Billy the Kid Wasn’t Left-Handed, and Other Family History Truths

By: Rob Burt

Have you ever heard the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? That is definitely true for family history work. You can learn lots of valuable information from family and historical photographs . . . as long as you interpret them correctly.

Take the following picture as an example. It is a well-known photograph of Henry McCarty, alias Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney—better known as Billy the Kid.

For years, historians, writers, and aficionados of the West used this image to argue that the infamous Western outlaw was a minority in the gunfighter community—a left-hander. This idea was so common that a film titled The Left-Handed Gun on the life of Billy the Kid and starring Paul Newman was released in 1958, and many history books note that he was a southpaw.

In this picture, the rifle Billy is holding is a Winchester Model 1873. If you look closely at the gun, the loading gate (where bullets are put into the rifle) appears on the left-hand side of the gun. (See highlighted area below.)

However, an observant historian eventually noted a problem with the picture: the 1873 Winchester didn’t have a loading gate on the left side—only on the right side. The picture was reversed! In the early days of photography, most negatives were produced backwards as a result of the technical process used in the first cameras. If the technicians were not careful when developing the film, they would produce a mirror image of the actual scene. This is what happened to the famous photo of Billy the Kid.

The correct image, depicting Billy as a right-hander, is shown below.

This example illustrates how important family photographs can be. Not only do they give us an image of our ancestors, but important clues about the past can be found in the details surrounding them. Clothing, hairstyles, pins, military awards, automobiles, even rocks and plants can all help tell our ancestors' stories, even if they have not left a lot of written information for us. Some of these details are easily identified; others are more difficult and may need a specialist’s eye in order to be fully understood. Regardless, a picture may be worth a thousand words of an ancestor’s life story, so don’t delay! Pull out those old pictures and see what they may tell you about the lives of your loved ones.

Have you found interesting facts from old photos? Tell us about it, leave a comment.


Anonymous | September 18, 2010 at 4:31 AM

are you saying that he is right handed based on that being the hand he is holding the Winchester with? If so, your last photo shows him holding the gun with his left hand, so how does this disprove the myth?

The Generations Project | September 23, 2010 at 9:14 AM

The right handed comment is dependent on the position of the revolver on his hip, not the hand holding the rifle. The hand-gun is positioned with the butt in a traditional right handed draw position with the butt to the rear. As most individuals would wear a gun in that position on their dominant side, ergo Billy is right handed. (It would be nearly impossible to draw a holstered hand gun with the left hand in this position. If the gun was butt forward, then it would be possible.)

Furthermore, the fact that he is holding the barrel of his rifle in his left hand is also not a problem. Handedness (is that a word?) when using a rifle is determined by which hand controls the trigger/cocking mechanism. In this case, that would also be the right hand, with the left giving balancing/aiming support.

Anonymous | February 1, 2011 at 3:41 PM

I'm left handed, and I wear my watch on my left hand. I hold my gun thus to. For reason above. Just because my attitude for the specially inclined. Not much you can do now is there? What a waste of time.

Anonymous | September 21, 2011 at 10:31 PM

like is mentioned !!!
the bullet port on the rifle hello.

Anonymous | November 25, 2011 at 7:23 PM

Another way to tell that the image is reversed is that the buttons on his coat are on the wrong side. The convention for mens clothes is for buttons to be on the right side.

Anonymous | December 23, 2011 at 6:05 PM

oh, I'm also left handed..., this is from the person who said they have the same birthday as Billy the Kid

Anonymous | February 7, 2012 at 12:55 AM

i just have to say i agree with the fact that Billy the Kid is right handed based on his pistol position in this photo but the original argument that he is right handed because the loading port is on the right side - BUT even if he was left handed he would still have to have the loading port on the right side because they didn't make them with loading ports on the left as the historian points out in the article above - just had to say that it was bugging me....

41canine | May 13, 2012 at 5:08 PM

Also, the tang on the belt buckle id facing the wrong way on the original picture. Therefore, right handed.

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