February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
“Then how come they’re digging a grave behind the old corral, Luke?”
“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.”
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.