Thursday, July 14, 2011

Old West: Was Doc Holliday a Bad Shot?

Colt Lightning
Last month I posted my first article on Doc Holliday, and thanks to you it's being pretty well received. After writing that article, I've been getting a lot of e-mail asking me if I had more information about Doc Holliday. Folks seem to want to know what sort of guns he carried, if everything about Doc Holliday's legend is true, and specifically if he was as good a shooter as legend has it or if he was indeed a bad shot.

Well friends, here's a little more of what I know about the man who is one of the greatest legends of the Old West. 

First, there is the question of what was Doc's weapon of choice?

It is known that early in his Western travels that he carried an 1851 Colt Navy revolver given to him by his Uncle John. Supposedly it was one of four. The remaining three pistols were given by Uncle John to his own sons.

An 1851 Colt Navy revolver a big pistol and not what one would consider a small easy to carry firearm. So maybe that's why Doc later carried a smaller easier to conceal nickel-plated .41 caliber Colt Thunderer.

Colt 1877 Thunderer .41 cal.,  2 1/2" barrel
He is also said to have carried a Colt 1877 Thunderer .41 Colt caliber revolver with 2 1/2" barrel, a pocket pistol like many pocket pistols of the time, and a knife.

These Colts were produced from 1877 to 1909, the Colt Thunderers were chambered for the .41 Colt cartridge and the Colt Lightnings were chambered for the .38 Colt cartridge. 

They are six-shot revolvers with barrel lengths ranging from 1-1/2" to 10", and came with or without ejectors. Both the Colt Thunderer and the Colt Lightning were double action pistols, and both are a lot smaller than the big 1851 Colt Navy.

A gambler, let's say with a desire to skirt the "No Carry" laws of a lot of towns, would find that these smaller pistols, which were made in models with short barrels, were much easier to conceal. We should also remember that a short barrel was not a problem for someone like a gambler who may find his target sitting at a distance no farther than across a poker table. 

Of course these guns were also cartridge pistols instead of the percussion cap and ball of the Colt Navy, which means that made them more practical to carry. Extra ammunition would easily fit in a vest or coat pocket. And yes, Doc Holliday wasn't the only "gunfighter" known to have carried the double action Colt Thunderer. The West's deadliest gunman John Wesley Hardin was also known to use both the Colt Thunderer and the Colt Lightning.

Common myth has Doc toting a shotgun. But since many towns had "No Carry" laws, that myth is just myth. In fact, it is interesting to note that Doc Holliday's weapon of choice was never a shotgun. And no, it was never the 10 gauge "Meteor Whipit" which was supposedly a double-barreled shotgun cut down to a 16 to 18 inch barrel.

Fact is that Doc did use a 12 gauge shotgun only once to anyone's knowledge. Yes, that was at Tombstone's OK Corral gunfight because Virgil Earp handed it to him. The shotgun used at the famous gunfight at the alley adjacent to the OK Corral was actually borrowed from the Wells Fargo stage office. It was a 12 gauge, and not a 10 gauge as some believe. Wells Fargo ordered all of their shotguns from a gun shop in San Francisco where they company headquarters was located.

I agree with one writer's opinion when he said that since Doc was only a slightly built man and not in robust health. So frankly, the idea of Doc Holliday's weapon of choice being a short barreled 10 gauge shotgun with its incredible kick is absolutely ludicrous at best. 

In Stuart Lake's Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, Wyatt is supposed to have stated, "Doc Holliday never carried a sawed-off shotgun into a fight but once in his life, and upon this one occasion the Tombstone gunfight he threw the gun down in disgust after firing one shot and jerked the nickel-plated Colt's which was for years his favorite weapon."

So has this been verified? Well, as well as can be expected from the accounts of others who knew him. And that takes me to the next point. From what I've read, Doc Holliday did in fact encouraged the stories that made him out to be a skilled gunman. As with most gamblers of the time, a great bad reputation was a great defense against people who might suspect them of cheating. So yes, it was very common for some gambler or wannabe badman to exaggerate his deeds and body count.

And no, the real Doc Holliday bore little resemblance to the young Val Kilmer in the movie Tombstone. Just as it is a fact that Wyatt Earp was known to be more interested in mining and gambling than being a lawman, most of the citizens of Tombstone, Arizona, who know Doc Holliday really regarded him as more of a nut-case and jerk than some sort of hero figure.

Doc himself fostered the idea that he was always ready to kill a man at the drop of a hat.

Why? Well, yes he did it for notoriety but also more importantly he did it for his own protection, survival. Remember that Doc was not a big man. He was said to be between 5'10" and 6' tall and very slim. Yes, he was said to be very slight.

And yes, as his TB progressed, he was even thinner. Because of his battle with TB (tuberculosis), I read where some folks described him as frail, gray, and weak. As his tuberculosis condition worsened, the weaker he became. The effects of TB are brutal and consume one's body. That's why they called TB by the name "consumption" back in those days, it did just that.

Because of his illness and his appearance, Doc was a man who needed a reputation as a tough hard as nails killer to ensure his own life. I've read where some put his gunfights and men killed at 30 or more. It's a safe bet to say that Doc Holliday would have loved knowing that that was his tally. It would have definitely served its purpose. 

As I said previously, as with most gamblers of the time, those dealing with seedier people, a great bad reputation was a great defense against people who might suspect them of cheating. So yes, it was very common for some gambler or wannabe badman to exaggerate his deeds and body count.  It was extremely advantageous for a man living the life of a gambler to be thought of as a killer. 

He may have been no match physically for most of the clientele in saloons and gaming houses, so he needed for his opponents to think that they were dealing with one bad hombre. Holliday may have to go through disagreements in the playing of poker and other games of chance, and he needed an edge. A reputation as a stone cold killer is an edge.

A reputation as "a stone cold killer dentist who is dying and subsequently has nothing to lose if he kills you" is not a bad reputation to have in his case. Heck, according to legend, Doc Holliday was already a killer before he arrived in Texas. Of coarse, that was by his account. Yes, only by his account. 

We do know that back in Valdosta, Georgia, he was involved in an argument with some black youths over a swimming hole in the Withlacoochee River. It is said that he killed one of the boys and thought nothing of it. Fact is he shot no one, and in reality he fired over their heads.

Like much of what has been written about Holliday's life, the details of the different incidents have mostly been derived from legend, pulp fiction and supposition. All in all, facts have very little to do with his legend.

Many dime novelist and fiction writers have had Doc Holliday killing men who he never ever met, put him in places that he was never in, and in some cases credited him with killing some men who were actually killed by other men. And yes, what's even worse is that he is known for killing some men who were never killed at all.

Take for example what took place on July 19th, 1879, when Mike Gordon was killed in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Mike Gordon was a former U.S. Army Scout who was sweat on a gal that worked in a saloon that Doc Holliday owned a half-interest in. After he was rebuffed in an effort to get the gal to run off with him, a very drunk Gordon became belligerent and stepped outside.

Once there he decided to shoot up the town. It is said that somebody did a public service and no one in the crowd who witnessed the shooting could say who did it, but someone shot Gordon. Gordon died the next morning, and the Coroner's Jury ruled it an “excusable homicide.”

While Doc Holliday is said to have had some trouble with Gordon that night at his saloon, he never owned up to killing him and no charges were ever brought against Holliday. Two years later the Tombstone Nugget quoted the Las Vegas Optic describing Doc as "the identical individual who killed poor inoffensive Mike Gordon".

Bat Masterson added fuel to the Doc Holliday legend when he gave an interview to the Arizona Weekly Citizen on August 14, 1886. He named Doc Holliday as the man who killed Mike Gordon in Holliday's Saloon. Masterson was known to spin a great yarn. He was also known to make stories bigger than they were. He was always one to exaggerate "facts" and in fact made his own life story sound a lot more colorful and unbelievable. Masterson did the same where Doc Holliday was concerned. Bat became a writer in later life for a reason. 

As to how some folks refer to Doc Holliday, the Las Vegas Optic called him, "A shiftless, bagged-legged character -- a killer and professional cut-throat and not a wit too refined to rob stages or even steal sheep."

The truth has to be ferreted out of a story if you want to find it. And yes, it all goes back to the point of his reputation. So as for a reputation, Doc Holliday had a reputation for being a man-killer.

Was his reputation justified?

Frankly, it didn't need to be if it worked to keep him alive. But it has to said that Doc was also said to be fierce when need be. Supposedly, in Tombstone in January of 1882, he told Johnny Ringo as recorded secondhand, "All I want of you is ten paces out in the street."

Then supposedly Doc and Ringo were prevented from a gunfight only by the Tombstone police which did not include the Earps at the time. Then both men were arrested. It's true. On January 17th, 1882, Ringo and Doc Holliday traded threats and seemed to be headed into a gunfight. But both men were arrested by Tombstone Police Chief James Flynn and were hauled before a judge for carrying weapons in town. Both were fined.

But either way, Saint or Satan, legend has a way of making people more or less than what they were. Legend has a way of twisting facts to the point of them being unrecognizable to witnesses of the event. And yes, this sort of thing didn't start with tales of the Old West. Fact is that mankind has been spinning yarns about folks for thousands of years. Just look at the yarns that Homer spun, now he could spin a tale.

This leads us to the question if Doc was a good shot or not?

Was there a reason that Virgil Earp handed Doc a shotgun before going down to the OK Corral? Did Virgil know something about Doc's abilities with a revolver, and wanted to give him a weapon to use in lieu of a pistol?

Some say that Doc Holliday was an excellent shot. Some even go so far as saying that he was one of the greatest shooters who ever lived. Like I said before, there are also those who say he couldn't hit a cow in the tit with a tin cup if he tried. And frankly, some say Doc Holliday's lack of shooting skill was due to his constant state of inebriation.

Heck, the man was said to have drank by some accounts up to "4 quarts" of whiskey a day. If one can believe that, than that alone should have killed him. And yes, some say he was drinking to beat the horrible coughing symptoms of TB. After all, we must remember that there were no real medicines to take as there are today. In those days, alcohol was the closest thing they had to a pain pill.

And yes, it was safer than drinking water in the Old West. Water was known to give a person the runs for days, and maybe even kill you. Booze was boiled and purified to some extent. Yes, that's why everyone drank beer or whiskey or coffee back once upon of time.

As for medicine, of course, there was "Laudanum" which was made of 10% opium, 90% alcohol, and flavoured with cinnamon or saffron. It was a commonly used concoction that many of that era drank for pain, fatigue, depression, and a variety of ailments. And yes, it was the top of the line snake-bite medicine of the day.

As for his one-on-one gunfights that can be verified, there are four known shootings. Some say you can hardly call them "gunfights."

Doc's known gunfights

He is known for certain to have missed saloon keeper Charles Austin entirely from only a few feet away in 1875, had shot Charles White across the scalp a few years later in 1880, had tried to shoot and kill Milt Joyce in 1880 from point blank range, be a part of the famous gunfight at the alley adjacent OK Corral in 1881, and his shooting Billy Allen in 1884.

As for his brush up with Charles Champagne Austin, that was classic of most shootout in saloons. It is believed that he gunfight with Austin was his first ever gunfight. It took place in Dallas, Texas, and both men emptied their pistols and missed with every shot from a distance of a few feet away from each other. Both were arrested afterwards, fines and released.

The Dallas Weekly Herald, January 2nd, 1875, stated, "Dr. Holliday and Mr. Austin, a saloon keeper, relieved the monotony of the noise of firecrackers by taking a couple of shots at each other yesterday afternoon. The cheerful note of the six-shooter is heard once again among us."

Then of course there's another shooting incident that's used by some folks to point out just how bad a shot Doc Holliday really was. Some say it's the evidence that Doc was a horrible shot in reality.

One March 12th, 1880, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Doc had words and exchange shots with Charlie White at close range. Charlie White is graced across the scalp and both are arrested. They are fined and the charges are dismissed. Charlie White leaves a little before Doc and heads to Tombstone, Arizona. 

It was Doc Holliday's first incident of any record in Tombstone, Arizona, and it occurred on October 11, 1880. It was when Doc went up against bar-owner Milt Joyce. It happened after Doc became involved in an argument with Johnny Tyler in the Oriental Saloon. That argument resulted in both men being disarmed, and Johnny Tyler left the building.

Then Doc got into an argument with Milt Joyce, who was one of the owners of the Oriental Saloon. Fact is that Milt Joyce had actually physically threw Doc Holliday out of the saloon. Imagine that for a moment!

Doc returned and asked for his pistol that was taken earlier. Milt Joyce refused and Doc Holliday left the building. Then a short time later, he returned with another "self-cocker," which was another term for a double action revolver, and approached Milt Joyce.

Milt must not have been a complete fool because he jumped straight at Doc before he became another notch on Doc's gun. Doc fired two shots. Both shots were wild with one hitting Milt Joyce in the hand. And the other shot struck a bartender by the name of Parker in the big toe. No kidding!

And friends, Milt Joyce sounds like he wasn't anyone to mess either.
Fact is that while he was tangling with Doc Holliday, Milt slammed a pistol to his head several times and only stopped after being pulled off of Holliday by bystanders. All in all, it wasn't a good day for the supposedly lethal Doc Holliday.

The next day, Milt Joyce appeared in court and accused Doc Holliday of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. And yes, in fact Justice Reilly did issue a warrant for Doc Holliday's arrest.

When Doc appeared in court the following day, all must have been forgiven because no witnesses showed up when his case was supposed to be heard. Because no witness came forth, Judge Reilly allowed Doc to plead guilty to a reduced charge of assault and battery. He paid a fine of twenty dollars and court costs.

The event was reported by the Tombstone Nugget and the Tombstone Epitaph. On October 12, 1880, the Nugget commented:

"Sunday night a disturbance in the Oriental Saloon between John Tyler and Doc Holliday, two well known sports, and a scene of bloodshed was imminent. Mutual friends, however, separated and disarmed them both, and Tyler went away, Holliday remaining in the saloon. M. E. Joyce, one of the proprietors, remonstrated with Holliday about creating a disturbance in the saloon and the conversation resulted with Holliday being bodily fired out by Joyce. The former came in and demanded his pistol from behind the bar, where it had been placed by the officer who disarmed him. It was not given him and he went out, but in a short time returned and walked toward Joyce, who was just coming from behind the bar, and with a remark that wouldn't look well in print, turned loose with a self-cocker. Joyce was not more than ten feet away and jumped for his assailant and struck him over the head with a six-shooter, felling him to the floor and lighting on top of him. Officers White and Bennett were near at hand and separated them, taking the pistol from each. Just how many shots were fired none present seem able to tell but in casting up accounts Joyce was found to be shot through the hand, his partner Mr. Parker, who was behind the bar, shot through the big toe of the left foot, and Holliday with a blow of the pistol in Joyce's hands. Gus Williams, another barkeeper, was accused of firing a shot in the melee but in appearance in court yesterday morning no complaint appeared against him and the charge was dismissed. All parties directly implicated are still in bed and no direct arrests have been made, although a complaint has been entered against Holliday and he will be brought before Justice Reilly as soon as he is able to appear, probably today".

According to the Tombstone Epitaph, it reported that after the fight was broken up, "Holliday was picked up and placed in a chair, it being generally thought, from his bloody appearance, that he was severely, if not fatally, hurt. . . ."

Don't think that Milt Joyce was a Saint either. Milt Joyce was the chairman of the county board of supervisors in Tombstone. He may have owned the bar and restaurant concessions at the Oriental Saloon, but Wyatt and his partners had the gambling concession. I find it interesting that during that time, Joyce became one of the leaders of the anti-Earp faction and a strong supporter of the outlaws known as the "cow boys" -- the Clantons and McLaurys.

The fact that Joyce was involved with the outlaw element there in Tombstone just before the gunfight near the OK Corral may have had something to do with the argument between Doc Holliday and Milt Joyce. Fact is that later both Joyce and Sheriff John Behan were found to be involved in government corruption.

So there's the problem with history verses legend, what's fact and what's fiction? What was built up over the years and what really happened? In the case of some of Doc Hollidays supposed shootings, there’s not a whole lot out there other than hearsay to back up whether these incidents ever happened.

Holliday's role in the deaths of Frank Stilwell and the other three men killed on the Wyatt Earp vendetta ride remains uncertain, but the truth is that we know that he was indeed present at the events. And of course, there was his role in the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Later in Leadville, Colorado, Doc having fallen on hard times had borrowed $5 from Billy Allen who he knew from Tombstone. Soon when it became apparent the Doc was not going to pay back the $5, Allen threatened the physically frail Holliday with a beating if he didn't get his money back.

On August 19, 1884, Doc went into Hyman's Saloon and stood at the end of the bar. As an angry Billy Allen entered and walked across the bar towards him, Doc turned and fired a shot at the approaching Allen -- but Doc missed.

Immediately Allen turned and fled, but then stumbled and fell to the floor -- at which time, Doc then fired two more shots.

One shot struck Allen in the arm after he lay on the floor, the other shot missed Allen as he scrambled out the door. That was the last time Doc Holliday would be in a "gunfight." 

Due to witnesses and Doc's own passionate plea where he said, "I knew that I would be as a child in his hands if he got hold of me. I weigh 122 pounds. I think Allen weights 170. I have had pneumonia three or four times. I don't think I was able to protect myself against him."

He was released. 

After his death the Denver Republican, on November 10th, 1887, stated, "Few men of his character had more friends or stronger champions."

Supposedly Wyatt Earp told to Stuart Lake, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, "He was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit..."

Supposedly Bat Masterson said, "Doc had but three redeeming traits. One was his courage; he was afraid of nothing on Earth. The second was the one commendable principal in his code of life, sterling loyalty to friends. The third was his affection for Wyatt Earp."

In recent years, a writer by the name of Doc O'Meara, in Guns of the Gunfighters, Krause Publications, 2003, wrote "Without question a stone killer, an alcoholic and a whore monger. He was known to cheat at cards."

I don't know how he knows that Doc was a card cheat because I can't find any evidence of that, but it just might be a testament to what some researchers come away with after researching Doc Holliday. We must remember that it was a time when all sorts of folks kept journals and diaries, and that even the smallest newspapers kept the comings and goings of all sorts of people -- whether it was an article of someone's Aunt coming to town to visit her sister, and so on --fact is all sorts of things were chronicled in the Old West.

The problem with confirming Doc Holliday's reputation is that there are not a lot of any sort of newspaper articles, journal entries, or legal records to match the many supposed "un-named" men who Holliday is said to have supposedly killed.

And yes, the same is true for the supposed bar-room skirmishes, fights, and tales of knifings credited to Doc. Since no records are available to show that any of them actually took place, there's no way of showing that they ever happened.

Yes, it is probably all the imagination of fiction writers and Doc himself. Dime Novelist, biographers, and newspaper writers in those days were as bad as Liberal Newspapers today.

In an interview with the Arizona Daily Star, Virgil Earp was asked about Doc Holliday. It sounds like he knew Doc Holliday better than most when he told the reporter:

"There was something very peculiar about Doc. He was gentlemanly, a good dentist, a friendly man, and yet outside of us boys I don't think he had a friend in the Territory.

Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country; that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet when persons were asked how they knew it they could only admit that it was hearsay, and that nothing of the kind could really be traced up to Doc's account."

It seemed that was more the case than not.

Tom Correa


  1. Both DA Colt revolvers mentioned in the article came in both .41 and .38 calibre. It would make sense to match the two one would carry and not have to differentiate and carry two different calibre bullets to keep them loaded. Legends vary but many refer to Doc's diminutive size and claim he preferred the smaller.

    1. It might make more sense to carry the lighter .38 caliber Colt Lightning to shoot with the weaker hand in an emergency. Apparently John Wesly Hardin carried the Thunderer and Lightning combination at one time also.

  2. Interesting article.

    Even though it's just a movie, Val Kilmer's version of Doc Holliday, in the movie "Tombstone", is the best I've ever seen.

    "I'm your huckleberry." lol

    1. I couldn't agree more, pard. While Hollywood is not real good on getting facts right, the movie Tombstone is simply great entertainment. It is a an outstanding shoot'em up. In fact I watched it again tonight because I like it so much. And yes, Val Kilmer's version of Doc Holliday is the absolute best of any other in any movie -- and of any one that had been on television.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Yes, Doc Holliday did indeed carry a nickel plated Colt Lightning in a shoulder holster along with an Ivory handled knife. However his favored sidearm was a 7.5" blued Colt Cavalry .45, serial number 11301. This is shown in R.I. Wilson's book (he is Colt's official historian) "The Peacemakers" on page 160. Doc was a complex & fascinating character, undoubtedly fearless & loyal to his few friends but how many of his numerous exploits are true we will never know. RIP Doc, he died of TB in a sanatorium aged 35.

  4. Doc Holliday carried a 38 Cal. Colt 3 inch barrel with a swivel holster under a frock coat and a 10 inch bone handle Bowie in his boot.

  5. I'm the grandson of Charlie White, who was wounded by Doc Holliday following a quarrel in 1880. According to the family story, Doc and Charlie were actually friends. After the fight, Charlie acquired a handwritten poem written on a silk scarf with a leaky old fountain pen. I saw it as a kid, but it has since disappeared from my family. According the family story, Charlie either (1) won the scarf from Doc in a poker game, or (2) received the scarf as a peace token after their gunfight. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two stories.


Thank you for your comment.