John Wesley Hardin was a master craftsman of death, and these were the tools of his trade.
- Written by Phil Spangenberger
- Published March 13, 2012
We’ve long held a fascination for the gunmen of the Wild West, and firearms enthusiasts have been especially interested in the hardware used by them.
Unlike most Wild West gunmen, who left behind scarce detailed accounts of the guns they had used during their tumultuous careers, John Wesley Hardin is known to have owned or used several solidly documented guns.
Furthermore, thanks to his autobiography, in instances where his hardware is not known, we can guesstimate what arms were most likely used on given dates, based on firearms production records and other known historical facts relating to firearms chronology. (Keep in mind though, Hardin describes some shootings that have not been documented elsewhere and are thus suspect.)
Hardin, arguably the most deadly of the Old West’s gunmen, was a notorious desperado whose career spanned three decades (minus almost 16 years in prison) that ranged from the end of the percussion era of the late 1860s to well into the age of metallic cartridge arms in 1895.
Although firearms were probably nothing more than mere tools to him, there is little doubt that Hardin was a man who appreciated the mechanics as well as every line and curve of his weapons, as his adept handling of his firearms testifies.
“Hardin was an awful quick man”
To say that Hardin was good with his guns would be an understatement. During his lifetime he was considered to be the best shot, the fastest draw, an excellent horseman and the deadliest gunman in the West—and not simply through hearsay. Hard men of arms, who had witnessed and respected his six-gun handling, recorded his abilities.
Late in his lawless career, in 1877, when Hardin was a captive of the Texas Rangers, famed Ranger James B. Gillett was among a group of Rangers who unchained Hardin and watched him in amazement as he demonstrated his skills with a pair of empty Colts. The Ranger remembered he handled the Colts “as a sleight-of-hand performer manipulates a coin.” They also noted his tricks: “The quick draw, the spin, the rolls, pinwheeling, border shift—he did them all with magical precision.”
A Smiley, Texas, man told Hardin’s great grandson he remembered seeing young Hardin “…get on a horse and run that horse at a pretty good speed by a tree, and unload his gun in a knot on the tree.”
Another contemporary recalled that Hardin was so fast that, “When he was young he could get out a six-shooter and use it quicker than a frog could eat a fly.”
In his El Paso years, despite aging and being away from guns for nearly two decades in prison, Hardin was still lightning fast. One eyewitness, who saw Hardin in action in 1895, said, “Hardin was an awful quick man. I was in Mexico one night with him when a policeman started to arrest Hardin for carrying a gun. The policeman made a break for his gun, but he didn’t have time to pull it. Hardin hit the man in the face and then, pulling his gun, told the Greaser to get out of town, at the same time informing him who he was. The Mexican never did come back, and he hasn’t stopped running yet, I bet.”
While in El Paso, Hardin must have felt himself slipping as he passed into his early forties, for in his autobiography he writes of his earlier abilities with guns, “In those days I was a crack shot.…”
In El Paso, he practiced daily in front of a mirror in his boarding room. He wore a special “calfskin vest with built-in holsters containing his two Colt .41 caliber revolvers,” according to contemporary accounts, although neither this vest, nor a bulletproof vest he was supposed to have worn, have ever turned up.
When interviewed for the August 23, 1895, edition of the El Paso Daily Times (just four days after Hardin’s death), his landlady, Mrs. Williams of the Herndon House, stated: “Yes, Mr. Hardin was certainly a quick man with his guns. I have seen him unload his guns, put them in his pocket, walk across the room and then suddenly spring to one side, facing around, and quick as a flash, he would have a gun in each hand, clicking so fast that the clicks sounded like a rattle machine.”
She went on to say, “He would place his guns inside his breeches in front with the muzzles out. Then he would jerk them out by the muzzle, and with a toss as quick as lightning, grasp them by the handle and have them clicking in unison.”
As a final testimony to Hardin’s speed and skill with his guns, El Paso Constable John Selman, a noted gunman himself, would kill Hardin by shooting him in the back!
Hardware for a Young Shootist
Much of Hardin’s early career—from 1868 to 1877—largely involved the use of cap-and-ball revolvers, since the self-contained metallic cartridge arms were...
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