We round up the greatest movie shootouts to ever roam the West.
Which Westerns had the best movie shootouts?
Movie shootouts have been a cinema staple since, well, there were cinemas. And no other genre has produced more memorable gunfights than Westerns.
The reluctant gunslinger, the lone lawman, the brazen outlaw roaming the dusty West, surviving with wits and a six-shooter have captured generation after generation of American moviegoers’ imaginations. Think about it for a second. It’s almost certain that one of your favorite movie quotes, one you can recite from heart, comes from a Western. If you can’t, why “You're no daisy at all.”
Like any flicks, Westerns are not free of the sins of Hollywood when it comes to guns and scenes that create cringe-worthy moments for firearms enthusiasts. From infinite ammunition to the non-stop racking of a shotgun’s action without firing a shot, movie shootouts can go from entertaining to arduous in the time it takes to eat a Milk Dud. Some tether to reality must remain.
Authenticity was a factor in the seven Western movie shootouts chosen for this list, but it certainly wasn’t the lone criteria. Some wriggle room is allotted for a movie’s notoriety, the overall quality of the story and “cool factor” to let some of the more entertaining, though less true-to-fact choices land on this page. After all, movie shootouts are exactly what they bill themselves as — entertainment.
Quote: “I’ve heard you’re a low-down Yankee Liar”
The tale of a gunfighter who, no matter how hard he tries, can’t escape trouble, Shane is the quintessential Western. A quiet movie overall, the final gunfight is sheer dynamite. Tense in buildup and lightning fast in action, the 3-against-1 shootout is heart racing and iconic. The speed of the fight (gunfights then and now are typically quick affairs) keeps the scene grounded, as does Shane’s mortal wounding, but admittedly it is a bit overwrought. The movie earns bonus points for one of the greatest Western villains of all time. Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) is among the wickedest men to ever holster a six-shooter on the silver screen. He’s sadistic, arrogant and more than deserving of his spot on boot hill.
Guns: Colt Single Action Army Cavalry Model, Colt Single Action Army, Winchester Model 1873.
Quote: “Any man who don’t want to get killed better clear on out the back.”
In any Western worth its salt, the hero must overcome long odds. And William Munny (Clint Eastwood) certainly faces them in the final shootout of this dark Western. Vastly outnumbered, the grizzled gunslinger reaps revenge on Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) and his men for the killing of his friend. Needless to say, Big Whiskey, Wyoming was never the same. At first, the scene seems somewhat farfetched, given the long odds Munny faces squaring off against an entire posse fixing to hunt him down. But upon reflection, it does have an element of realism to it in the great majority of men are unwilling or unable to draw their guns. Even the orneriest desperados had to contend with fight, flight or freeze. Additionally, there’s a striking true-to-life scene earlier, where the once-deadly Munny struggles to shoot a can, his skills deteriorated from years of domesticity.
Quote: “Get to fight’n or get away!”
There is no more famous gunfight in the West or cinema than the O.K. Corral. The 30 shots in 30 seconds has been recreated in one form or another nearly two dozen times in films over the years. But the 1993 rendition starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp is perhaps the most iconic. Historically accurate, well, that’s another story. But that's an aside, because it’s a great scene with memorable one-liners, non-stop action and incredible pistol work by Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday. There’s plenty of artistic license taken — it’s a full three times as long as the actual fight. But the performance isn’t through-the-roof improbable. Good and bad are wounded. It requires more than one round to stop a cowboy from fighting. And the fliers — there’s no shortage, as would be expected in tense, close-quarters conflict, steeped in adrenaline. The gunfight is what it is — which is great by movie standards.
Quote: None. Marshal Will Kane just glares at you in disgust.
Better known for its underlying themes of honor, duty, cowardice and hypocrisy, this 1952 classic nonetheless wraps-up with a solid shootout. Tame by today’s standards, Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) successfully facing down four outlaws is captivating. A decisive break from the over-dramatics of that age (and ours), Kane stands his ground in what can only be called a logical fashion. Maneuvering and intelligent use of concealment and cover are as much his weapons as his six-shooter. As satisfying as it is to watch Kane overcome the men who mean to do him harm, it’s what happens afterward that makes the scene. No town deserved a loathing scowl more than Hadleyville.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Quote: “You see, in this world, there are two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.”
Yes, it’s perhaps as unlikely a Western gunfight (or any gunfight for that matter) as is committed to film. But ask yourself this: do you really care? Of all the times Clint Eastwood held a gun in his hand, the final shootout of this 1966 Spaghetti Western is perhaps the most memorable. What beats it? Maybe Dirty Harry, maybe. Blondie (Eastwood), Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) square up in the perfect Mexican standoff. The moment is only heightened by one of the most iconic Western soundtracks of all time. Sometimes you can’t split hairs about the realism of a scene, you just have to sit back and enjoy it.
Quote: “No Pike … Pike!”
Director Sam Peckinpah brought in this movie what was sorely missing in most Westerns up to 1969 — a water-cooled Browning M1917. The machine gun becomes the centerpiece of what might be the most brutal shootout in all movie history. And there’s nothing stylized about the movie's final scene, it’s as gritty as desert dust. As for the realism quotient, it’s fairly on target. It’s utter bedlam as Federales, rebels and outlaws sling hot lead under the baking Mexican sun. No one and nothing is spared. Though, one wonders how long a frontal assault into the .30-caliber teeth of the 1917 would go on. At some point, don’t you regroup and say, “Guys, this isn’t working.”
Quote: “That happened quick.”
Underrated and compelling, Appaloosa is among the best recent Westerns to hit the box office. Essentially about friendship and corruption, it would be fair to say the the 2008 movie has some of the most realistic gunfights on the big screen. The fight at the jailhouse is one such example; by the time you hear the first revolver’s report the scrap is almost over. Given most shootouts (again, then and now) take a matter of seconds, this is true to form. Additionally, the heroes of the story don’t stride through the West impervious to lead. They, like the bad guys, wither when mortally hit. Even though brief, the jail scene is action packed and shows to some extent how quick and chaotic gunfights tend to be.
Guns: Colt Single Action Army Artillery Model, Colt Single Action Army Cavalry Model, Colt 1871-72 Open Top, Steve Karnes 1878 8-Gauge Side-by-Side