I was passing through a few old "Wild West" towns in Wyoming and Montana and learning about the deadly history of the towns.

Surprisingly, I learned the Wild West period was only 30 years from 1865-1895.

It got me thinking of life in these towns and during this time period.

Basically, is there an estimate for how many casualties by guns and criminals during this period? I'm considering death from duels, gun battles, bank/train robberies, or any death from a six shooter.

  • 25
    Well, in order to give you an idea, everyone who was alive between 1865 and 1895 is currently dead. It cannot get worse than that :-D.
    – SJuan76
    Aug 28, 2017 at 15:55
  • 3
    made me smile.. :) Only two things certain in life Death & Taxes...
    – Solar Mike
    Aug 28, 2017 at 17:29
  • 1
    Lol you guys! Made me laugh Aug 28, 2017 at 19:29
  • You might like to read: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/30358/… Jan 3 at 21:42

4 Answers 4


It depends on how you define "deadly." In relation to the number of inhabitants, very deadly. Even in absolute numbers, rather deadly

Tombstone, Arizona is a good case in point. (This was the site of the celebrated fight at OK Corral between sheriff Wyatt Earp and some bandits.) At its peak, the town had about 10,000 inhabitants. It also had something like 110 saloons and 14 gambling halls, that is, more than one saloon for every 100 people, and 1 gambling hall for every 700 people, according to the Wikipedia article. It was also a microcosm of the Civil War, with frequent fights between southern-born Democratic leaning "cowboys," and northern-born, Republican-leaning mine and business owners.

These were hard-drinking, hard-living people that got into more than their share of gunfights. Other factors involved: This was a very disproportionately masculine group, even in a country in which the majority of the population in the 19th century was male. This group of people were disproportionately young adult; neither children nor old people thrived in this kind of an environment, although there was some of each.

As another poster pointed out, a "Wild West" annual murder rate of 165 per 100,000 was more than 15 times higher than a "city" rate of 10 per 100,000 around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In absolute numbers, that would translate hypothetically into 16.5 murders a year in Tombstone, versus 50 murders per year for say, Chicago's 500,000 residents around 1880. Another poster pointed out that the average for Tombstone was closer to 10 per year, relative to a peak population of 10,000, which would still be high.

  • 1
    Tom you've out done yourself. Aug 29, 2017 at 2:30
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 29, 2017 at 21:24

There does seem to be data - not surprising, as while the West was Wild, it wasn't completely lawless and there would at least have been records made of shootings and murders:

From Homicide Rates in the American West on the Ohio State University Criminal Justice Research Center website:

To appreciate how violent the West was, we need to consider not only the annual homicide rate, but the risk of being murdered over time. For instance, the adult residents of Dodge City faced a homicide rate of at least 165 per 100,000 adults per year, meaning that 0.165 percent of the population was murdered each year—between a fifth and a tenth of a percent. That may sound small, but it is large to a criminologist or epidemiologist, because it means that an adult who lived in Dodge City from 1876 to 1885 faced at least a 1 in 61 chance of being murdered—1.65 percent of the population was murdered in those 10 years. An adult who lived in San Francisco, 1850-1865, faced at least a 1 in 203 chance of being murdered, and in the eight other counties in California that have been studied to date, at least a 1 in 72 chance. Even in Oregon, 1850-1865, which had the lowest minimum rate yet discovered in the American West (30 per 100,000 adults per year), an adult faced at least a 1 in 208 chance of being murdered.

Of course, there's a possibility of under-reporting, but even the above statistics show it was a pretty violent period compared to now. Current rates are considerably lower.

Although, to get a true fix on the issue, we would need to be able to compare global rates at the time (was the Wild West more violent than the Eastern seaboard or Europe, for example), and comparisons from before and after the period in question (was the Wild West period more violent than the 30 years preceding or following it - discounting the Civil War and World War I).

  • 1
    Great find! Those were not friendly odds. Aug 29, 2017 at 0:59
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    For comparison, Chicago in 2016 had 30 murders per 100,000, New Orleans have 45 per 100,000. The UK has about 1 per 100,000. Aug 29, 2017 at 1:13
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    Also, per capita car accident death rate in Arizona was about 20/100,000 in 2015 Aug 29, 2017 at 1:22
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    @axvsl77 I would be careful about using single year rates - for example, Chicago has been under 20 per 100,000 on average for the period 2000-2015.
    – user13123
    Aug 29, 2017 at 2:01

For Tombstone with 10,000 inhabitants:

between 1879 and 1884, about 300 people died in Tombstone. It is recorded that 121 died from old age, natural causes, 2 died in childbirth, 5 died committing suicide, 7 were killed by Apaches, 10 were hanged, 8 legally and 2 were lynched, 5 died by drowning, another 16 died of other types of accidents, 21 died from some sort of disease which includes 10 infants or young children, and in the years 1879 to 1884 there were a total of 52 people who died by gunshot, knife, or some sort of blunt instrument.

Someone else cited Dodge City with murder rate of 125 murders per 100,000 adults per year. The population of Dodge City in 1880 was 996 people (doubled in 1890), so one murder gives the rate of 100 per 100,000 people, difficult to say what would it be if count only adults.

  • @user2448131, obvious mistake, thank you
    – user25367
    Aug 29, 2017 at 11:57
  • Re Tombstone: (1) I've found four words you omit from the beginning of citation are "It is said that" and article is unsourced. (2) The data is inconsistent with data from Tom Au's answer. (3) The article is dated April 1st.
    – kubanczyk
    Aug 30, 2017 at 12:28
  • "The article is dated April 1st" are you serious?
    – user25367
    Aug 30, 2017 at 13:21
  • "The data is inconsistent with data from Tom Au's answer" seriously, where? both cite 110 saloons and 14 gambling halls
    – user25367
    Aug 30, 2017 at 13:24
  • Right, I retract p 2. I've misunderstood murder statistics provided in Tom's answer. But still, an unsourced article about just one city (a bit subjective at that) is a weak support. But still better than two existing answers, so no downvote from me.
    – kubanczyk
    Aug 30, 2017 at 14:15

While the Old West is often romanticized as wild and dangerous, statistical evidence suggests that modern cities typically experience higher crime rates and mortality rates than those historical frontier towns. The perception of the "wild" West might be exaggerated, and advancements in law enforcement and healthcare have contributed to safer urban environments today. Let us not forget the three worse forms of deception there are lies, damn lies. And statistics!

  • 1
    Sources would improve your answer. What is the statistical evidence you mention, and what is/are the source(s)? Jan 2 at 3:52
  • Welcome to History.SE, and thank you for your contribution. However, it does not answer the question as much as giving an (unsourced) opinion on it. It is not a lie, but it is not a statistic either... it just mentions the existence of those. "Statistical evidence suggests..." -- Then please point us to those statistics.
    – DevSolar
    Jan 2 at 7:04
  • I am not so sure that your chronology is correct regarding the Old West. While it is certainly true that the (so-called) "hedyay" of the American West was during the latter part of the 19th century, one could make a case for the Old West beginning around the 1850's and ending at around 1900, making it more of half century period than just a mere 30 year period. My statement is hardly empirical and is very much in the realm of conjecture and speculation...though I believe that such conjecture and speculation is historically plausible.
    – Alex
    Jan 2 at 20:40
  • This is not true, and is debunked on our Skeptics site: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/30358/… Jan 3 at 21:46

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