FACT OR FICTION

EARP’S BUNTLINE SPECIAL
1

John’s classy pair of USFA 10" .45 Colt Buntline Specials have consecutive serial numbers —
these two custom guns were never catalogued by USFA.

Ned Buntline was an author of dime novels in the last quarter of the 19th century, creating long-standing myths about Western heroes. He claims to have presented five “Buntline Specials” to lawmen in Dodge City in the late 1870’s. Those men were Charlie Bassett, Neal Brown, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman and Wyatt Earp. Researchers have found long-barreled Colt SA’s — which weren’t labeled as Buntline Specials — from the years 1876 to 1884.

In the second generation run of Colts from 1955 to 1975, nearly 4,000 long-barreled sixguns marked “Buntline Specials” were made. The third generation Buntline Specials were in .45 Colt, .44-40 and .44 Special — as well as some New Frontier Buntline Specials. Great Western also offered Buntline Specials with 12½” barrels, but they’re harder to find than a public servant who lives up to the name; so I’ve made my own. Arizona SA sixgunsmith Jim Martin gave me a Colt .44 Special Buntline barrel and it’s now installed on a Great Western — and it shoots great!

So, are the five Buntline Specials reality or myth? There are no factory records to confirm the shipping of five long-barreled revolvers to E.C.Z. Judson, alias Ned Buntline. But factory records aren’t always complete. However, records of eight .45 Colt SAA’s ordered by and shipped to Bat Masterson in Dodge City from 1882 to 1885 are found; one was 7½”, two were 5½” and five were the Perfect Packin’ Pistol 4¾” length.

Targets shot with the Cimarron Wyatt Earp Special, using a cross-section of loads. It preferred bullets sized at .454".

Buntline Special Folklore

Most of us know of the Buntline Special from the 1950’s-1960’s T.V. series “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”, starring Hugh O’Brian. I know of 12 movies made from the 1930’s to the 1990’s with Wyatt Earp as the main character; I can only recall seeing the Buntline Special once — in the hands of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp in Tombstone.

In the 1931 book Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshall by Stuart Lake we may or may not have an authentic life of Wyatt Earp. Many contend Earp told Lake more lies than truth. According to Lake, “Buntline was so grateful to the Dodge City peace officers for the color they supplied he set about arming them as befitted their accomplishments. He sent to the Colt factory for five special .45-caliber sixguns of regulation SA style, but with barrels 4″ longer than standard, a foot in length, making them 18″ overall.”

Lake records Wyatt saying: “There was a lot of talk in Dodge about the specials slowing us on the draw. Bat and Bill Tilghman cut off the barrels to make them standard length. But Bassett, Brown and I kept ours as they came. Mine was my favorite over any other gun. I could jerk it as fast as I could my old one and I carried it at my right hip throughout my career as marshal. With it, I did most of the sixgun work I had to do.”

Is Wyatt being truthful here or is he pulling Stuart Lake’s leg? Holsters in those days were mainly the Mexican loop style, which rode high on the belt — drawing a 12″ Colt couldn’t have been easy. None of the original Ned Buntline Presentation Colts have ever been found. Wyatt said his was lost as it was on the front seat of his Model T, which was on an Alaskan ferryboat that sunk.

Back in the 1950’s, I put together a Buntline Special, which was a first generation Colt with a .38 Special cylinder and a 12″ barrel. I spent a lot of time doing fast draw and found I could do fairly well by dropping my knee significantly as I drew to be able to clear leather. After practicing with this gun it seemed like my 7½” .45 literally jumped out of the holster. The .38 really had no practical value, but I certainly wish I still had it today.

Up until the Great Western .44 Special turned into a Buntline Special, my experience with Buntline Specials came from a second generation Colt .45 with a 12″ barrel and a Cimarron Firearms 10″ Buntline Special .45. I’ve added not one, but two .45 Buntlines from USFA, with consecutive serial numbers. These are custom guns and weren’t catalogued by USFA, which has now closed its doors. Let’s back up a little and see how they came to be.

John’s pair of 10" USFA .45 Colt Buntline Specials deliver results in close quarters too.

Introduced To USPFA

In the early 1990’s I encountered a new company, United States Patented Firearms Co. (USPFA) at the SHOT Show. These were replica firearms with a twist, meaning they were Uberti-made but the Uberti parts were imported into the US and then assembled into finished sixguns. It was easy to notice they were nicely fitted and finished, well above the typical replicas of the time. I discovered USPFA wanted to eventually produce a completely American-made SA.

They later became United States Firearms Co. and slowly began to replace Italian parts with American ones. Unfortunately, the high-quality, all-American-made SA’s from USFA never made money and the doors of the factory were closed.

Despite USFA’s closing, there were many parts still available — one of them being the frame. We’re not just talking American-made frames, but some very special Uberti frames going back to the earlier days. These were not standard SA frames, but rather frames styled after the real Buntline Specials. The top of the frame was milled out to hold a long-range rear sight, which could be raised out of its mortise, raising up and down on a ladder for long-range shooting. When the sight is all the way down in its mortise, a standard rear sight can be used for normal shooting.

I’ve been shooting a pair of these nearly all-American-made sixguns quite often. This pair has been made into a long-range duo with a tall front sight to compensate for the taller rear sight assembly. Barrel lengths are 10″ instead of the traditional 12″ length. Frames and hammers have been beautifully case color hardened by Turnbull, while the balance of the sixguns is finished in deep blue. Lockup is exceptionally tight, fitting has been carried out to perfection — no oversize chambers here — and stocks are 1-piece walnut. Chambering is, of course, .45 Colt.

The 12" second generation Colt Buntline Special performed quite admirably in John’s testing —
these three groups averaged just over 1".

How’d They Shoot?

This pair of 10″ USFA .45 SA’s was test-fired along with the second generation 12″ Colt Buntline Special and the Cimarron Firearms 10″ Buntline Special, which they call the Wyatt Earp Special. All of these performed exceptionally well, aided by the long sight radius. Cast bullets were sized to 0.451″ for use in the USFA .45 Colt 10″ sixguns. In USFA number one, my most used .45 Colt load — consisting of the Lyman #452424 Keith bullet, over 8.0 grains of Unique — clocks out at 953 fps and puts five shots in 1″ at 20 yards. Upping the powder charge to 9.0 grains of Unique with the same bullet gives a muzzle velocity of 1,058 fps and a 0.75″ group.

USFA number two, for some reason, shot approximately 100 fps slower while grouping the first load even tighter but doubling the size of the second load. In one of the mysteries of sixgunning, we have two guns built at the same time with identical materials and tolerances and yet they performed quite differently.

The Cimarron Wyatt Earp Special preferred bullets sized to 0.454″ with the Lyman #454424 Keith over 9.0 grains of Unique — clocking out at 956 fps and grouping at 11/8″. The RCBS #45-270SAA over 7.5 grains of Universal clocks out at 819 fps with a group of 7/8″. This bullet weighs 281 grains with my alloy, so even at 820 fps it’s still a potent load.

My old second generation Colt Buntline Special performs very well using 0.454″ bullets. The Lyman #454424 Keith over 8.0 grains of Unique clocks out at 901 fps while 9.0 grains adds another 80 fps muzzle velocity with both loads grouping in 11/8″. Switching to the RCBS #45-270SAA bullet over 8.0 grains Universal results in 907 fps and 1″.

For nearly 60 years, I’ve been long-range shooting at distances from 100 yards and beyond. I do this by raising the front sight — while still keeping it lined up in the rear — and placing the target on top. Long-range shooting becomes much simpler with the USFA Buntline Specials as the rear sight itself is just raised on the elevated special sight. Once the proper setting is found for any distance, it’s just a matter of keeping the proper sight picture.

Holsters

It’s not easy to find holsters for 10″-barreled sixguns. I don’t believe any of the old-line holster makers catalog leather for Buntline Specials. However, a call to Rob Leahy at Simply Rugged took care of the problem immediately. Rob crafted a beautiful pair of Buntline Special holsters, which ride high on the belt either straight draw or reverse draw. They’re a fitting addition to a fine pair of sixguns.

Rob can build about anything when it comes to leather and he also specializes in sixgun hunting rigs. He’s a master at the three-legged stool of making holsters: quality design, craftsmanship and material.

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