Gunfighter and gunslinger pron.: //, are 20th-century words, used in cinema or literature, referring to men in the American Old West who had gained a reputation as being dangerous with a gun. Gunman was a common term used for these individuals in the 19th century.
Noted amateur etymologist Barry Popik has traced the term "gun slinger" back to its use in the 1920 Western movie Drag Harlan. The word was soon adopted by other Western writers such as Zane Grey and became common usage. In his introduction to The Shootist, author Glendon Swarthout says that "gunslinger" and "gunfighter" are modern terms and that the more authentic terms for the period would have been "gunman", "pistoleer", "shootist" or "bad man". While Swarthout seems to have been correct about "gunslinger", Bat Masterson used the term "gunfighter" in the newspaper articles he wrote about the lawmen and outlaws he had known. Clay Allison (1841–1887), a notorious New Mexico and Texas gunman and cattleman originated the term, "shootist". Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison: Portrait of a Shootist (Seagraves, Texas: Pioneer, 1983). Joseph Rosa further supports the use of "gunman" during the Old West period, noting that even though Masterson used the term "gunfighter", he "preferred the term 'mankiller'" when discussing these individuals.
Often the term has been applied to men who would hire out for contract killings or at a ranch embroiled in a range war where they would earn "fighting wages." Others, like Billy the Kid, were notorious bandits and still others were lawmen like Pat Garrett and Wyatt Earp. A gunfighter could be an outlaw, a robber or murderer who took advantage of the wilderness of the frontier to hide from, and make periodic raids on, genteel society. The gunfighter could also be an agent of the state, archetypically a lone avenger, but more often a sheriff, whose duty was to face the outlaw and bring him to, or more likely personally administer, justice. The title is often misused in historical accounts to describe men killed in gunfights. For instance, the three Cowboys who died in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral—Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury—were sometimes called "gunfighters" although the three were more likely cowboys and ranchers.
Gunslingers frequently appear, along with cowboys, as stock characters in Western movies and novels. In Western movies, the characters' gun belts are often worn low on the hip and outer thigh, with the holster cut away around the pistol's trigger and grip for a smooth, fast draw. This type of holster is a Hollywood anachronism. Twirling their revolver is a trademark trick of movie gunslingers, and drawing and spinning the pistol from time to time, without intending or being expected to shoot, is a commonly portrayed habit or compulsion. Fast-draw artists can be distinguished from other movie cowboys because their guns will often be tied to their thigh. Long before holsters were steel-lined, they were soft and supple for comfortable all-day wear. A gunfighter would use tie-downs to keep his pistol from catching on the holster while drawing.
The Hollywood Cowboy/ Gunslinger as a stock character is normally rooted in archetypal conflict: