The Truth About Bonanza and Firearms

Many of us are old enough to remember when Bonanza owned Sunday night right after ‘Ed Sullivan’ led the way an hour earlier on another network. The huge popularity of TV westerns in the early 60s was not lost on kids from that era. What was lost on us: the incredible bloodshed produced by the principle characters in TV westerns. A high body count was part of the furniture in almost every episode and the simple plot lines obscured some important facts about firearms . . .

I recently viewed a Bonanza DVD, part of a four-disc collection of the iconic TV western. The DVD was fished-out of a bargain bin; seems like it got a cheaper price tag because it did not have the signature Bonanza theme song.

The replacement sound track was a random blend of ultra-bland guitar and elevator music melody that almost broke my will to watch the episodes. There were nine episodes, and only one had no dead guys by the closing credits and attendant crappy replacement music.

Episode 1 on the disc was the one without bloodshed because ‘Bonanza’ liked to include comedic episodes as an occasional respite from ventilated bad guys. The other eight episodes had plenty of corpses, but I decided to count only the death-by-Cartwright bodies in them.

The important thing to remember was that every dead guy was righteously dead from a bullet (or knife wound in one case) fired (or inflicted) by one of the four Cartwrights. Apparently the only good Cartwright was a dead Cartwright in the eyes of a vast segment of people in frontier Nevada.

The final body count was 16 guys that died in a conflict with the Cartwrights. Hotheaded Little Joe led the way with six dead guys including an expired gypsy with a Little Joe shiv in him.

Not-so-kindly-and-lovable Hoss dispatched five misfits, while the cerebral Adam bagged four lowlifes and Pa only managed one kill.

TV westerns were always meant as an entertaining form of escapism where forces of good always prevailed over the forces of evil. But the actual physical and emotional results of a typical Cartwright firefight were never evident in the shows.

Exit wounds were never evident and extreme blood loss from a mortal bullet wound was also missing in action. Most of the bad guys were gut- shot, yet this incredibly painful gunshot wound always produced a quiet and rapid death.

There were no primal screams of agony lingering over a long and protracted period as the villains bled out on the screen. The largest display of pain was halting speech as a guy conveyed his last message before his final head turn.

Death was actually a pretty clean process for all involved in a Cartwright gun death. The dead bad guys required little or no blood and splattered tissue clean up after they expired from a gunshot wound, plus the Cartwright boys seemed genuinely unconcerned about their roles as grim reapers of the Comstock Lode.

Big Hoss had an uncharacteristic moment of compassion after he dusted the escaped convict father of a kid he had befriended, but he quickly recovered in time to shoot another escaped convict.

Bonanza’s laundered version of what really happens when “the bullet meets the bone”(to quote Golden Earring in song) was all that was allowed on TV in the 60s. At the time it was probably all that a little kid needed to know about the subject.