How accurate was Doc Holliday’s marksmanship?

In a recent interview, the question of Doc Holliday’s reputation as a gunman came up.

There is so much mythology surrounding Holliday’s marksmanship and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. How much of it is accurate?

The mythology isn’t accurate, and neither was Doc! The most careful biographers – the ones who’ve gone over court records and contemporaneous newspaper reports to verify or debunk all the accusations – believe that John Henry Holliday was in five confirmed shooting affrays in his 15 years in the West.

At 3 A.M. on New Years Day in 1875, he and Charles Austin fired their pistols within Dallas city limits. While the peace was disturbed, neither man was hurt.

When Doc was 25, he was attacked and seriously wounded by Henry Kahn after a quarrel over cards, which Kahn started. Recovery took five months, and Doc needed a walking stick off and on for the rest of his life.

In 1880, a year before the famous gunfight, he got into an argument with the gambler Johnny Tyler over who was allowed to run card games in which Tombstone saloons. Saloon owner Milt Joyce decided to end the argument by picking Doc up bodily and flinging him into the street. Infuriated, Doc obtained a gun, returned to the saloon and emptied the revolver, hitting Joyce in the palm and a bartender in the big toe. I’m not downplaying those injuries – Milt Joyce almost lost the hand, and the bartender was lamed – but they are hardly evidence of deadly accuracy.

During the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tom McLaury was hit in the chest by a shotgun blast at a distance of six feet; he is believed to be the only man John Henry Holliday ever killed. Again, accuracy is not an issue when the weapon is a scattergun at two yards.

Finally, in 1884, Billy Allen threatened to kill Doc over a $5 loan that Doc – destitute and very ill – couldn’t pay back on time. When Allen came after him, Doc defended himself with a pistol, wounding Allen in the right upper arm, at close range.

Doc feared for his life, so I’m guessing he didn’t deliberately try to “wing” Allen. I think that was just the best he could do. At 122 pounds, he was sick and shaky; the pistol was heavy for him.

It’s important to note that Doc did everything he could to avoid that confrontation, including asking for an extension on the loan and then appealing to the Leadville, CO, police for protection from Allen. They declined to get involved until after the shooting.

Allen went down and if it were a movie, Doc would have “finished the job.” In real life, with Allen disabled, he allowed himself to be arrested without protest and stood trial for attempted murder. Doc pointed out in court that Allen outweighed him by 50 pounds, and noted, “If he’d got hold of me, I’d have been a child in his hands.” The jury could see that was true, and quickly acquitted Holliday on grounds of self-defense.

That’s it. Everything else is fiction. And no, he didn’t really knife a guy, as depicted in the movie “Tombstone.”As his long-time companion Kate Harony wrote of Doc, “Being quiet, he never hunted trouble.”


Since that interview, I’ve learned from Jeff Guinn’s book The Last Gunfight that Doc participated in a rifle contest while in Tombstone. He ranked very near the bottom of the contestants. My reading of all this is that Doc’s marksmanship was much like my typing skills: we’re quick but not accurate! At least I get to edit!




8 thoughts on “How accurate was Doc Holliday’s marksmanship?”

  1. I haven’t cyber stalked you in a while! Did not know about “Doc”!!! You are my hero! Space, Laurence of Arabia and now the Wild West!! Thank you for not writing yourself into a box. I love your diversity and the fun you have doing it so thoughtfully! I’ll order Doc today 🙂

  2. Hi, Mary!
    It’s funny – I’ve been (slowly) reading the book by Karen Holliday Tanner, and I have been a bit confused as to why they chose to put a drawing of Doc aiming a gun at someone on the cover! I’ve been under the impression that she did not want to continue to foster the “myth” of him being a legendary gunslinger. Just something I’ve been wondering about! I’ve been enjoying the book, nevertheless! Eventually I’m going to read ALL of yours again! And I can’t wait for the next one! 🙂
    Blessings to you!!!
    Elaine P.

  3. Yes, that cover is soooooo wrong, but Ms. Tanner probably wasn’t even consulted.

    It’s very unusual for an author to have any input about cover design, but my agent Jane Dystel put that into my very first contract with Random House, and in every one since then, and it’s a good thing, too.

    There’s been a fight over every single book jacket! I only lost once: the paperback cover for Dreamers of the Day, in my opinion, actively repels male readers.

  4. I’m glad you agree about that cover! I thought it was just me! It’s too bad that they do not allow the author to have input on the covers. That is really just WRONG. I am SO GLAD your agent was smart enough to cover that! Your covers are all so beautiful. (I’ll have to check on the paperback version of Dreamers of the Day to see what you mean!) I especially love the cover of Doc. It truly represents the contents!! Really sets the mood!!!
    Blessings to you!!

  5. Some of docs history was not recorded I still believe for the way he was portrayed had truth behind it not all we do is recorded

  6. I have letters from my grandfather that were passed down from his father. He was actually in Tombstone Arizona when the fight at the OK Corral took place. My grandfather said that his father told him that Doc Holliday was very fast with a gun and also accurate. People were afraid of him. Including Wyatt Earp. He defended Earp on a few occasions. Those 2 weren’t as close as the movie shows. He was very feared in Tombstone. The letters also state that a lot of things about Doc Holliday were never recorded.

  7. Regardless of what is fact or fiction about Doc, he remains a larger than life character of Old West lore. Tombstone remains a great place to visit for fans and historians alike due to the infamous gunfight at OK Corral and thanks to the iconic 1993 movie of the same name.

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