www.GunsOfOld.com -- The Life and Times of Wild Bill Hickok
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok's favorite sidearms were a pair of elegantly engraved, ivory-handled 1851 Navy Colt .36 caliber revolvers similar to the one pictured below.
The cylinders of his Colts were engraved with a naval battle scene between Texas and Mexico. He carried them in butt-forward, open-topped holsters that allowed him to draw the Colts underhanded and spin them forward (called the reverse or "plains" draw), or with a cross-handed draw.
He must have been an arresting sight, wearing that two-holster rig with the ivory-handled Colts, a long frock coat and wide-brimmed hat. Over six feet tall, he was broad shouldered, with a ginger-colored moustache and flowing blonde hair.
Unlike many lawmen and gunmen of the Old West who gained most of their fame long after their time on earth was past, Hickok was legendary as the fastest and most deadly gunman in the West during his own lifetime.
He was reputed to be a soft-spoken and courteous gentleman, but one who would respond with deadly force if attacked or insulted. Nevertheless, tales of his exploits by newspapers and dime novelists were wildly exaggerated. Instead of the hundred "badmen" he was said to have dispatched with his lightening-fast draw and deadly aim, the total was less than ten.
The numbers may have been exaggerated, but his status as a fast and deadly Plains gunman apparently was not. Many, many accounts from credible eyewitnesses, including General George Custer, spoke of his speed and skill with the Navy Colt revolvers he favored. It was said he could draw and fire with blinding speed, and without ever appearing to aim, unerringly hit his target.
Given his legendary skills, it's fortunate that he favored enforcing the law over breaking it. In 1855 at the age of 18, he was constable of Monticello Township in the Kansas Territory. For a time he was a freight driver for Russell, Waddell and Majors--partners in a large freight company hauling supplies to western army outposts--who a few years later started a little enterprise they called the Pony Express.
During the Civil War, Hickok joined the Union forces, serving mostly in Kansas and Missouri, where he earned a reputation as a highly skilled army scout. The engraved Colts were, in fact, a gift from a Massachusetts Senator in recognition of his scouting services for the Army. Hickok was a staunch abolitionist. His childhood farm home in Ohio had been a stop on the "underground Railroad" for runaway slaves making their way north, and as a youngster, Hickok was sometimes called upon to take up arms and defend the family farm and the runaways against slave hunters.
During the war he served with another famous scout--Buffalo Bill Cody--who would become his lifelong friend. Immediately following the war, Hickok served as a U.S. Marshal, and even earned a living as a professional gambler for a time.
Between 1865 and 1871, Hickok served as a lawman in various capacities--mostly in the cow towns of Kansas. He was at one time or another a City Marshal, Deputy Marshal, Sheriff and U.S. Marshal.
His lightening-quick reflexes kept him alive when he got into any number of dangerous scrapes, but they finally betrayed him in 1871. While serving as marshal of Abilene, Kansas in 1871, he was facing down a large crowd of drunken street brawlers when out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of someone running toward him. Firing two shots in rapid succession in the direction of the motion, he shot and fatally wounded Abilene Deputy Marshal Mike Williams who had been running toward Hickok to come to his aid. Hickok was removed from his position as marshal two months later. Haunted by his killing of the deputy for the rest of his life, he never worked as a lawman again.
Wild Bill in Deadwood
Buffalo Bill, who had become a showman of great renown, invited Hickock to join the cast of his new play, "Scouts of the Plains" in 1873. Unfortunately, "Wild Bill" proved much less adept at stage play than he was at gun play, and his show business career was mercifully brief.
In 1876, in poor health with his eyesight failing, Hickok retreated to Deadwood, a wild and lawless mining camp in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, to drink and play poker. On the night of August 2nd, he entered Saloon Number Ten looking for a poker game. It was his habit to find a chair in the corner facing the door, to protect himself against attack from behind. But the saloon was crowded that night and no corner chairs were open. No one is sure why he went against his own inherent caution and took that chair with his back to the door, but it was a decision that proved fatal. He was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall, who would eventually hang for his murder.
Legend has it that he was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, and his fifth card had yet to be dealt when the fatal shot was fired. That combination of cards has been called the "dead man's hand" ever since.
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
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Our Nickel Engraved 1851 Navy Revolver replica with mock ivory grips is very similar to a pair presented to Wild Bill Hickok in recognition of his service as a Union Army scout during the Civil War.