Wyatt Earp Was Right: Shot Placement Is Key

Wyatt Earp Was Right: Shot Placement Is Key
Earp’s advice from nearly a century ago is just as valid now as it was then: Go slow enough to do things right, but do it as quickly as you can.

Wyatt Earp’s gunfighting days may have been over a century ago, but his advice about good shot placement is still true today.

Countless arguments have occurred, and even more words have been spilled, on the topic of “stopping power.” And, yes, I’m going to address it, but I think you’ll find my approach a bit different than others you might have read.

In short, Wyatt Earp was right. Of course, you’re free to disagree, and I won’t think less of you just because you’re wrong.

In his 1931 book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, which was published 2 years after Earp passed, Stuart N. Lake wrote that Earp had said, “Fast is fine but accuracy is final. You need to take your time in a hurry.” Now, I don’t know if Earp really said those things. Lake might’ve made it all up. But if he did, it’s likely that Earp or another skilled gunman said something similar to Lake, because it’s damned good advice: You need to get a good hit, and you need to be quick about it—just not so quick you miss.

But there are other lessons we can take from Earp that qualify as good stopping power advice. The thing is, most who argue about gun-related personal protection topics or stopping power overlook the obvious: Thirty percent of the problem is that no one really knows what stopping power really is. Another 30 percent of the problem is that those who think they know what spotting power is, do not know how to measure it.

But the majority—40 percent—of the problem with stopping power disagreements and discussions is that most folks fail to consider a handgun’s least respected ability to make a threat not be a threat anymore.

Guns Matter More Than Bullets

During his gunslinging days, Earp was known for always carrying a gun and not being afraid to let an adversary know it. Have you ever wondered how Earp made it through all that he did without getting shot?

I worked as a police officer for 13 years. I worked the street, I worked drug interdiction, I was on the ground 16 days during the aftermath of Katrina, and for most all that time I was a firearms instructor. During that time, I investigated many shootings, and in every case, the shooting stopped the threat. But more importantly, I responded to a lot of calls for assistance where a victim of an attempted crime stopped the threat by just interjecting a gun into the equation. They didn’t shoot anyone, they just let the bad guy see that they had a gun.

Those who carry concealed are often reluctant to pull a gun for fear it will not be justified. Learn and understand the law as it relates to self-defense in your state.

On one occasion, a citizen had just purchased a new handgun and was sitting in their car in front of the local department store. A predator approached the car for unknown reasons and was trying to drag the victim out of his truck. With no other means to fight back, the victim managed to open the plastic box this new gun was in, and when their attacker saw the gun in the box, they ran away. The mere sight of the gun stopped the attack.

Over the course of those 13 years, I also pointed my duty handgun at a lot of bad guys doing bad things. I wasn’t hesitant about doing it. (My grandfather had told me when I was young to never pull a pistol unless you were going to use it. But “use” to him did not always mean shooting. It could also mean using it as a threat of violence.) When I pointed my duty gun at a bad guy, in most every case their immediate reaction was to stop being a bad guy and reach for the sky … or to run. This happened without me firing a shot and without verbally threatening to do so.

Having a gun, and letting the bad guy know for sure that you have a gun, is the best way to stop a threat. Pointing your handgun at a bad guy—when it is legally justified—also lets them know you’re serious. No, it might not always work, but experience has shown it works far more often than not.

If You Gotta Shoot, Shoot Well

Of all the shootings I investigated, there were two common themes. When the bullets landed in the right spot, the threat almost always immediately ceased. You can argue endlessly about how a .45 Auto will stop a fight better than a 9mm Luger, or how a 9mm Luger will stop a fight better than a .380. When you look at all the evidence, the data clearly suggests that if it comes to shooting, well-placed shots stop threats better than bad hits or misses.

This should be common sense, and if you’re a hunter, you already knew that. If a hunter makes a poor shot, big-game animals rarely go down quickly. If the big-game animal is dangerous, like an African buffalo, not only does it not go down quickly, but things get Western in a hurry. I know this because I’ve shot poorly on African buffalo, twice, and they’re the most vengeful creature on the planet. Maybe you could equate them to a perpetrator high on crack or some other mind-altering substance. If you want to stop them, you shoot them in the right spot.

Any hit has fight-stopping potential, but it’s better to hedge your bets with a good hit.

If you must shoot a bad guy, the chances are high that any hit will cause them to cease their dangerous activity. But if that fails, more than likely your hit was not in the stopping place. This is the simple reason the failure to stop drill—two to the body and one to the head—exists. When the shooting starts, shot placement matters most.

This all might be the most plain and simple hillbilly-like stopping power advice you’ve ever heard. It doesn’t really matter so much whether you’re shooting with 155-grain Gold Dots out of a .40 S&W, or something else. Earp did all his fight-stopping shooting with pure lead bullets … which are a far cry from the high-tech bullets we have today. One bullet might work minutely better than the other, but if you don’t have your gun, or if you shoot too slowly or miss the mark, none of the minutia that so many folks most often argue about will matter.

Be like Earp. Have a gun, don’t be afraid to use it—get it between you and the bad guy threatening your life—and shoot as fast as you can get good hits.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

More On Defensive Handgun Skills:


Next Step: Get your FREE Printable Target Pack

Enhance your shooting precision with our 62 MOA Targets, perfect for rifles and handguns. Crafted in collaboration with Storm Tactical for accuracy and versatility.

Subscribe to the Gun Digest email newsletter and get your downloadable target pack sent straight to your inbox. Stay updated with the latest firearms info in the industry.


  1. Please,please, PLEASE stop saying “them” when you’re talking about one person. It’s the easiest thing in the world. IT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ONE AND TWO.
    Example: You wrote, “when their attacker saw the gun in the box, they ran away.”

  2. A lot of ink has been spilled about Earp, the OK Corral, etc. Even historians will hedge that a lot of stories have been “embellished” a little. You don’t know the half of it. Read this paper to find out what was really going on: http://mileswmathis.com/ok.pdf


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.