Like many eras of history, there are many misconceptions about how life in the Wild West worked. While it may have been just two hundred years ago, our lifestyles and technology have changed in dramatic ways during that short time. Throw in the golden era of Wild West filmmaking, and you start to see similar misconceptions to those that exist about older historical eras.
The Wild West’s Tumbleweed Problem
Also known as the American Frontier or the Old West, the Wild West is a vague period of history that technically starts in the 1700s and ends in the early 1900s, before 1914. That said, most Wild West media focuses on the mid-1800s, in newly settled areas following the Louisiana Purchase and the Californian Gold Rush further west.
That’s why the genre is dominated by sweeping plains and hot deserts, populated by prospectors and drifters all out for their next big score. Westerns had a lot of sway culturally, particularly in the 1950s movie scene. Even today, online industries like iGaming use the Wild West as a theme. Games use different themes, many from history, resulting in those like Silver Bullet Bandit Cash Collect. For as long as Wild West imagery brings people in, it’ll continue to be used as a way to market stories and other forms of entertainment.
Outside of cowboy regalia, the rolling tumbleweed is probably the most iconic Wild West image. Fans may be forgiven for thinking that tumbleweed is just a plant with spectacular timing, though the reality is worse. Tumbleweed is actually something that Westerns got right for once, it’s the audience who gets them wrong. Used in a Western’s most tense moments, the prevalence of tumbleweed in every Wild West town may seem comical on the face of it, but viewers are underestimating how invasive they are. After being brought to the region, tumbleweeds have caused a lot of problems for Americans, even being heavily controlled today.
Pistoleros, Not Gunslingers
Since the Wild West had become a popular movie genre, there are several things that were written into scripts and then applied retroactively. For example, the term gunslinger can be traced back to Drag Harlan, which was a 1920 movie. The term wasn’t used by those in the Wild West, not by the cowboys themselves or those writing about them. Just like how Vikings weren’t actually called Vikings, gunslingers weren’t called gunslingers.
Instead, a variety of other terms were used. Gunmen and gunfighter are more time-appropriate terms that we still see today. There’s also shootist, though you don’t see that word around now. Lastly, those closer to the Mexican border were called pistoleros by Spanish speakers. Pistoleros means gunmen, not just pistol users, because another thing movies exaggerated is the cowboys love of revolvers. Repeaters and other two-handed rifles were far more commonly used.
Quick-Draw Holsters Arrived Later
The holster at the hip of a cowboy is another Wild West favorite. Unfortunately, the very earliest holsters resembling these were made in the 1920s. They also started out being used by US cavalry, not high plains drifters.
In the movies and pulp fiction novels, the hip holster secured at the thigh is an attractive prop because it allows for quick drawing. That’s where we run into our next problem – the sport of fast drawing reached its heights in the ‘50s, which you’ll remember is when Westerns were also at their most popular.
Both the holsters and fast drawing were not prevalent in the Wild West, which is to say that tense one-on-one duels were very rare. That Hollywood Western trope was inspired by two men – Wild Bill Hickok and Luke Short. Short’s duel was an unplanned, spontaneous event while Hickok’s duel, where he challenged his opponent by re-holstering his gun, elevated him to folk hero status near-instantly.