The Life and Times of the Brain-Damaged Gunslinger Clay Allison

Our vision of Old West gunplay was formed by Western movies rather than the Old West itself. The very term “Gunslinger” was an early-20th century concoction. Clay Allison, however, was the real deal.

The archetypal image of the flinty-eyed Western gunfighter, his fingers twitching over the butt of a Colt revolver, came to define an era. As is so often the case with archetypes, however, reality bore little similarity to the embellished tales from the pulp novels of the day. An exception, however, was the shootist, Clay Allison.

Soldier, Rancher, Gunfighter, Psychopath

Clay Allison’s remarkable life was hard, brutish, and relatively short. His father died when he was five.

Robert Clay Allison was born in September 1841 in Waynesboro, Tennessee, the fourth of nine children. Clay’s father Jeremiah Scotland Allison was a bi-vocational Presbyterian minister who also raised sheep and cattle. Clay worked on the family farm until the outbreak of the American Civil War.

This scan is taken from a person who suffered a skull fracture after a fall on ice. Balance of probability Clay Allison’s childhood traumatic brain injury left him with some lasting behavioral deficits.

Growing up on a mid-19th century Tennessee farm was hard. Clay was afflicted with a congenital club foot and at some point had received a mighty blow to the head. This injury left him with a visible divot in his skull and some fascinating personality traits.

The human brain is the most amazing machine. When you hold a fresh one for real it is remarkably insubstantial, kind of like really thick Jell-O.

The human brain is the most complex mechanism in the known universe. A typical adult brain weighs about three pounds and is predominantly fat. The brain generates about 23 watts of power and consumes about one-fifth of the body’s total blood and oxygen. The brain is comprised of some 100 billion neurons and features 100,000 miles of blood vessels. This remarkable device can reason, scheme, love, create and survive.

Despite generations of intensive study we still don’t really understand exactly how the human brain works. My Neuroanatomy text in med school was titled “Fundamental Neuroscience.” If ever there was an oxymoron it is that.

The normal function of the brain is characterized by a yin and yang of impulses and inhibitions that are even today poorly understood. When everything is operating correctly you get a normal well-adjusted productive citizen. Let some of those inhibitory functions be traumatically damaged, however, and you get Clay Allison.

Allison’s Exploits

Despite one odd false start, Clay Allison spent most of the American Civil War riding with the Confederate Cavalry General and founder of the KKK Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In October 1861 Allison enlisted into the Confederate Army with CPT WH Jackson’s artillery battery. Three months later he was discharged. His discharge papers stated, “Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxysmal of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal,” whatever that actually means. However, less than a year later Allison signed on with the 9th Tennessee Cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest. Allison rode with Forrest until the end of the war.

Clay Allison adopted his dapper facial hair from his former commander in the Confederate Army.

Inspired by Forrest, Allison grew a similar Van Dyke beard that he wore for years. After surrendering to the Federals at Gainesville, Alabama, Allison was convicted of spying and sentenced to death. The night before sentence was to be served he purportedly killed a guard and escaped.

Clay Allison was a plank holder in the post-Civil War KKK.

What followed was a most remarkable life of action, adventure, and wanton gunplay. Upon returning to civilian life, Allison joined the local Ku Klux Klan. Back home on his family farm in Tennessee Allison confronted a Union corporal from the 3rd Illinois Cavalry who had paid a call with mischievous intent. Allison retrieved a long gun and calmly cut the man down.

Settling Squabbles

A disagreement over a ferry fee resulted in a fearsome beating and some lasting bad blood. The Allison clan subsequently commandeered the ferry and fled.

Allison got into a disagreement over the fee for portage across the Red River in Texas and beat the ferryman, one Zachary Colbert, senseless as a result. Nine years later he met the ferryman’s nephew, a gunfighter of some renown named Chunk Colbert, with bloody results. Hold that thought.

By all accounts, Clay Allison was a nightmare with a Bowie knife.

During a stint in Texas, Allison got into a disagreement with a neighbor named Johnson over usage rights to a local watering hole. Allison dug a grave and entered the hole along with Johnson and a brace of Bowie knives. The winner retained access to the water. The loser retained access to the hole. The club-footed, brain-damaged Clay Allison lived to fight another day.

Vigilante justice was part and parcel to life in the untamed American West.

Allison had a fairly binary view of frontier justice, and he didn’t manage liquor well. In 1870 a ne’er-do-well named Charles Kennedy was jailed for robbing and killing overnight guests at his rural cabin. Allison felt that the wheels of justice were turning too slowly so he gathered some buddies, broke into the jail, and appropriated the hapless Kennedy. Allison then proceeded to lash the man to his horse and drag him back and forth along the main street until his body was a lifeless bloody pulp. Still not satisfied, Allison severed the man’s head and carried it in a sack 29 miles to the town of Cimarron. There he staked Kennedy’s head on a fence outside what later became the St. James Hotel.

Allison suffered numerous physical afflictions during his time. An accidental discharge that struck him in the foot left him partially crippled.

Allison accidentally shot himself in the foot while trying to steal a dozen government mules. Though he recovered from the injury it left him with a noticeable permanent limp.

In my experience, throwing a knife effectively is incredibly hard. Clay Allison had some mad knife-throwing skills.

Just in case anybody thought of denigrating the man over his physical shortcomings, Allison was legendarily accomplished with both a knife and a handgun. On two different occasions Allison, while drunk, threw his Bowie knife and pinned men to the wall by their shirts. The first was a county clerk named John Lee. The second was a local attorney named Melvin Mills. In both cases, the men were otherwise unharmed.

The Art of the Gunfight

Old West watering holes such as this were the center of social life in rugged frontier towns.

By 1874, Clay Allison had a reputation. Chunk Colbert, the nephew of the ferryman mentioned earlier, purportedly had six kills to his credit when he came looking to make Allison his seventh. The two men met in a local saloon and spent most of a day together drinking and gambling on horse races.

This is all that remains of the old Clifton House today.

That evening Colbert invited Allison to join him at an overnight stage stop called Clifton House on the Canadian River. Prior to this fateful meal, the local sheriff had accidentally shot and killed a Clifton House waiter while trying unsuccessfully to apprehend Chunk Colbert.

The gunfight between Clay Allison and Chunk Colbert was widely publicized.

Both men were wary, but by all accounts, they enjoyed an expansive meal together. Upon taking their seats Colbert set his hogleg in his lap, while Allison laid his Peacemaker on the table alongside his plate. The meal complete, Colbert thumbed back his hammer to kill Allison. However, Mr. Murphy is seldom far from enterprises of this sort. Colbert’s muzzle caught on something underneath the table, and his shot went wide. Allison raised his roscoe and shot Colbert through the head at contact range.

Allison was relatively philosophical about having shot a man in the forehead across a dinner table.

Friends later asked Allison why he ever accepted an invitation to dinner from a man so clearly bent upon killing him. Allison responded, “Because I didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.”

The Gun

The .45-caliber Model 1873 Colt Peacemaker was a remarkably efficient close-combat tool.

The Colt Model 1873 Peacemaker attained a larger-than-life reputation in the hands of gunfighters like Clay Allison. Lots of companies made sidearms during this tumultuous period in lots of different calibers. However, it was the Colt .45 that came to define the genre. The many splendored motivations behind this rarefied reputation were fully deserved.

The concept of the revolver actually dates back to 16th century China. However, Samuel Colt perfected the idea into an efficient mankiller.

Sam Colt devised his revolver action during a voyage as a young seaman on the brig Corvo. Intrigued by the action of the ship’s capstan, young Sam adapted the same mechanism into a rotating handgun action and changed the world.

The gracefully curving butt of the Peacemaker looks like it should be remarkably inefficient. The opposite is actually the case.

It’s tough to quantify the secret sauce that Sam Colt used to make his eponymous revolver so awesome.

The sensual arching grip of the Colt Peacemaker, shown here on the right, is markedly more comfortable, to me at least, than that of a modern combat pistol like this HK VP9.

The gracefully curved butt looks so antiseptic and mechanical, yet it fits my own hand better than that of any modern plastic pistol. The single action requires a little attention, but through six rounds I can run mine almost as well as I might a Glock.

The Rest of the Story

Clay Allison was notorious for stripping down to his birthday suit for drunken forays into town to foment chaos.

Clay Allison shot his way into and out of trouble on several occasions after he executed Chunk Colbert over a meal. He also had a fascinating habit of getting liquored up and riding into town wearing nothing but his gunbelt. In November of 1875, he arrived in Cimarron in just such a state to celebrate his shooting of Francisco “Pancho” Griego. Allison performed some kind of war dance at the scene of the recent killing with a red ribbon tied prominently around his manhood.

Wyatt Earp (right) and Bat Masterson purportedly had a run-in with Clay Allison in Dodge City, but the details have been lost to history.

Allison also played a major role in the Colfax County War that claimed some 200 lives. In 1876 he reacted to a negative editorial in the local paper by blowing up the newspaper office with a substantial black powder charge and throwing the printing press into the nearby Cimarron River. Allison shot and killed a Deputy Sheriff named Charles Faber but later beat the rap in court. Allison was said to have faced down Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson in Dodge City in 1878, but the details are disputed.

Clay Allison did not suffer foolishness well.

In 1886 Allison developed an abscessed tooth, but the dentist got nervous in the presence of such a notorious gunfighter and extracted the wrong molar. Enraged, Allison enlisted the assistance of another dentist to remove the diseased tooth before returning and pulling a molar from the first practitioner in retribution.

These two stones adorn Clay Allison’s grave to this day.

In 1887 at age 45 Clay Allison was driving a wagon loaded with supplies to his new ranch in Pecos, Texas. A grain sack shifted, and Allison lurched to prevent its falling. The inveterate gunman lost his balance and tumbled out of the wagon. The horses reared and the wagon wheel rolled across his head and neck, crushing his skull and nearly decapitating him. Clay Allison, legendary gunfighter and originator of the term “Shootist,” was laid to rest in the Pecos Cemetery the following day. A crowd of hundreds arrived to pay their respects.

Despite his untimely and ignominious death, Clay Allison became the stuff of legend in Old Western lore.    

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 49 comments… add one }
  • Michael E. Arnold December 17, 2021, 8:10 pm

    Men such as Allison, Hardin, the James brothers….were men of their time. Attempting to color them with the moral judgement(s) of the 20thC/21stC, is incredibly stupid.

  • JC October 12, 2021, 1:35 pm

    Its true, we’ve been a family of republicans for as long as I can remember. This is the first I am hearing of my distant relative by marriage being in the KKK though. How awful and disconcerting. He was definitely more mouthy than my grandpa, but maybe it was the times. As far as mean, I guess it runs in the family. They were some awfully tough men. Clay was my Grandpa’s Great Uncle. My Grandpa was a ruthless soldier in WWII and Korea. I loved him dearly and deeply, but he was non verbal after that so I rarely heard his voice.

  • Let it go August 10, 2020, 3:52 pm

    Boy do I love it when someone says something stupid on here!!!!!!🤦‍♂️🤪

  • Big Al 45 August 4, 2020, 12:43 pm

    Sorry Mr. Dabbs, but I immensely prefer the Bisley grip, most especially for a heavy recoiling S.A. revolver.
    In the Blackhawk for example (my personal favorite for hunting), the heavy loads the gun is capable of handling are almost painful with the standard grip, but quite comfortable with the Bisley.
    But to each their own.

  • Jerry S August 4, 2020, 9:18 am

    You need to turn off CNN.

  • grump August 3, 2020, 3:41 pm

    ask yourself why you are so worked up. would you have been a few months ago. who’s controlling you.

  • Tommy Barros August 3, 2020, 12:19 pm

    DOES the WORD, MO RON have any MEANING for YOU as UR OBVIOUSLY just THAT!

  • Tommy Barros August 3, 2020, 12:16 pm

    EXCUSE ME… BUT IT IS Ghetto Trash LIKE YOU that are the AMERICAN TRAITORS… Brainwashed indoctrinated Communist Progressive Leftist Domestic Enemy TRASH!

    • KMacK August 3, 2020, 3:47 pm

      My oh my, it seems that someone is Channeling Clay Allison – or they are otherwise dealing from a fifty-card deck.

  • Zenithnadir August 3, 2020, 11:46 am

    Great objective read about one of the West’s most notorious characters. Keep ’em coming Doc!

  • Jay August 3, 2020, 11:32 am

    This sadistic & murderous racist & kkk member was clearly not a good person (to say it mildly)! I’m a big fan of history, but this article clearly has bias and a tone of celebration for the douche Allison. Make a movie about him? There’s many individuals in history that would make a much better film, not to mention there’s many righteous men that warrant a cinematic debut. Not a bad article, but celebrating “assholery” is never a good thing….

    • John Boutwell August 3, 2020, 3:13 pm

      Judging a man outside of his time in history could also be considered “assholery”.

    • kimberpross August 3, 2020, 5:24 pm

      Those stories sell…The MSM has been celebrating riots in our major cities since George Floyd died. I would much rather watch a story on Allison.

    • John Simon May 28, 2021, 2:17 pm

      Perhaps we should return to those days of yesteryear. If everyone carried a gun, a lot of folks would be eliminated from the gene pool. Now that I think about it, that day may not be too far off as times are a changin’. Got a picture of my great granddaddy wearing his bandolero and two Colt 45.40s, along with his brother who was armed the same, back in the 1890’s.

  • D. Scott August 3, 2020, 10:42 am

    Fascinating story and research. Great job Will as you do on all of these historical articles! Oh, and Trump 2020!

  • Mike in a Truck August 3, 2020, 10:33 am

    It seems that Clay was not a bad a fellow as the story makes out. Look at the turnout for his funeral. And Pecos Tx.? Even today it’s nowheresville- but I’ve stayed there many a night and loved it! Texas at that time was a place that tolerated a lot but if Clay were such a menace he would have been “corrected” very quickly. As we have seen with Earps and Holiday ( organized crimminals) and James Butler H. Wild Bill. Theres a fine line separating the law from the outlaw. Stepping over that line either way was not uncommon. I think having grown up on Westerns, that Hollywood is the worst thing that ever happened to the “Old West”. By and large it distorted the true history that researchers like Dr.Dabbs are slowly attempting to correct.

    • KMacK August 3, 2020, 3:45 pm

      “…the turnout for his funeral…”?
      There are two reasons for big turnouts for a funeral:
      1. Respect for the departed
      2. Rejoicing over the fact that the deceased is finally DEAD
      The two items and not mutually exclusive.

  • Don Taylor August 3, 2020, 9:38 am

    “The village dogs bark, but the caravan moves on!” — ancient Arabic proverb.

  • SD August 3, 2020, 9:07 am

    I agree with Tom, this would make a great movie. Only problem is where in Hollywood would you find anyone conservative enough to direct it? Maybe Clint Eastwood

    • KSdoc August 3, 2020, 11:08 am

      Agreed this could be an interesting movie. There isn’t any info here about if he had a wife or kids. Another director that could certainly handle the bizarre and brazen scenes depicted would be Quentin Tarantino, who doesn’t seem to care if something seems over the top. The medical/psychiatric issues described are fascinating. What actor could do this? Nick Cage and Malkovich are too old, but that’s the vibe. Great article by Dabbs

  • Tom D August 3, 2020, 6:45 am

    Fascinating story and well written. Here is a story Hollywood can use to revive Wild West movies.

  • Stan Karamol August 3, 2020, 5:47 am

    Thank you I really enjoy reading your articles.

  • Arry Wilson August 3, 2020, 2:53 am

    Wraps! I thought you were going to post about another traitor, Donald Trump! The title to engage my wishes, but instead you focused on another traitor to the United States. I completely fail to understand why you would honor a trader who fought against your country with an article of this length.
    Even in elementary school, I understood the Confederacy to be a bunch of traitors and murderers.
    do you stand with them I guess the United States and in support of enslaving an entire race of people?

    • PB- dave August 3, 2020, 8:14 am

      The retelling of a story is History. There is bad and good to be reported, and both have a value in the learning process. Your opinion might have carried some merit if you hadn’t trolled your obsession for a lost 2016 election in your opening sentence…..

    • Let it go August 3, 2020, 8:26 am

      Go cry about it elsewhere p.a.l….

    • A H August 3, 2020, 8:34 am

      This is a historical article, you tool.

    • Don August 3, 2020, 8:42 am

      Your comments are strange. Trump is not a traitor. This is an interesting article about an old west gunfighter. He happened to have been a confederate soldier, that is simply part of the story.

      • Mark N. August 4, 2020, 2:03 am

        As were Jesse James and his gang. Jesse’s story has been retold many times, notwithstanding the fact that he was a reb and rode with the incredibly notorious psychopath Quantrill, a teacher before the War, an unrepentant murderer during it until he was hunted down and killed

    • George Hamner August 3, 2020, 8:44 am

      FO, leftist pig.

    • shrugger August 3, 2020, 8:49 am

      For better or worse the Southern States officially ‘seceded’ from the Union. At which point they were not Traitors, but a foreign enemy of the United States.

      TDS and Leftism: help find a cure

      • MagnumOpUS August 3, 2020, 9:44 am

        The only cure for TDS and Leftism is suicide.

    • Zupglick August 3, 2020, 8:49 am

      Get a grip! History is what it is, not what we wish it to be.

      • CHRIS August 3, 2020, 2:01 pm

        can’t I just read a story, with out a moronic agenda interjected….if you don’t like the story… go rewrite it…but please include the reason for your brain damage….just saying…

    • LLeng August 3, 2020, 9:01 am

      You sir are one of the mentally miniscule that would see history erased.

    • SD August 3, 2020, 9:02 am

      Hey Arry
      Sounds like elementary school was about as far as you went

      • MagnumOpUS August 3, 2020, 9:47 am

        Actually, it’s more likely that he has a PhD from some libtard institution of higher brainwashing.

    • Bones August 3, 2020, 9:10 am

      Clay seemed to be a real hillbilly P.O.S….id be his and his ilk’s huckleberry anyday, anytime.. bring it !

      • Tomaz August 3, 2020, 10:41 am

        Ha Ha . . . Bones you sound like you are cut from the same bolt of psychotic cloth Allison came from. Yall would have gotten along just fine!

    • Stephen Ryder August 3, 2020, 9:53 am

      Long before I became a history professor I studied the life and exploits of the rabid animal named Robert C. Allison, an infamous, insane murderer. The remarkably sterile and non-judgemental treatment of one of the nineteenth century’s most despicable human beings is shocking in it’s neutrality, however accurate the facts therein may be. In 1956 I was a book-wormish boy studying the plethora of murderers formerly in the service of the confederacy who infected the western territories with their lust for killing from 1865 on. These men, referred to by the dime novels of the days as “gunfighters.” They were, more accurately, insatiable killers, malcontents, misfits and terrorists. Dr. Dabbs somehow failed to mention That Mr. Allison was not only a member but a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, devoted supplicant of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a night rider, cop killer, terrorist, drunkard, avowed racist who found American law repugnant. He hated and killed Mexicans, Indians, blacks (of course,) Chinamen and yankees, He voiced similar antipathy for Jews lawmen, American soldiers and Catholics. After all, a confederate deprived of slaves must find others to dominate. Referring to this sadistic murderer as a “gunfighter” is akin to calling Reinhard Heydrich by his title “Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia.” instead of “Author of the Holocaust.” Dr. Dabbs fired a tight group with his journalistic shots – but missed the target entirely.

      • KC August 3, 2020, 2:12 pm

        Titling an article “The Life and Times of the Brain-Damaged Gunslinger Clay Allison” and calling the initial paragraph “Soldier, Rancher, Gunfighter, Psychopath” is not what I would call “remarkably sterile and non-judgemental treatment” of a subject. As I recall, we’re not allowed to refer to the “Dark Ages” in academia because of the “unacceptable value judgement it implies” and we are currently supposed to refer to “rioters” as “mostly peaceful protesters”. Just a personal observation and opinion.

      • milsurpgun August 3, 2020, 8:15 pm

        Well he missed they missed 1 of you yankees it seems. Long Live The South.

    • Rexford August 3, 2020, 10:09 am

      Arry. An apt name for someone who has vast empty space in their noggin.

      Clearly, you don’t understand the economic and historical underpinnings of the War Between the States.

    • Tomaz August 3, 2020, 10:37 am

      Ha Ha . . . another ANTIFA leftist democrat socialist troll has peeped in. These idiots cant help their lust of rewriting history. These idiots could not survive 15 minutes on the frontier. Jello. Thats what they are made of.

    • KSdoc August 3, 2020, 11:23 am

      Arry, just shut it. There’s many nations with sordid pasts, but we REMEMBER our history so we may learn from those mistakes. Quit trying to go macro, why cant you simply conteplate this complex story of a brain damaged, afflicted, gunfighter. This was not a story of the Civil War, that was only a historical backdrop. Now you’ve made us marginally curious about the oddness of your thought processes. Go be “useful” somewhere else, go on…git! (Ha)

    • milsurpgun August 3, 2020, 8:13 pm

      U must be one them “Damn Yankees” sir. Only a soul less corrupt northern carpetbagging asshat would leave a comment like that. Arry…. is that short for “Fairy”. Probably never even owned a real gun.

    • Big Al 45 August 4, 2020, 12:40 pm

      Wow, Your post entails many questions, and one bit of advise.
      Get help.

    • John Boutwell August 4, 2020, 9:13 pm

      Different time, different country son. If you believe that you are better just because you live in a different world, history may well see your beliefs in the same way.

    • Vinny August 4, 2020, 9:51 pm

      Wrong forum, bro

    • Tennessee Budd August 7, 2020, 10:56 pm

      You’re apparently unaware that Confederate soldiers are officially recognized as United States veterans.
      Care to share your views on George Washington & his contemporaries, those treasonous scum who rebelled against their rightful king?

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