22 Jul 2015

Wild Bill Hickok’s First Gunfight

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Amy Athey McDonald, at Yale News, describes Wild Bill’s first gunfight, and shows us a revolver once owned by Hickok, now in Yale’s Peabody Museum collection.

Davis Tutt shouldn’t have taken Wild Bill’s watch.

The former Confederate soldier and gambler was shot down by James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok 150 years ago in Springfield, Missouri, in what is today recognized as the first quick-draw gunfight of the American West.

Events leading up to the legendary shootout began the night before with a dispute over a gambling debt. Hickok and Tutt had known each other for years, but there had been a falling out and Wild Bill refused to play cards with Tutt. According to an account by a witness who called himself “Captain Honesty,” Tutt retaliated that evening by giving money to every other man around the table playing against Hickok. A successful gambler, Wild Bill won nearly $200 that night, which angered his one-time associate even more.

Tutt called in a past debt of $45 on the spot from Hickok, who promptly paid up. Tutt then claimed another $35 debt owed from a previous game. Hickok disagreed with this second claim, saying he only owed Tutt $25. It was at this point that Tutt took Hickok’s gold Waltham watch from the table and said he would keep it until the debt was paid. Hickok warned Tutt against such a foolish action. Trial testimony from a J.W. Orr noted that Tutt later raised his price to $45.

While the details of what happened the next day on July 21, 1865, are not entirely clear, historians agree that Tutt showed up in the town square in front of the courthouse around 6 p.m. with Hickok’s watch. Wild Bill appeared at the other end of the square and warned Tutt not to come any further. The two began to cross the square toward one another, drawing their pistols. Exactly how far apart they were and what guns were used are not definitely known. It’s written that they were facing side-on, dueling fashion, almost 100 paces apart, with Hickok using his Colt Navy.

Tutt and Hickok fired one shot each. Tutt missed; Hickok didn’t. Tutt staggered and fell, shot through the heart, and Hickok was soon arrested and charged with murder. The charge was later reduced to manslaughter, but the jury found that Hickok acted in self-defense and he was acquitted.

The shootout launched Wild Bill’s fame as a gunman.



French .44 Pinfire Revolver of unknown manufacture, presented by James Butler Hickok to Wild West Show manager William Green, Yale Peabody Museum.

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This revolver is a Lefaucheux type, a rather common gun in France in the second half of the nineteen century. Typically, Lefaucheux revolvers are chambered for full lead ammunitions ranging from 7 to 12 millimeters (rarer versions are chambered in 5 mm and for big 15 mm cartridges). Their overall manufacturing quality evolves from poor to acceptable typically, seldom made with good quality steel, which makes them affordable collectibles today. Many were in fact manufactured at Liege, in Belgium, and those ones bear no mark at all, or the three letters “ELG” in a small ellipse somewhere on the back of the cylinder. The smallest versions, also the cheapest made in most instances, often have a folding trigger with no trigger guard so as to reduce more their size once in the suit pocket of an honest traveller or in this of a little scoundrel at that time. Their mechanism and some of their exterior features are plagued with fast wear, typically too.

Those revolvers were popularly named “Lefaucheux” after the name of French gunsmith Eugène Lefaucheux (1832-1892), inventor of the revolver using pinfire cartridges circa 1830, or in 1828 allegedly (see “pinfire cartridges” on Wikipedia about that). But the Lefaucheux type revolver wasn’t patented before 1854. It was an instant success in Europe because it allowed for the first time fast reloading using metallic cartridges. Bear in mind that handguns using metallic cartridges didn’t appear in United States before 1873, with the invention of the Colt 1873 (but, of course, there were rare Volcanic and Henry repeating rifles from the early 1850s on).

However, the main weakness of Lefaucheux revolvers when compared with its U.S. cap and ball challengers (Colt, Remington, etc.), in caliber 36, and 44 more especially, were small power and range, no matter how big could be their caliber. If Lefaucheux revolvers could be quickly reloaded, their bullets had poor piercing and stopping power. Their owners couldn’t reasonably consider them as efficient handguns beyond 30 or 50 feet in the best of the cases.

At the time of Wild Bill Hickok, if I had to choose between a big Lefaucheux 15 mm and a U.S. 44 cap and ball ordnance revolver for a fight, I would rely on the latter without any hesitation. Both used black powder, but in much greater quantity in a 44 U.S. revolver. Besides, there is no comparison between the manufacturing quality of a U.S. ordnance cap and ball revolver and this of the average Lefaucheux.

As the legend below the photo of Wild Bill Hickok’s Lefaucheux revolver says “of unknown manufacture”, I hazard the guess that it must be one more of those guns manufactured in Belgium, then imported in United States. Its historical value put aside, such a revolver could hardly cost more than a thousand of dollars today, except in case it would be truly manufactured by Lefaucheux. But even in that last case, it wouldn’t make it a highly regarded collectible. Personally, I wouldn’t pay even $500 for it.

Roger V. Tranfaglia

Thank you!…For the history!!


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