Truth or myth?: “The gunfight at the OK Corral was a major gun battle”

Despite being immortalised in numerous novels and movies, the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, that occurred around 3pm on the afternoon of Wednesday 26 October 1881, only lasted about 30 seconds.

This article was first published in 2010

The bodies of, from left to right, Tom McLaury (or McLowry), Frank McLaury (or McLowry) and Billy Clanton. These three members of the 'Clanton Gang' were shot by Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan and Doc Holiday during the 'Gunfight at OK Corral'  on 26th October 1881, Tombstone,  Arizona. Original Artwork: Arizona Historical Society Library   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


During that time between 20 and 30 shots were fired from a range of about ten feet, on ground between Fly’s Lodging House and the MacDonald assay house.

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It did however leave Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury dead or dying, all of whom would later be buried in the Boothill Graveyard – the name given to US burial grounds for those who ‘died with their boots on’. Three other members of the Clanton gang survived unscathed by very wisely running away when the shooting started, including Billy’s brother Ike, who was probably unarmed, Billy Claiborne (again probably unarmed) and Wes Fuller. On the side of law and order, Wyatt Earp emerged unscathed and Doc Holiday received a graze to the hip, while Virgil Earp and Morgan Earp received wounds in the calf and back respectively.

In truth the ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ was one of the shorter and less fatal gunfights of the Old West, eclipsed in bloodshed by both the ‘Gunfight at Hide Park’, which claimed five lives, and the ‘Five Dead in Four Seconds Gunfight’ which rather speaks for itself. Notwithstanding this, and perhaps due to the fame of the participants, the OK Corral has become a symbol of the Old West and the fight between law enforcers and ‘cowboys’.

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Answered by Justin Pollard, author of Secret Britain: the Hidden Bits of Our History (John Murray, 2009). He is a question writer for the panel show QI on BBC One.