The Old West was a violent and transitional time in the history of the United States. The Civil War had concluded, and thousands of young men with combat training were now free to seek their fortunes throughout the states and territories of the nation. This inevitably led to armed conflict, and those with a flair for gunplay would often become legendary thanks to dime novels, newspaper articles, and a public whose bloodlust seemed at an all-time high.
But who were the deadliest gunfighters of the Old West? You may be surprised to learn that some of the more enduring Wild West icons are not on the list, including men like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. In fact, even the most lethal gunmen of late 19th-century America had body counts much lower than what Hollywood would have you believe.
For those involved in an Old West roleplaying campaign, sprinkling these individuals into an adventure can turn an otherwise ordinary session into one filled with uncertainty. Will the players team up with the likes of Billy the Kid, or will they try to gun him down and take their place in history? For characters who seek immortality, matching pistol skills against these men is the surest way to gain valuable experience points…or a plot at the Boot Hill Cemetery.
10. Billy the Kid (1859 to 1881) – Born Henry McCarty but also known as William Bonney, this legendary gunfighter killed his first man at the age of 18. He was only active as a gunfighter for less than four years, but he participated in 16 shootouts and racked up four confirmed kills during this time. Much of this bloodshed stemmed from the brutal Lincoln County War, an event depicted in the film Young Guns. He was evetually captured and sentenced to hang, but he killed two guards and made his getaway. Pat Garrett would later catch up to him at Fort Sumner and fire a shot through his heart in the dark. Billy was hastily buried, although rumors persisted for years that Garrett had helped the outlaw fake his death.
9. King Fisher (1854 to 1884) – From rustler to lawman, John King Fisher packed a lot of living into his 30 years. He killed five men, although he was only involved in four documented shootouts. Fond of gaudy dress, he was known to wear bells on his spurs, as well as adorn himself with red sashes and fringed shirts. He died in San Antonio with fellow gunfighter Ben Thompson, after the pair made the mistake of visiting a gambling house where Thompson had killed the owner two years earlier. After his death, the mother of one of the men he killed would visit his grave each year on the anniversary of her son’s killing, light a fire, and dance triumphantly around his remains.
8. Cullen Baker (1835 to 1869) – Baker killed his first man at 19, then stabbed another to death two years later. He racked up five confirmed kills while being involved in seven documented gunfights. He served with both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, and after the conflict seemed intent on making a name as a coward and a bully. This caught up with him, though, as a posse led by one of his former victims–a schoolteacher with a crippled hand–tracked down Baker and shot him on the side of the road. When his body was examined, he was found to be carrying a shotgun, four revolvers, three derringers, and six knives.
7. Dallas Stoudenmire (1845 to 1882) – Took part in eight gunfights and had six confirmed kills. Served with the Confederate army throughout the Civil War, and later became a Texas Ranger and the city marshal of El Paso. Even though he was a heavy drinker, Stoudenmire once killed three men in a single gunfight (although one of them was a bystander). He also killed a former lawman who ambushed him, unintentionally shooting off the man’s testicles in the process. Stoudenmire was eventually shot in the head and killed by Jim Manning, while the lawman was fighting in the street with his brother, Doc Manning.
6. John Selman (1839 to 1896) – Racked up six kills in eight documented gunfights, with his most famous victim being John Wesley Hardin (who he shot from behind). Deserted the Confederate army in 1863 and turned to a life of crime as a cattle rustler and bandit. He survived smallpox, escaped captivity, and eventually became the city constable of El Paso in 1892. He was murdered at the age of 56 by a fellow lawman.
5. Wild Bill Hickok (1837 to 1876) – With seven kills in eight gunfights, Wild Bill is known as one of the most lethal gunfighters to live during the Old West. As a child, his parents operated a way station for the Underground Railroad, and Hickok would grow up to hold positions ranging from Army spy and gambler to stagecoach driver and Wild West show performer. His shootout in a Missouri town square with Dave Tutt was one of the few Old West gunfights to mirror cinematic depictions–killing his opponent at a distance of 75 yards with a single shot–but failing eyesight later in life led him to gun down his own deputy by mistake. His death came in a Deadwood saloon, shot in the back of the head while playing poker.
4. Harvey Logan (1865 to 1904) – Also known as “Kid Curry,” this gunfighter had nine kills in eleven documented shootouts. He left home at the age of 19 to become a cattle rustler with two of his brothers, and he later rode with Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch and established his reputation as a killer (including murdering lawmen in Utah, Wyoming, and Arizona). After robbing a train and being pursued by a posse, he was wounded and elected to shoot himself in the head to avoid capture.
3. Bill Longley (1851 to 1878) – Also known as “Wild” Bill Longley, this career psychopath killed his first man at the age of 15. He killed a total of 11 men in 12 gunfights, and he especially liked to gun down African-Americans. While he managed to escape imprisonment and hanging on more than one occasion, he was finally forced to climb the gallows for the crime of murder. The first attempt didn’t work, so he was hoisted back up and hanged properly on the second try.
2. John Wesley Hardin (1853 to 1895) – A notorious killer who notched 11 deaths in 19 gunfights. The son of a Methodist preacher, Hardin started his life of violence early. He stabbed a boy in the chest at the age of 11 and then shot a former slave to death when he was 15. He was sent to prison in 1877 for killing a peace officer, and he learned the law over his next 17 years of incarceration. After his release he opened up a law practice and eventually settled in El Paso. It was there that he quarreled with lawman/killer John Selman over the arrest of a prostitute who happened to be Hardin’s mistress. Fearing reprisal, Selman approached Hardin from behind while the latter was drunk and playing poker. Selman fired a shot into Hardin’s skull, instantly killing the legendary outlaw.
1. Jim Miller (1866 to 1909) – James B. Miller, also known as “Killer Miller,” had 12 confirmed kills out of 14 known gunfights. This is enough to top the list of the deadliest gunfighters in the Old West, although Miller’s preferred method of attack was to set up an ambush and blast his unsuspecting opponent with both barrels of a shotgun. He was first arrested at the age of eight for the murder of his grandparents, although he was never tried for the crime. He would later kill his brother-in-law, become a lawman, and develop a reputation of gunning down Mexicans. After getting married in 1891, he appeared to become a devout Methodist (earning the nickname “Deacon Jim”). But this appears to have been nothing but a smokescreen, as Miller would murder anyone for the price of $150 per victim. After accepting payment of $2000 to kill an Oklahoma rancher, Miller carried out his duties and slipped back to Texas. But he was later apprehended for the crime, brought back to Oklahoma, and then lynched in a barn along with the three men who hired him. Miller was also notable for sometimes wearing a steel plate over his chest, a tactic that saved his life more than once.