It took more than just the ability to shoot fast and straight to make a real gunfighter. Anyone who practiced long and often enough could learn to draw and fire with unerring accuracy at an inanimate object or animal. But it took a special kind of coolness to shoot straight and true at another human being who was trying to shoot you at the same time. Combine that with making split-second decisions and you have a real gunfighter and a dangerous one.
Bat Masterson wrote of the three most important things for a gunfighter, speed was third; accuracy was second; and the most important was the mental–that ability to make quick decisions and stay cool under fire. “Deliberation,” he said. During a fight one man might hesitate a moment and that might cost his life. A strong killer instinct was required. Wyatt Earp said the most important thing was to “take your time–in a hurry!”
Masterson considered Earp the best when it came down to shooting at a man who is shooting back.
Wyatt Earp’s testimony at Judge Wells Spicer’s hearing following the “Gunfight at O. K. Corral” said a lot about coolness under fire when he described the opening moments of the gunfight: “When I saw Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury draw their pistols, I drew my pistol. Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me, but I did not aim at him. I knew that Frank McLaury had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man and I aimed at Frank McLaury. The first two shots were fired by Billy Clanton and myself, he shooting at me, and I shooting at Frank McLaury……..My first shot struck Frank McLaury in the belly. He staggered off on the sidewalk but fired one shot at me.”
Earp believed the youngster, Billy Clanton in his first gunfight, would hurry his shot and probably miss, even at such close range. Whereas Frank McLaury was an older, more experienced gunfighter and would be the more dangerous of the two. Wyatt took a calculated risk and fired at McLaury first. Sure enough, Billy’s shot missed its mark.