Why the Nameless Stranger always won his gunfights

I am a huge fan of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns”; especially Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Everything about them is spectacular. The cinematography is breathtaking, the acting is top notch, the music is epic, and the climactic showdowns were always awesome.

During these duels, the score builds and builds as the good guy and the bad guy stare each other down for several minutes until it reaches a crescendo and instantly cuts out amid a split-second of frenzied gunfire. If you watch these scenes closely you will notice that the bad guy invariably goes for his gun first, however despite this, the good guy beats him on the draw. This is a fairly standard movie-making cliche, but it turns out that there may be some science behind it.

Researchers have shown that the act of intentionally initiating an action, such as drawing a pistol, is slower than semi-reflexively responding to an action. In a series of mock, “lab gunfights”, they simulated duels with volunteers pressing buttons; both against one another and against computers. The responders showed a significantly faster draw-motion than the initiators. This is likely the result of specialized emergency reflexive processing pathways in the brain. When a person is in sudden danger, the brain can bypass certain processing elements, and respond to a stimuli at a faster rate.

This is also why arthropods have much faster response times than chordates. Information needs to travel less distance and span fewer synapses before initiating a response in their smaller brains. The classic example of this is split-second responses during fruit fly flight. (Ha-ha! I managed to work arthropods into my cowboy post!)

Read more about the study here. Also check out these spectacular duel scenes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West.


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I have moved.
Arthropoda can now be found here.

Michael Bok is a graduate student studying the visual system of mantis shrimp.

Flickr Photos


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