20 Wild West 'Facts' That Every Cowboy Movie Keeps Getting Wrong

Yee — and we can’t stress this enough — haw! From old classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to modern takes like Wild Wild West, Hollywood loves to make movies about cowboys on the frontier. Unfortunately, something that filmmakers don’t often take into account is historical accuracy. Here are the most common mistakes that make it into tons of Western flicks.

The cowboy load

True cowboys never fully-loaded their six-shooter pistols. Instead, they’d use a “Cowboy Load” and only put in five rounds, leaving one chamber empty. This was because the guns were extremely finicky in the 1800s and were known to randomly fire.

Safe banks

Bank robberies weren’t that popular of a practice. More of these crimes occurred within a year in Dayton, Ohio, than ever across the Wild West. We’re guessing there weren’t canvas bags with dollar signs printed on them either.

Surprisingly progressive

The Wild West had gay rights! It was incredibly common for cowboys to be in same-sex relationships with one another — some even getting married. Their peers accepted these partnerships. Now this is something Hollywood should make into a movie.  

Feral camels

There used to be feral camels in Texas. For some reason (boredom, maybe) the U.S. military established the Camel Corps in 1856 and imported 66 camels to the arid state. After the Civil War, they were sold to circuses or escaped into the wilds. Their last sighting was in 1941.

A short era

The true Wild West only lasted for about 30 years. From 1865-1895, the American West was a rough place, filled with cowboys, outlaws, and general mayhem. The region eventually calmed down, but remained a difficult place to live for many years.

Handy footwear

The boots weren’t just for show — they helped keep cowboys safe. A raised heel kept a frontiersmen’s foot safely in his horse’s stirrups. If the rider happened to fall, the lack of shoelaces would keep him from being dragged across the desert.

Fewer duels than you'd think

Surprisingly, there weren’t many quick-draw duels. The famous one between Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt occurred on July 21, 1865, over a gambling debt. Though Bill won the encounter, he was still tried for manslaughter, but was acquitted.

The forgotten cowboys

About 25% of cowboys were Black — better known as the “Forgotten Cowboys.” These men were forced into laborious tasks, like taming horses and getting them ready for their riders. Black cowboys were also forced to travel in front of parties to ensure the rest of the group could comfortably ride on a trail.

Poor pronunciation

American cowboys copied their look from Mexican vaqueros. They also got the famous word “buckaroo” from them too. Cowboys who weren’t fluent in Spanish mispronounced vaquero, turning it into buckaroo.

Black Bart's reputation

Black Bart was a famous outlaw, but he was also known for being polite. When he robbed company stagecoaches, he only stole money from the business and left the passengers' personal belongings alone — kind of like a Wild West Robin Hood.

No poker here

If you were a cowboy moseying up a saloon for some drinking and gambling, you probably wouldn’t be playing poker. Faro was a far more popular card game at the time and would remain so until the early 20th century.

Strict gun control

Contrary to every John Wayne movie, the Wild West enforced strict gun control laws. Citizens were often required to check-in their rifles with the local police stations when they entered towns. It’s like a coat check, except for guns. Convenient!

A gunslinger by any other name

Gunslingers weren’t called gunslingers in the Wild West. Instead, townsfolk referred to them as “shootists” … definitely not as catchy as gunslingers. That term wasn’t invented for another 50 years.

The Texas Rangers

The oldest state law enforcement agency opened during this time period. In 1835, the Texas Rangers were formed and still operate today. Now they’re selected by the Department of Public Safety.

A sharp truth

Cowboys were literally boys in charge of cows. The invention of barbed wire assisted in putting the majority of them out of jobs. These sharp wires created a large, confined space for livestock, eliminating the need for them.

Don't touch the towels

This probably is the least surprising fact: the towels hanging around saloons were disgusting. They were communal towels. Any patron could use these filthy rags to wipe beer from their face. Gross.

Real western women

Most of the women who lived in the Wild West were thought to be sex workers, but this myth was perpetrated by male writers creating sexualized female characters for their male leads to save.

Poor Elmer

Elmer McCurdy wasn’t a good bandit, but in death, his body was a national attraction. He was embalmed and added to a traveling carnival’s sideshow. Elmer’s body moved to several locations for almost 60 years before finally being buried in 1976.

Broncho Billy Anderson, star of the groundbreaking 1903 epic, The Great Train Robbery, wasn’t a real cowboy. After the success of that 1930s film, he decided to go all-in with his Broncho persona and starred in a multitude of Westerns during his career.

Not a southpaw

Historians thought Billy the Kid was left-handed because he was photographed with his gun belt on his left side. His gun, a Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle, only loaded on the right, which would make it nearly impossible for a southpaw to operate. Though that's far from the only popular misconception about Billy the Kid.

Birth of an outlaw

Billy the Kid (second from left) was born on November 23, 1859, in New York. Before earning his outlaw nickname, he went by William H. Bonney. Billy’s biological father disappeared when he was born so his mother, Catherine, raised him along with her new partner William Antrin.

Heading west

In 1865, the family moved to Indiana, then in 1870, they went to Kansas, before finally settling in the New Mexico territory in 1873. Billy thrived in the southwest and quickly became fluent in Spanish.

Endings and beginnings

When he was only 14, his mom died unexpectedly, leaving him an orphan. Billy wasn’t content to stay at home with his stepfather and brother, so he disappeared into the surrounding desert. Soon, he found a job as a ranch hand, though that wasn't his only line of work.

Earning his name

Then, 1876 was a big year for Billy — this was when he killed his first men, a group of Apache Native Americans. Next, he killed a blacksmith in Camp Grant, Arizona. These murders helped Billy build his reputation as a gunslinger.

Cattle gang rivals

Billy’s next job was as a farmhand and bodyguard for rancher John Tunstall. John was killed by another cattle gang in 1878, which threw Billy in the middle of the Lincoln County War. Billy was furious that rivals had killed his friend and was ready to get his revenge.

We have guns too

Billy led a group of vigilantes to track John’s murderers. Two cattle gangers were shot by Billy’s group, ratcheting the feud to a higher level. Eventually, Billy and his “regulators” killed Bill Brady, a local sheriff who ordered the hit on John.

You’re trapped

Once the sheriff was shot, Billy’s enemies teamed up with local lawmen to take down his deadly squad. In July 1878, they made their move. The rivals surrounded the house where Billy's gang was hiding and held them inside for five days in a tense gunfight. 

We’re even

Finally, the vigilantes grew tired of being cornered and shot their way out. Billy and several others escaped. In the wake of the violence, both sides signed a peace treaty in an attempt to end the feud for good.

Still mad

Though the groups were square, the law wasn’t too happy with Billy, since he’d killed a sheriff. For the remainder of his life, he was constant alert for authorities who were keen to punish him for killing one of their own.

Always a gunslinger

Billy might have been on the run, but this didn’t stop him from his gunslinging activities. One of his best-known shoot-outs was in January 1880. When Billy was at a New Mexico saloon, Joe Grant made the mistake of getting uproariously drunk and threatening to kill other customers. Lovely man.

Sensing trouble

Maybe because he’d been in many of these situations already, Billy had a feeling that Joe was serious about his murderous threats. He approached the man and said, “That’s a mighty nice-looking six-shooter you got.”

Here’s a trick

In a move that can only be described as completely bad ass, Billy took Joe’s gun from its holster and, without the angry drunk realizing, spun the cylinder to an empty chamber. Billy’s instincts were accurate. Later, Joe tried to shoot Billy in a back, like a total coward.

Pow pow pow

Billy’s smart thinking saved him. Knowing Joe’s gun wouldn't fire, Billy had enough time to turn and shoot Joe with his own revolver, killing him instantly. If Billy hadn’t done it, someone else would have — there were too many skilled shooters in the Wild West. But the Kid wasn't invincible either.

Captured and tried

In 1881, Billy’s life on the lam ended when he was captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett. He was sentenced to hang for the murder of Bill Brady, but Billy had other ideas. One April day, he put a daring escape plan into action.

You’re not hanging me

A guard took Billy to use the outhouse, where he took a huge gamble. Billy escaped from his handcuffs, stole the guard’s gun, and killed him. He grabbed a shotgun and murdered another nearby guard — all the while still trapped in leg shackles.

See ya!

With the guards dead, Billy hacked off his shackles with an axe, stole a horse, and fled into the night with a satchel full of weapons. This amazing escape made it into newspapers everywhere. Overnight, Billy was the most wanted man in America. 

Found you

The gunslinger managed to evade authorities for several months. His inability to keep a low profile — he was ever the showman — led Sheriff Pat and others to his hideout in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on July 14, 1881.

Bad timing

Pat was talking to rancher Peter Maxwell about Billy's whereabouts when the outlaw himself showed up at Peter’s house. Billy came to pick up some beef for dinner. He saw Pat’s silhouette, but didn't recognize him in the darkness of the house.

Got him

Billy drew his six-shooter and yelled, “Who’s that?” That was all Pat needed. When Billy stepped closer to Peter’s room, Pat shot Billy in the chest. At the age of 21, Billy died in the wilds of New Mexico.

Reborn a legend

After killing the outlaw, Pat co-wrote a biography about Billy the Kid and his various exploits. The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid cemented the young criminal’s status as one of the most recognizable names to arise from the Wild West.