A "gunslinger" is a modern term used to describe a professional gunman of the Old West in the United States. Nineteenth-century gunslingers worked on both sides of the law and might be bandits, contract killers, sheriffs or Pinkerton detectives. In that era, the term "gunslinger" was not yet in popular use, and these men were more likely to be referred to as gunmen, shootists, pistoleers or bad men. Although rooted in history, this role has since taken on mythic forms, populating western films and literature alongside other stock character types such as the cowboy and the prospector.
In films, the gunslinger often possesses a nearly superhuman speed and skill with the revolver. Twirling pistols, lightning draws and trick shots are standard fare for the gunmen of the big screen. In the real world, however, gunmen who relied on flashy tricks and theatrics died quickly, and most took a much more practical approach to their weapons. Real gunslingers did not shoot to disarm or to impress, but to kill.
Another classic bit of cinema, the showdown at high noon, where two well-matched gunslingers agreed to meet for a climactic formal duel, largely is a matter of myth as well. Often, gunfights were more spontaneous, a fight that turned deadly when one side reached for a weapon, and the drinking of alcoholic beverages often was involved. Gunfights could be won by simple distraction, or pistols could be emptied as gunmen fought from behind cover without injury. When a gunman did square off, it rarely was with another gunfighter. Gunslingers usually gave each other a wide berth, and it was uncommon for two well-known ones to face off.
The gunslinger's reputation often was as valuable as any skills possessed. In the western films and books, young toughs often would challenge an experienced gunman with the hopes of building a reputation, but this rarely happened in real life. A strong reputation was enough to keep others civil and often would spare a gunfighter from conflict. Even other gunslingers were likely to avoid any unnecessary confrontation.
In the days of the Old West, tales tended to grow with repeated telling, and a single fight might grow into a career-making reputation. For instance, the Shootout at the O.K. Corral made legends of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, but they were relatively minor figures before that conflict. Some gunslingers, such as Bat Masterson, actively engaged in self-promotion. Johnny Ringo built a reputation as a gunslinger despite never taking part in a gunfight.