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What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality

The whole truth about the not-so-Wild West
Endless prairies, a faithful “Colt” on the belt and a hardy stallion, carrying a silent and slightly hungover hero straight into the sunset: it is difficult to find a more romanticized character than a cowboy. Coming out today, Red Dead Redemption 2 on PC is literally woven from such passages. Let’s try to figure out how plausible the image of a brave cowboy, firmly entrenched in our heads thanks to countless films and games about the Wild West.

What there is to do in the life of a real man? It seems that there are only three things: arrange a shootout in a bar, Rob a train and become the fastest shooter in the West, winning a fair duel in the hot midday sun. But seriously thinking that this was the majority of cowboys in the United States is about the same as studying history from the myths of Ancient Greece.

Who are the cowboys
What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality
Cowboys in camp in Pekisko, Canada, 1900-1905 years.

Let’s start with something more or less well-known. A cowboy is a shepherd. The need for such a profession created the need to transport large herds of animals from West to East, and given the distance of pastures and farms from railway stations, this problem could not be solved except by moving cattle. That’s what the cowboys did.

The roots of romanticizing this image and presenting it as a person of action lie quite deep in American culture, and they can be considered some other time. It’s much more interesting to try to find out whether all these guys really looked and lived the way we now imagine?

Bear arms
If you want to shoot, shoot, not talk.
x/f “the Good, the bad and the ugly»

The image of a cowboy has many mandatory elements, but the weapon is perhaps the most important of them. And this is not surprising, given the busy and dangerous life shown to us in the works of art. How was it in reality?

What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality
Cowboy on a horse, 1887

It is difficult to answer unequivocally, because the life of cowboys can be divided into two parts: hard and long work on driving cattle and further rest on the earned dollars. And now remember, how often do we see the cowboy in the role of a cattle Drover? Yeah, just about ever. The character’s entire life revolves around cities and saloons. And here we can say for sure: the legal restrictions on the possession of weapons in the second half of the XIX century were stricter than in modern America.

Even in one of the most iconic places in the Wild West, the town of Dodge city, there was a sign directly prohibiting the carrying of firearms.

What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality
Dodge city, Kansas, United States

And similar restrictions, up to the obligation to Deposit all dangerous property with the Sheriff, existed in many cities. Yes, men wanted to constantly carry weapons with them, but what this practice can lead to is quite clearly shown in many feature films. Journalists wrote about this in 1884:

“We see a lot of cowboys preparing for the spring and summer season. They all seem to think that having a revolver is an absolute necessity. And it’s just absurd.”

Outside the cities, of course, there was no control, so the image of a cowboy constantly carrying a gun is only partially true.

Shooting in bars
I’ve already seen three of these raincoats today. There were three people inside them. And there were three bullets inside the people.
x/f ” Once upon a time in the Wild West»

A man enters the saloon with a squeak of unoiled hinges. He walks slowly to the bar, sits down, and silently points to the whiskey bottle. Someone’s sideways glance, careless movement-then you know. And it’s true: in the absence of a variety of entertainment, cowboys probably spent a lot of time in entertainment establishments. But why would they shoot out there?

What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality
Cowboys in Tascos, Texas, USA, late 19th century (photo by Julian Bivins Museum)

Yes, there is no need. Eric Hobsbawm in his book gives a curious statistic:

“Who cares now, after all, that the total number of shootings in all the major cattle towns — in Wichita, Abilene, Dodge city, Ellsworth, combined-between 1870 and 1885 was 45 people, an average of 1.5 per shopping season, or that the local Newspapers mostly printed not stories about bar shootings, but real estate prices and all sorts of deals?»

Do not forget about the technical imperfection of firearms in those days. Smokeless white powder was invented only in 1884, and became widespread at the very end of the XIX century, already at the end of the era of cowboys. The black gunpowder used everywhere, after igniting the charge, produced such a colossal amount of smoke that in a small room nothing would be visible after just a couple of shots, let alone mass carnage.

What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality
Saloon in Wyoming, USA, late XIX century

The winchesters and Colts
God created people strong and weak. Samuel Colt made them equal.

Colt Peacemaker revolver, Winchester 1873 rifle, Smith & Wesson Schofield-it’s hard to imagine that a real cowboy didn’t have these legendary weapons. And they were, of course, since the civil war that ended left behind a huge number of revolvers and rifles already mentioned. But were they as widespread as they are trying to show us in the cinema?

What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality
Cowboys playing in the Buffalo bill Wild West show, 1886

It is difficult to say, but in those days it was more practical and cheaper to have an ordinary shotgun. Smoothbore and rifled weapons, which were used in the first half of the XIX century, were much more popular and widespread than the later and expensive models of Colt and Winchester weapons.

Given the nomadic lifestyle of a cowboy, a shotgun looks like a more versatile weapon: it is much easier to shoot a flying bird or small animals with a shotgun. A large area of destruction gave an advantage in skirmishes, without making you worry about accuracy.

This type of weapon is also referred to by the well-known term riding shotgun, which means, in fact, a caravan guard sitting next to the driver, and at any moment ready to use a shotgun as a means of protection from bandits.

What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality
Actors in the image of cowboys on the filming of the series “Maverick”, 1957-1962.

According to historians, it was Doc Holliday’s shotgun that put the decisive point, perhaps, in the most famous shootout of the Wild West in the town of Tumstone:

American historians and forensic experts have concluded that a crucial role in the end of the shooting was played by a shot from a double-barrelled shotgun, which Doc Holliday shot Tom Mclory (probably unarmed), shooting almost at point-blank range…
Do not forget about the banal economy. An ordinary person could hardly afford a whole Arsenal, so the weapon was chosen one and for a long time. Among other things, a significant advantage of the shotgun was the ease of maintenance and relative cheapness of ammunition.

Of course, this does not mean that absolutely no one had already become iconic models of revolvers and rifles. Of course they were used. But the good old shotgun clearly won in mass distribution.

I like healthy, fat men like you. They fall with such a noise and sometimes don’t get up again.
x/f “the Good, the bad and the ugly»

The hot sun, reaching the Zenith, scorches the city square with its rays. The silence is broken only by the wind, driving tumbleweeds through the deserted streets. Two men stand opposite each other and wait. Air, it seems, can be cut with a knife.

Beautiful? Definitely. Realistic? Hardly.

Of course, duels in real life took place, but, for the most part, were common among aristocrats and nobles. People simply chose more affordable means: a shot in the back, a feather in the ribs, or a numerical advantage over the enemy.

Fans of the Wild West can remember the famous duel between Wild bill and David Tutt, the most widely covered in the press of those years, and in many modern interpretations.

What Red Dead Redemption 2 is lying about. Cowboys in games, movies, and reality
The duel between Wild bill and David Tutt, Harper’s Weekly, 1867

The article in Harper’s Weekly magazine, authored by George ward Nichols, reads like a true work of fiction. In fact, it was Nichols who created the image of Wild bill that we all know:

“After seeing Tutt leave the courthouse and head for the square, bill walked away from the crowd to the West side of the square. Fifteen paces later, they were facing each other, with only 50 yards [about 45 meters] of ground separating them. Then Tutt took out his revolver. Bill never took his eyes off him. […] You could almost hear the drops of sweat clattering to the ground. The shots rang out simultaneously. Tutt was a fine shot, but he missed. Wild bill, on the other hand, made his shot, turned around in a flash and pointed the weapon at Tutt’s friends, who were already ready to avenge their friend’s death.”

Yeah, that’s the scene. And asks for the screen. And, most likely, it really took place, but the author’s contemporaries still had questions about the authenticity of what was happening:

“Wild bill is just a drunkard and a coward who should have been hanged years ago for killing innocent people. A fatal shot in the back of an old friend and a disgraceful banishment by a bouncer from a bar are just a few of Wild bill’s exploits that the Harper’s journalist forgot to mention.”

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