Tombstone History Archives
Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years
Wyatt Earp’s Buntline Special
by Jeff Morey
Article originally published in Guns & Ammo magazine (December 1997) and
reprinted courtesy of the author
Mention Colt’s Revolver-Carbine and most people get a puzzled look. Call the same gun by its more colorful moniker “The Buntline Special” and quick nods of eager recognition result. Of course, this is Wyatt Earp’s trusty talisman - the most fabled, disputed and sought-after weapon in western lore.
To fully appreciate the luster history has lent to the “Special”, its story needs recounting. While an unknown number of extra-long-barreled “Peacemakers” with standard frames were produced by Colt before World War II, purists reserve the “Buntline Special” designation for the 31 pistols in the serial number range 28,800 to 28,830. The reasoning behind this is that these guns bore special frames that were manufactured for use with oversized barrels in 1876, the very year dime-novelist E.Z.C. Judson - who wrote under the pen-name of “Ned Buntline” - presented an extra-long-barreled Colt .45 to each of five Dodge City lawmen, according to Wyatt Earp’s biographer, Stuart Lake. The gifts were allegedly given in gratitude for “color” the lawmen provided for Buntline’s yarns.
The recipients were a notable group - Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett and Neil Brown. Lake said Masterson and Tilghman found the 12-inch barrels unwieldy and had them cut down to standard length. Wyatt Kept his ”Special” as received and regarded it his “favorite over any other gun”, or so Lake tells us.
Stuart N. Lake’s book, Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal, is replete with episodes of Earp swatting obstreperous cowboys over their noggins with his ”Special”. This practice was called “buffaloing”. Lake also claimed Earp carried the oversized pistol into the ring when he refereed the Sharky-Fitzsimmons fight in San Francisco in 1896.
While he lived, Stuart Lake was the recognized authority on Wyatt Earp. From 1955 to 1962, he served as historical consultant for the Wyatt Earp television series starring Hugh O’Brian. On this show, the “Special” made its film debut with O’Brian displaying remarkable speed and agility in quick-drawing the long-barreled Colt. It seemed every “front row kid” in America wanted such a gun.
After Lake died in 1964, the wheel of history turned and critics emerged to denounce the “Special” as fiction. The naysayers points were stunning: No direct evidence has surfaced linking Ned Buntline to a Colt Revolver-Carbine. While the “Specials” were supposedly presented to the five lawmen in 1876, shipping records don’t have the first Revolver-Carbines leaving the factory till December of 1877. Though Buntline’s movements can be fairly well traced throughout 1876, there is no sign of any trip to Dodge City that year. Two of the men Lake claims recieved guns weren’t even Dodge City lawmen till much later. Neil Brown isn’t identified as an officer until 1879, and Bill Tilghman’s first notice as an officer isn’t till 1884. Contemporary newspaper drawings indicate Wyatt Earp carried a standard-size Colt New Army double-action revolver into the 1896 prize fight ring. Regarding Lake’s claim of the five “Specials” having 12-inch barrels, of the 31 Revolver-Carbines manufactured, only one is listed as having a 12-inch barrel. After the so-called O.K. Corral shootout, Earp himself said in sworn testimony that at the start of the fight he pulled his pistol from an overcoat pocket, a seemingly unbelievable scenario given Lake’s claim of a 12-inch barrel. Finally, one writer seemed to nail the coffin lid down on Lake’s story when he catagorically stated that Earp used a Smith & Wesson American at the O.K. Corral and that Lakes’s version of events was a “journalistic fabrication”.
Beware: History is a fickle mistress. Just when we feel we understand her, she spins around and surprises us. The highly touted Smith & Wesson American is a case in point. Today, its current owner, the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles, California, refrains from linking the gun to Earp. The provenance on the American is disturbingly muddled. It seems a previous owner claims he obtained the Smith & Wesson from a late-in-life friend of Wyatt’s. However, this same hobbyist-collector also signed an affidavit to the effect that he purchased the gun from someone in Los Angeles but cannot remember who. Such dubious confusion seriously subverts credibility.
While the “Buntline” critics made many valid points and significantly advanced our knowledge, they failed to be exhaustive in their research. Happily for history, after Stuart Lake’s passing, his daughter Carolyn gracefully reposed her father’s research materials at the Huntington Library. I was permitted access to this collection for Kevin Jarre’s script for the movie Tombstone. Here I was startled to find a version of history different not only from what Lake’s critics were claiming, but also different from what Lake himself said in his book.
In the Lake collection are seven letters mentioning the “Specials”. Five of these letters document Stuart Lake’s ardent search for this relic of Wyatt Earp.
On November 20, 1928, while Wyatt was still alive, Lake wrote Kent Eubank of the Wichita Eagle seeking James Cairns, who had worked on Wichita’s police force with Earp and who was also Bat Masterson’s brother-in-law. As an aside, Lake writes “…by the way, ask him [Cairns] if he knows whatever became of Bat Masterson’s gun that was given to him by Ned Buntline?”
On March 17, 1929, Lake writes three letters in search of the “Specials”. To the editor of Juneau, Alaska’s The Empire he writes, “Can you tell me how I may reach Charlie Hoxie … at one time Wyatt Earp had a gambling house in Nome and Hoxie was his partner. To Hoxie, Earp gave an old Colt’s .45 six-gun, which had previously been given to Wyatt by a friend who carved his name, “Ned” on the butt. The gun is useless as a weapon now, obsolete, but I would very much want it for a keepsake of Wyatt Earp … just before his death, Wyatt Earp wrote to him [Hoxie] asking if he could buy back the gun as he wished to give it to me as a keepsake. He [Earp] had no reply … .”
Indeed, in a letter to Lake dated Sept. 19, 1928, Mrs. Josephine Earp wrote, “I have written regarding the gun of which you and Wyatt have spoken of, as of yet no answer … .”
Another March 17, 1929, Lake letter was sent to the editor of Nome, Alaska’s The Nugget. Again, Charlie Hoxie is the target of Lake’s quest. Lake describes the gun he is looking for. “It was an extra-long Colt’s .45 with a walnut butt on which was carved the name ‘Ned’. Hoxie may have left this gun kicking around Nome. I wonder if someone can locate it for me.”
The final March 17, 1929, mailing was a long letter to Colt outlining Lake’s understanding of how and when the guns were given. Finally Lake asks, “Do you chance to know more than I about any of these weapons? Is there any particular record of these in your factory? Have you any pictures made of them?” Significantly, Lake says in this letter, “Buntline took these ‘Specials,’ or had them sent to Dodge City.” This is important. While Lake’s book had Buntline visiting Dodge, it is clear from his letter to Colt that Lake himself wasn’t sure on this point. Thus a failure to validate a Buntline visit is less damning than critics might assert. Such a visit isn’t an essential feature of Lake’s understanding.
On April 2, 1929, Arthur L. Ulrich, Colt’s first official historian, replies to Lake. He says, “We have no doubt that a record was made of the special revolvers … but record books in those days were not substantially bound and the old methods of keeping records was slipshod. Therefore, we have been unable to obtain any trace of them.”
Undaunted, Lake continued in his search. On June 24, 1929, he writes Thomas Masterson, Bat’s brother, and asks, “Also do you know what became of the gun Bat had, the Colt’s .45 that had the name ‘Ned’ carved in the stock?”
Clearly, Stuart Lake believed the guns existed. In his search, however, Lake never calls them “Buntline Specials.” This omission suggest Lake himself coined the catchy moniker later when writing his book.
With the accusation that Lake fabricated the guns dispelled by the search letters, the next question is when and why were the “Specials” given. There are problems with Lake’s assertion the presentation occurred in the summer of ‘76. First, this date places the “gun-giving” before Ned Buntline visited the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia in the fall of ‘76. This is significant because Colt first displayed its Revolver-Carbine at this Exposition. Presumably it was there that Buntline first saw the long-barreled “Specials.” Secondly, none of the alleged recipients enjoyed a notable reputation in ‘76. While Lake said the guns wre given in gratitude for “color” the lawman provided for Ned’s stories, this makes no sense. While Buntline did write four “Buffalo Bill” yarns, he primarily wrote tales of the sea, hence his pen name. (A buntline is, in fact, a nautical rope used in hauling up square sails.) Ned Buntline never mentioned Dodge city or any of its lawmen in any of his yarns. So why would he bestow gifts on this select group?
The answer is, I believe, clearly indicated in the notes Lake complied for his book. These notes reveal a problem Lake had with Wyatt Earp as a source. The old lawman’s memory was particularly fallible as to names and dates. For instance, in the notes, Lake has the year cowboy George Hoy (or Hoyt) was killed in Dodge City as 1877. It really happened on July 26, 1878. More importantly, in these notes Lake mistakenly dates the murder of Dodge City actress Dora Hand as 1876 when it in fact happened in 1878.
The Hand shooting is important because an illustrious posse galloped out of Dodge in pursuit of the suspected killer. Newspapers across the country told of the chase. The posse members were Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman (years before he became a regular officer), Charlie Bassett and William Duffey. Four out of the five men Lake said received “Specials” rode on this posse. I don’t believe this is a mere coincidence. I strongly suspect Ned Buntline gave his five pistols to honor these possemen who finally got their man. That as an old man, Wyatt misremembered Neil Brown for William Duffey never occured to Stuart Lake. While Lake caught the date errors of the Hoyt shooting and the Hand murder before he went to press, he never considered the possibility of Earp also misdating the “Buntline” presentation. The Dodge City Times called the men who rode after Dora Hand’s killer “as intrepid a posse as ever pulled a trigger.” When you add it all up, it seems Ned Buntline concurred.
Naysayers may counter, “This is all speculative. Show us one single contemporary description of Earp ever using a so-called ‘Buntline Special.’” Fair enough. After the O.K. Corral shooting, a hearing was held to determine if the Earp party should stand trial for murder. Tombstone butcher Apolinar Bauer was called to describe the incident on October 26, 1881, when Wyatt Earp “buffaloed” cowboy Tom McLaury. Bauer was specifically asked to describe the gun Earp used. In sworn testimony he answered, “It seemed to me an old pistol, pretty large, 14 or 16 inches long, it seemed to me.” A Colt .45 with a 10-inch barrel measures exactly 15 inches overall. Now, let us return to Stuart Lake’s notes to read how the first mention of the guns in question reads. There, in outline form it says “76 had met Ned Buntline, extra long guns, 1-Wyatt, 1-Bat, 1-Bill Tilghman, 1-Bassett, 1-Neal Brown - Specials - Walnut handles. “Ned” carved in. Colt’s .45s, 10″ barrel, 4″ oversize.” Here is a major revelation. Initially, Stuart Lake held the barrels of the “Specials” to be 10 inches in length. The description here matches the 1881 description by Bauer. This match is not approximate, it is exact.
Why Lake changed the dimensions of the gun for his book is not clear. Possibly he became aware that on January 14, 1881, “Buckskin Frank” Leslie ordered a Colt’s with a 12-inch barrel. Leslie was a barman at Oriental Saloon in Tombstone where Wyatt had a percentage of the gambling concession. However, as late as 1955 Lake admitted he wasn’t sure of the barrel’s length. When the producer of the Wyatt Earp television series acted about the “Buntline,” Lake replied, “… the barrel was 10-12 inches … .” (Letter in the Sisk collection at UCLA dated September 22, 1955).
While a 12-inch-barreled Colt is cumbersome, one with a 10-inch barrel is remarkably comfortable to carry and shoot. Indeed, of the Revolver-Carbine sizes sold, the 10-inch is the size most conductive to being used as a sidearm and, when attached to its shoulder stock, a long-range “brush-popper.” Colt records indicate such a model being shipped to S.H. Hart on May 12, 1882. I believe that until and unless the lost Charlie Hoxie gun surfaces, the 10-inch-barreled Hart revolver (serial number 28,830) is the closest we will ever get to seeing what Wyatt Earp’s pistol was like. Why? Because S.H. Hart was a gun dealer in Tombstone when Wyatt Earp was gaining his renown.
History comes alive when it inspires the imagination, and the “Specials” have certainly inspired many an imagination over the years. In 1957, spurred on by the popularity of the Wyatt Earp TV series, Colt began to produce 12-inch barrelled “Buntline Specials” on its standard-frame Single Action Army. Some 4,000 were turned out, the last in 1974. Also, over the years, many firms have offered Italian-made SAA-style “Buntlines” complete with detachable shoulder stocks. It is surprising that until now no one has attempted to reproduce the unique features the Revolver-Carbine sported. Credit is due U.S. Fire Arms (Dept. GA, 25 Van Dyke Ave., Hartford, CT 06016) for the exacting care executed in re-creating these very special guns. Just like the pistols of 18776, these models have flattop frames with a milled grove for a long-range, flip-up rear leaf sight. In front of the sight is a vent-hole designed to reduce any lead powder gas spraying from the side of the cylinder when the revolver is fired. The most obvious aspect of the “Specials” is their oversized barrels. Since surviving original barrels vary between 16, 12, and 10 inches, U.S. Fire Arms is offering the choice of each of these three lengths for today’s collector. As for the front sight, the historic S.L. Hart gun served as a model with its rifle-style wedge sight.
The original pistols could be transformed into a long-range shooter by hooking a skeleton shoulder stock under an oversized hammer screw. Because federal law now prohibits the use of shoulder stocks with guns having less than 16-inch barrels, U.S. Fire Arms will not be offering the special screws and stocks with its 10- and 12-inch models.
One caveat is in order: While a top vent-hole was designed to lessen the spraying of lead fragments, powder and hot gases from the cylinder side, it is less than perfect in meeting this goal. Because of this, whenever firing the 16-inch “Special” with its skeleton stock, both hands should wrap around the pistol grip. At no time when shooting should either hand be positioned in front of the cylinder in support of the barrel - as one customarily holds a rifle. In such a stance, the supporting arm stands in danger of being painfully peppered. Be careful always.
In viewing and holding the new U.S. Fire Arms “Specials”, one is struck by their unique beauty. Period blueing and especially rich color case-hardened frames bring a legendary era back to life. The luster history has lent these pieces is conveyed in a fully satisfying way.
Also, as of this writing, Cimarron Fire Arms Co. (Dept. GA, P.O. Box 906, Fredericksburg, TX 78624-0906) has announced it will offer a “Buntline” in 1998.
And so the “Buntline Special” is back, not only as a historically viable sidearm for a storied lawman, but also as an exciting collector’s piece that every enthusiast of Tombstone, the Old West and Wyatt Earp can now gleefully acquire and enjoy.
Postscript: for readers seeing more information and alternative readings on the evidence on the “Specials,” the following are recommended: Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal (1931) by Stuart N. Lake; Wyatt Earp and the Buntline Special Myth (1976) by William B. Shillingberg; and “The Wyatt Earp/Bunline Special Controversy,” an eight-part series published in the Quarterly of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History (N.O.L.A.) in Vol XVII # (1993) to Vol XIX #1 (1995) by Lee A. Silva. Silva’s Biography of Wyatt Earp is also expected shortly.