James Dunham cringed while he was watching the film Wyatt Earp last year. Well, so did a lot of other people, but mostly they were film lovers appalled by Kevin Costner's performance.

Dunham was covering his eyes because of the historical inaccuracies he saw perpetrated onscreen. One was particularly close to his heart.

"When it came time for Wyatt Earp to wear a holster, he chose a holster that was not invented until 1950," he says, still irritated by the recollection. "The holster he wore was a type of holster used in fast-draw contests and was specifically invented for Hollywood."

Jim Dunham is an authority on holsters, the guns that go in them and the men who strapped them on. If he knows one thing, it's gunfighters, and if he knows another thing, it's that Hollywood never gets it right.

Dunham will be sharing some of his knowledge next Wednesday, at a lecture sponsored by the Arizona Historical Foundation. His talk is part of a series of lectures offered annually by the group, which was founded by Barry Goldwater and built largely around his collection of books and papers.

To illustrate more explicitly his annoyance with the Costner movie, Dunham pulls out a large glossy book full of pictures of guns and holsters. Then he goes into another room, returning with two different gunbelts for a little Old West show-and-tell.

"The type of holster that is period for the Old West is called a Mexican loop," he says, holding out a brown leather apparatus. Popular in the 19th century among working cowboys, who used guns around the ranch and on trail drives, the holster's purpose was to protect a valuable tool a man might have paid a month's wages for.

"Two things are important that it's not," Dunham says. "It's not tied down to the leg, and it's not worn low."

Hence, the holster is not particularly good in a fast-draw showdown. But it is what the characters in Wyatt Earp would have been wearing.

What Kevin Costner strapped on, however, was an entirely modern invention--the buscadero rig. This is the low-on-the-hips, tie-it-to-your-leg affair every fast-draw marshal on television wore. A man can get a gun out of it fast enough, but for a working cowboy or a frontier gambler, a buscadero rig is useless--the gun would fall out as soon as the wearer either threw a leg over a horse or sat down at a poker table.

"Literature, movies and TV Westerns created the concept of fast-draw out of whole cloth," Dunham explains. "In the Old West, men carried guns and they used guns, but they never would have understood why people think it is important to draw it fast, let alone design a holster for fast draw."

Bat Masterson, Dunham points out, placed speed with a gun third--after deliberation and accuracy. Wyatt Earp liked to say that the most important thing to do in a gunfight is to "take your time in a hurry."

With a houseful of books (literally--they're in closets and the garage) and whole shelves devoted to special topics like Billy the Kid, Arizona gunfighters, George Armstrong Custer and the Indian wars, Dunham can cite chapter and verse when it comes to the Old West. He cheerfully acknowledges that much of it is no more than Western trivia--history lite--but he loves it anyway.

In the last ten years, he's seen interest in Western Americana burgeon. This weekend, for example, he'll be attending a get-together at the Ben Avery Shooting Range for folks who like to dress up like their Western heroes and play with old guns. The gathering includes a special event for Wyatt Earp buffs: The registration form insists that team members must dress like either the Earps or the Clantons, and carry appropriate weaponry.

Even Dunham laughs about the members of the James Gang, fans of Jesse and Frank who dress in period costume and reenact the brothers' more noteworthy bank and train robberies. Still, Dunham has managed to make a living out of living history since he graduated from college in the Sixties and got a job at 20th Century Fox, where he "taught movie stars to be cowboys and Indians."

More recently, he's worked at Western-themed restaurants doing fast-draw shows, and teaches three days a week for the Elderhostel program at Central Arizona College. His courses include Western art and literature, Western Americana and Indian music and dance.

The historian in him has a genuine gripe with Hollywood, with its scenes of black-mustachioed villains twirling pistols on their fingers, a skill he says is to gun handling as lowriders are to cars.

"I can't figure out why the real subject matter isn't equally fascinating to writers," Dunham says. And the real subject matter is that the myth of the gunfighter has more to do with publicity than with history.

In the first place, the classic fast-draw showdown in the street almost never happened. City fathers in towns like Dodge City and Tombstone wisely forbade the wearing of weapons within the city limits, so the inevitable altercation in the bar usually led not to a shoot-out, but to a couple of cowboys dashing off to get their guns. If they came back at all, it was with guns already drawn.

"Between 1865 and the turn of the century, only 39 men were killed in what we would call a traditional-style gunfight," Dunham says, citing a book by Joseph G. Rosa. "Only one of those gunfights involved men going from two holstered positions to two firing positions."

Even that one--between Wild Bill Hickok and Dave Tutt--didn't involve fast draw, although it did start at a poker table. Both Wild Bill and Dave Tutt left the saloon to get their guns, returned and shot at each other across a park. Tutt's shot was made too quickly and missed; Wild Bill positioned himself in a shooter's stance--Dunham believes--sighted along his arm and killed Dave Tutt with a shot to the forehead.

Even Arizona favorite Wyatt Earp, he of the O.K. Corral, was a product of the publicity machine. The events on the streets of Tombstone had always been largely unknown outside Arizona, and by the 1920s, the elderly Earp was known only to the kind of gun-lore fanatics who would today know Commodore Perry Owens and Bear River Tom Smith.

But Earp set out to make his story known, and managed to find a good biographer in Stuart Lake. Lake's book got picked up by the movies, and that led to television, and finally to Kevin Costner. Wyatt Earp is now so well-known that Hugh O'Brian is still going around talking about the character he played on the 1950s television series. (He's another speaker in the Arizona Historical Foundation lecture series, in fact.)

Left in the dust are lawmen who were probably more important, but had the bad luck to have as biographers their adoring but unskilled wives. One such is Bill Tilghman, the Oklahoma lawman who captured the Dalton gang.

"He deserves to be famous, but Zoe Tilghman was a terrible writer," Dunham says.

And what does Arizona's authority on gunfighters think about the usefulness of guns today? Dunham, who owns a dozen antique revolvers and an antique Remington rifle, all locked in a safe or displayed as works of art, thinks a gun is worthless for personal protection.

"If you have a gun in the house, you'll most likely kill yourself or a relative with it," he says. "Don't buy a gun for defense.

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Anna Dooling