Top 10 Classic Western Novels of All Time

This is a list of what I believe are the 10 best Western books ever written. They are numbered, but are in no particular order and are really a list of my favorites. If you haven’t read many Westerns, you can’t go wrong with anything in this list. Even if you don’t think it belongs in the Top 10, you will most likely enjoy it.

1. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry

There’s a reason Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lonesome Dove was made into a mini-series. Many story lines that include good guys, bad guys, fortunes made and lost, exciting adventures, friendships, false friendships and death. This is a story of people who make good and bad decisions. The bad ones sometimes result in catastrophic consequences. If you aren’t a fan of the Western genre and only read one in your whole life, this should be it.

Also, if you haven’t seen the Lonesome Dove mini series, you are missing out. It is exceptional as well.

Click here to purchase Lonesome Dove on Amazon.

2. True Grit – Charles Portis

True Grit is an American classic written by Charles Portis that holds its own against Mark Twain and other famous American authors. Most people who think of “True Grit” think of John Wayne or the most recent version by the Coen brothers. Even though those movies are decent, this book far surpasses them in every way. The main character is an “old spinster” who recounts her days in the old west circa 1875 as a 14 year old girl. She tells the story of her father’s murder and her search for justice.

Historically and regionally accurate with a laugh on almost every page.

Click here to purchase True Grit on Amazon.

The movie adaptations of True Grit are also excellent. The newest one by the Coen Brothers follows more closely to the book, but they are both excellent.

3. The Shootist – Glendon Swarthout

The Shootist won the 1975 Spur Award for the best Western novel that year, but is easily considered one of the best ever written. Many people have observed that “this is more than just a Western” and that is so true. Believable plots and the characters themselves are deep and convincing.

The book is much more violent and hard-edged than the John Wayne film of the same name.

This book is brilliant and deserves to be read by every western lover.

Click here to purchase The Shootist on Amazon.

4. Monte Walsh – Jack Shaefer

Monte Walsh, by Jack Schaefer was first published in 1963 and is a collection of stories of a young cowboy and how he becomes a cattleman. This isn’t his first classic as he is the same writer who penned Shane. The characterizations are real and the depiction of cowboy life is very realistic. Jack’s writing puts you right in the middle of stampedes, death, train wrecks, bar room fights and lost loves. Excellent read that you should not miss.

Click here to puchase Monte Walsh on Amazon.

If you haven’t seen Monte Walsh starring Tom Selleck, it is also quite good. Tom does a great job playing a convincing and sympathetic cowboy.

5. Hondo – Louis L’Amour

Hondo was the first full-length novel written by Louis L’Amour and is considered his best work. Hondo is your strong and silent type, but has a soft inner core.

This novel is one of the most talked about western novels of all time. One of the reasons is because it has all of the classic conflicts:

  • Man against nature,
  • Man against himself
  • and man against his enemies.

Click here to purchase Hondo from Amazon.

6. Centennial – James A. Michener

James A. Michener’s Centennial is a huge panoramic, epic story of the American west. Michener has penned many great novels, but this is probably his best. Based on a fictional town (Centennial, Colorado), but because of Michener’s exhaustive research of the old west, feels like a genuine piece of history. Centennial has a little bit of everything: adventure, action, history, mystery and romance.

Read this excellent book, then treat yourself to the excellent: Centennial: mini series. It is one of my favorite tv shows of all time!

Click here to purchase James A. Michener’s Centennial on Amazon.

7. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains

The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains was written by Owen Wister and first published in 1902. The novel was a huge best seller and received much-deserved critical praise. This is the book that established the story lines of the Old West we have grown to appreciate. It realistically portrays the life of a cowboy on the Western frontier. This nameless cowboy that can handle himself in all situations and is your classic cowboy character.

At it’s heart, the Virginian is a love story, but don’t let that stop you from reading it. It’s a good story, well told, with sophisticated subplots.

Click here to purchase The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains from Amazon.

8. Shane – Jack Schaefer

Shane is Jack Schaefer’s first classic Western that was published in 1949. Set in the late 1880s, Shane is a gun-fighter moving through town who settles down and finds honest work only to find himself fighting for justice against corrupt cattlemen. It is a very inspiring story about a man who is who he is and a boy who becomes a man. This is truly a classic story that you don’t want to miss.

The Shane movie starring Alan Ladd and Gene Arthur was released in 1953 and still holds up today. Treat yourself to a western classic!

Click here to purchase Shane from Amazon.

9. The Big Sky – A. B. Guthrie

Many call this an absolute masterpiece. Who am I to argue with that? The Big Sky is written in the Rocky Mountain fur trade era during its boom in 1820 – 1850. This book is about the true Wild West before roads, before the decline of the buffalo and before the decline of the Indians. The main character is a “mountain man” rather than a cowboy and who driven by freedom and adventure. This is a time when there were no towns or sherriffs. They were the first white men to interact with the Indians.

Very compelling stuff and not like any other book in this list.

Click here to purchase The Big Sky from Amazon.

10. Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey

Riders of the Purple Sage is Zane Grey’s best work. This is not your typical Western story as it centers around a ranch that is owned by a woman on the Utah border, but is a classic nonetheless. It created quite the uproar with the Mormon church when it was first published because of the protagonists struggle with the Mormon powers in Utah. Full of adventure and romance, this is another classic.

Click here to purchase Riders of the Purple Sage on Amazon.


If you are looking for Western movies, check out our list of the Top 40 Western Movies of All Time on Amazon now!

57 thoughts on “Top 10 Classic Western Novels of All Time

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for listing these wonderful books. I can verify your statement that these are all incredible, incredible works of literature and whether you are an avid western-book reader, or you don’t even think you’re interested in westerns at all, these books are all phenominal and you can count on being on the edge of your seat for the entireity of each. If you haven’t read them, well, the only thing I can think to say is “What the hell’s stoppin’ you?” Let ‘er buck!
    Happy Trails,
    Scarrlett Bleu

  2. I commend you on your listing of best western novels. All these novels are great and worth reading, but for me the best ever is To Tame a land – Louis L’Amour. If you talk about the western writer I think there is no one to beat Louis L’Amour. His each and every western is exceptional.

  3. Thanks, my friend, for this. I’ve got ’em all on my pinewood bookshelves and treasure them all. I don’t do “best” but favourite books (my beloved authors might not by any else’s). My favourite L’Amours were Sackett yarns like THE SKY-LINERS and GALLOWAY. My favourite Western writers growing up were Tom West and Will Henry. Favourite Northwesterns (tales of huskies, wolves and Mounties) include Jack London’s THE CALL OF THE WILD, James A Michener’s ALASKA, Ian Anderson’s SERGEANT O’REILLY and James B Hendryx’s BLOOD OF THE NORTH.

    Thanks for the trip along the Old Memory Trail.

  4. I totally agree with you about The Searchers. Great novel and the movie is also really good. I don’t think I have read The Trail. I’ll have to check that one out.

  5. Thanks for this list! “Lonesome Dove” is the only one I’ve read, and that was tremendous.

    Can you post a list of the top Westerns of the last twenty or thirty years? I would like pointers to some more recent novels.


    • If you read Lonesome Dove, you read the best. I have read them all, many more than once, but for those who put in the time (and I suspect many simply never finish it), this is the classic Western novel. It is as rich as Shakespeare or Dickens with vivid characters and epic action.

  6. I’ve read most of these. I didn’t like all of them, but I agree The Searchers is good, but the movie is even better. Some of the best dialogue, like “That’ll be the day.” was added to the movie. I just read The Trail, you probably never heard of it because its pretty new, but it belongs in your list.

  7. I love a good historical fiction western. Unfortunately, my faves, all by Cormac McCarthy, are not on this list. His Border trilogy is excellent, and Blood Meridian is absolutely the best western ever written.

  8. Yes Deby, that is a great point. I completely forgot about Blood Meridian. That is an amazing novel. I may have to create another list of other great novels not in my top 10 or maybe i’ll just expand this list…

    • If you do create another list, I strongly suggest you add Hombre, by Elmore Leonard, to it. It belongs in the top ten.

  9. I was looking for more books about the Indian Territory and Judge Isaac Parker and discovered a great writer, Douglas C. Jones. I have read 6 or 7 of his books and they are all great. His colorful characters are true to life and the stories are historically accurate, well-researched. His books are both good yarns and good literature. My favorite book of his so far is “Winding Stair.”

    • Rider Rob, thank you so much for introducing me to a great writer, Douglas C. Jones! I just finished “Winding Stair” 5 minutes ago, so naturally I am on a “high” right now. I will totally read more of Jones’ stuff from here on out! What should my next read by him be?

  10. Thanks for your recommendations,to the author, and all who responded ; I am brand new to the genre and wanted to start by reading the best westerns by the best western writers. I should be able to buy enough of these titles to last through the Spring and summer. Thanks to all.

  11. I just finished reading Elmore Leonard’s VALDEZ IS COMING and would highly recommend it to any fans of western fiction.

  12. Thanks for the comments and the list! I am new to western literature. I just started reading, “The Virginian”. Does anyone know about a book that details the history of western novels and the authors who created them?

  13. Hi all. I’ve been a western fan (movies) for a long time, but don’t read much. I feel like I should read more and would love to check out some western stories. I’m sure all of these are very good, but any recommendations on where to start? Appreciate any tips.

  14. Thanks for that.
    Lonesome Dove is certainly my favourite, but I remember “No Survivors” Will Henry, and the story of a survivor of the Custer debacle may not be far fetched as recent research has discovered.

  15. Good list. Thanks. I’ve read several of the novels you’ve mentioned.

    A couple of people mentioned a novel called “The Trail”. Who is the author? I’d like to track it down.

  16. What about Oakley Hall’s Warlock? wasn’t that up for the pulitzer when it came out? great list of books you mentioned. But for me I would figure Warlock at the top.

  17. the orphan by Clarence Mulford is one of my favorites. I have read each of your top 10 and they are all great! I read a top 25 western voted on by the western writers and they expand on your top ten; one that was really enjoyable, but too short, was “paso por aqui” can’t recall the author.

  18. Great List!

    I agree wholeheartedly with so many of these… And like Mantecon, I too would have included Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. If any of you are in the mood for a western novel written in homage to LMM, CmC, Frank Dobie, and all the rest… (Thogh nowhere near as good as the masters!) Check out my novel “Last Call at the Rusty Nail.” It’s free on Amazon Kindle right now, ’cause I’m just in it to try to give something back to the guys above… who did so much to shape my vision of the West.


  19. Since it was first published decades ago, I have considered “Lonesome Dove” to be not only the best Western novel of all time, but possibly The Great American Novel. I know I would get arguments from fans of “Gone with the Wind,” “Moby Dick,” and “The Scarlet Letter,” among others, but no book, with the possible exception of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” has had such meaning for me. You were entirely right to put it at the top of your list.

    • I agree with Carl Glover above. Carl, “Lonesome Dove” is certainly a “Great American Novel”, at least one of them. The USA is so vast and multifaceted that I don’t think you can have just one Great American Novel. But “Lonesome Dove” would represent the great and historical West. I would add “Gone with the Wind” for the Civil War & the mentality of the South, Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”, for the Rich vs. Poor, Workers vs. Bosses, City life, etc, “To Kill a Mockingbird” for coming of age and views of Jim Crow, and Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Advice and Consent” depicting our Political system (in the good old days). But I may put “Lonesome Dove” at the top of the list. By the way, I think all these books won the Pulitzer Prize. Good thinking Carl.

  20. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Border Trilogy” — the best American Western Novel I’ve ever read — as an adult view of young men forced to change, they rate very high! His unusual writing style is something that takes “getting used to” but it is appropriate for this kind of novel. Next to “The Border Trilogy” is “Lonesome Dove” and for a new writer on the scene, check out Don Polly’s book “Ethan Maguire: A Quest for Gold.” Women writers have written wonderful novels: “A Sweet, Separate Intimacy” edited by Susan Cummins Miller – a great anthology of real stories written by pioneer women. And I have re-read “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse’ by Peter Matthiessen many times. Do not forget to read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown. These are not western novels in the sense of “shoot ’em up” cowboy stories but give the alternate view from the American Indian Movement. Regardless of one’s view, its worth it to read these books – to sit on someone else’s horse for a while. For easy reads, my grandfather and step-father all adored the American western novels – after their deaths, family found these men had squirreled away shelves of western novels by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour and Tony Hillerman and so many others. RIP my fathers. Your interest in reading the great novels of America’s west have been passed on to your grand-children.

  21. I’m seated at the bar in a western saloon. Beside me sits a loud man taking bets on the third leg of the triple crown. His voice is so loud he’s driven the name of the race from my mind. To my left sits our retired judge. Behind the bar is a pretty blonde hostess. Her friend was killed last night in a shooting and she is badly shaken. Still she mixes drinks for the patrons. A Hidatsa maiden assists her.

    I am a retired cowboy. My body is too broken to work. I was nearly killed seven years ago by an unbroken bay horse.

    To paraphrase a wagon from Arizona. The old West is not dead. You just can’t see it from the Highway. Here it is still 1887.

  22. For his novels “Down the Long Hills” and “Bendigo Shafter”, Louis L’Amour
    was presented the Spur and National Book awards. So why is it, then, that
    his best novel of all is considered to be “Hondo”?

    Michael Dorotich
    1510 Kirkwood Road
    Tsawwassen BC V4L 1G1

  23. I don’t read a lot, but i REALLY like it! I want to write good stories, and i even have this western idea, but i am very bad at it, so i will try to read some western book to have a good idea of western writing. I picked up Lonesome Dove (not because it’s the first one), so it better be good! Haha

  24. I agree with Carl Glover above. Carl, “Lonesome Dove” is certainly a “Great American Novel”, at least one of them. The USA is so vast and multifaceted that I don’t think you can have just one Great American Novel. But “Lonesome Dove” would represent the great and historical West. I would add “Gone with the Wind” for the Civil War & the mentality of the South, Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”, for the Rich vs. Poor, Workers vs. Bosses, City life, etc, “To Kill a Mockingbird” for coming of age and views of Jim Crow, and Drury’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Advice and Consent” depicting our Political system (in the good old days). But I may put “Lonesome Dove” at the top of the list. By the way, I think all these books won the Pulitzer Prize. Good thinking Carl.

  25. Great list; a few I need to read. I do think “Deadwood” by Pete Decker needs to be considered. “Deadwood” is my personal favorite followed by “Lonesome Dove”.

  26. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian would top my list followed by Oakley Hall’s Warlock and John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing. Lonesome Dove and True Grit would then round off my top five. It’s hard to argue about any other books on this list, they’re all very good. Blood Meridian vs Lonesome Dove? Blood Meridian wins handsdown. Not for the squeemish.

  27. I just wanted to say thank you for this great list! I was just finishing the last few books I had left of Louis L’Amour and I didn’t want to stop reading westerns. I have read through most of this list since then and a few mentioned in the comments and I have enjoyed almost all with the exception of the Virginian. I just gave up two thirds of the way through it.
    Now I have a nice stack of Zane Greys and many hours of good reading ahead of me.

    • Amen to that! The Time It Never Rained, The Good Old Boys, and The Man Who Rode Midnight are American Classics!

  28. Since it seems like it won’t stop raining in Indiana, I think I’ll have to read Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained! A great list of books, by the way! I grew up on Zane Grey and Louis Lamour, but Shane may be my favorite western! Thanks for this list and some new reads to turn to.

      • While looking online at a complete list of books by Don Coldsmith, why is it I cannot find any book entitled “Wagons West”?
        I am confused here.

  29. An outstanding list, thank you so much.
    Blood Meridian has received many honourable mentions (apologies for the English spelling, folks!). However, there is something strange and horrible about McCarthy’s work that’s not to my taste. Perhaps that is the effect of great art on a person. Or perhaps it is just grim for the sake of it… I would be happy for someone to explain to me what that novel was about!

  30. A great list – I have read the top two and, should you visit my website, you will find that Lonesome Dove is listed as one of my favourite novels! I have read “The Virginian”, but did not like it much. Having said that I do have one on my characters in my own western ( ) reading it! I look forward to reading the others.

  31. Greetings from South Dakota. I totally agree with the original list just as it stands. I have most of those books, and have added the others to my “to buy” list. In addition, I have so enjoyed the discussion and all the recommendations from the other serious readers here. Now I have a very promising list of western books to work on during my retirement! “Lonesome Dove” is still my fave, however. There’s a reason it won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s.That.Good.

  32. You didn’t mention Henry Wilson Allen, who wrote under the pen names “Will Henry” and “Clay Fisher”, one of the best western writers of all times. His “No Survivors” is a classic. Another western writer in my Top Ten would be Elmer Kelton. “The Time It Never Rained”is only one of his mater pieces.

  33. I have read hundreds of Westerns — Zane Gray, Max Brand, Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurty, Elmer Kelton, Tony Hillerman, Cormac McCarthy and many others. As I youth, I read everything by Zane Gray, Max Brand, and Jack London (although I didn’t consider Jack London a western writer). Then I read every book by Louis L’Amour and Elmer Kelton I could get my hands on. I also read the western classics. Each author brings something different to the table.

    But the best western writer, in my opinion, and it’s not even close, is Larry McMurty. His Lonesome Dove “series” is so good. The complexity, characters, action, losses, descriptions, story lines are compelling. I have never read any book I enjoyed more than Lonesome Dove — and the others in this series aren’t far behind.

    I just finished The Virginian (one of the few Western classics I hadn’t read). I found it boring and far too long for its content. The story line moved slowly, the character development was weak, and Wister’s writing style too stilted for me. I slugged through it to the end. The one memorable character was Shorty (a dimwitted cowboy, who fell in with bad company). My apologies to Teddy Roosevelt, who I understand proofread several chapters. The Virginian is not a fun read and, despite its historical significance, unless you are “checking off” the classics, I’d opt for something more informative and entertaining.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *