One Policeman's Custom Revolver

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Wyatt Earp. The name resonates through American history, and not just among peace officers. Stuart Lake’s biography Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal established him as a national legend when it was published in 1931, a couple of years after Earp’s death in California. It was this book that first discussed Earp’s special Colt .45 revolver with extra-long barrel, the Buntline Special.

The story went that E.Z.C. Judson, a novelist and show promoter who specialized in Western Frontier themes and wrote under the nom de plume of Ned Buntline, presented these special Colts to five ace Dodge City lawmen: Charlie Basset, Neil Brown, Bill Tilghman, Bat Masterson and of course, Earp, in 1876.

According to Lake, Judson, “Sent to the Colt’s factory for five special forty-five caliber sixguns of regulation single-action style, but with barrels four inches longer than standard — a foot in length — making them eighteen inches over all. Each gun had a demountable walnut rifle stock, with a thumbscrew arrangement to fit the weapon for a shoulder-piece in longrange shooting.”

Lake wrote, “ ‘There was a lot of talk in Dodge about the specials slowing us on the draw,’Wyatt recalled. ‘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.’”

A reenactor in Tombstone plays the Earp part with this 12"
barrel Uberti clone of the fabled Buntline Special.

Legend Debunked?

By the 1950s, however, the legend of the Buntline Special was in question. The Colt factory, it was learned, had no records of having shipped five revolvers with foot-long barrels to anyone named Judson or Buntline. Earp claimed his Buntline had been lost in Alaska in the early 1900s, and there was no trace of the alleged Bassett and Brown specimens. Ironically, this was during the period in the 1950s when TV’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, with skilled single-action-man Hugh O’Brien in the title role, had helped to build both the legend of Earp and the legend of the Buntline. In 1957, Colt brought out a version of the SAA marked “Buntline Special,” complete with 12″ barrel.

However, with no proof available from Colt’s — and with many historians convinced Lake was more press agent than impartial biographer, and prone to exaggeration — it became the “in thing” among gun people to confidently dismiss the Buntline Special as myth, debunked and discredited.

Well, “debunked” and “discredited” are pretty strong words. More recently, evidence has emerged indicating Earp may have indeed received and used a special long-barrel SAA.

Historical Aspects

The great Colt authority James E. Serven wrote long ago that during the time of the Earp years, Colt would custom tailor longer barrels on order for a dollar an inch. Earp biographer Allen Barra noted in 1998 that long barrel SAAs had been on sale at the Centennial exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, where they could have been bought without shipping records showing it, and “Buntline” was a Philadelphian. Wyatt Earp’s wife Josie spoke of the extra longbarreled Colt in unpublished notes for her memoirs. Bat Masterson said of his close friend and colleague, “Wyatt would bend the long barrel of his Buntline Special around the gunman’s head and lug him to the calaboose.”

Judson/Buntline was also known to have visited the Colt plant in Hartford, Conn., in the 1870s, notes Lee Silva, the Western historian and antique gun expert who believes the Buntline Special did in fact exist, and that Earp did indeed use one. I met Silva in October ’06 at the 125th Anniversary Symposium on the “OK Corral Shooting,” conducted by another respected Earp historian, Michael Hickey. Silva explained several reasons why he didn’t think the Buntline revolvers were a myth.

“There’s little doubt,” Silva establishes, “that Buntline was on a firstname basis with the Colt factory, and the flamboyant Buntline, as well as Buffalo Bill, was a welcomed celebrity to be used by the Colt factory in obtaining publicity for its guns.” Silva is speaking of an 1873 visit to Hartford by Buntline, the promoter of Buffalo Bill Cody’s successful “Wild West” shows. Silva concludes, “And so, Buntline was also certainly in a position to walk in the back door of the Colt factory a few years later and make a deal on some of the unusual extra-long-barreled revolvers he had seen at the Philadelphia Centennial in the spring of 1876.”

Another noted shootist in Tombstone, Ariz., “Buckskin” Frank Leslie, was an acquaintance of Wyatt Earp who ordered a 12″ SAA from the Colt factory in January 1881. That transaction is recorded. Silva does not think this is a coincidence.

Pretty Large

Testifying at the inquest after the OK Corral incident, a butcher named Bauer described Wyatt Earp firing a revolver that was “pretty large, 14 or 16 inches long, it seems to me.” The latter measurement would be about right for a 10″ Buntline, the barrel length Silva believes these guns actually had. Witnesses are notorious for poor recollection of weapon size, but Silva told me, “Bauer was a butcher, who worked every day with 8″, 9″, 10″ knives. He had a trained eye and was the best possible witness as to the size of this particular object.” Good point.

Silva believes the real reason for the five-gun presentation was that in 1876, Buffalo Bill had abandoned “Ned Buntline” to go out and do his own Wild West show, and the promoter was looking for five new, genuine frontiersmen and former buffalo hunters for a new show. Earp and the others filled that bill on both counts. Silva hypothesizes that, seeing the unique long-barrel Colts at the Philadelphia exposition, it would have occurred to Judson/Buntline that they would be accurate, longrange guns prized by serious shooters and marksmen, as Earp and the other four were known to be.

Many more convincing arguments are in Lee Silva’s Wyatt Earp, A Biography of the Legend, Volume I, the Cowtown Years, which includes a large section on “The ‘Buntline Special’ Colt Controversy.” At 991 pages, seven pounds, and a retail price of $89.95, this superbly researched book is worth every penny, and can be ordered from Silva at P.O. Box 556, Sunset Beach, CA 90742.

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