The Two-Gun Men

Jonathan Ferguson
by Jonathan Ferguson

It’s a staple of cinema and video games, it looks cool, but as the image above from comedy action movie ‘Hot Fuzz’ reminds us, it’s mostly nonsense. We’re talking ‘dual wielding’, aka ‘guns akimbo’, or the simultaneous use of two firearms.

Mythbusters and others have experimented with its plausibility as a technique, and some have tried to trace its origins, but I don’t think anyone’s quite nailed just how old this trope is in fiction, nor established the extent to which it was actually done in history. Because it’s patently inaccurate and tends to be seen in fantastical settings, we tend to discount it as a real tactic. Let’s start there.

Pistols traditionally came in pairs, back to at least 1600, when the pistol was no more than a century old. Some early examples were even built as ‘handed’ pairs for left and right hands, with locks on opposite sides. This at least implies simultaneous use, though that’s hard to prove this far back. Pirates of the ‘ Golden Age’ have often been described and depicted as carrying multiple pistols, which makes sense given the close quarters in which they would fight. But I’ve yet to find an account of them using two at once, whereas pistol and sword was quite common.

The infamous Blackbeard, armed to the teeth in a 1736 engraving (Wikimedia Commons)

Cavalry pistols were equipped in pairs for most of their history, it being extremely difficult to reload muzzleloaders from horseback. They were carried in easily accessible twin bucket holsters fitted over the horse’s neck. However, the need to control the horse meant that they weren’t used at the same time, the Hollywood reins-in-the-teeth method notwithstanding! We often refer today to the use of holster pistols as impact weapons, and a few private purchase weapons were fitted with ‘skull crushers’, but a trooper was much more likely to draw his sword (actually his primary weapon) than to ‘club’ his empty pistol.

Pair of wheellock holster pistols. French, about 1615. Possibly made by Francois Poumerol (XII.1263; XII.1264) Royal Armouries

So far, so inconclusive. But it turns out that there are clear instances of dual pistol use from history, starting with an account of the attack by American rebels on HMS Gaspee in 1772.

“…Duddingston with his two Pistols in his hands, jumped up upon deck, went forward & hailed them. They answered they wanted Him & by God they would have Him dead or alive. He oredered them to keep off on their Peril. They continued to advance & he fired his Pistols amongst them, which hurt nobody. They returned the Fire immediately, shot the Captain in the Arm, & wounded him in the Body, of which its thought he will die.”

A nice example of ‘akimbo’, but definitely not a ringing endorsement of its tactical usefulness. This is desperation stuff, more Butch and Sundance than Tequila Yuen.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

From the following century, we find legal testimony to criminal use of two pistols in the 1849 case of the Stanfield Hall Murders:

“In his cross-examination, he said he was a stout short man, and that he had two pistols in his hands, and he had a cloak on…”

We’re used to seeing dual-wielded revolvers or automatic pistols – even machine pistols, yet both of these cases are early enough that the pistols involved are muzzleloaders. This is actually the period when dual wield makes the most sense – these were single-shot, smooth-bored, low velocity weapons with basic or non-existent sights. Depending upon the situation, putting two shots in the vague direction of the enemy might actually be a more viable tactic.

The first fictional appearance comes from a source surprising to those of us who aren’t big fans of musical theater. It’s Victor Hugo’s original Les Miserables novel from 1862, which was a lot more of an ‘action’ title when first released! Unsurprisingly, the fictionalised version of dual wield is much more effective:

“Courfeyrac crying “Help!” that child threatened, his friends to succor or to avenge, all hesitation had vanished, and he had rushed into the conflict, his two pistols in his hands. By the first shot he had saved Gavroche, and by the second delivered Courfeyrac.”
-Book 11, Ch.IV, p.156

With the widespread adoption of the six-shot percussion revolver, any real-life advantage afforded by a pistol in each hand was lessened, and though multiple pistols were carried, it was in the interests of increasing available capacity rather than using both at the same time (the alternative being to carry a spare loaded cylinder, though this seems to have been infrequently done).

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Thanks to movies like True Grit and The Outlaw Josey Wales, we tend to think that the gunfighters of the Old West habitually used two revolvers. In fact we do have evidence that some really did, if only on occasion. Wild Bill Hickok was said to shoot with both hands, but denied this when asked, save for one particularly tricky incident. Bat Masterson was also said to be ambidextrous, though again, I’ve only found one reference to a gun in each hand. Criminals too were still going ‘akimbo’ when things got dicey, including Jesse and Frank James (several accounts from the time of their death in 1882). Beyond the West, we find an incident on the high seas (from a US-registered ship out of Boston) mentioned in court testimony from 1898:

“’I last saw Mate William Saunders on the 6th of August of this year. He was killed that morning by John Andersen on the forecastle head, on the left or port side thereof. I saw Andersen just before the shooting of the mate that morning, coming up from the cabin through the after companionway and through the wheel house. I was standing amidships. He came up with a revolver in each hand. He came right up to me, and asked me where the mate was, and said, ‘I have killed the captain, and now the mate goes, too.’ The mate was then aloft, in the rigging of the foremast. I went then down on the lee or starboard side of the vessel to the forecastle house. I went and called the watch below in the forecastle house. I said, ‘You better look out, because the cook is on deck with revolvers,’”

On the other side of the map, there’s the infamous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. But then again, the sort of guy who covers himself in plate armour and faces down armed police is hardly a tactical guru.

For the first cinematic depiction of dual wield, we have to return to the ‘Wild West’, and the early silent pictures of William S. Hart. ‘Two Gun Hicks’ was released in 1914, embodying the twin-revolver fighting style already a staple of the dime novels themselves based on the exploits of the real ‘ two-gun men‘ of the West.

William S. Hart in a later movie; 'Tumbleweed' (1925)

As comic books came to the fore in the 1930s, they too embraced twin gunnery, notably with ‘The Shadow’ in 1939. Like other media, comics didn’t look back, and two-gun men are now everywhere, from The Punisher to Deadpool. The rise of female characters has given us a slew of two-gun women in comics and elsewhere, and in the case of Mark Millar’s infamous ‘Hit-Girl’, even little girls!

The Shadow comic book #178 (1939)

The trope then fed back into the Western setting with the iconic ‘ Lone Ranger’, and the decades of Westerns that followed. Cross-pollination with eastern cinema gave rise to the Hong Kong action movie and its own violently balletic love affair with dual wield with John Woo’s ‘A Better Tomorrow’ (1985). Followed by the genre-defining ‘Hard Boiled’ (1992), it was the first movie to feature twin semi-automatics. Woo’s films inspired Hollywood in movies like ‘The Crow’ (1994), Woo’s own US-produced ‘Face/Off’ (1997), and especially ‘The Matrix’ (1999), which became the touchstone for action movies and for gunplay to the present day.

Trinity with her dual Beretta M84Fs in 'The Matrix' (1999)

A few years prior, we see the very first instance of twin firearms in the graphically violent and no-doubt Woo-inspired FPS ‘Rise of the Triad’ (1995), followed by the third-person ‘Tomb Raider’ (1996). Only two years after ‘ROTT’, James Bond title ‘Goldeneye 007’ allowed players to ‘akimbo’ just about every weapon in the game, because, well, why not? By the release of akimbo-heavy ‘bullet-time’ shooter ‘Max Payne’ in 2001, dual wield had become a staple not just of video games, but of just about every media in the action genre. Even military shooters like ‘Call of Duty’ with their gloss of realism would eventually allow players to draw down with two pistols.

We’ve seen some examples from earlier eras, but you might think that by the 20th century, no-one is seriously attempting to use two firearms at once. You’d be wrong. Rather like the bayonet, real-life ‘akimbo’ refuses to die. Exhibition shooter and instructor Ed McGivern apparently taught the sort of two-pistol techniques seen in ‘Last Man Standing’ to actual 1920s law enforcement officers. It’s said that the SMERSH department (yes, that was a real thing) of the Soviet NKVD in WW2 were exponents of what they called ‘Macedonian shooting’. This information does come from a novel written by someone who might have lied about having a military career, but is backed up by another non-fiction book called ‘ Handgun Shooting Methods: The SMERSH System’. In practice it looks like this video, with hands pressed together to maintain some sort of sight alignment. It’s presented as a practical method, though viewer’s thoughts may drift back to the world of fantasy due to the shooter resembling Cobra Commander on Hawaiian vacation. Finally, another supposed Russian elite soldier turned criminal called Alexsandr Solonik also allegedly liked to pull two pistols whilst doing his thing in the late 1990s.

That’s about it for the modern era, and I think, brings us full circle to a conclusion. ‘Dual wield’ did happen historically, probably more than most people realise. But it was only ever marginally practical as a tactic, best reserved for very close-quarter, last-ditch, desperate situations. If it had a heyday, it was when pistols had limited capacity. It really makes zero sense with modern high capacity magazines, stable shooting techniques for rapid fire, speed reloading etc. But in the world of fiction, it does make for great entertainment, and it isn’t going away any time soon. So the next time you roll your eyes as the hero grabs a second pistol, console yourself with the fact that it’s arguably more realistic than one-man armies, unlimited ammunition, and bad guys blown through the air by gunshots.

Jonathan Ferguson
Jonathan Ferguson

Jonathan Ferguson is Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, UK. He is based at the National Firearms Centre, one of the most comprehensive firearms collections in the world and successor to the MoD Pattern Room. His research interests include the use and effect of weapons, and their depiction in folklore and popular culture.

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4 of 131 comments
  • Wolf Wolf on Jan 28, 2014

    Typical toffee nosed Brit praddling on about a topic he has no firsthand knowledge of.
    You actually have Cowboy Action Shooting in the UK you know. Never mind.
    Obviously you didn't know.
    Worldwide, between SASS, NCOWS and WTG there are over a half million shooters who compete each weekend with sixguns, rifles and shotguns in western style combat matches.
    Please haul your condescending self over to the U.S.A.....c'mon down to northeast Texas; Comanche Valley or Lone Star Frontier Shooters Club...or Texas Tenhorns...I'll pay your entry fee.
    Then you can watch shooters in the "Gunfighter" category wield two sixguns at once with both speed and accuracy....shooting at targets about the size of a large plate (considerably smaller than your head)
    All SASS shooters must use TWO sixguns, rifle/carbine and shotgun in EVERY stage of a six stage match

    Some shoot one pistol and then the other...and some (Gunfighter category) shoot both at once.

    Mythbusters? You might as well cite Ciff Clavin on Cheers.

    You need to research before you publish an article,

    If you want to avoid the embarrassment of having to be shown your ignorance in few videos out of a few thousand on youtube that could have enlightened you before you made your error filled statement.

    Seawolf, SASS# 53736, Flying F Ranch, Heaven Hill on Shawnee Creek, Texas

  • Joan Lawson Joan Lawson on Jan 28, 2014

    Seriously johnny? Your mom lets you go out of the house looking
    like that? What a dweebie.