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“It Don’t Hurt Much, Ma’am“
“Then how come they’re digging a grave behind the old corral, Luke?”
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
“Oh, Sam, what happened?”
“Nothing serious, Miss Sally—Luke just picked up a little bit of lead.”
“Now Miss Sally, don’t you fret. It’s just a little ol’ hole in his shoulder. He’ll be up and about in no time a-tall.”
Sure enough, in two or three days good old Luke is up and raring to resume his defense of sweet Miss Sally, the Bar-X spread, and the honor of the old, wild West. And Luke’s adventure and miraculous recovery, with slight alterations, occur over and over on the pages of western fiction and on the imaginative screens of Hollywood and television.
But what really happened to those gunshot heroes and villains in that tempestuous period of loose laws and fast gunplay? The reality was quite gruesomely different.
The disastrous effect of a large-caliber bullet on the human body can hardly be comprehended by those whose knowledge of shooting is limited to movie and television westerns. The favorite guns of the West were the .44 and .45 caliber revolvers. Bullet caliber is measured by the diameter in inches: the lead slugs for these guns were nearly half an inch in diameter. Such a bullet packs a terrific wallop, knocking the victim off his feet if it hits any solid part of the body. He doesn’t just drop dead, either. Here is a descriptionof a real gunfight by a man who knew the subject well, Dr. George Goodfellow, the “gunfighter’s surgeon” of Tombstone, Arizona:
In the Spring of 188l I was a few feet distant from a couple of individuals who were quarreling. They began shooting. The first shot took effect, as was afterward ascertained, in the left breast of one of them, who, after being shot, and while staggering back some i 2 feet, cocked and fired his pistol twice, his second shot going into the air, for by that time he was on his back.
It may be remarked that the recipient of the first shot was a tough man indeed to manage two shots himself before going down; but the significant phrase is “ while staggering back some 12 feet .” Compare this, just for instance, with the climactic scene in the movie Vera Cruz (1954), in which Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper are resolutely facing each other in a frontier street, their hands just above their guns. In a blurred movement they both draw, and two shots ring out; but neither man staggers back one foot, let alone twelve. The logical conclusion is, of course, that they have both missed. Not so; justice has triumphed again. After a long, tantalizing pause, bad-guy Lancaster crumples to the ground, dead. He has not moved an inch otherwise (or even stopped smiling), after being hit by that .45 caliber express train—an effect totally beyond belief. The U.S. Army, testing the Colt .45 in the Chicago stockyards, found that it would bowl over a 1,000pound steer with one shot, even if the wound was not fatal.
Another sentimental curiosity of western mythology is the hierarchy, so to speak, of wound areas. Good guys are almost invariably lucky and get hit in the arm, the shoulder, or the fleshy part of the leg. Bad guys are much more likely to take it in the chest, abdomen, or back, which means that they are thenceforth dead. And nobody ever gets hit in the face.
The explanations are not obscure. Even an audience comfortably deluded about the destructive power of a .44 or .45 slug would hardly believe a face wound that didn’t show up as more than a neat little hole. In reality, gunfighters were hit in the face fairly often, and the big lead bullets caused horrendous damage to mouths, teeth, noses, and eyes. You can’t show that on the family TV set, no matter how bad the bad guy is.
The reason that heroes so often are hit in the shoulder is that this is fondly imagined to be a relatively “safe” area, well removed from the vital organs. One would think that the human shoulder was made of some selfhealing material, rather like a puncture-proof tire. The fact is that except for fat men and weightlifters, you can’t penetrate much of the shoulder without striking a complicated arrangement of bones, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves. A shoulder wound from a high-caliber weapon could be not only incapacitating; it could be fatal. Civil war medical records showed that one third of the victims of shoulder-joint wounds died as a result of severe damage, such as severed arteries, or from subsequent infection. Even if the bullet hit the upper arm or forearm, sparing the shoulder joint, the injury was so great that the usual result was amputation. Any meeting between bone and the old high-caliber bullet was likely to be highly traumatic: in 1893 an Army medical report observed that “if a bone is struck, the destruction is enormous, the wound of exit frightful in size and irregularity.”