Welcome to the West. Cliche cowboys go around doing cowboy things like lassoing indians, riding horses, and having duels. Naturally, these duels are of great importance to the gunslingers. Whether the setting is formal (two people in the bar had a disagreement and decide to duel it out) or informal (the lone sheriff faces down the bandit leader in a dusty street), it all winds down to the same scenario:

Two armed men (with revolvers) are facing each other with empty hands and have anywhere from 5 to 20 meters between them. Their hands are slowly inching towards their holstered guns, and the only way this duel is ending is with one of them dead.

What strategy should characters adopt in order to win these duels? Here are some possibilities that I've thought of:

  • The gunslinger who wants to win shoots from the hip. As soon as the barrel of the revolver clears the holster, they aim by instinct and start shooting
  • The gunslinger who wants to win aims and then shoots. Fully pulling out and cocking their revolver, they sight down it, aim and shoot while betting that anyone shooting from the hip has worse aim

Naturally, there are some other points that need to be considered when answering this question:

  • Are classic "wild west" revolvers accurate enough that shooting from the hip with any hope of hitting a human-sized target is possible?
  • Do gunslingers (today or historically) exist who can perform the accurate shot from the hip and how difficult a skill is it to obtain?


Since there seems to be some confusion here, let me clarify that the setting I'm talking about is the fictional wild west, as it is portrayed in "western" movies and other media. I am fully aware of the fact that in an actual time-period accurate bandit-sheriff conflict, one of the two would probably just shoot the other while while they're unaware and taking a dump or something.

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    $\begingroup$ Here's some video footage from the 2014 Cowboy Fast Draw championship games, maybe it will give you some idea of the speed/accuracy attainable with revolvers: youtube.com/watch?v=DZpup4Q6dzo $\endgroup$
    – Bdrs
    Mar 16, 2020 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ Fast draw Most of the time, gunfighters would just hide their pistols in their pockets, which was faster and more practical. Other gunfighters would use Bridgeport rigs that gave a faster and easier draw. Bridgeport rig no holster just a pivot fixed on the belt A modified hammer screw ... would be installed on the Colt...The shooter could rotate the revolver upward to fire without removing it from his belt if needed. $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2020 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ @GregMartin respectfully, you're wrong. It's not racist, and those that perpetuate this cultural myth just cause confusion. Watch this video: youtu.be/kh88fVP2FWQ $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Mar 17, 2020 at 5:54
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    $\begingroup$ "lassoing indians" ? Was that a cowboy thing? $\endgroup$
    – Sukotto
    Mar 17, 2020 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ Throwing another video into the mix - the Slow Mo Guys covered a manually cocked multiple shot fast draw $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2020 at 14:08

9 Answers 9


"Wild Bill" Hickock is recorded as having shot a man (who apparently needed killing) through the heart at 75 yards (about 68 m) with a cap and ball revolver. I can guarantee he didn't shoot from the hip in "fast-draw" fashion for that shot, though he probably didn't spend too long at it either, since the other man apparently wanted him dead.

Otherwise, there are advantages and disadvantages to either technique.

One of Robert A. Heinlein's characters (Lazarus Long) is on record with "Get a shot off fast. This upsets him long enough to make the second one count." This is a legitimate method, but if your opponent has "nerves of steel" it won't help you. Then again, if you're raising the gun to use the sights (presumably cocking the hammer as you bring your arm up, not least because some cap and ball revolvers used a notch in the hammer as the rear sight), you're depending on your opponent not getting lucky, or being a good enough shot to produce a crippling or mortal wound on the first shot with the muzzle barely clear of the holster.

If you check YouTube, you'll find videos of fast-draw artists who can clear leather and hit a target significantly smaller than a human torso, at ranges with your limits, in a small enough fraction of a second that you need slow-motion photography to see anything of the process. This technique, however, requires hundreds of hours of practice to build up to anything close to that speed, practice that pretty well has to be done in dry fire to avoid the risk of a crippling or fatal shot to your own thigh or leg.

So, bottom line, if you've practiced your way to be able to clear leather and hit a pie plate in, say, a fraction of a tenth of a second (the record, I believe, is closer to a hundredth), then you'll obviously want to use the fast-draw technique. If you haven't, you're as likely to shoot yourself as your enemy, and more likely still to miss everything that matters, trying this, and your best bet is to hope your opponent isn't one of those supermen, raise your gun, and use the sights.

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    $\begingroup$ Wild Bill is a good example, as I believe he was the one who said about a shootout and aiming, "You have to be patient in a hurry." $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2020 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ Reality check says (WFDA) record for Open Class Fast Draw in an event called Standing Balloons is .208 seconds - and that includes the time it takes to react, draw, fire and pop a balloon target at eight feet away... The reaction times of the best fast draw shooters is 0.145 seconds, which means that the gun is cocked, drawn, aimed (from the hip), and fired in just over 0.06 seconds. $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2020 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi Of course, a balloon at eight feet can be popped by powder particles from a blank or a clean miss, especially if you're shooting black powder. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 16, 2020 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon I didn't get if the two things that I copy/pasted refer to the same case - those times don't add up. The comment space being limited howevs, one would be better to follow the link, read the paragraphs in full and make their minds. $\endgroup$ Mar 16, 2020 at 15:22

Gun battles of this sort are dramatic. However, it was not the "realistic" thing. The idea of two honorable martial figures facing each other in formal combat would be exceedingly rare. Most people would wind up getting ended by treachery or happenstance.

Far more usual would be for one gunslinger to sneak up on another, or to take a chance opportunity for revenge. The phrase to remember is: I really hate a fair fight.


Garret was waiting in a dark room and Billy the Kid walked in and could not see who was there. Garret shot him.


Hickock played poker with his back to an open door, and an enemy of his saw him through the door and shot him in the back of the head.

Or the ending of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. "There are two kinds of men in this world, Tuco. There are men with loaded guns. And there are men who dig. You dig."


Or the line from Blazing Saddles

"Little bastard shot me in the ass!"


So, in your scenario where two guys are facing off down a street, the most likely thing is not that they draw and fire. It's that one guy leaps behind the water trough and starts shooting from cover. Or one of the guys has a buddy hiding in an upstairs window with a rifle. Or, as Billy the Kid did, one of them has sabotaged the other guy's gun.

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    $\begingroup$ The other scenario that happened a lot in real life is that both participants were extremely drunk. Strategy is pretty much irrelevant then. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2020 at 20:43

"The only winning move is not to play" - WOPR in Wargames

Let us examine some of the background and issues with this scenario:

  • If every duel ends in the death of one of the participants then less than 50% of gunslingers will survive their first duel, less than 25% will survive two duels etc. Hence the quote above - any intelligent person with a sense of self-preservation will do their best not to be in a duel. For those wondering about the "less than" - instantly killing or disabling someone with a handgun is really hard, requiring a brain or spine shot. Duels are likely to end with one person dying first, while the low medical technology of the day means that the "winner" either bleeds out second or dies later of infection.
  • Skill is important, but random chance plays a significant role - misfires were relatively common with the ammunition of the "western" era. The more rounds the gunslinger has fired (often translating to a higher level of skill), the more they will be aware of this issue and do their best to avoid a duel.
  • Cowboys are, well, cowboys. This sounds self-evident, but a cowboy's job is to look after a herd of cattle, not practice close combat. Cowboys spend a lot of time in close proximity to cattle and horses, with both species easily spooked by various stimuli including gunfire. Any cowboy who is spending lots of their time practising gunplay will be neglecting the job they are being paid to do and/or stampeding the livestock they are supposed to be working with, quickly becoming an ex-cowboy. On the topic of pay...
  • Cowboys were not paid particularly well and ammunition was expensive. There were many stories from the era of children who were given one round each day to shoot something for dinner, with the child receiving a beating and the family going hungry if the shot went awry. Only very wealthy people could afford the ammunition to practice fancy shooting techniques that require lots of practice. Which leads to...
  • Hip-shooting vs from the shoulder. Given a week or so of instruction and only a modest expenditure of ammunition, almost any physically fit person can be taught to aim and fire a handgun to reliably hit a "cowboy-sized" target about 10 metres away. Significantly more time is required to achieve a skill level to score consistent hits on the same target with aimed shots at 20 metres. Learning to hip-shoot to hit a target at 20 metres reliably would require more time and ammunition than the large majority of cowboys could afford. Yes, it is possible, and yes, there have been trick shooters in the past and present who have done it, but they are few and far between and there were no arcade games back then to allow for cheap practice.
  • The dangers of drawing. There is a place for hip-drawing and moving your gun hand backwards while opening fire - that place is where the opponent is close enough to knock the barrel offline with their hand if you extended your gun arm! However, unless you are John McClane having a shootout in a crowded elevator, there is a huge risk in attempting to raise the barrel of your handgun to the horizontal the instant it clears your holster. That risk is that the barrel actually has not quite cleared the holster, in which case it is likely that the structural integrity of the holster will defeat the strength of your hasty grip as you try to rotate and you drop your handgun. Oops. Which is why some people who don't care about looking good on film but want to survive close combat are taught to seize the pistol grip, raise their gun hand all the way up to their armpit keeping the barrel vertical, then rotate the barrel to the horizontal and punch the gun hand forward. Once the "punching" motion has commenced a sufficiently good shooter can commence instinctive shooting without necessarily waiting for the gun arm to reach full extension.
  • Revolvers from the period had perfectly adequate grouping capacity for shooting at the ranges being discussed (20 metres or less). Accuracy at that range was far more dependent on the firer's skill and technique than the limitations of the handgun. It would only be if a revolver had a barrel length of less than about 4 inches or was firing rounds of less than .38 calibre that accuracy might be affected noticeably at this range.
  • Frame challenge: Shotguns and rifles. Training a person to reliably hit a cowboy-sized target at a hundred metres or more with a rifle takes much less effort and ammunition than training a person to hit a cowboy-sized target with a handgun at 20 metres. It also means that the gunslinger can avoid around 30 - 80 metres of travel, which can be quite wearying at the end of a long day of sociopathic killing. Shotguns have shorter range, but it is easy to train in their use and anyone who is hit with a load of double-oh buck at 20 metres is unlikely to shoot back. There is a reason why armies didn't fight wars with revolvers as their primary weapons...
  • $\begingroup$ Expanding on that last point, there's a decent chance that a cowboy will have a rifle as a tool of the job: if you're protecting the herd, you may find yourself needing to deal with a wolf or a bear that's decided it wants veal for dinner. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Mar 17, 2020 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ Re, "cowboy's job is to look after a herd of cattle." That depends on place and time. The gang who lost the fight at the O.K. Corral called themselves "The Cowboys," and it wasn't anything to do with them making an honest living. In that particular time and place, if you called somebody a cowboy, you were accusing them of being a cattle thief. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2020 at 21:03

In modern real-life shootouts, combatants frequently miss even at point-blank range. Never underestimate the effect of nerves, anxiety and adrenaline overload on shooting accuracy. In a life-or-death situation, it's an open question how many men would even be able to find their gun, draw it, cock it and fire.

It's not Hollywood, I'm afraid...and with only six-shooters, at any significant range they'd probably need to stop and reload.

Hard to imagine why someone would get into a situation where they would either end up dead or a murderer, unless they were drunk enough to seriously affect their performance. Of course there are cases where it did happen, but very few compared to other outcomes. Most people would run away and count themselves lucky, regardless of loss of face, honour etc.

There will be a few ice-cold psychopathic killers. Faced with a trembling, panicked civilian, they will draw with decent speed but not extremely fast, aim and shoot accurately. They can be confident that the guy on the other end has little or no chance of hitting them.

The real challenge comes in persuading everyone in the saloon that you ARE that ice-cold psychopath...

  • $\begingroup$ Great point with psychopaths. Any gunslinger surviving in duels is cold-blooded enough to know that aiming is, what counts - not the speed. Those, who are not, are dead. $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2020 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ Well, yes and no on "frequently miss" -- I recall that the "average" modern shooting incident takes place inside 6m, and has 2.7 shots fired, total for both participants. Of course, this is a figure from the 1970s; maybe people are worse shots now. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 17, 2020 at 14:12
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon Yes and no. IN the 70's the .38 "Saturday Night Special" revolver was the thing. Now a decent Revolver is at least as expensive as a lower budget but still decent semiautomatic, so I imagine that the number of rounds has gone up a bit, as well as accuracy.in those who care to practice. A gang thug loses accuracy due to bad habits (holding the weapon sideways), probably being unaware that firearms are LOUD and getting startled by the noise (they are way louder in real life, unlike what you see on TV), and in general, not practicing. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    May 18, 2020 at 14:22
  • The accuracy of the revolver mechanism is not really the problem. It is the accuracy of the hand and eye of the shootist. Look at this picture of a revolver with a detachable stock. Same barrel, same trigger, yet it is much more accurate because the shootist can take better aim with the help of the stock tucked to the shoulder.
  • Shooting is usually easier with a two-hand aimed stance like the isoceles stance, slightly more difficult with an one-hand aimed stance, and even more difficult with unsighted shooting.
  • Unsighted shooting was taught by some military units, which suggests that it is not entirely pointless.

The "how difficult" question depends on the reflexes and hand-eye-coordination of the trainee. It can be learned, but some people take longer.


Excellent points in the above.

However, if you want to get a good feel for the mechanics of clearing a holster, what weapons to use, and so on, a simple google of "Cowboy Action Shooting" and SASS "Single action Shooting Society will give you tons and tons and tons of information.

SASS and cowboy shooting events is kind of like a LARP with firearms. There are events that take place with revolvers that are single action (you must pull back the hammer and then pull the trigger for each shot), events with lever action rifles, and of course, shotguns. Most participants use cartridge based firearms, but there are several threads in the forums about participants using old Cap and Ball Navy Colt revolvers

Participants show up in cowboy gear, Establish characters, dress up in period sort of correct clothing.

It's a big thing in the U.S., and if the hardware wasn't so expensive, I'd join myself.


Also note that there's an aspect of game theory here - your optimal strategy will depend on the skills of your opponent. If you know that you're dueling a crack shot who may not be the fastest, but never misses, your only hope is to get a shot off first. If you do not shoot first, you are dead, so you should shoot from the hip, even if you're likely to miss.

If you're dueling the fastest gun in the West, you may be better off going for accuracy. No matter what you do, your opponent will get the first shot off, which you can only hope will miss you. If you can aim your first shot before your opponent gets off a second one, this will give you the best chance of survival. Hip-shooting your first shot is a waste, since you're not going to shoot first anyway, so you might as well get a little more accuracy at the cost of a little more time, so long as you don't let your opponent get off a second shot.

Of course, this isn't terribly practical, since it requires knowing the speed and accuracy of any potential opponent, and cowboys don't have stats compiled on something like a baseball card. But perhaps you could glean something from the chatter at the local saloon to figure out if you're facing Deadeye Dan or Quickdraw Quentin, and adjust your strategy accordingly.


When I was in boy scouts (mid 1970s), one week we had a demonstration from a modern quick draw expert. One of the more impressive demonstrations she did was to give one of the scouts a gun, with him aimed and ready. She drew and fired, hitting the target before he was able to react.

So a big part of the strategy: shoot first.

Apparently, the modern quick draws are much much faster (cited in a comment as 0.06+ seconds) than the old west quick draws (I think the demonstrating lady cited that as >0.5 seconds). This is a matter of practice, and selecting proper equipment.

So a second big part of the strategy: practice.

Draw strategy just becomes whatever you are good/practiced at.

Your survival depends on if (after you shoot first) the other guy can still draw an shoot you before he is dead. So aim for the head, and practice dodging after shooting. If you happen to run into another well practiced quick draw, expect to die, but plan to take him with you.

As a point of information: blanks were used exclusively in the demonstration. But blanks are lethal to about 20 feet, so we were all well back, and she was shooting to the side of the stage.


Have a pocket mirror and the light towards you, with one eye closed. You blind the enemy with a litte mirror, polished gun or your watch, while shooting at the enemy from the shadow of your hat.

Another solution would be to have the first bullet loaded with smoke- you shoot and duck in a cloud of instant smoke. Then shoot with a good aim resting on the ground and providing a minimal target.

Finally play really unfair- armor up (terrakotta-shingles in bags would do) and have some theatrics blood ready. Shoot while pretending to stumble hit.

  • $\begingroup$ The smoke solution seems unrealistic - a decent quickdraw expert is fast enough to hear the smoke bullet fired, and then draw and fire his own weapon in less time than it would take for a person to actually move anywhere to avoid the incoming bullet (~0.5s). $\endgroup$ Mar 17, 2020 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ Every bullet of the time was a "smoke bullet" -- smokeless powder didn't replace gunpowder until around 1900. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Mar 17, 2020 at 21:10

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