life on the frontier as a soldier, scout, lawman, cattle rustler, gunslinger, gambler, showman, and actor, and for his involvement in many famous gunfights. He held every job you could think of–starting his life as an outlaw and ending it as a sheriff.

Hickok was credited with killing over 100 men in gunfights over the years. One of his most famous duels was with Davis Tutt, where Hickock shot the man at 75 yards—an impressive feat, even by today’s standards. However, Jack McCall shot Hickok in the back of his head while playing five-card stud in the summer of 1876. Hickok held two pairs—one pair of black aces and a pair of black eights. The hand is known as the dead man’s hand today.[7]

3 Willam H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid

Maybe the Old West’s most famous and infamous outlaw, Billy the Kid, made a name for himself in New Mexico. However, he was born in New York City, and his family slowly made its way out west. Billy fell into a career of thievery and lawlessness, running with several notorious gangs and participating in the Lincoln County Cattle War. In December 1880, he was captured by Pat Garrett and stood trial for murder in Mesilla, New Mexico, the following year. He was found guilty and was sentenced to hang.

However, he escaped jail on April 28, killing two deputies. He remained at large until he was tracked down and ambushed by Garrett, who shot him in the back. The Kid was rumored to have killed 21 men; however, historians agree it was closer to ten. The movie Young Guns II highlights the theory that Billy the Kid was, in fact, Ollie L. “Brushy Bill” Roberts, who escaped prison, lived in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, rode in Wild West shows, and died in 1950 in Hico, Texas.[8]

2 John Wesley Hardin

John Hardin was born on May 26, 1853 in Texas. He was a known outlaw, gunfighter, and folk icon. Hardin often got into trouble with the law from an early age. Arguably the most proficient slinger ever, He killed at least 21 men in gun duels and ambushes between 1868 and 1877. Raised in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, Hardin was bitterly anti-Black and anti-Yankee.

At the age of 15, he killed his first man, an ex-slave, supposedly in self-defense. From then on, John led a life of shooting, gambling, and drinking. In the course of his career, he outgunned and killed at least eight Union soldiers and four black policemen pursuing him on various murder charges. Hardin was caught in Pensacola, Florida. Returning to Texas, he stood on trial in September 1877 and was sentenced to 25 years. He was pardoned in 1894, and he then moved to Gonzales, but one year later, while standing on the porch of the Acme saloon, he was shot in the back of the head by a former rival.[9]

1 Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley, born in August 1860 in Greenville, Ohio, may not have been a killer, but she was arguably the best gunslinger of the 19th century. At eight years old, she made her first kill, shooting a squirrel from her front porch. Instead of turning to crime like many of our other shooters, Oakley put food on her family’s table by hunting and even paid the mortgage on their house with money from the game she sold.

When Annie was fifteen, she beat nationally recognized sharpshooter Frank Butler. Despite the age difference, the two married the next year and remained married the rest of their lives, dying three weeks apart. After seeing one of her performances, Chief Sitting Bull adopted her and gave her the name “Watanya Cicilla” or “Little Sure Shot.”

In the spring of 1898, when the threat of war with Spain loomed overhead, she told President McKinley, “In case of such an event, I am ready to place a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal.” The outlaws of the Old West should be thankful that she wasn’t a marshal; Annie Oakley was the quickest and sharpest draw of the era.[10]

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