The OK Corral: More of a Blowout than a Shootout

Cowboy with pistol and badge

On October 26, 1881, a one-minute gunfight occurred at the OK Corral. The three Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan, along with John “Doc” Holliday, were arrayed against a group of cattle and horse rustlers.

These outlaws were organized criminals, the Cochise County Cowboys, referred to as the “Cowboys,” and they were represented in the gunfight by two sets of brothers: Billy and Ike Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury, along with Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller.


The town of Tombstone, Arizona, was a silver town that Wyatt Earp and his brothers moved to several years prior to the gunfight. Along with Doc Holliday, they challenged the supremacy of power formerly held by the Cowboys.

The Gunfight

The resultant gunfight left both Frank McLaury and his brother, along with Billy Clanton, dead. Doc Holliday had been grazed by a bullet, and Virgil and Morgan Earp had been wounded. Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller ran away from the fight.

The battle actually occurred in a lot beside a photography studio six doors down from the entrance to the OK Corral. Although it became the most famous battle of the Wild West era, only thirty (30) bullets were fired within a thirty-second period.

Why the Gunfight at the OK Corral Happened

OK Corral sign

The incident prompted the Earps and Doc Holliday to act (City Marshal Virgil Earp and his deputized brothers) in a legal capacity to disarm the Cowboys. There was a point of contention, as a previous city ordinance required those entering Tombstone to deposit their firearms and knives with a saloon or livery until they departed. The ordinance left a loophole by not specifically stating a time (in the immediacy) or a specific place. As such, the Cowboys were in the middle of the town and still armed.

After repeated threats to the Earps and Holliday by the Cowboys, Virgil Earp decided to disarm the men, who were about to leave the lot mentioned earlier. It was also unsure as to who fired the first shot, with witnesses for both sides naturally claiming the other side started it.

The Trial

There were several trials after the OK Corral gunfight, and after lengthy court trials and public debates, the Earps and Doc Holliday were acquitted of any wrongdoing. There were so many political connections and backroom deals going on that it was almost impossible to sort out the cast of characters in the drama.

The shootout itself occurred in a small area, and the distances between the combatants ranged from six to ten feet…extremely close ranges. To cover the intricacies of nepotism, crony capitalism, blackmail, bribery, and favor trading would encompass volumes and has done so.

Do some personal research on it: it’s a “textbook” case of a combination of things that went wrong and things to avoid.

Let’s cover a few of them:

1. No Change in Today’s “Legal” Stance

The threat posed by the Cowboys was not imminent, and they probably would have left the town without incident…but, as is the case today…it had to be pursued to the letter of the law.

Instead of allowing what would have been a misdemeanor to pass peaceably, Virgil Earp had to push the envelope and confront the men. It’s not simply a precept: it’s a mindset…the hunted quarry must be brought to (so-called) justice.

2. The Principle of Clean, Well-Placed Shots

Rifle, Pistol, and cowboy hat

Thirty shots were fired, and about half of those were from the Earps and Doc Holliday. That translates into fifteen shots to kill three men and drive away three more: a grand total of twelve more than were needed.

3. No Rifles for the Law Enforcement Men

Four men with rifles at the ready entering that lot would have made the Cowboys surrender. If that had not been the case, then the Earp contingent would have had an advantage.

4. Lack of Communication

Stupidity such as this fracas almost always has its roots in the two parties being unwilling to sit down and negotiate. When negotiations don’t occur, cooler heads don’t have a chance to prevail.

5. Others Offered to Help and Were Turned Down

Virgil Earp spurned an offer of assistance from a citizens’ vigilance committee, a group of armed men. This was imprudent because not only is there strength in numbers, but the sight of a larger group than the Earp contingent of four may have caused the Cowboys to back down.

6. Prepositioned Marksmen

The Earp contingent could have easily prepositioned a couple of sharpshooters (such as the spurned volunteers mentioned above) to cover the area of conflict.

Warning shots could have been fired from covered positions on a prearranged signal, and this may have defused the situation. If not, it would have given an immediate tactical advantage.

7. “No Excuses, Verg!”

Virgil Earp had considerable experience in gun battles as a lawman, but more importantly, he served in the Union Army during the war between the states.

He knew enough about tactics to know better than to walk into a closed-in area where the Cowboys were backed into a corner.

Worse: he led his two brothers and another man into that trap. He was fortunate to have only been wounded.

8. Death Ground

According to Sun Tzu in his classic treatise, “The Art of War,” the concept of “death ground” categorizes a piece of ground where a force either cannot run/exit from easily, or at all.

The result: the hemmed, penned-in force will realize they have no choice but to fight their way out or perish.

When an opponent perceives this, it can spur them to actions they might not have ordinarily taken.

9. No “General Supreme” Among Any of Them

Sun Tzu also wrote, “The supreme act of generalship is to win the battle without fighting your opponent.” This is true. It doesn’t necessarily mean to compromise, but it does mean using the mind over brute force to accomplish a strategic objective. It’s far better to defuse the situation and come to an accord than to fight.

Our “era” is not immune to such stupidity. David Koresh’s group in Waco, Texas, and the Ruby Ridge incident with Randy Weaver showed the FBI’s uncompromising stance. This resulted in needless civilian casualties for an objective that remains “nebulous” to this day, at best.

Old Western Town

The Gunfight at the OK Corral was a Blowout

While glorified in film, literature, and American legend, the shootout at the gunfight at the OK Corral was more of a “blowout,” one that clearly demonstrated a lack of clear thought and self-control on both sides. More mistakes were made that were the results of emotion and poor judgment than mistakes that merely arose from circumstances and poor timing.

Lessons Learned From the OK Corral

We can take those mistakes and apply the points as outlined today. There are situations that will arise in survival and in combat that will demand an immediate response…immediate action without time to formulate a plan. The “trick” of it is to not fall into any situation totally unprepared. In this case, the men had time to pursue an alternate course of action.

Final Thoughts

When you fight, fight to win, and by all means, remember: skills and violence of action will carry the day.

The great victory, as outlined earlier, is achieved when pitfalls are predicted, when ambushes are avoided, and when all means available are exhausted before you go into battle.

Go to war with the objective of winning, but go to war as a last resort.

Keep in that good fight, and take care of one another.


JJ out!

Additional Resources:


The OK Corral: More of a Blowout than a Shootout
Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson


  1. Fabian O. on October 28, 2022 at 5:18 pm

    Great article, awesome story.

    “It’s far better to defuse the situation and come to an accord than to fight.”

    This is #1 rule in street survival. Avoid > Defuse > Comply > Negotiate > Fight.

    Should be priority of governments today as well, as we seem to be heading into WW3 or something. They should sit down and talk, but no one is talking. Stupid heads can´t prevail.

    • Jeremiah Johnson on November 1, 2022 at 12:50 pm

      Dear Fabian O,

      Thank you for the compliments, sir. I agree that the ones in charge need to negotiate…and do everything to prevent a world war. Hang in there, and thank you for reading!

      Respectfully Yours,

      J. J. (Jeremiah Johnson)

Leave a Comment