PHOTOGRAPHING THE REAL WEST:
Not The Way It Looked on Gunsmoke
By Bill Dobbins
The classic period of American history we view as the “old west” didn’t actually last very long – some 20 to 25 years after the end of the Civil War. We also tend to mythologize the period a few decades prior to the war, a time that included early western exploration, mountain men, and of course the war with Mexico. We still remember Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie and we Remember The Alamo.
Photography was introduced in 1839, greatly matured as a technology by the time of the Civil War and so was available to record images of the west and westerners during the classic period that Americans have such regard for. So although there have been many depictions of the old west in movies and TV, we can reference the photos shot at the time to see what this time and place really looked like.
This period of history plays a disproportionate role in who Americans believe they are and what the country is all about. But a great deal of what we think this time in history was all about and who the people were who lived at the time is not based so much on reality as it is a matter of myth. These myths started way back in the day with “dime novels” depicted – and hugely exaggerating – the exploits of gunfighters, sheriffs and marshals, Indian fighters and others. Check out the character of the writer in the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven and you’ll get the idea.
This tendency to exaggerate and mythologize what went on in the west was continued by the movies. The Great Train Robbery in 1903 was the first feature focusing on the old west and by later standards showed that period relatively accurately. A few years later, William S. Hart made western movies with a certain amount of authenticity. For example, there is a scene in one of his films where he enters a saloon in search of a bad guy. He steps through the door with two guns drawn and pointed, ready to fine. No holstered pistols ready to rely on a quick draw.
But shortly afterward we saw Tom Mix rise to stardom, complete with fancy hats and costumes in a tradition that would later be followed by actors Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. These depictions of the old west had about as much authenticity as a James Bond movie has regarding the life of a modern spy.
Television in the later 50s and 60s carried this even further. Look at photos of the old west and compare what people wore compared to the costumes on Gunsmoke, Maverick or Bonanza. They often did wear wide-brimmed hats in the old west. The sun was hot and strong. But they didn’t all look like Stetsons purchased in a contemporary western store or worn by a country music star. They didn’t all wear the same kind of vest or fancy tooled leather holsters. There were all sorts of holsters, many put their pistols in their belts – and lots of men back then didn’t carry pistols, which were not very accurate or in many cases not too dependable. The more useful firearm for hunting or self-defense was a rifle or a shotgun.
Then there is the matter of the kerchief around the next. In many western movies, this is a thin band of cloth worn for mostly decorative purposes. In real life, cowboys used bandanas to cover their nose and mouth working with cattle who raised a great deal of dust. They also wore chaps to protect their legs from cactus or other prickly plants when riding through the brush. But when they weren’t working they took them off. Along with their spurs.
Of course, there were more than cowboys in the old west. There were also miners, farmers, buffalo hunters, gamblers, merchants, hunters, mule skinners, freight and stage drivers, saloon keepers, and businessmen of all sorts. Particularly after the civil war, there were also a lot of African Americans in all of those professions. You don’t see that many black cowboys in most traditional movies but they were there in significant numbers.
If you watch traditional western movies it also seems that towns out west were highly dangerous places, full murders, and gunfights. In actual fact, most were pretty peaceful and often did not allow for the carrying of firearms. Wyatt Earp, who was a peace officer in two notorious towns, survived to die in bed in Los Angeles in 1929 and many other famous lawmen lived to old age.
Data from “Homicide Rates in the American West:
Was the “Old West” violent? Scholars have established that it was not as violent as most movies and novels would suggest. Murder was not a daily, weekly, or even monthly occurrence in most small towns or farming, ranching, or mining communities.
Movies are entertainment, not meant as documentaries – although they have gotten increasingly accurate and authentic in their depiction of the west in recent years. But it is understandable why they prefer the excitement of gun duels to somebody bursting in and shooting an enemy. It is much more dramatic. One of the best of these on film is the shoot out between Alan Ladd and Jack Palace in Shane. In real life, Shane would most likely have entered the saloon with gun drawn and just started shooting instead of getting into a fast draw duel. However, the rest of the movie is surprisingly authentic in its depiction of frontier life for the time – and the cinematography is some of the best ever in a western movie.
Wild Bill Hickok is a good example to look at when it comes to the myth of gun fighting. Wild Bill was a real and notorious gunman whose history comes close to living up to his reputation. But his approach to a gun “duel” was to take out his pistols and take deliberate aim before firing. There was no “fast draw” involved. Part off the reason is the extreme difficulty in hitting a target with a pistol after a fast draw unless what you are shooting at is standing very close in front of you. Better to be at a greater distance and be a serious marksman like Hickcock.
But another part of the equation is the nature of handguns at the time.
In the early days of the old west, the type of pistols used were cap and ball revolvers. You loaded powder and a metal ball into each of the cylinders and added a percussion cap to initiate ignition. You used black powder, which was not as powerful as latter smokeless powder and quickly fouled the barrel and mechanism of the gun – and you had to reload the pistol every day to be sure it would fire as expected. Later many of these pistols were converted to use modern cartridges, but early on those still used black powder and were center-fire rather than rim-fire, which were less reliable and created other problems as well.
The pistol you see so often in western movies and TV shows is the Colt Single Action Army .45, introduced in 1873 and known as the Peacemaker. These became fairly common over time but it took a while and they were quite expensive. Plus there were plenty of other popular pistols at the time, such as the Smith & Wesson Model 3, which had the advantage of being a top-break revolver – the frame is hinged at the bottom front of the cylinder so releasing the lock and pushing the barrel down exposes the rear face of the cylinder. In most top-break revolvers, this act also operates an extractor that pushes the cartridges in the chambers back far enough that they will fall free. Wot spent cartridges removed easily fresh rounds can then inserted into the cylinder. This makes it much faster to reload than something like the Colt, where you eject the spent cartridge and reload each cylinder one at a time.
Since handguns, especially many used in the old west were not very accurate or effective, it made sense to rely on a rifle or a shotgun for hunting or self-defense.
Strangely enough, when you see handguns being fired with one hand in movies, rather than with two hands as is now the usual technique, that seems to be exactly what was usually done in the old west. The common practice was indeed one-handed pistol shooting, which was probably following the same tradition used in formal pistol duels. In any event, they would have gotten better results using both hands.
Until recently, cowboys in the movies didn’t really look like they were dressed for working long hours with cattle or with horses. Real cowboys had sturdy hats that protected them from the sun and the weather, not the sort worn today by country singers. Their boots had high heels to help secure them in stirrups. Cowboys used bandanas to protect their nose and mouth from dust raised by the cattle. They often wore work gloves to protect their hands and heavy leather chaps to keep their legs from being scratched by brush and cactus. Spurs were used to control their horses. Their clothing was based on practical necessity, not fashion.
So many myths about the old west are clearly not true. There were few if any “high noon” gunfights, western towns were not highly dangerous places, working cowboys didn’t dress like Roy Rogers, townspeople often dress like “city folk” with bowlers and three-piece suits. But while he has many photos from that period, those images can themselves be deceiving. Photography was still new at the time and getting your picture taken was a big deal. So many of the sitters “dressed up” for these photo sessions, not wearing their normal clothing but conforming to the myths of the day regarding what they “ought to” look like. So photos from the can sometimes be as misleading as what we have seen in the movies.
One thing we know to be true – only in exceptional circumstances did women in the old west wear trousers. This was rarely the case unless you were somebody like Calamity Jane trying to pass as a man. All those movies in which you see western women running around wearing pants are not based on historical accuracy.
Of course, movies have moved on and nowadays are much more accurate when it comes to showing how people in the old west dressed. There are still too many gunfights, but movies like action. But the costume design in movies and TV shows like Unforgiven, Lonesome Dove and Open Range are much more accurate when it comes to historical accuracy. In fact, the gunfight at the end of Open Range seems to be very realistic when showing what it was like when two groups of men meet in a street and start shooting at each other.
The myth of the old west has been continued with music as well as movies. Some of the most memorable examples:
THEME FROM HIGH NOON – TEX RITTER
EL PASO – MARTY ROBBINS
MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN COWBOYS – WILLIE NELSON
GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY – VAUGHN MONROE
GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY – JUDY COLLINS
THE COWBOY NIGHT HERD SONG -ROY ROGERS
AND MY ALL TIME FAVORITE:
COOL WATER – SONS OF THE PIONEERS
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
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