Mythbusting the Old West…You May Not Want to Read This!!

Charlene Sands                                            

It’s true, you may not want to read this if you’re a lover of Hollywood’s version of the old West!  But I live twenty minutes from the screen capital of the world.  Hardly a day goes by that I don’t meet someone, or speak to someone, or SEE someone related to the industry.  My very own daughter will soon have in-laws high in the ranks of television and movie producing, but I digress.  

 Some people ask, why don’t we see more westerns on the screen?


The answer might be as simple as the bottom line.  Time period movies are very costly.  Setting up towns, designing the costumes, acquiring the props of everyday items used in the west is expensive.  Notice they don’t make “B” movie westerns, better known back in the day as Audie Murphy or Ronald Reagan films because in order to make a western, big stars, like Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Renee Zelwigger, Ed Harris or Kevin Costner have to be associated with the project to bring in the big producing dollars. 


I am looking forward to the new western movie called Appaloosa which does look terrific. If we’re lucky, we get one really great western per year! 


So, what is fact and what is myth in the Old West? 

 The towns we recognize on the silver screen may not have looked like that in real life.  A town usually was plotted out to have many more streets than just one down the center of town.  In movies, rarely do we see residential homes in town, yet the majority of people living in the area, aside from ranchers and farmers, did live within the town’s limits in houses.  Most homes were located at the end of the streets to avoid summer dust and spring mud as people drove by. Decent folk, often wanted to stay away from the center of town, where saloons brought in gamblers and drunks.  Also, good people segregated their families from the part of town known as the “dead line” where brothels and immoral practices were doing business.


Towns in the west were dirty, smelly and cramped (except Wildflower Junction) with most buildings right next to each other so if one would catch fire, often the entire street burned down.  

Railroad towns were formed in the shape of a T where the top portion being the street paralleling the railroad and the straight part being the main street in town.   

 Not So Wild West

Lawlessness in the West, has been blown way out of proportion.  Yes, there was crime, but not to the extreme that we see onscreen with shoot-outs and duels and bank robberies happening in every other scene. Dime novels helped to spur this myth  with gunfights in the streets and stagecoach robberies and stories that were clearly made up fantasies of some very imaginative writers. The true story is much more boring, of hard work, and fending for oneself and trying to make ends meet. Many did carry guns, but that was less for protection from gunmen and more to hunt for food and to protect themselves from wild animals.  In fact, many towns had ordinances that made it illegal to carry guns in town. People entering the town often stopped by the sheriff office to surrender their weapons during their stay.  Yes, the frontier, mountain and plains towns had some violence, but many would more likely die from starvation, thirst, falling off a mountain or horse, freezing, snakebite or being attacked by wild animals.

Not nearly as romantic, is it? 

Myth-Busters Revealed

Here are  some widely used scenes in movies and maybe even in books that are have truly failed when actually tried, according to the TV show Myth-Busters.

Horse Jailbreak:

Procedure/Experimental Design: Build a wild west jail and attach a strong rope to the bars. Attach the other end of the rope to a horse. Make the horse gallop as fast as he can with the most power possible to try to pull the bars off the wall.

Results: The horses couldn’t pull the bars out.Conclusion: Required force not capable of being supplied by horses.

Busted or Not Busted: —- Busted
Dynamite Jailbreak:

Procedure/Experimental Design: —- To build a jail wall to the specs of a true old west jail cell 

 Conclusion: —- A stick of dynamite will potentially kill the person you are attempting to free and barely loosens the bars enough to remove them

Busted or Not Busted: —-Busted

So, I guess what we lovers of westerns have to do, is suspend our disbelief for a few hours and simply enjoy the aura of the Wild West. 

Just pretend you didn’t read this.

And tell us what other westerns clichés you notice that couldn’t possibly hold true?  What favorite western, either book or movie depicted the grittiness and truth that was the Old West?

Since our 2nd Prize Sizzling Stampede Contest winner didn’t claim their prize, post a comment and we’ll draw a name randomly today for that wonderful prize of two autographed books and a Tom Selleck DVD!



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58 thoughts on “Mythbusting the Old West…You May Not Want to Read This!!”

  1. What a great blog, Charlene! Told me things I didn’t know. The Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns were probably the most “mythical” of all, but we loved ’em, didn’t we?
    The famous gunfight at the OK corral lasted only seconds (would have to look up how many). The Earps blasted the Clantons and it was over. Yet in the screen versions it goes on and on. Some of the western myths that make me titter are in books–like the hero riding a stallion, a dumb choice for any hero who valued life and limb; and the ultimate one, the h & h making love while riding the same horse. Won’t even go there.
    Have a great day!

  2. Morning Elizabeth – Ha, the stallion thing is funny, though it’s very romantic to think our heroes mastering a big stallion! I think I read the Gunfight at the Ok Corral took only like 30 seconds. I saw a reenactment at a museum once and was amazed as to how short it was!
    Thanks for stopping by today!!

  3. Two of my favorite “old time” westerns are True Grit and Big Jake – of course no one does a western like John Wayne unless you consider Robert Duval, Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck. I just love westerns. We have Encore Western channel and that’s about all we watch.

    Great post!

    Oh, and I’D LOVE to win that 2nd place prize…Crossfire Trail is one of hubby’s favorite movies and well, I can always use another good book to read 😉


  4. Good morning, Charlene.
    Interesting blog. I’m surprised westerns are expensive, but I shouldn’t be.

    I mean, don’t they have generic Old West sets in Hollywood? And the clothes, those period, seem simple enough. But I’m sure the movies can’t do anything halfway.

    Still simple buildings, no high tech gadgets, minimal explosions and special effects.
    Just a man and horse and a gun. How much could that cost?

    I remember in one Louis L’Amour book Louis’ hero saying, most of the men in the town were former Civil War veterans, they were armed, they’d fought and killed, they weren’t wimps.
    Not the Gary Cooper High Noon version of the old west at all. These were hardened men who’d survived plenty of trouble and danger. They didn’t push without pushing back. Because of this very fact, the Old West tended to be pretty peaceful place.

  5. Good morning Pam – We’re big fans of John Wayne westerns. Whenever one is on TV, we never pass it up and we have a western cable channel too.
    My husband loves Rifleman. He’s seen every episode like 10 times, I exaggerate not!

  6. Hi Mary and good morning- Actually lot of movies are shot in Canada, because they get incentives and lower tax rates. My friend sold her book set in the west to a TV channel. They made the movie but had to change the script from western to contemp, because of the costs involved. Everything about a western is expensive. For every horse you see, they need a wrangler on set to take care of the horse, exercise it. Some studio sets have western towns, but much of it is shot on location.

    I once had a real cowboy comment about how small the saddles were, and that a man and woman couldn’t possibly fit on the saddle together! Of course, I had that scene in my book. I never did that again, but oh, the thought of it is so romantic. Now, it’s bareback if they want to do that.

  7. Great post Charlene, you know I hadn’t never thought about all the things you said in your post. I guess that in our heads that is the way the west was with the gun fights and robberies. I would say that crime was not as bad then as it is today. Movies and books really don’t give us the true aspect of how the west was in real life. I have always noticed that during a gun fight two cowboys would face off and pull their guns and both gun would go off but only one may would die the other would still be standing. So if two cowboys are facing each other not that far apart and they both shoot but only one gets hit, someone must have been a really bad shot or there was a screw loose somewhere.

  8. Good morning Quilt Lady – I read that those duels where they march off 20 paces, no one would get hit. They’d marched apart more than 40 feet and the guns that day weren’t very accurate. Maybe it was just for show. Many people survived those duels on both sides, thank goodness.
    Thanks for posting today!

  9. I’m new to your blog and enjoyed it. I’m a lover of the old westerns and new ones, and do understand the cost. The cost is enormous, and they don’t draw the younger crowds. They are the bulk of the movie money. So it there isn’t a robot changing car, or horse maybe in this case. They don’t make a lot of money. Its a big gamble. I loved Tombstone with Kurt Russell. I’m looking forward to Appaloosa.
    My dad as young boy met Wyatt Earp. He said he was very unfriendly. The unfriendliness is what left a impression. Maybe he just didn’t like kids. But regardless, Dad instilled in us the love of the old west, even with a crumpy Earp.

  10. Hi Lee,
    Welcome to Petticoats!! We’re glad to have you here. And how cool, your dad meet Wyatt Earp, even if he wasn’t nice. My dad also, left me with an amazing love and pride in our American heritage. Yes, you bring up a good point, that younger people aren’t too interested in westerns. There’s so many other distractions … it is a different world in their generation!

  11. Charlene, what a fabulous post. I found the info on residential houses where actual people would live especially useful. (I am arranging a town in my head for a story and wondered where the residents lived. Thanks.)

    Sometimes I swear I see a zipper up the back of an old West gown and that’s lame. (I think. When were zippers invented?) And while I love the Big Valley show, I don’t think women wore pants to ride in and certainly not pants that tight. And Victoria I don’t think would have had short hair as she does in the later episodes.

    Oh well, I love it all anyway. 🙂 Thanks for a great start to my day, Charlene!

  12. Hi Charlene~~I’m a newbi also~~,

    Loved your post!!! Great information. Growing up, I too LOVED Chuck Connors in The Rifleman. At my age, I should have been in love with Mark, his son!! LOL

    One myth that always gets my feathers up is when a horse falls or is shot, and it lets out a loud whinny, as it goes down. Horses don’t do that. They neigh to each other, or sometimes to a person. ( I had a filly that would whinny back when I called her) Being a herd animal they tend to want to stay together and whinny if their rider asks them to go somewhere without their friends. I’ve seen lots of horses fall, for whatever reason, in the show arena and they never whinny. Anyway, that’s my beef for the morning.

    Super post! Thanks for the myth busting!!


  13. Good morning, Tanya – Glad my research on towns has helped a little. Remember how the houses were laid out in Virginia City? There were rows and rows, all graded hills though, due to the terrain.

    Yep, I think filmmakers used some leeway in those TV shows. They got away with a lot. I don’t know when zippers came on the scene, but from all my visual research in museums, etc, I don’t think I saw any dress with a zipper until well after the 1900’s.
    Thanks for visiting today!

  14. Ah, there’s nothing like a jet trail or fancy wrist watch in an old B Western, is there? 🙂

    One issue I have is time. A rancher usually lives fairly distant from town. Wagons don’t travel all that fast. Yet they make the trip is such short times, there isn’t hardly even time for their fanny to get sore. When I was little (on that infamous sheep ranch) even in a car traveling into town seemed to take forever. What must have it been like for youngsters in a wagon?

    Caroline–great horse factoid! I’m gonna be watching the horses more closely now. 🙂

  15. Good morning, Charlene! Interesting stuff in your blog today. I’m so disappointed the younger generation have no interest in westerns. Some days, I wish parents would throw out those high-tech games and get back to the basics!

    My pet peeve with westerns is when the buildings on the set all have fresh cut wood and not a speck of dust on the floors. In reality, the buildings would’ve been far more weathered and worn-looking.

    Ah, well. I’ll take what I can get!

  16. I think westerns work because a cowboy can be seen as a warrior. Just like old scottish lairds.
    the modern equivelent to that is maybe a cop or a Navy SEAL. Someone sort of skirting the edges of civilized society.

    We need someone super macho for our heros, in a certain style of romance. So cowboys. SEALs. Highlanders.

    All excellent to work with. 🙂

  17. This was a fascinating article. I enjoyed reading it and all the replies here. I love history, but when watching movies or reading books, I usually try to suspend reality and just enjoy the story. Sometimes that can be hard though when something is really blatant.

    I have also found that I prefer reading westerns instead of watching them in movies. In the western romances that I read, I am assured of the HEA ending that I require. When I have watched some of the movie westerns in recent years, they did not all end happily. I know that is more realistic, but I don’t want REALISTIC…I want HAPPY, by golly! 🙂

  18. Hi Caroline – Oh, I’d love to hear about your knowledge of horses. Sounds like you’re a horse lover and owner. Thanks for sharing your insights about horses and why they whinny.

    And welcome to Petticoats! We love to hear from newbies!! Come back often. You’ll be entered into our random drawing tonight!

  19. Hi Charlene!

    I, for one, would really like to see more western movies! I’m always surprised when I see a preview for one at the movies!

    Although there are not many western movies being produced, at least there are many western books to enjoy each year!!

  20. Lizzie,
    Yep, I think about that too. When travelers came from San Diego to my part of the valley, they’d often spend the night or nights, because it was a long trip. I think wagons travel like 12 miles an hour (correct me if I got that wrong), so that 3 hour car trip, might have taken days! And most large ranches were so large, that they Had to be really far from town. But I do think that homesteads at times were closer. Kids did walk to school or take a wagon. Wonder if they had wagonpools, like our carpools?

  21. Hi Pam – I thinks town were dirty and gritty. Anyone who has ever camped in their life, knows what I mean. It’s HARD to stay clean and keep things clean. Not to mention horse and animal dung in the streets, ugh! All these things we forget about when we write or watch a movie.

  22. Hi Kathleen – yep, lots of us western writers out there. And you can find many of them at our Larkspur Library, in case you’re looking for latest releases. I will never tire of reading westerns. I think the heroes are amazing, the heroines varied and so interesting and the stories themselves unique.

    Pam – Oops, make that “I think towns..” boy did I sound like a geek in that last post. Thankfully all of you are forgiving!!

  23. Hi Cheryl C – You know, you’re right. I hate when they “change” an ending in a movie. When you’ve read the book and then they make it into a movie, they usually don’t go for the HEA. That’s when I turn to my hubby and say, “They gave it a cliche Hollywood ending.” The hero dies. Or the Heroine. Or they wind up, both going their separate ways… Not a fun way to walk out of a movie theatre. Thanks for your insights today!!

  24. Probably the book I’ve read that details all of the aspects of life in the western United States was by James Michener-Centennial. He was a writer that really researched his history. Also, westerns by Louis LAmour seem to be pretty true to life on the frontier. He also was a researcher of western people. He once interviewed my uncle in Durango, Colorado about the use of barbed wire on the range.

  25. Charlene,

    One of my pet peeves in watching westerns is that their guns never seemed to run out of bullets. They could shoot forever without reloading. Ha!

    Another pet peeve is the makeup on the women. Unless a woman was a “working girl” she never wore makeup. And she wouldn’t have had time to put it on to start with. She worked from sunup to sundown without stopping. There was always work to be done. Besides, the normal woman wouldn’t have wanted to look like a painted lady. But invariably, westerns depict the women with perfect makeup on.

    Excellent blog! Love the subject.

  26. I have to say my father is a huge fan of John Wayne, so I grew up watching all of his movies. Now every year for Christmas, we buy him a set of John Wayne movies… I think we have most of them now!!!
    Anyway you gotta love those cowboys whether they do the things shown in movies or not!!! 😀

  27. Hi Joye – Oh, that’s fun. I learned more than I wanted to know about barbed wire for one book, but it was intriguing to learn all the different types they had! Neat that your uncle was interviewed! Thanks for your comment today!

  28. Hi Linda,
    I think the older westerns are really guilty about the gun thing. They only ran out of bullets if it was convenient to the story, and then they’d throw the gun away. I would think, why throw the gun away? At least they could use it to bash someone in the head. I agree about make-up. Women didn’t use it in real life. Oh, how times have changed!

  29. Thanks, Charlene!

    I love Petticoats! Whoever designed it did a darling job! Love all the cowgirl lingo!

    I’ve been a horse lover and owner all my life. I began an equine photography business 20 years ago and besides writing, that’s what I do. Whew, that sounds like a long time. The years have flown by fast though.

    Just to let you, and your readers know, I’m starting a blog about horses. For writers who aren’t equine experts but have incorporated horses (in a big or small way) into their plots. (Historical westerns, Native American, and Contemporary) If I don’t have the answer to a question presented…I’ll get it. My older sister is the editorial director at Horse and Rider magazine and I have another sister who, with her hubby, owns and raises Thoroughbred racehorses in Kentucky. Mary’s husband is an attorney that handles syndication of stallions and such.

    I may get stumped, but I’ll always do my best at finding out answers to any and all horsey questions presented to me. I’ll let you know when she’s up and runnin’.


  30. Yes! Run out of bullets and toss the gun aside? Hell-o? There’s always tomorrow, people. LOL

    Loved your blog today, Charlene. In my stories I often make the town a character in the story. I work so hard at developing the sense of place that I like to use it a few times, so I write sequels. Why toss out all that work and those great walk-on characters?

    And now I will be thinking about my hero stepping off the boardwalk into horse doo.

  31. Welcome to Wildflower Junction, Lee and Carolyne!

    Carolyne, I appreciated your comment about the horses whinneying when they fall down. It does seem silly now that you think about it.

  32. Cher – I know, once you have a town settled in your mind, it’s hard to say good-bye and I don’t think readers know how hard it is to give the town a personality. I understand you doing sequels for more than one book. Your last comment made me laugh out loud. Yep, you really had to watch where you were going on the street!!

  33. Hi again, Caroline – Oh I’m so thrilled your starting your own blog about horses. Please give us the addy when it’s up and running! You have so much experience and I love horses, though I don’t get the chance to ride as a adult. I took lessons as a kid, the only way I could get near a horse!

  34. We like to watch John Wayne movies. One good one was True Grit. That was truly the old west you had to grit and tuff it out to live there.

  35. Thanks for the great post. Very interesting. I haven’t seen a western movie or read a western book that I have like yet. They are all so good that I can’t even pick a favorite. Lonesome Dove: Dead Mans Walk is pretty high up there though. Thought it was a great movie.

  36. I recently read a book where the horse “screamed” when it got spooked. That threw me right out of the story. I’m no horse expert, but I don’t think they’d scream.

    Charlene, I love the way you depicted the west in your “Bodine’s Bounty.” It was very realistic. That was a great story!

  37. Hi Charlene,
    What a fun post and it’s too bad about the horse not being able to pull the bars out. I like that one. My husband is a big John Wayne fan so when I think of westerns I think of him. Maybe there wasn’t as much shooting but I would hate to think there weren’t as many brawls as I have been lead to believe.

  38. Hi Charlene! What an interesting blog! I’m looking forward to Appaloosa, too.

    One gripe I have with Hollywood Westerns is that they make the doctors look somewhat stupid. They weren’t all like that! But mostly, I do love them all–from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to the newer generation. 🙂

  39. Great post. I love western movies. Some of my favorites are Tombstone, 3:10 To Yuma Lonsome Dove and all the John Wayne movies.

  40. We have a saying in our house – OH IT’S A BRYAN. Whis means – that’s not possible or truthful etc. (named of course by someone we know that constantly says that about most things in movies). Most movies have some parts that you have to suspend belief (some more than others).
    I always hate how the bad guys can shoot tons of bullets and not hit anyone and the good guy can shoot once and be right on target lol.

  41. Did anyone see that episode of Mash where Radar finds the horse, Sophie, and gives her to Coronial Potter?? Did you happen to notice anything unusual?? It’s not uncommon for shows to use more than one horse-actor for a part. Too much stress isn’t in his contract–I understand. This time though, the face marking weren’t even close!! Or, the color either!! My goodness…they swapped it back and forth like…??


  42. I love watching westerns that have cattle drives-because I think that’s a huge reality-they had to be really hard! Like on Lonesome Dove-look what all they went through with their cattle drive!

    As for the myths about the west being so lawless and bloody-well..even if it’s not all true-I think that perhaps one of the reasons it’s so believable to read about or to watch in movies is that the fact of matter is that IT COULD HAVE BEEN! Who really would have stopped it?

    And I say thank you to all our wonderful historical romance authors-ya’ll do a mighty fine job in my opinion-we dont read to learn about facts anyway (atleast not mostly)…we read to escape for a little while and so..I personally appreciate the time and effort that is put into bringing a town to life and giving it a personality all it’s own! I love the way the west is romanticized..I’d be sorely disappointed if it wasnt! 😉

  43. Hi Abi and Rebekah- I’m watching a TV commercial for Appaloosa right now. Oh, it looks so good. Are you going to see it?

    How about you Linda and Kate? Will you pay big bucks- $10.50 now here for a ticket to the movies. We go only when there’s something we’re dying to see.

    Linda-thanks for your sweet comment about Bodine’s Bounty.

    Kate- If you ever come back to my neck of the woods, I’d love to show you where they filmed Dr. Quinn. They still have part of the town up. I met Jane Seymour while on the set one day. Very sweet lady! One Dr. who wasn’t depicted at stupid.:)

  44. Melissa – Thank you from all western authors. How sweet you are!

    Hi Caroline again – oh how funny about Mash with changing horses!

    Hi Jeanne and Crystal B! – Funny about the Bryans! Suspending your disbelief is the only way to go!!

    Hi Maureen- I know, bummer about the jail bars, but it does make sense. And of course, the dynamite jailbreak WOULD kill the person inside unless it was a tiny blast and then it wouldn’t blow the bars out anyway!!

  45. Hello ladies what a wonderful post as always, Alot of things i did not know about the expense always giving excellent information. I also am looking forward to Appaloosa!!

  46. Great post!
    I am a fan of all John Wayne movies.
    Also like Tom selleck and Sam Elliott westerns.
    I saw a tv commercial for Appaloosa—-first movie that has appealed to me in years.

  47. Hi Lori –
    We should all meet back here after seeing Appaloosa to see how we liked it! Wouldn’t that be fun?

    Hi Estella -Me too. I think Tom Selleck was made to play western roles!

    Hi Kay – Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed this post today.

  48. I love the old west movies and books as well as the romance ones. I enjoyed the bio thanks, have a great weekend

  49. Great post Charlene! I am a big westerns fan and don’t mind the mistakes made in them. In fact I find it fun to try to find them.
    Tom Selleck is a favorite of mine even before I found a picture of my husband that reminded me very much of Selleck…or maybe it was the other way around!

  50. Thanks for the great post Charlene. My DH and I still like to watch good westerns – even if they aren’t always accurate! DH really likes the Clint Eastwood movies but I’ll watch Tom Selleck anyday!I really like to read western historicals too! I’ve read several of the authors here and am working on getting books by the others who are new to me. Thanks to you all (or “y’all” for fun reading!

  51. Thank you for the wonderful post, Charlene! My dad got me interested in Westerns. I think I’ve seen and recorded every John Wayne movie ever produced! I remember watching all those old Westerns—-Big Valley, Bonanza, Dr. Quinn, the Magnificent Seven—- I wish they’d put a good western show on TV again. I love Westerns—movies and books! Thanks again for the great post!

  52. Caroline, WTG on the horse blog! It sounds great, and we will have a resource for all of our questions. We need to add your site to our links–when we add that feature real soon here.

  53. One thing I notice– All the good guys (and gals) have perfect teeth. Only the bad guys might not have such good ones. This along with the perfect hairdos and makeup seems out of place.

    Maybe the “Love Comes Softly” series depicts the old west as it really was.

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