Monday, May 24, 2010

What's the truth about the Buntline Special?

The Colt pistol called the Buntline Special was introduced in 1876 -- a .45 caliber SAA with a 12-inch barrel. But the gun didn't gain notoriety until 1931, when Stuart Lake, in his book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, wrote that dime novel writer Ned Buntline had commissioned the 12-inch Colts and given them to five frontier marshals whom he respected. The marshals were supposedly Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Neil Brown, Charlie Bassett, and Bill Tilghman.


Colt keeps meticulous records of all guns, serial numbers, and who purchased them. No group of five 12-inch revolvers were sold, and none at all were sold to Ned Buntline, who died in 1886. Furthermore, Buntline never travelled in the west after 1876, the year Wyatt became deputy city marshal of Dodge City, his first job as a lawman.

Movies and TV show Wyatt Earp using a Buntline in the Gunfight at OK Corral. Not so. The gun Wyatt used is on display at thge Wyatt Earp museum in Tombstone, Arizona, and it's not even a Colt. It's an engraved and silver-plated Smith & Wesson American in .44 caliber.

No records exist to prove that any of the other lawmen received Buntlines, either. In fact, Colt's records say that Bat Masterson personally ordered eight Colt's revolvers between 1879 and 1885. None had 12-inch barrels.

Finally, among the famous, Bill Tilghman. George Virgines spoke to Bill's widow, Soe Tilghman, while she was still alive, and she "could not recall her famous husband possessing or mentioning a "Buntline Special" Colt, nor did she ever see such a gun."

Recorded history, not hearsay, indicates that the Buntline Specials were a construct of Stuart Lake's active imagination, as were, it turns out, many of the supposed facts he wrote about Wyatt Earp.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A fascinating question, Charlie, and one Lee Silva addresses in his massive book, Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend, Vol. 1: The Cowtown Years

    Silva spends well over a hundred pages detailing all aspects of the question, and comes to the conclusion Ned Buntline actually did present Wyatt (along with Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Neil Brown and Charlie Bassett) with long-barreled Colts equipped with detachable wooden rifle stocks. While Masterson, Basset and Brown apparently had their barrels shortened, and Tilghman’s gun came to an unknown end, Silva believes Wyatt carried his throughout the rest of his career as a lawman.

    Records show the Colt factory manufactured the long-barreled 45s in three sizes: 10”, 12” and 16”. Silva thinks Wyatt’s gun was a 10-incher, a bit shorter than the one Hugh O’Brian used on TV.

    One of the main arguments against the Buntline story was that no one could explain WHY Ned would present guns to these five men. At the time, none were particularly well known. Silva builds a convincing case they were chosen because they’d been buffalo hunters. Buffalo Bill and his pals had recently deserted Ned’s Scouts of the Plains to form their own theatre troupe, and Buntline was looking for replacements. Interesting stuff.

  3. Did Silva go into the facts that Buntline never travelled west after 1876? Did he go into the lack of Colt records of any long-barrelled SAA .45s going to Buntline? Were the presentations made by mail or something? 100 pages on the Buntline Special. Very Special indeed. Where do you stand, Evan? I think I like the research of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History, where I got my information (the article was about 3000 words long). The snatch of video on Youtube has the re-enactors saying a 10-inch barrel balanced the gun rather well. Still, Wyatt used an S&W at OK Corral, not a Buntline, and his statement to the court says he was carrying his sixgun in his coat pocket (tough to do with 10 inches of barrel). Interesting fact about the buffalo hunter aspect when the story concerns "famous lawmen."

  4. I think it's all mighty interesting, but don't feel qualified to take a stand. As with the Alamo & Custer's Last Stand, I enjoy the mystery and the possibilities. I read that Silva book a couple of years ago and don't own it - I got it through InterLibrary Loan.

    I remember Silva spent a lot of time on the issue of Colt records, but those details elude me. I don't recall if or what he said regarding Buntline's travels. Those 100 pages were large, and the type was small, so he he dug pretty deep. But since it was a 1000-page book, there was too much to take in in a single reading. I remember the stuff I said earlier mainly because I wrote up a brief review for the print version of Davy Crockett's Almanack. Here's more info on the book:

  5. It's stuff like this that can come up in a novel. I'm doing a bit of research into Apache customs and lifestyles for the BHW I'm writing now. Maybe I'll blog something on them.