Wild West fighting Arts

The American West was an undeniably brutal place, although it must be noted that most of the actual violence of the era was official state violence against the American Indians; the violence of frontier towns has tended to be overstated.

Nonetheless, it was a world often made-up of ad hoc social rules with unofficial means of enforcement, and with a population that was generally heavily armed. Even if the West wasn't as prone to dueling in the streets as we might imagine, the risk of death by homicide in, say, Dodge City was 1 in 61. That might not sound like much, but in American just now your risk of being murdered is closer to 1 in 20,000.

As a result, Americans in the West often felt it was good practice to be handy in a fight. Guns were the favorite weapon of the West, but they weren't always best. You weren't always looking to kill someone or make a lot of noise. Often enough, people just ran out of bullets, leading to the phenomena of the butt of a rifle being used with some frequency as a club — certain Indian tribes were impressed enough by how effective it was that they created a new weapon, the gunstock war club, based on it.

Here is a list of three lesser-known Western fighting arts.

Rough and Tumble

Imported from the rural south, rough and tumble, also called "gouging," wasn't so much a fighting system as an expression of unfiltered brutality: Favorite moves included attacking the groin, biting noses off, and plucking eyes out.

The fighting style was likely first described by British author and diplomat Charles Augustus Murray in his book "Travels in North America during the years 1834, 1835 and 1836," describing the fighting style as still being popular in Kentucky, saying of combatants that "there is no check on their fury."

The style migrated West; Davy Crockett was supposed to be fond f it, at least in popular almanacs that followed his death, which has him insisting that fingers are "true nat'ral gouging instruments" and threatening the puck out the eyes of a squatter: "I kept my thumb in his eye, and was just going to give it a twist and bring the peeper out, like taking a gooseberry in a spoon."

Pat F. Garrett's "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid" also mentions rough and tumble fighting, describing the Kid getting caught in a  rough-and-tumble fight in a frontier saloon; Billy the Kid responds by pulling out a pocket knife and stabbing his attacker.

Theodore Roosevelt also describing such a fight in his book "The Winning of the West." "Brutally savage fights were frequent," he wrote, "the combatants, who were surrounded by rings of interested spectators, striking, kicking, biting, and gouging. The fall of one of them did not stop the fight, for the man who was down was maltreated without mercy until he called 'enough.'"

Knife Fighting

Although the rifle and pistol are the weapons most associated with the West, you had to be pretty handy with a knife. South American cowboys, known as gauchos, were reportedly quick to duel and favored doing so with knives called the facón; there's even a South American fighting art that primarily uses this knife called esgrima criolla.

It's likely nobody was better-known for their knife skills than pioneer Jim Bowie, who, after all, had a knife named after him, and was involved in the most famous knife fight of the Old West, the Sandbar Fight.

In brief, the fight was a formal duel on a Mississippi sandbar in Louisiana that went nowhere: The two combatants shot at each other, failed to hit each other, and shook hands. Unfortunately, a brawl immediately broke out, and Bowie, who was there as a second, was badly wounded. He also managed to drag one of the combatants down onto his knife, killing him, and, America being a lot wilder then, this ignited a craze for knives named after Bowie. In fact, the knife proved to be so popular that "Bowie knife schools" opened in the Southwest.

There are possibly apocryphal stories of specific sorts of knife duels in the South and West. The first involved combatants sitting on a log in a river, sometimes with their pants nailed down to prevent them from moving, sometimes with a handkerchief held between them. The pair would then fight with knives until one was dead, or, alternately, dropped the hankie. William F. Pope, author of "Early Days in Arkansas," insisted he met the relative of a man who had engaged in exactly that sort of duel. It was a relative of Jim Bowie.

The second sort of duel involves both men having their arms bound together with a leather strap, which still exists in profession wrestling as a match called the Yappapi Indian Strap match, among other names. A supposedly Cheyenne variation of this involved the two duelist connected by a leather strap held in their teeth, with one arm tied behind each man's back. Presumably, as with the log duel, this ended when one released the strap. This was dramatized in the film "The Long Riders," in which the historical Cole Younger, played by David Carradine, must fight this way to settle a romantic dispute.

Blacksnake Whip

You'll sometimes see old Western movie stars, like the aptly named Lash LaRue, cracking a long whip at a villain, but there's scant evidence this sort of whip was typically used as a weapon. It's primary purpose was to keep cattle in line — a flick of it sets off a small but loud sonic boom, and cracking it near the ear of an unruly cow would generally scare it into moving wherever you wanted it to go.

But there was a smaller whip, the blacksnake, which was popular in Montana and Wyoming. These whips are often shot-loaded, meaning they are filled with lead shot, making them heavier, stronger, and more apt to hurt someone. They were shorter than your typical bullwhip, and so could be used in close-quarters combat. And they could have a lead ball or steel ball-bearing added to the butt, so they could be used as a blackjack.

These were used most often, from reports of the era, as tools of punishment: Mark Twain records being threatened with a blacksnake whipping from his grandmother, while "Our Home Magazine and Mothers' Journal" from 1867 tells of a child whipped for not knowing his letters. 

There aren't many stories of a whip being used in a fight, but there is one that stands out for me: Daniel Mannix, in his book about his experiences working in a carnival side show titled "Memoirs of a Sword Swallower," recalled a cowboy who used to perform with him. One night, a cry of "Hey rube," went up, which was carnival slang, used as a cry for help when a carnival worker was attacked by a local, which was frequent. 

In this instance, the locals were rioting, attacking any carnival worker they saw and tearing down their tents and stands. Suddenly, the performing cowboy came out of his tent, a whip in either hand, cracking them back and forth at the local mob, who scattered in terror.

Whips are so notoriously hard to master that there is a popular piece of advice for using them as a weapon: Simply throw it to your opponent and stand back as they knock themselves out with it.


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