Modern Lessons from the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

posted on August 10, 2017

Wyatt Earp, one of the famous participants of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, pictured above.

It is one of the classic gunfights of the Old West, and it's one of the few actual cases where lawmen and outlaws stood facing each other and shot it out. Besides being of great interest to Old West history buffs, modern defensive shooters can learn from this episode as well. Of course, I'm talking about the gunfight that occurred on Oct. 26, 1881, at the OK Corral.

At the time, Tombstone was a mining town, and the Earp brothers settled there to improve their income in a silver-rich environment. James, Virgil and Wyatt rolled into town in late 1879. Morgan Earp and Wyatt's friend, John H. "Doc" Holliday joined them within a few months.

The Earp brothers quickly set about locating mining, timber and water claims, as well as establishing themselves at the gambling concessions in the thriving boom town. In addition, Virgil carried a commission as a deputy U.S. Marshal and was soon named city marshal. Wyatt quickly obtained an appointment as a deputy sheriff and was on the payroll of Wells Fargo to protect its interests in this rough area of the Arizona Territory.

Conflict arose quickly because the Earps and most of the other mining people were Republicans and Yankees. On the other hand, the cowboys and many other local folks were Democrats and dyed-in-the-wool Southerners.

When Cochise County was formed, the new sheriff, Democrat John Behan, was aligned with the cowboys, who made their living by smuggling stolen cattle from Mexico into the country and pulling holdups of the bullion shipments Wells Fargo transported out of the area.

When one such holdup occurred, Wyatt Earp approached cowboy Ike Clanton to see if he would turn informer and help get some of his stage-robbing buddies arrested. Wyatt was very clear he would let Clanton have the reward and Earp would take the glory of making the arrest. Wyatt made no secret of the fact he wanted to run for county sheriff at the next election.

Unfortunately, Clanton drank too much for his own good and couldn't keep his mouth shut. He soon became afraid of what would happen to him if it became public knowledge he was a snitch. Killing the Earps—especially Wyatt—and Doc Holliday would cover up the whole nasty mess.

On the night of Oct. 25, 1881, Clanton got quite drunk and tried to pick a fight with the Earps. By the morning of the next day, he was reinforced by his brother, Billy, and Tom and Frank McLaury. After making numerous threats and being seen wearing firearms in violation of city ordinance, the cowboys and some friends got together at the O.K. Corral, which faced Allen Street, but ran all the way through to Fremont Street. The Earps, led by Virgil and accompanied by Doc Holliday, went to make the arrest.

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral actually occurred in a vacant lot, some six lots to the west of the back entrance to the OK Corral, next to the boarding house where Holliday resided. The lot was about 15 to 20 feet wide, and both groups of men were barely 6 feet apart when the shooting began.

Historians say 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds. Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury were killed. Wounded were Morgan Earp (who sustained a glancing wound across his back), Virgil Earp (who was shot in the calf) and Doc Holliday (who received a glancing wound to the hip). Who actually fired first and who actually shot whom is still strongly debated to this day.

Looking back on the event, we can see several things that might have changed the outcome of the fight or prevented it altogether. To begin with, several of the cowboys had rifles on their saddles, but chose to fight with their revolvers. Had they thought to use the rifles and engaged the Earps at distance, they might have won.

On the other hand, Virgil obtained a shotgun from the Wells Fargo office. Had he thought to procure several more shotguns (rifles would have been nice, too), the show of firepower might have caused the cowboys to give up without a fight.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is 30 shots were fired with only about 10 hits—at a distance of only 6 to 10 feet away. That means two-thirds of the bullets fired went sailing off down the street. It's a wonder innocent bystanders weren't hit. Clearly, everyone was point shooting. This is similar to some reports of modern shootings, where everyone empties their guns yet achieve only a few hits. When your life is in danger, it is very difficult to make yourself focus on your front sight, but you must if you expect to make your shots count.

Finally, though the Earps were enforcing the law and the killings were ultimately ruled justifiable, they subsequently spent almost all of their financial resources defending themselves in various court actions. As a result, their hopes of leading comfortable lives were taken from them forever.

Clearly, there are lessons to be learned. A gunfight should be avoided if at all possible—even if you feel justified in your position. Second, if you must fight, focus on your front sight in order to neutralize the threat as accurately and quickly as possible. Finally, be prepared for an aftermath that can prove to be financially ruinous. One can't help but wonder what the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral would have been like had the participants had modern defensive firearm training.


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