Weeding and the Fine Art of Slapping Leather

This week’s fun find in the cart of deaccessioned books is the most well-known work by Western (as in cowboys-and-gunfighters) author Eugene Cunningham: Triggernometry:

The cover is surprisingly dull for a book with very lively contents! This is the 5th hardback printing of the 1941 edition; Cunningham first published this book in 1934. Also: BEST TITLE EVER.

Don’t be fooled by that plain and simple cover — this is no dry tome full of vaguely worshipful stories about famous shootists. No, this book is ultimately a very instructional sort of text, written by a man who was acquainted with what it described in practical (as opposed to purely historical) and aesthetic terms.

Woohoo!

Eugene Cunningham (1896-1907) was primarily a novelist rather than a historian or essayist, with a day job as an editor and a later foray into screenwriting for television. His life prior to the years when he really hit his stride as a writer of good-guys-slaughter-bad-guys Western adventures was exciting enough to deserve its own novelization — he served in the US Navy during WWI (including the Mexican campaign) and WWII (in the intelligence service), and he worked a mercenary in Central America for a while after WWI. While he did work for a while as a military writer between the wars, it wasn’t where he really did his best work or found his greatest success.

Cunningham presents his sketches of some of the more violent characters of the Old West — John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, “Wild Bill” Hickock, Butch Cassidy, and a rogue’s gallery of other gunmen — as a sort of corrective to the myth-making work of the old dime novels, a clear-headed humanizing and de-fantasizing of their acts and characters. He very clearly understood the “print the legend” problem inherent in telling these stories, and took the time to track down witnesses and contemporary accounts outside of the sensational press. There is, nonetheless, more than a whiff of Old West mythological romance about this book. The foreword, written by Cunningham’s friend and fellow Western novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, both reinforces the presentation of the book as a de-mythologizing effort and simultaneously signed back on to a vision of the gunman as a narrowly honorable and more-or-less orderly user of controlled violence against other violent men. “Some were pretty poor specimens,” Rhodes admits, “but to compare the vilest of them with such monsters as Leopold and Loeb would be infamous” (xii).

This tension between romance and reality finds its most lively expression in the brief final chapter of the book, the one that shares its title. The chapter is described in the table of contents as containing “Random Testimony of the Experts, With Criticism and Comparisons, Hoglegs and Homicides, Diagrams and Disagreements” (viii). The chapter illustrates draw techniques through a combination of critical technical descriptions/illustrations and colorful anecdotes about their uses and their users.

An illustration of the “fanning” technique (417), a “pistol stunt so rarely practised in real life” that none of the author’s gunfighting acquaintances had ever seen it done in a fight, meant primarily for fast and relatively inaccurate sprays of lead in the “general direction” of one’s target (418). Cunningham presents it as a part of an interesting contrast between “the ancient business of gunplay” and target shooting (418).

The consistent thread running through it is an ongoing distinction between the kinds of excellence possible for the life-or-death duellist and those possible for the range shooter or target shooter, exemplified in what I think must be one of my favorite paragraphs in the whole book:

Between amazing speed and hair-line accuracy, naturally the gunman chose to perfect his speed. What use to be the International Pistol Champ’, able to shoot a cigarette out from under the harelipped lady’s mustache, if the other fellow was going to get his hogleg out and smoking and, out of five shots at twelve or fifteen feet, land two bullets in a 22-inch segment of your intimate personality? So the old-time six-slinger practised the draws, perfected hide-outs, thought of nerve-racking tricks.

Eugene Cunningham, Triggernometry (1941), p. 419

“Intimate personality” indeed. *snerk*

We see here, I think, an example of a shift in the target of the romance of the gun — a turn to fetishizing a more brutally practical version of ballistic competence and a related sense of professionalism about the practice of violence. Returning to Rhodes’ foreword, perhaps on this view Leopold and Loeb are all the more monstrous in comparison to Cunningham’s gunmen because of their dilettante approach to violence, their pursuit of the wrong sort of excellence in its practice.

I have no idea how or why this book ended up in a university collection.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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