David E. Petzal’s Five Greatest Gunfights of the Old West

harry tracy

Number Five: The Harry Tracy Pursuit_
(June 9-August 6, 1902, ending at Creston, WA.)_
This was two-month running gun battle, matching Harry Tracy (actually name Stevens) against most of the law officers in Oregon and Washington. June 9, 1902, Tracy escaped from Oregon State Penitentiary, killing three corrections officers and three civilians in the process. Subject to a massive manhunt, Tracy evaded the dragnet for a month and then set up an ambush near Bothell, WA, where he killed two more lawmen. Tracy ran, took hostages, and got into a third shootout in which he killed two more posse members. On August 6, he was cornered and shot in the leg near Creston, WA, and took his own life rather than be captured. Unlike most desperados, Tracy’s preferred tool was a .30/30 lever-action. He may have had something else going for him. A late friend of mine, a Western historian, believed that Tracy was crazy as a s***house rat and, under stress, when a normal person would have made a fatal mistake, he simply enjoyed the situation and instinctively did the right thing_._ Picture: a clipping from a newspaper article about the pursuit, as well as a mugshot of unknown origin.

Frisco Shootout

Number Four: The Frisco Shootout_
(December 1, 1884, Lower San Francisco Plaza, NM)_
On that date, the self-appointed town sheriff, one Elfego Baca, arrested a cowboy who had shot at him. Baca was in turn attacked by 80 of the cowhand’s friends, and took refuge in an adobe house. Over the course of a 36-hour siege, the enraged waddies put 400 bullet holes in the house (legend says a total of 4,000 shots) without touching Baca. He in turn killed 4 of them and wounded 8. When the shooting was over (the attackers finally ran out of ammo) he strolled out of the house unscathed. Baca went on to a distinguished career as a lawyer and legislator and died in his bed in 1945, age 80.

short vs courtwright

Number Three: Luke Short vs. Longhair Jim Courtwright
(February 8, 1887, Main St., Forth Worth, TX.)
Most gunfights took place at extreme close range, and this one is typical. Both men were gunfighters, and quarreled over Courtwright’s protection racket. They fought almost at arm’s length. Short fired first, cutting off Courtwright’s thumb. Courtwright, unable to cock his pistol, reacted with extraordinary coolness, throwing his gun to his other hand in what was known as “the border shift.” It didn’t help. Short shot again and killed him. Picture: The Dodge City Peace Commission. Short is in the top row, far right. Can you identify any other famous figures in this photo?

wild bill

Number Two: Wild Bill Hickok vs. Dave Tutt
(July 21, 1865, the town square, Springfield, MO.)
Dave Tutt, a gambler, won James Butler Hickok’s watch in a card game. Hickock, a poor loser, said that if Tutt so much as looked at the watch he would kill him. Tutt ignored the warning. The gunfight took place in the town square at a distance of 75 yards. Tutt lost his nerve, drew first, and fired wildly. Hickock, who was a genuinely skilled shot, drew, took careful aim (some versions have him using a fencepost as a rest), and drilled Tutt through the heart. Tutt did the Funky Chicken for 20 yards and fell dead. Bill took back his watch.


Number One: THE OK Corral
(October 26, 1881, Tombstone, Arizona Territory)
Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp and the fun-loving Doc Holiday spent half a minute exchanging gunfire with Ike and Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers. Thirty shots were fired, three men were killed, and this gunfight became the most famous of them all, despite the disgracefully small number of corpses. Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were killed, and everyone else except Wyatt Earp was shot to a greater or lesser degree. There are have been numerous film versions of the fight, and all are to some degree horses***. Picture: Earp at his home in 1923.