On summer evenings in the former mining town of Silverton, Colo., the staccato sound of gunshots used to echo through otherwise quiet streets. A cast of stereotypical Old West characters riddled one another with bullets, as the legendary gunfighters did once upon a time in the West.
Except that those kind of shoot-’em-ups didn’t happen out here in the West. Not really.
Back in the 1950s, those fake Silverton gunfights followed a well-timed schedule, erupting when the narrow-gauge train, loaded with tourists, rolled into town in the middle of the day. Eventually, however, a group of history-minded citizens gained influence and rejected the violent charade as a mockery of their town’s history. By the 1970s, the fake gunfights were no more.
The West always has been a land of myths, where visitors can live out their dreams—and their misconceptions. Perhaps the most persistent one is that of the gunslinging West, when ordinary citizens were armed to the teeth, and the only law and order came from the end of a brave man’s Colt 45. Today, the notion persists that Westerners define themselves by their love of guns.
Like most legends, that of the gunfighters’ West derives from a morsel of truth. Yet, nourished by pop culture, movies and the snowball effect of falsehood, that myth has very little in common with the history that spawned it. Even in late 19th-century Silverton, a rough-and-tumble mining town, ordinary citizens didn’t walk the streets with sidearms. There were occasional gunfights, as when a 19-year-old recidivist shot the town marshal dead in 1881. There were four or five shots fired in all, and the criminals were hanged, not shot, by vigilantes. Full-on fights like those in old Westerns, in which the butcher, baker and candlemaker were also involved, were virtually unknown.
It’s not that guns weren’t around. Hunters were armed, and at least one early newspaper editor was known to have a pistol stashed in his desk. It was not an armed citizenry that kept law and order, however, but the marshals, sheriffs and federal government. Rare flare-ups between the area Utes and white settlers were generally handled by federal soldiers, not citizen militias. The only assault rifle back then was the Gatling gun, which was available only to soldiers at a few military posts. Richard Gatling had invented the rapid-fire “battery gun” during the Civil War, thinking—National Rifle Association-like—that a more efficient killing machine would reduce the carnage on the battlefield. He was terribly wrong.
Comb through the region’s early newspapers, and you’ll find only occasional mentions of killings by gun. Accounts of shootings over the 19th century equivalent to a fender-bender are sparse. Madmen in the Wild West didn’t shoot up schools or even saloons. Believe it or not, teachers weren’t armed.
Dynamite was a far more ubiquitous and more important symbol of the Old West’s culture. This was mining country, after all, and miners and road builders relied on explosives to make a living, and a killing. Dynamite was easy to access, and was not uncommonly used for murders and suicides over the years, even in more modern times. In 1975, a bomber blew the Silverton Depot off its foundation. Around the same time, a motorcycle shop and bar in Durango, and a watering hole in Silverton, were bombed.
Today, explosives are tightly regulated. Lobbyists for the explosives industry, however, have yet to proclaim that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with dynamite is a good guy with dynamite. Well-paid lobbyists do not argue that it infringes on our liberties or threatens agrarian culture to subject a farmer to a background check if he buys a truckload of nitrogen fertilizer. And though I’ve known of people dynamiting ponds to catch fish easily, I have yet to hear any politician arguing that regulating the sale of explosives is a threat to our traditional hunting-and-fishing culture.
The Old West was, at times, quite wild, but if we’re looking for a symbol of the times, it’s not the Colt Peacemaker and certainly not the AR-15. Firearms are not integral to Western culture or identity. Take away our semi-automatic guns and our high-volume ammo clips, and limit the amount of ammunition we can buy—and we’ll still be Westerners.
It’s time to follow Silverton’s example and stop reducing ourselves and our region to a silly caricature manufactured by Hollywood and supported by a gun industry looking to peddle more of its deadly wares.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. Based in Durango, Colo., he is a senior editor at HCN.