A reader wrote to ask an interesting question, "What makes someone an Old West 'Gunfighter' and not just a common 'Gunman'?"
An Old West gunfighter usually refers to someone in that time who gained fame or notoriety during that period of time with a gun. Historically, the word "gunfighter" refers to men in the Old West who had gained a reputation of being dangerous with a gun and had actually participated in gunfights and shootouts.
Some make the mistake of labeling two-bit gunman like the highwayman, the stage coach robber, known as Black Bart as a "gunfighter" when in fact he never fought anyone with a gun. And as a matter of fact, he never discharged a gun of any sort while robbing stages.
He was certainly an outlaw as he did in fact commit illegal acts and live outside the law. And while he should not be called a gunfighter, it is justified to label Black Bart a gunman because he did in fact used a shotgun to threaten to kill those on the stages that he held-up.
Also, it is more appropriate to call Black Bart a gunman because it was a term that was created in the 19th Century to describe criminals using guns. The term "gunman" became commonly used to describe just about anyone who used a gun for any reason, even if just brandished a gun like Black Bart did and not actually fired a gun.
From the criminal with a gun, whether it was used or not, to drunks who shoot at the moon, the term "gunman" was soon being applied to men noted for speed and skill in handling a gun.
And frankly, there is where the problem comes in. That's where the terms "gunman" and "gunfighter" became thought of as being one and the same thing. The newspapers in the 19th century called anyone who used a gun a gunfighter, when in fact the person they were describing was probably just a gunman who might not have fired a shot.
As for the term "gunslinger," that is a modern 20th-century invention created by screenwriters and filmmakers. It was a term used in films to refer to men in the Old West who had gained a reputation as being dangerous with a gun.
A gunfighter was someone who was involved in gunfights, usually someone skilled with firearms, and usually someone who was feared as a gunman. He was not a two-bit gunman is armed with a gun and is involved in robberies or shootings.
While some outlaws like David Rudabaugh were truly gunfighters and not just two-bit gunman, gunfighters came from all sorts of different occupations and ways of life. Wyatt Earp was a bartender and later a con-man. Buckskin Frank Leslie was a con-man. John Henry "Doc" Holliday was a dentist and gambler. Bat Masterson was a professional gambler and later a sports writer. Dallas Stoudenmire and John Hicks Adams were lawmen. Ben Thompson and Luke Short were saloon owners. And there were others, others like John Pinckney Calhoun Higgins who was cowboy and rancher who would make his living as a hired-gun.
While a gunman can be anyone with a gun who commits a crime, it is reasonable to say that a gunfighter was usually a man who made his living in an occupation that included a chance of a shootout.
Of course while occupation played a huge role in being a gunfighter, that wasn't always the case to prompt a gunfighter into action. James Reily saw a friend murdered in front of him and immediately turned gunfighter killing more men in those few seconds than Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson combined. Captain Jonathan R. Davis who was a former soldier and later a miner was ambushed by 11 men and he killed every one of them.
But while these instances did take place, more than any other reason, it was because of their occupations that gunfighters in the Old West saw the possibility of a shootout taking place at any given moment on a daily basis.
And yes, that's just the way I see it.