- Historic Sites
“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
This brings up another important point that TV and movie writers might take more notice of—the great difference between the old lead slug and modern steel-jacketed bullets. The speed of today’s high-velocity slug in effect sterilizes the outer surface and at the same time usually enables the projectile to drill a rather neat, aseptic hole through tissue and bone alike. The old lead bullet, in contrast, readily lost shape on impact and tore viciously through the victim’s body, carrying along unstcrile pieces of skin and clothing. It made a large wound and often left a track out of all proportion to the size of the bullet. Extensive bleeding and shock were common, and infection virtually assured. Almost every gunshot wound was highly dangerous, no matter where the bullet hit.
If a gunfighter survived a gunfight but was wounded in the process, he still had to survive the medical conditions of the Old West. Doctors were scarce, and some of those available were of doubtful value. In most places there were few if any laws regulating the practice of medicine, and all too often a frontier doctor was anyone who chose to so designate himself. Perhaps a fourth of the “doctors” of the early American West held medical degrees; and even at that it must be remembered that in those days many medical schools would certify an M.D. after just a year or two of study.
No nurses were to be found, with the possible exception of a few tender-hearted schoolmarms or “soiled doves” from the dance halls; there were no hospitals worthy of the name, no laboratories, no antibiotics, and few medicines. The universal anesthetic and cure-all was whiskey, which, while it may have raised the morale of both patient and doctor, was not calculated to increase the efficacy of surgery.
Very often, incidentally, swift and accurate surgery meant the difference between life and death. “Given a gunshot wound of the abdominal cavity with one of the above caliber balls [.44 and .45],” Dr. Goodfellow wrote, “if the cavity be not opened within an hour, the patient by reason of hemorrhage is beyond any chance of recovery.” It hardly needs saying that blood transfusions were not to be had.
Parenthetically, it may be noted also that if there was actually a large percentage of abdominal and body wounds in western gunfights, it was not by accident. The arm, leg, and shoulder wounds so frequently enjoyed— that seems to be the right word—by heroes and subheroes on the screen were usually, in real life, the consequences of poor shooting and did not occur any more often than the shooter could help. He went for the broadest and most obvious target, namely the chest and abdomen of his opponent.
The opponent was well aware of this, naturally, and did his best to avoid full exposure. The dramatic showdown that has climaxed so many Hollywood and TV westerns, where two stalwarts deliberately stalk down the street toward each other, good guy waiting for bad guy to go for his gun, was certainly a rare occurrence. Far more often a man was shot without ever having had a chance to touch his gun. Jesse James was shot in the back; Virgil Earp was ambushed at night; Morgan Earp got it through a window while he was playing billiards; Billy the Kiel died in a darkened room without shooting back; Wild Bill Hickok was shot from behind while concentrating on a hand of poker.
A whole separate branch of the mythology of western fiction and film has to do with fist fights and barroom brawls. Ferocious encounters featuring multiple knockdowns, repeated haymakers to the lace, kicks to the stomach, thumps on the head with bottles, chairs, and miscellaneous furniture, and other egregious violence—usually produce nothing more than a temporary daze, with no visible bruises to speak of. Little boys find out better, of course, the first time they are in a real fist fight in the school yard.
In the meantime, the gunfight myths of the West live on in books, movies, and on television. Only the other night I watched Escape from Fort Bravo on TV, and 1 kept wondering when William Holden, the star, would acquire his mandatory flesh wound. Sure enough, he gets shot in (what else?) the shoulder, and for a while it looks as if he is done for—almost as if the screenwriter had been studying up on the real effects of large-caliber bullets. Then, just before the ornery redskins move in to finish him off, the U.S. cavalry thunders to the rescue. Minutes later, there is our hero, sitting straight and tall in the saddle and galloping away at the head of his own cavalry troop as if nothing has happened. Oh yes, he does have his arm in a sline.