EXCLUSIVE: The Wrong End Of The Gun

Miscreants With Hubris From Six Loaded Chambers Have
Often Lost Their Swagger To John Q. Public.

By Wayne Van Zwoll

ned buntline

Edward Zane Carroll Judson entered the world in Stamford, New York, March 20, 1823. As a lad he chased adventure by stowing away on a merchant ship. He was found out and made to work for his passage home. Undeterred, he next joined the Navy. At sea he stole a pig from the midshipman’s mess. He wrote up that caper, publishing the tale himself under the pseudonym Ned Buntline. A buntline is a rope on the foot of a square sail, for furling. But the young man soon left the sea for the frontier West.

Ned Buntline polished his pen on salacious stories that sold well enough. One day in August, 1869, he disembarked from a train in North Platte, Nebraska to interview Major Frank North, a genuine hero with the Fifth Cavalry. North brushed him off but suggested he talk to a scout. Buntline found the young man under a wagon, asleep and badly needing a bath. His name was William Cody. Buntline then attached Cody’s name to North’s adventures with the Cheyenne, and embellished them. Coining the name “Buffalo Bill,” he wrote Cody (whose career lacked nothing for adventure!) into history.

Buntline later had Colt build a few special-order 1873 revolvers with detachable carbine stocks. These he presented to storied lawmen: Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman and others. Earp reportedly used his to bop delinquents on their skulls; but most who got the long-barreled Colt viewed it as a curiosity, then either altered it or gave it away. “Working guns” had more value — and not just to lawmen.

Though fabled bank robbers and Rangers, gunfighters and Marshals have defined the Old West in literature, the era and the land were shaped by the ordinary and the unsung. And sometimes the truly odd.

The years following the Civil War drew many colorful people west. The term “gunman” is now a pejorative, but in those days, almost anyone would qualify. Women like Calamity Jane packed iron too, as did dames who worked the saloons and brothels. All manner of guns turned up in holsters and scabbards and under store counters. Charles Bolton, alias “Black Bart,” held up 27 stages using, it is said, a wooden gun. He wrote verse and left it in his wake for Wells Fargo agents. Apprehended, Bart claimed he was a gentleman and did not have to reveal the details of his business.



Ruffians like Dirty Dave Rudabaugh had a harder edge. Dirty Dave worked both sides of the law in a career he launched rustling cattle. In 1877 he became a wanted man, and Dodge City put Wyatt Earp on his trail. At Fort Griffin, Texas, Earp met a consumptive gambler and dentist by the name of Holliday, who said Rudabaugh had headed west. Earp got back in the saddle, eventually trailing Rudabaugh back to Kansas. Meanwhile, Doc Holliday and his girl, Big-Nosed Kate, had also traveled north — ahead of a lynch mob. Doc had evidently gutted a local hooligan.

Dirty Dave reappeared with blackened face and four blackened cronies at a rail shack on a bitter January night in 1878. The attendant suspected ill, but when Dave fingered his revolver, he went back to bed. Rudabaugh and his gang stopped the train, but a spunky express messenger sent them packing under a hail of bullets. The ruckus woke the town of Kinsley. Dave and company made off into the snowy night empty-handed. But Sheriff Bat Masterson and his posse took the trail and soon caught up with the gang.

Dodging The Law — Not The Bullets

Ratting on his compatriots, Rudabaugh promised to go straight. His one step in that direction was to join up with a deputy of the posse that had nabbed him! John J. Webb pinned on a star in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he and other corrupt officials became despised as the Dodge City Gang. A murder in a saloon led to Webb’s arrest. Rudabaugh held off a lynch mob long enough to spring Webb from jail; but Deputy Sheriff Lino Valdez died in the fracas. Dirty Dave fled, to consort briefly, it’s said, with Billy the Kid and other violent men. Captured at Stinking Springs, Dave was jailed in Las Vegas. Then he dug his way out and vanished. He may have played a part in the ambush of Virgil Earp, and in the Iron Springs fight where outlaw Curly Bill fell to a charge from Wyatt’s shotgun.

In February, 1886, Dirty Dave Rudabaugh showed up at a cantina in Parral, Chihuahua. Losing a card game, he screamed he’d been cheated, then shot dead two other players. A third escaped. Dave did not. Townspeople downed him with a fire-storm of lead.

Colonel Colt’s justice was often administered without appeal.

sam bass

During Rudabaugh’s early days, a young Sam Bass assembled a gang to rob stages. They didn’t have much luck. One heist netted them $11, another a bag of peaches. In March, 1877, they held up the Cheyenne stage. A shotgun blast from Robert McKimie felled driver Johnny Slaughter. The other outlaws hastily voted McKimie out, but the murder put Bass and company squarely in the sights of the law. The bandits might otherwise have retired in peace — even relative luxury. A train robbery in Nebraska brought $1,300 plus loot from wealthy passengers. But the baggage car held the mother lode: $60,000 in gold! The gang managed to get away with the heavy booty, and split it. Alas, flaunting that gold drew attention, and soon several of Bass’s colleagues were out of circulation.

He scraped together another gang and in July, 1878, led them toward Round Rock, Texas, whose bank would provide new funds. But one of the outlaws had squealed to Rangers. When Bass and Frank Jackson walked into a feed store, deputies Grimes and Moore saw the bulge of a pistol. Guns holstered, they approached. Suddenly revolvers thundered, and smoke-swathed men staggered by bullets.

Grimes fell, dying. Moore, hit in the lung, tagged Bass as he sprinted out. On the street, both robbers met a volley of bullets from Rangers and citizens. As Bass reached his horse at the livery, a bullet struck a cartridge in his belt, then ripped through a kidney to his spine. He and Jackson managed to gallop away after three compatriots who’d rode in with them. A posse soon came upon Bass, bloody and weak. They returned him to town, where he died in bed on his 27th birthday.

frank james

james pistol

Citizen Watchdogs

Successful heists depended on thorough scouting. But suspicious activity could scuttle a robbery. An alert citizen may have unhinged the famous James-Younger raid even before the lethal group rode into Northfield, Minnesota, September 7, 1876. Jesse James was not the leader. His older brother Frank, and Cole Younger, had more Civil War experience. The war may have had something to do with their choice of Northfield, miles from their Missouri home. Cole would claim the bank had “Yankee officers’ money.” Then again, one of the gang was from Minnesota. The horsemen — two James boys, three Youngers, three others — traveled north by train, then bought eight fine horses. These animals may have drawn stares in a town of wagons and buggies. The long dusters worn by the outlaws were also distinctive.


When the men split up with no apparent purpose, hardware owner Sam Allen trailed three toward the bank. At the door, one shoved a pistol into his ribs. Allen raced away, yelling “Get your guns, boys! They’re robbing the bank!” As five raiders galloped up and down the street, firing to keep citizens cowed, the others beat cashier J.L. Heywood, demanding he open the vault. When Heywood refused, and the firing outside grew more intense, one of the bandits shot the brave cashier in the head. They ran out to meet a ferocious barrage from the townspeople. Clel Miller dropped to a shotgun blast. A rifle bullet tore Bill Chadwell’s heart. Cole Younger caught a bullet in the thigh; another splintered Bob’s elbow. One of the West’s most notorious gangs galloped, tattered and bloodied, out of Northfield, to split a take of $26.


Rifles Trump Revolvers

The citizenry of Delta, Colorado proved no less formidable during a bank robbery planned by the McCarty brothers, one of whom had ridden with Butch Cassidy. Tom and Bill McCarty, with Bill’s son Fred, had cased Delta on that hot September day in 1893, and decided the Farmers and Merchants Bank was ripe for the plucking. Bill and Fred entered the bank; Tom tended the horses in an alley. Revolvers out, the bandits ordered cashier A.T. Blachly to stay quiet. He shouted instead — and was summarily shot in the head. Snatching at bills and coins, the McCartys herded a bank assistant into the alley. Then they leaped into their saddles and fled. But Ray Simpson, proprietor of a nearby hardware, came running to the gunfire with a .40-caliber Sharps rifle. As the robbers galloped around a corner, Simpson took careful aim. His bullet struck Bill McCarty in the back of the head, tearing the skull asunder. Fred McCarty fired three times at Simpson, who reloaded as bullets whizzed by. When the merchant again fired that Sharps, Fred pitched to the ground, a gaping wound at the base of his skull. Tom McCarty put spurs to his horse.

A year earlier townspeople had scuttled one of the most brazen bank robberies of the Old West. When five dusty drifters rode into Coffeyville, Kansas, a citizen may have recognized one of the three Dalton boys, as the Dalton family had once lived nearby.
Quietly, behind doors, people began loading guns. The riders didn’t seem to notice, but they did see that the hitch-rail they’d planned to use had been moved for street paving. They instead tied their horses to a pipe in an alley, then walked in two groups toward the First National and Condon Banks.

The plan: Rob both.


dalton robbery

Bob and Emmett Dalton strong-armed bank employees into filling a sack with cash, then pushed people into the plaza. Meanwhile, Grat Dalton, with Dick Broadwell and Bill Powers, scooped up heavy silver coins, waiting for the vault to open. “It’s on a time lock,” said gutsy cashier Charley Ball. Actually, it was not secured at all; the door would have come open with a pull. But Grat didn’t pull. Then someone fired a shot outside. A volley followed, disintegrating the bank windows. Sprinting into the plaza, toward the alley, the outlaws met a storm of rifle bullets from Isham’s Hardware. All three were struck.

Bob and Emmet found cover as they exited First National. Bob shot two cobblers who confronted him with rifles. Then Bob took several bullets and fell. The wounded Grat killed Marshal Charles Connelly from behind, then dropped to a shot from a stable hand. Bill Powers lay dead. Dick Broadwell, badly wounded, rode off. Young Emmett, with a grain-sack of money, wheeled his horse toward freedom but was blown from the saddle by a barber wielding a shotgun.

Four citizens and four outlaws died in the fire-fight. Three more townspeople were hit. Emmett Dalton’s body had 20 holes, but he survived. He would later become an actor in western films.


A Starr

Another misfit to rue the citizen’s gun was Henry Starr. Born in 1873, Henry would become a brother-in-law to infamous Belle Starr. But he chose the bandit trail early on. Wanted for jumping bail in Fort Smith, Arkansas, he was spotted on the trail by an ex-deputy named Wilson. Ordered to stop, Starr, drew his rifle as he dismounted. Both men fired, but Starr’s bullet hit. Then Wilson’s rifle jammed. Starr walked up and shot the man twice more. A murder conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Starr walked free.

But in March, 1915, Starr and his gang decided to do what the Daltons had failed to do 23 years earlier: rob two banks. Three of the group entered each bank in Stroud, Oklahoma. First National was a pushover. But cashiers at Stroud State resisted. Teenage Paul Curry, son of a butcher, had time to grab a sawed-off Winchester rifle used to kill hogs. As the robbers left, he shot Starr in the thigh. The outlaw dropped his gun at Curry’s command. The young man then dashed toward the other bandits, now mounted, and shot Lewis Estes in the shoulder, puncturing a lung. The horsemen galloped off.

Henry Starr would meet his end after another bank robbery, this in Harrison, Arkansas. His gang of four drove up to People’s National on February 18, 1921. When bank manager William Myers obeyed orders to march into the vault, he grabbed the Winchester 1873 inside. Starr went down, shot in the spine. Surgery later removed the bullet, but the career criminal died of uremic poisoning.

In writing about the West, Edward Zane Carroll Judson could, arguably, have paid more attention to the armed citizen. Clearly, the crooks should have.

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3 thoughts on “EXCLUSIVE: The Wrong End Of The Gun

  1. Dog

    ” Researchers have never found any record of an order received by the Colt company, and Buntline’s alleged connections to Earp have been largely discredited.[11] Schillingberg states that there is solid proof that Buntline was in the Eastern United States during the time the presentation was supposed to have happened. There is also no evidence that Buntline wrote about the occasion, and Buntline wrote about everything.”

    The “Buntline Specials” are a myth…


  2. Rob

    I have to agree with Dog that if the Buntline Specials were real, there would be some historical and photographic evidence of them. I’ve never seen a real one anywhere I’ve been, or in anything I’ve read. Buntline’s immortalization of western heros and exploits should not take away from the fact that there were a lot of good, and a few bad men (and women) who when west in the 19th Century and did things that we can be proud of… some of us came from them. Its the guns that have survived that cannot speak that attest to the history of the era. Years ago when I was on a law enforcement range to qualify, an “old patrol” guy came out with a black powder Cold SAA in .45 Colt. It was pretty beat and worn – no finish left and the wood grips were so worn and shrunken that the back strap stuck out a good eighth of an inch. He told me that the gun had probably seen some hard use. I got to fire 10 rounds from it, and will always remember that experience – a .45 Colt with a 250 grain chunk of lead propelled by black powder was, and still is a force to contend with.

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