Friday, May 13, 2016

The Buntline Special vs Colt's Sheriff's Model

Dear Friends,

Ever wonder about the mythical Buntline Special, it's use and practicality versus the pistol that Old West lawmen really did carry? Well, here you go. Get yourself a cup of coffee, relax, and don't call me too many names in front of the kids!

I have to tell you that this story starts when I happen to be reading an e-mail from someone while on the phone with a friend. I chuckled, and my friend on the phone asked what was it that I found so funny? So, I read him what my reader had asked, "Hello Tom! Can you tell me if the Buntline Special was really used by Wyatt Earp and why other lawmen in the Old West didn't all use them?"

My friend responded with a laugh, "Of course it was real! We've all seen it in a number of television Westerns and Wyatt Earp movies. The reason lawmen didn't use such a gun was they were smarter than that!"

And yes, there's the problem with any myth. Just because it has been repeated a number of times in print, or shown on television or in films, that in itself doesn't make it so. Just because it's in print, or on TV or in a movie, proves nothing at all.

As for Hollywood, truth and historical fact has taken a backseat to sensationalism and fiction. Even when Hollywood advertises a film as being a "true story," they are usually lying. Friends, Hollywood's idea of a "true story" and a story being "historically accurate" are really two different things.

There are many examples of this, whether it's a military movie or one on a race horse, it seems that Hollywood simply cannot tell the truth of what took place. And yes, while I love Westerns, some can be really bad as far as being historically inaccurate.

While the movie "Hildalgo" is horrible when it comes to any sort of historical accuracy, I have problems with the movie "High Noon". I don't like the movie or its premise because it goes against what really took place in the Old West.

The movie portrayed the town's people in the movie High Noon as cowards unwilling to fight for their own town. And yes, this is how people rewrite history and pass it on as being accurate when it is not an honest portrayal of the history of the Old West.

Why isn't it accurate? The movie portrays town's people as being scared of three outlaws when Old West towns were made up of people who crossed the nation in wagons, many on foot, weathered all sorts of hardship, fought for life and died along the way. And yes, many were Civil War veterans who were tougher than boot leather. Does that sound like folks who would cower when three outlaws came to town? Friends, these people fought illness, pestilence, hunger and hardship yet persevered and made the West flourish.

Besides the fact that town marshals had the ability to deputize citizens for posses and to establish local militias, do people who have faced hardship and trials and pain sound like people who would not jump to defend their banks, homes, businesses, their churches, their people?

Hollywood thinks the people in the Old West didn't have grit, were emotional messes, were fighting some sort of inner demons, were wishy-washy cowards. That is a 180 degrees unlike the way those people really were, but Hollywood doesn't get a lot of things right. And yes, that includes their portrayal of arms used at the time. And frankly, all they need is a writer to put in in place and they will run with it.

No Evidence Earp's Buntline Special Existed

From what I have found, other than Earp's biographer writer Stuart Lake, there is no evidence that the supposed "Buntline Special" with its exaggerated barrel ever existed -- never the less was owned by Wyatt Earp.

I heard one Earp fan who was a supposed Old West Historian speculate that Colt lost the paperwork on the supposed pistols. I heard another say that Colt didn't keep records of special orders.

Friends, in Colt's archives is a letter they kept from lawman Bat Masterson written on a Dodge City Opera House notepad which he used to special order a pistol or two. So if Colt kept that note, what makes anyone thing that they would not keep all records of order?

For those out there who have never heard of the Colt Buntline Special, it is a long-barreled variant of the Colt Single Action Army which only record of it's existence comes from Wyatt Earp by way of his personal biographer Stuart N. Lake.

Lake described the mythical pistol in Wyatt Earp's fictionalized 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. According to Lake, dime novelist Ned Buntline supposedly had five of the pistols specially built by Colt. The pistols, according to Lake, are Colt Single Action Army revolvers with 12 inch barrels.  

Lake wrote that Buntline presented them to five lawmen in thanks for their help with contributing "local color" for the Dime Novelist. 

Dime novels was a catch phrase to describe several different forms of late 19th-century and early 20th-century American popular fiction publications. A "true" dime novel, also known as a "story paper" cost five or ten cents.  

It is said that in the modern age, "dime novel" has become a term to describe any quickly written, lurid work "of dubious literary or artistic merit" and as such is generally used as a derogatory term to describe a sensationalized yet superficial piece of written work -- not the work of a serious writer.

As for the Buntline Special, from everything that I've been able to research over the years, no one has ever found any evidence to confirm that Buntline really did in fact order any guns from Colt -- or if Colt manufactured them in that time period.

Lake wrote that Ned Buntline ordered the revolvers in 1876 and presented them to Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett, and Neal Brown. Of course the problem with Stuart Lake's story is that neither Bill Tilghman or Neil Brown were lawmen in 1876. But apparently, that fact didn't stop Lake from further stating that while Wyatt Earp supposedly kept his Buntline Special and used it to "buffalo" drunk cowboys for the fines.

"Buffaloing" or "pistol-whipping" was the act of using a handgun grip as if it were a club. And there too is the contradiction, Lake stated that Earp kept his pistol at the original 12 inch length to buffalo a drunk -- but in fact the grip is used in buffaloing and not the barrel.

Lake also stated that the other four lawmen supposedly cut the barrels of their Buntline Specials to the standard 7 1⁄2 inches or shorter. Remember that, because it goes against what was taking place with lawmen at the time -- but we'll discuss that in a bit. 

Lake attributed the Buntline Special to Wyatt Earp and the four others, modern researchers have not found any supporting evidence or documentation of the gun's existence prior to the publication of Lake's book.

But, Colt did manufacture a Buntline Special pistol among its second generation revolvers produced after 1956 as a result of the popularity of the 1950s Western television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. 

"Ned Buntline"was the pseudonym for dime novelist Edward Zane Carroll Judson. And though Stuart Lake stated that Ned Buntline supposedly purchased the guns as a way to repay Wyatt Earp and the others for "material for hundreds of frontier yarns," fact is that Ned Buntline only wrote four Western tales -- and they were all about Buffalo Bill Cody.

At no time did Ned Buntline ever mention Wyatt Earp in his writings. Of course, that didn't stop Earp's biographer Stuart Lake from writing about it.

And who's idea was it? Was it something that Wyatt Earp came up with to further embellish and glamorize his past, or was it Lake who came up with the whole idea of a revolver that could be used as a rifle?

Friends, while I believe the fictional tale of a Buntline Special sounds like something that Wyatt Earp would come up with, historians blame Stuart Lake for the tale of the Buntline Special.

Also, according to Lake, the Buntline Special supposedly had a removable stock that could be easily affixed the grips. Supposedly, this added stock gave the revolver better range. But as I stated before, researchers have never found any record of an order received by the Colt company or that of a Ned Buntline connection to Earp. Because of this, for me, I see the Buntline Special as the fantasy of a fiction writer taking liberties.
Now, as for Colt Single Action Army and other model revolvers which could have been specially ordered, Colt sold special orders with extra-long barrels were available from Colt at a dollar an inch over the standard 7.5 inches.

And while I've read where several such revolvers with 16-inch barrels and detachable stocks were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, there are absolutely no company records for the Buntline Special or any records of any orders from Edward Zane Carroll Judson or his pen name Ned Buntline.

As for the Colt revolving rifles, they were early repeating rifles produced by the Colt's Manufacturing Company and mainly based upon the patent and mechanism already existing in revolvers like their Colt Sidehammer or the Colt Dragoon.

Today, while there are makers of Buntline this and that, Cimarron Firearms offers a version called the "Wyatt Earp Buntline" styled after the one used by Kurt Russell in the movie "Tombstone" with a 10-inch barrel and a silver badge inlaid on the right grip panel.

Above is a reproduction of the mythical Buntline. Image taking all Tuesday to draw that! 
Colt Sheriff’s Model

So now, why would I do a contrast and comparison article on the Buntline Special, which no one can prove has ever existed, versus Colt's Sheriff Model of the Colt Single Action Army and other models including the double action Colt Lightning?

It has to do with the impracticality of a Buntline Special in law enforcement if they really existed. And yes, Stuart Lake seemed to be apparently concerned about having his readers think that an Old West lawman, in this case Wyatt Earp, would actually walk down a street with a holstered pistol that had a 12 inch barrel. He wants us to think that any lawman would want such a gun as a duty gun.

Dallas Stoudenmire
Friends, there are guns for lawmen and there are not guns for lawmen. Basically it comes down to practicality versus impracticality. Impracticality is a big deal when choosing your duty gun.

If it takes you a long long time to draw your weapon, from a hip holster or other because of how it is built, meaning size and how cumbersome it is, than that is not a good pistol choice for you if you want to stay alive. You see while you are taking all of that time hoisting that long iron from its pouch on your hip, some bad guy just put two rounds into you!

So yes, my first point is that a Buntline as described by Stuart Lake and Hollwood is as impractical a duty gun as it is useless for what people use pistols for. And yes, understanding that fact goes to show us just how little Stuart Lake actually knew about law enforcement and shootouts in the Old West.

What am I referring to? Well, in a time when more and more lawmen were cutting the barrels of their pistols to make their pistol barrels shorter to be able to get them into play faster, Lake wants us to think that Earp went in the other direction and wanted to wear something that would take longer to retrieve from a holster.

Friends, when it comes to fantasy versus reality in the Old West, no one beats Hollywood and wannabe screenwriters as far as imagination goes. And in this case if the Buntline was indeed all of Lake's idea, then he had no idea of the needs of lawmen in the Old West.

Thankfully, that wasn't the case at Colt. Instead Colt took note of the heavily modified six-shooters with their barrels loped off to anywhere from 2 to 4 inches and that their ejector rods were being discarded. Seeing this, Colt stepped into action making pistols that people can use on a practical basis.

And yes, that also included what size of barrels pistols lawmen saw as practical. Remember, it is said that the first "snubnose" revolvers were just various versions of the Colt Single Action Army and double actions like the Colt Lightning. While some wanted a pistol with a 2 1/2 inch barrel that was more concealable for the 3 to 7 feet gunfight that usually takes place, lawmen are said to shied away from long barreled pistols that extended to one's kneecaps. Of course a 4 to 4 3/4 inch barrel would have been seen as perfect back then, as is today for service revolvers.

Marshal Stoudenmire's Preferred Pistol
Short barreled pistols were designed to speed the draw to get a gun into play faster, make the gun a bit easier to carry, more concealable, and as we know that's still the case today. And like today, one can select the size they are more comfortable with.

As with the famous Pepperbox, Knuckle Buster, and Smith & Wesson pocket pistols, small handguns were nothing new in the 1800s. In fact, Colt actually began offering the short-barreled revolvers with Samuel Colt’s first Paterson models manufactured in New Jersey from the 1830s into the early 1840s.

Colt again produced them in the 1860s at the Colt’s plant in Hartford, Connecticut. That was when a special version of the .36 caliber Colt Police Model was built with a 2 inch barrel.

There had been earlier short barreled pistols, even going back to the days of the single shot black powder guns. There had been earlier short barreled revolvers too.  for example. Still, most gun enthusiasts consider the Sheriff's model to be the precursor to that most classic of all detective arms, the snub nose revolver.

Colt started producing their Single Action Army revolvers in .45 which was available in many popular barrel lengths, calibers, finishes, actions, and styles. One of the more popular variations is the Colt "Sheriff’s Model" which was also known as the "Storekeeper's Model."

I've read where the "Sheriff's Model" had a 3 inch barrel, and the "Storekeeper's Model" had a 4 inch barrel.

Among the lawmen of the time, none other than Bat Masterson special ordered a few .45 Colt Single Action Army revolvers over the years. Supposed there was one that he ordered which was supposed to have a 5 1/2 inch barrel, but all of the others were ordered with a 4 3/4 inch barrel.

In the Colt archives is a letter dated July 25th, 1885, from Bat Masterson written on the stationery of the Opera House Saloon, Dodge City, Kansas, ordering a new revolver in which he states:

"Please send me one of your nickel-plated short .45 Calibre revolvers, it is for my own use, and for that reason I would like to have a little Extra pains taken with it. I am willing to pay Extra for Extra work. Make it very easy on trigger and have the front sight a little higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this kind, put on a gutta percha handle and send it as soon as possible. Have the barrel about the same length as the Ejector rod is. 
Truly Yours, W.B. Masterson.”

The pistol to the right is said to have belonged to Bat Masterson. In August of 2015, that 1882 .45 Colt Single Action Army Revolver with its 4 3/4 inch barrel, ivory grips, and a nickel-plated finish was reported to have commanded $96,000 at an auction.

So why would Bat Masterson order a "short .45" with a 4 3/4 inch barrel for his personal use as a lawman versus ordering a Sheriff'sModel with an even shorter barrel? 

Well, I believe it was so that his pistol would've had the standard ejection rod. The shorter barreled Sheriff's Model, or Storekeeper Model, came without an ejector rod and reloading it was a chore if one needed to do just that. If the gun wasn't clean and the spent shells didn't fall out easily, then it was known that a shooter had to take a pencil or other object to act as an ejector rod. 

And this leads us to more trivia for you, it is said that Colt did not use the terms "Sheriff's Model" or "Storekeeper Model" in any of its catalogs. Those were designations coined by gun collectors much later in the early 20th century. 

The first Sheriff's Model was produced in 1877 and were known at Colt's Hartford factory as the "ejectorless" Single Action Army.

The reason they were called "ejectorless" is because those guns were simply a Single Action Army built without an ejector rod or ejector rod housing on the barrel.

The reason for the removal of the ejector rod and housing was done to create a simpler, easily concealable, easier-to-carry revolver useful for short engagements where it is believed that only a few shots are fired and one is not involved in a running gun battle. Remember, that as with most gun play, the shootout at the OK Corral demonstrated that most gunfights really only lasted a few seconds on the average. When that now famous gunfight took place in Tombstone, Arizona, it took just over 30 seconds and no one was stopping to try to reload.

So why did Colt produce such guns? 

Well, while we all have seen the Hollywood movie of the lawman armed to the teeth, the reality of the Old West was that not all of the lawmen back in the day wanted to look like they were inviting hoodlums to a gunfight with a brace of Colts around their waist like say Wild Bill Hickok.

Did lawmen wear gunbelts and holsters? Yes, many lawmen did.

As for Wyatt Earp, he certainly did at different times. In fact he once had a pistol fall out of a holster while he was reclining in a Saloon chair, the pistol went off when it hit the floor. It is said that he simply picked it up and left. Another time for Earp, according to his own report, his gunbelt which he had loosened for a more comfortable ride while in the saddle actually fell to around his ankles while standing.

But while many lawmen did wear gunbelts and holsters, more than not back in the day preferred a degree of subtlety to assert an implied respect for the office and the law. Back in the day, lawmen were seen as key members of their communities. While it is said that most were always armed, many dressed down that fact.

Some say it was to lessen the intimidation factor on the public, while others say many dressed like gentlemen instead of looking like cowhands. Remember, Bat Masterson was accused of dressing like an Eastern "dude" or a "dandy" in as far as dress. And actually, the same applied to Luke Short and the Earp brothers.

Though this was the case, whether wearing a holster or not, everyone in town knew that at any given moment, a lawmen could back up the law with a Winchester rifle, a side-by-side shotgun, and pistols if need be.

Bat Masterson
Of course, from everything that I've researched, it appears that more times than not, when it came to pistols, they preferred the shorter barreled pistols and the "ejectorless" Colt Sheriff's Model in .45 under their coat or butt forward in a trouser pocket -- like say how Luke Short wore his in a reinforced trouser pocket.

If you think Luke Short is not a good example, then remember that Bat Masterson preferred a Peacemakers with a shorter 4 3/4 inch barrel instead of the standard longer 7 1/2 inch barrel. He wanted it shorter so it would fit easier carried under a coat.

And also, as for concealability, remember that according to their own court testimonies later, none of the Earp brothers wore holsters and in fact carried their pistols concealed in or under their coats at the OK Corral.

Virgil Earp testified that he had his pistol in the trouser waistband and slid it behind his back as he carried Doc Holliday's walking stick in his right hand. He testified that upon seeing the Clantons and McLaurys armed, he switched the walking stick to his left hand and pulled his coat back to get to his pistol in the small of his back.

And that's the point, while Stuart Lake stated that the Buntline Special was designed to supposedly help Wyatt Earp and the other lawmen pistol-whip drunks and act as a rifle, Lake obviously didn't know that lawmen were more concerned about concealment and being able to get their pistol into play faster.

Just as it is today, people at the time knew that most gunfights take place within 3 to 7 feet, and usually no more than 20 feet, from an assailant. A smaller pistol is easier to get into action than a cumbersome long gun.

Colt's Sheriff Models were produced by special order, fitting them with barrels of any length the customer wanted. And yes, eventually, it became obvious that either the 3 or 4-inch barrels were the most popular.

Here is a Colt Model 1877 Lightning double action revolver in the "Sheriff's Model" with a 2 and a half inch barrel.

This is what was being used by more citizens and lawmen alike. And frankly, I truly believe that a pistol with a 12 inch barrel as described by Stuart Lake would have gotten the wearer killed!

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. Tom, well written. I've looked at this issue for a few years as a descendant of an Old West lawman And private man who made arrests. I agree that the 4 3/4" barrel would have been likely preferred but also am partial to the notion that .44 caliber would have had more utility since .44/40 ammo could also be used in the 1873 Winchester. Just seems logical to me. BTW, my interest begins in the 1850's through the 1890's so there's an interesting history of "choice".

  2. Great article, writing and website Tom. As a young man working in the wilderness of Idaho I met Elmer Keith and he tutored me on the use of pistols. He liked big calibers. Thus I carried a .45 Colt bird's head with 3" barrel/ejector all my life. I liked having something shorter for the convenience of packing it on the trail and in the saddle. Charlie

  3. Interesting article and a great looking website. Thanks for all your work!

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