April 21, 2022
When it comes to the hundreds of Old West classic gunfights I have researched, you will find that most of the combatants were at close range. For example, in the O.K. Corral fight they were close enough to touch at the beginning of the altercation.
Same with shootouts in saloons or outside buildings where many of these fights took place. In a few fights the shooters were about about 25 to 50 yards apart, which is the TV show preferred distance (think of the opening to "Gunsmoke"). And, occasionally there are fights with longer distances, like when California lawman Harry Morse brought down the outlaw Juan Soto at 225 yards. Or, when legendary lawman Bass Reeves took down an outlaw at 500 yards. But there is one legendary fight where the adversaries were 1,538 yards apart. That is not a typo. Fifteen hundred yards! And change. To put that in perspective, that's more than fifteen football fields. In fact, it's only a couple hundred yards short of a mile. There's nothing that has ever topped this shot in the annals of the Old West. Any way you slice it, that's one crazy, looooong shot. Plus, what kind of a weapon could shoot that far and who could hit anything at that range?
Well, legend and the army corp of engineers say that a sharpshooting scout named Billy Dixon made that shot with a borrowed "Big Fifty" at the second battle of Adobe Walls. What is a Big Fifty you may ask? Well, let's go back to the history and see if we can verify the event, and make sense of it all.
The Second Battle of Adobe Walls
On June 27, 1874, 28 men and one woman were occupying a crude little settlement in the Texas panhandle called Adobe Walls.
The youngest of the group is a scout named Bat Masterson. Yes, that Bat Masterson.
Adobe Walls had formerly been a trading post and saloon with a couple makeshift buildings and a crumbling stable. Because of Comanche raids, it had been abandoned more than once before this latest group came in to set up operations for buffalo hunting and other business. Needless to say, the Comanche and their allies, the Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, did not take kindly to all this tresspassing on their hunting grounds and took the hunter's presence personally. In fact, there had been an earlier fight, ten years prior, on the same spot when none other than Kit Carson and a battalion of Union soldiers came out from Fort Bascom to beat back the Comanche and protect settlers who were being attacked. That fight ended in a contested draw with both sides claiming victory. At any rate, ten years later the angst remained the same, and the Comanches, now led by Quanah Parker, were going to take care of this nest of tresspassers once and for all.
Several months before the fight, a medicine man named Isa-tai began claiming he had true "puha" which was Comanche for "power" and anyone who followed him would be immune to the White Man's bullets. He appeared before the tribe totally naked, painted yellow and his horse painted yellow which Isa-tai believed would make him and his horse immune to White Man bullets. Many of the other braves painted their bodies yellow as well to demonstrate their own belief in Isa-tai's "puha."
And, by the way, Isa-tai's name translates as "Wolf's Vulva" or "Coyote Vagina."
The Comanche and their allies, believed to be about 300, are led by Quanah Parker and Isa-tai, who charge at dawn, expecting to suprise the sleeping hunters, but most of them are up and around repairing a broken ridgepole.
The defenders retreat inside of the main dwelling and repel the first wave using their pistols and small arms with only the loss of two men who were asleep in a wagon. Several of the attackers, including Quanah Parker get close enough to pound on the doors with their rifle butts but the doors and windows hold. Frustrated, they kill almost all the livestock on the grounds including all 28 horses and oxen belonging to the Shadler brothers.
After the first attack is repulsed, the buffalo hunters pull out their long guns and send volley after volley after the retreating Comanches. They kill 15. And, no doubt some were painted yellow.
On the second day, it was a stand off, but the hunters were bold enough to venture outside and drag off the dead horses and oxen away from the dwellings to avoid the smell, while sharp shooters kept the Indians at bay. Several more hunters also arrived increasing the number of defenders to over 30 fighting men. One of the hunters volunteers to ride to Dodge City for re-enforcements and he takes off to do just that.
On the third day, 15 Indians are spotted riding out on a bluff nearly a mile away, out of the range of the hunter's guns. Or, so they think. Billy Dixon, using a borrowed .50-90 "Big Fifty" Sharps rifle, throws some dust in the air to calculate the wind and adjusting the rear sights for the distance, he fires. About four seconds later, one of the Indians on horseback drops off his horse.
The Indians soon clear out and the hunters believe Dixon's "scratch" shot thoroughly discouraged the Indians and they left.
As news of the fight spread more hunters came in for protection and to help defend the settlement. By the sixth day, the garrison grew to about 100 men.
Later it is discovered that Quanah Parker was wounded in one of the attacks and some believe this is why the Indians retired without more of a fight.
Most historians today believe that fewer than 30 died in the battle.
One very angry warrior supposedly struck Isa-tai across the face with his quirt because of his disgust at the medicine man's false claims, and another, a berieved father of a slain warrior demanded that the yellow medicine man go down and retrieve his son since he was immune to the White Man bullets. Isa-tai shrugged off the debacle, blaming the Cheyennes' killing of a skunk the day before the battle. In spite of his bad medicine, Isa-tai continues on his merry way, spreading his false gospel.
The Adobe Walls fight led to the Red River War of 1874-75 which resulted in the final relocation of the Southern Plains Indians to reservations in what is now Oklahoma.
The Dixon long shot was, and is, of course controversial and there are quite a few arm chair historians who don't believe the tale. After the battle and the news spread about the incredible shot, the army corp of engineers measured the actual distance and that's how we get the very specific distance of 1,538 yards. Our True West gun editor, Phil Spangenberger, weighs in with a report that in 1992 the Shiloh Sharps owners were invited to the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona to use some then-newly declassified radar devices to test the performance of several types of ammunition. In one of the tests a Sharps rifle launched a bullet over 3,600 yards, which is over two miles. When they replicated Dixon's elevation of 4.5 degrees and using the same load, the lead slug landed 1,517 yards downrange, almost the exact range of Dixon's controversial shot.
Also, in 2015 members of the Wild West History Association re-staged the Billy Dixon shot and put two riders on the actual bluff to the east of Adobe Walls.
Turns out, the shot heard round every campfire in the Western world actually has some scientific credence. It's no wonder the Comanches dubbed the 1874 Sharps as "The Shoot Today Kill Tomorrow Gun."
"If I wasn't Bob Dylan, I'd probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of answers."
—Bob Dylan, in Playboy, March, 1978