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Lieutenant Mainwaring pistol-whips a pirate using an unloaded pistol, in Howard Pyle's illustration for his 1897 story, Captain Scarfield

Pistol-whipping or buffaloing is the act of using a handgun as a blunt weapon, wielding it as an improvised club.[1] Such a practice dates to the time of muzzle loaders, which were brandished in such fashion in close-quarters combat once the weapon's single projectile had been expended.


The term "buffaloing" is documented as being used in the Wild West originally to refer to the act of being intimidated or cheated by bluffing. It would develop into a term meaning to strike someone with a handgun in the 1870s when Stuart N. Lake reported Wyatt Earp doing so.[2][3][4] Wild Bill Hickok would also be a prominent practitioner of the technique. The new use of the term developed because the act of hitting someone with their revolver was seen as an additional insult to the character of the victim.[3][5]

The modern terms "pistol-whipping" and "to pistol-whip" were reported as "new words" of American speech in 1955, with cited usages dating to the 1940s.[6]


The practice of using the handgun itself as a blunt-force weapon began with the appearance of muzzle loaders in the 15th century. Single-shot weapons that were tedious to reload were used to strike opponents directly in close-quarters combat after their projectile had been expended. It was entirely up to circumstance whether the user had time or chose to reverse the gun in their hand and strike a blow with its handle or merely swung the heavy weapon as a club or baton holding it normally.[citation needed]

There are arguments as to the efficacy of either approach. Author Paul Wellman notes that clubbing an opponent with the butt of a gun held by its barrel, as seen in some Westerns, is problematic. First, the danger of an unintentional discharge could fatally wound the wielder. Second, many early revolvers of the black-powder cap and ball era, were relatively fragile around their cylinders relative to solid single-shot weapons. Third, rotating a gun so that it can be held by its barrel takes extra time, potentially crucial in a conflict.[citation needed]

To avoid the risk of damage or potential delay, pistol-whipping may be done with the gun held in an ordinary manner, hitting the target with an overhand strike from either the barrel or the flank of the gun above the trigger. It was a fairly common way to incapacitate a man in Western frontier days (assisted by the heavy weight of the handguns of the era), known as "buffaloing", with the verb form being "to buffalo".[7][8]


Pistol whipping may leave unusual lacerations on the body of the injured due to various protruding details of the pistol.[9][10] When blows are struck using the butt of the weapon rather than its barrel or flank, semicircular or triangular lacerations on the skin may be produced. The magazine well at the bottom of a semi-automatic pistol and its surrounding base produce rectangular lacerations on the skin.[11] These lacerations can vary in depth and severity, but "whipped" fractures are common. The skin underneath the "whipped" area often will not present with bruising because the skin is split and not crushed.[12]

The practice was seen as a means of avoiding fatal confrontations. Instead of opening fire, an officer could knock someone unconscious with the barrel of their revolver which they claimed lowered mortality rates.[13][14] This technique would later be recognized as a form of police brutality.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Pistol whipping", Random House Unabridged Dictionary
  2. ^ Fossenkemper, Allen (2011-04-26). "Where did the term "buffaloing" originate?". True West Magazine. Fountain Hills, Arizona. Retrieved 2020-09-01.
  3. ^ a b Agnew, Jeremy (2017-03-28). Crime, Justice and Retribution in the American West, 1850-1900. McFarland. ISBN 978-1-4766-6447-7.
  4. ^ Correa, Thomas (2019-12-14). The American Cowboy Chronicles Old West Myths & Legends: The Honest Truth. Page Publishing Inc. ISBN 978-1-64584-285-9.
  5. ^ a b Roth, Mitchel P. (2001). Historical Dictionary of Law Enforcement. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-30560-3.
  6. ^ "Fifty Years Among the New Words: by John Algeo, p. 142, from vol. 30 (1955), no. 4 of the American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society
  7. ^ The Trampling Herd: The Story of the Cattle Range in America by Paul Iselin Wellman (1988) ISBN 0-8032-9723-8, p. 196.
  8. ^ The True Life Wild West Memoir of a Bush-popping Cow Waddy, by Charley Hester, Kirby Ross, 2004, ISBN 0-8032-7346-0, Chapter 14: "Buffaloing".
  9. ^ "Pistol whipping", in Forensic Pathology, by David Dolinak, Evan W. Matshes, Emma O. Lew, 2006, ISBN 0-12-219951-0, p. 185
  10. ^ Dolinak, David; Matshes, Evan; Lew, Emma O. (2005-04-08). Forensic Pathology: Principles and Practice. Elsevier. ISBN 978-0-08-047066-5.
  11. ^ "Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques", Vincent J.M. DiMaio, 1999, ISBN 0-8493-8163-0, pp. 270-271
  12. ^ Spitz, Werner U.; Diaz, Francisco J. (2020-07-20). Spitz and Fisher's Medicolegal Investigation of Death: Guidelines for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigation. Charles C Thomas Publisher. ISBN 978-0-398-09312-9.
  13. ^ Clavin, Tom (2017-02-28). Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West. St. Martin's Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-4668-8262-1.
  14. ^ Goodman, Michael E. (July 2005). Wyatt Earp. The Creative Company. ISBN 978-1-58341-339-5.