Hickok was a good marksman with a handgun, which was something of a rarity on the frontier; he also was supposedly a very adroit man, capable of handling a sidearm with speed and balance. All of this took a lot of practice, of course he spent plenty to time honing his skills. His reputation was enhanced by literary exploitation through theater, acting in a melodrama, King of the Borderland, by Ned Buntline and starring Buffalo Bill Cody, and dime novels, mostly all written by Ned Buntline, as well, and fueled by expanding rumors and tall tales. All of this probably exceeded his—or anyone’s—genuine ability. He is credited officially with killing only about a half-dozen men in gunfights, not a low number, but hardly extraordinary for a man of his varied background and experiences or frequent service as a lawman of various kinds, ranging from sheriff’s deputy to town marshal. The weapons of choice in his era, largely cap-and-ball revolvers, were not easy to fire accurately. They were heavy and awkward to handle without experience and practice. As he was a professional spy, scout, lawman, and wagon master in his career, knowing how to use a sidearm was very likely a part of his natural DNA as a person living in areas where lawlessness and violence were common. He also performed as a marksman, for money, and won wagers and prizes for his ability to hit what he aimed with a pistol fired from various poses and positions. He became the prototypical “gunslinger” or “gunfighter,” although such terms were not used in his era.
A far more valuable trait for Hickok was that he was very likely a “stone cold killer;” able and willing to shoot to kill in any confrontation. This was a rare attribute, which, if we run across it today, we find too outrageous to accept, even in a law enforcement officer, which Hickok sometimes was.
He probably was nowhere near the man his reputation and legend built him up to be, but in that era and thanks to sensational literary efforts, the legend exceeded the fact. Toward the end of his life, Hickok tried to reverse this reputation of himself as a feared killer and adversary, wanted to set himself up as a responsible citizen and family man, much as William Cody, his sometimes friend, had done; but it never worked. He drank heavily, gambled often, and associated with rough people living on the edge. He was also something of a dandy, liking fine clothing and prizing good barbering. Of all the legendary western figures—heroes or villains—James Butler Hickok was probably the closest to the “real deal,” when it came to being what he was reputed to be, a gunman and a man to be respected and a man to be feared.