Old West gunfighters hardly ever practiced the technique.
During the 1950s Hollywood Western movie craze, fast drawing and rapid firing of several shots by “fanning” a six-shooter became a skill used in almost every celluloid gunfight. And a half-century later, many Western history buffs are still not aware that fanning a six-gun did not happen much in the real Old West.
Unlike the later double-action revolvers, single-action revolvers (the most-often used six-shooters on the frontier) could not be fired just by squeezing the trigger; the hammer had to be manually cocked first. So to fan a single-action revolver, the shooter squeezed the trigger against the back of the trigger guard and held it there in firing position while repeatedly fanning back the hammer into full-cock position with the heel of his other hand. This fanning turned the cylinder and released the hammer to fall and fire a new chamber as rapidly as the shooter’s off hand could repeat this movement.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Ed McGivern became the “World’s Fastest Gun” when he was electronically timed fanning five shots out of a Colt single-action revolver into a hand-sized target in 1.1 seconds. But in the real 19th-century West, there probably weren’t a handful of men who could fan as fast as McGivern. And even if they could, the jarring of the gun created by the fanning made holding it on a man-sized target so difficult that the side of a barn would probably have gone untouched by bullets. Of course, shooting at a man who is shooting back trying to kill you is emotionally different than firing rapidly at an inanimate target, and only a fool would have tried to fan his six-shooter in an actual man-to-man shootout. So fanning in the Old West was usually only done in Wild West performances or to show off.
Fanning had other drawbacks, too. The simple internal mechanism of Colts and Remingtons had delicate spring metal on the pawl that turned the cylinder and in the locking bolt that locked the cylinder in place. So repeated rapid fanning could prematurely break these vital parts or mainspring and make the gun useless in a life-or-death situation. Another drawback was physical; repeated fanning could leave the heel of the fanning hand torn and bloody from contact with the sharp edges of the hammer spur.
An early description of fanning appeared in a caustic article about gunfighting in the December 1, 1889, San Francisco Examiner: “The professional packer of pistols…turned his attention to discovering methods of firing the single-action pistol with greater rapidity.…His first brilliant achievement in that line was ‘fanning the hammer.’… The result was a fusillade like a bunch of firecrackers.…[But] it is doubtful if anybody yet has succeeded in firing six consecutive balls into the same township by fanning the hammer.”
In A Vaquero of the Brush Country, a 1929 biography of Texas cattleman John Young’s early days, legendary Lone Star State author J. Frank Dobie quotes Young: “The only reason on earth for carrying a gun is to use it when needed. The only reason on earth for pulling it when needed is to shoot it with lightning speed and deadly precision….In quick action, the gun was often fired from the hip as it came out of the holster, but the second shot was aimed straight at the heart, sometimes the head.…” Young then quotes Texas Ranger Captain James B. Gillett: “In all my experience with both officers and desperadoes…I never saw a man shoot from the hip. All of them pulled the pistol, pointed it from the shoulder level and fired.…Fanning… was pretty much a piece of show business, though there were men who could fan.…A man might fan for pastime but seldom for his life.” (While Young’s quote appears to contradict Gillett’s words about not shooting from the hip, Young is merely adding that a gunman might risk a first shot from the hip as his gun came out of the holster.)
And in the November 1, 1930, Saturday Evening Post, Wyatt Earp biographer Stuart Lake quoted Wyatt’s blunt views about gun handling: “In all my life as a frontier peace officer, I did not know a really proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun fanner, or the man who literally shot from the hip.…From my experience…I can only support the opinion advanced by the men who gave me my most valuable instruction in fast and accurate shooting—which was that the gun fanner and the hip shooter stood small chance to live against a man who…took his time and pulled the trigger once.”
The action-packed 1950s Western movie boom also created another undying gunfighter myth—that gunmen in the real West opened the loading gate of a Colt or Remington single-action revolver and spun the cylinder to see whether the chambers were loaded. But, as with rapid fanning, the fast spinning of the cylinder could cause the pawl spring or locking bolt spring to break, leaving the broken six-shooter owner very dead when his life had depended on the gun the most.
So, the next time you see a Western movie that has the good guy or the bad guy spinning the cylinder to see if his six-shooter is loaded, or filling his opponent full of holes while fanning his Colt revolver, try not to cringe. Just know it’s all Hollywood hokum.
Lee A. Silva has much more to say about fanning in his biography of Wyatt Earp.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.