THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL
"Your wife just called. She said not to get excited. There is plenty of time for you to get home and get cleaned up." I was working the night shift in a factory, going to college in the day time, and we were expecting our first child. I, of course, did get excited as I hurried home. "Relax. There is plenty of time. Take a shower, sit down and watch Wyatt Earp, and it will probably be time to go."
Hugh O'Brian rapped a couple of malcontents of Dodge City along side the head with his 12" barreled Colt Single Action Army .45 Buntline Special that night and I was the happy father of a beautiful baby girl. To this day, the Buntline Special always brings back pleasant memories of those tough but rewarding days.
That was 1960 and the Buntline Special was just one of many out of the ordinary run of six-shooters used by various heroes of the small screen. In this day of mindless sitcoms, it is hard to realize that in the 1950's and '60's, the Western ruled the airwaves. Every night of the week, ABC, CBS, and NBC competed for viewers with horse opera after horse opera.
Wyatt Earp wasn't the only one to use a Buntline Special. John Payne as Vint Bonner in The Restless Gun carried a normal 4 3/4" Civilian or Gunfighter Model Colt Single Action Army .45 in a typical fast draw holster that was so popular in Westerns of that time. His .45, however, was quite special. When a long range weapon was needed, Vint simply unscrewed the short barrel, reached into his saddle bags, took out a long barrel, replaced the short barrel, added a shoulder stock, and he had a Buntline Special. He did all of this in the field, with no tools, and often while under fire.
In the early episodes of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Hugh O'Brian used what was made to appear like a homemade holster for his Buntline Special. It hung on the right side drop loop of his double set of Arvo Ojala Fast Draw holsters. The barrel protruded well below the bottom of the holster proper which carried a long shank resulting in the barrel of the .45 Colt being well below the knees of Wyatt. Later an Arvo Ojala holster would take the place of the home-made rig. It would have a longer drop on it than the normal Hollywood Fast Draw holsters with the result still being the Buntline Special hanging well down the leg of Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt.
Hugh O'Brian's portrayal of Wyatt Earp was patterned after the Wyatt Earp from Stuart Lake's 1931 biography Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall. In fact, Lake served as consultant on the T.V. series. Lake spent a lot of time with Earp prior to the old lawman's death in Los Angeles in 1929. Lake writes of Earp and the Buntline Special:
"Meanwhile, the fame of Wyatt Earp was spreading beyond the ken of those for whom he solved problems of law and order and the word of his prowess brought Ned Buntline (E. Z. C. Judson) to Dodge. Buntline's prolific pen furnished lurid tales of life on the plains for consumption by any effete world that dwelt east of the Mississippi River and which, in the seventies, demanded that its portraits of Western characters be done in bloody red. Buntline's outstanding literary achievements had been to make William Cody, a buffalo-hunter, into the renowned 'Buffalo Bill', and from the exploits of Wyatt Earp and his associates he now obtained material for hundreds of frontier yarns, few, authentic, but many of the bases of fables still current as facts.
Buntline was so grateful to the Dodge City peace officers for the color they supplied that he set about arming them as befitted their accomplishments. He sent to the Colt's factory for five special forty-five caliber six-guns 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 long range shooting. A buckskin thong slung the stock to belt or saddle-horn when not in use. The walnut butt of each gun had the word 'Ned' carved deeply in the wood and each weapon was accompanied by a hand-tooled holster modeled for the weapon. The author gave a 'Buntline Special'-- as he called the guns -- to Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Neal Brown."
The 'standard' barrel length referred to would be 7 1/2", the original length of the Colt Single Action Army when it appeared in 1873, just three years prior to the Buntline appearing. Forty years ago, as a teenager with quick moves and reflexes (at least quicker than now), I spent a lot of time practicing a fast draw with a pair of 7 1/2" Colt Single Action Army .45's. It is possible, as I did, to get very fast with these long-barrel sixguns, however, I was using Hollywood style Fast Draw holsters with drop loops on the belt and a long shank on the holster to get the gun low for easier drawing.
Earp would not have had such an outfit only having access to holsters of the period. Namely relatively high riding Mexican style holsters that threaded on the cartridge belt. He is quoted by Lake as saying: "There was a lot of talk in Dodge about the specials slowing us down on the draw. Bat and Bill Tilghman cut off the lengths of 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 my six-gun work I had to do. My second gun, which I carried at my left hip, was the standard Colt's frontier model forty-five caliber, single-action six-shooter with the seven-and-one-half-inch barrel, the gun we called 'the Peacemaker'."
Five years later we find Wyatt Earp in Tombstone at the O.K. Corral. Did he have his Buntline Special in the streets of Arizona? Of the five major motion picture made incorporating this event with Wyatt being portrayed by Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Kurt Russell, and Kevin Costner, none show the Buntline Special being used by Earp at the fabled shootout. In the movie TOMBSTONE, Kurt Russell uses a long-barreled sixgun, but the inscription on the grip as he retrieves it from its special case reads that it has been presented to Wyatt Earp by the grateful citizens of Dodge. It also appears to be a 10" rather than a 12" barreled sixgun. Note also that Wyatt starts his "Time of Reckoning" carrying the "Buntline" in a crossdraw mode and ends it with the long barreled sixgun carried on the strong-side. What does Lake say about it?:
"Fast as the two rustlers were getting into action from a start with guns half-drawn, Wyatt Earp was deadlier. Frank McLowery's bullet tore through the skirt of Wyatt's coat on the right, Billy Clanton's ripped the marshal's sleeve, but before either could fire again, Wyatt's Buntline Special roared; the slug struck Frank McLowery squarely in the abdomen, just above his belt buckle."
Lake is not the only one to write of Earp and his Buntline Special. Noted arms collector John S. du Mont adds more information in an article in the April 1955 issue of The American Rifleman.
In 1876, the Centennial Year, an exposition was held in Philadelphia and one of the exhibitors was the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company. Ned Buntline was there covering the event for the New York Weekly. The display featured long barreled Colt Single Action Army pistols first produced in 1876. Of this du Mont says: "While Ned Buntline would like us to believe that he was the originator of these guns, it is apparent that his first sight of them was at the Colt exhibit. It is well to bear in mind that Buntline was not always a believer in the strict factual truth where a good story was concerned."
Also according to du Mont: "Wyatt Earp's Buntline Special continued to be his pet side arm right through his lifetime. He even wore it while referring the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons boxing match in San Francisco, December 2, 1896, and was fined $50 for doing so!"
What happened to Earp's Buntline Special? Somewhere along the line I recall reading that Earp carried his Buntline Special on the front seat of his Model T in later years. Supposedly it was loaned to a friend delivering mail in Nome Alaska and was thrown overboard during a storm to lighten the mail carriers small whaleboat. That means it now lies at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean!
Did Ned Buntline actually present five Buntline Specials to Earp, Masterson, Bassett, Brown, and Tilghman? Probably not. Did Wyatt Earp really use his Buntline throughout his career as a lawman? Possibly.
In the 1870's Colt cataloged standard barrel lengths, however, offered lengths longer than 7 1/2" at $1.00 per inch. Much valuable information is given in A Study of the Colt Single Action Army by Graham, Kopec, and Moore (Taylor Publishing, 1976). This excellent book also pictures two original long-barreled Colt Single Actions, Buntline Specials, with a 12" and a 16" specimen with folding rear sights in their flat top straps. Skeleton stocks are also pictured.
That latter aspect of the Buntline Specials is quite interesting. These stocks were steel and simply formed the outline of a shoulder stock. During the days of the percussion sixguns, the stocks were walnut. Stuart Lake says that Buntlines presented to the five Dodge City peace officers were walnut instead of the proper steel skeleton stocks that were provided with the long barreled Colt Single Action Army sixguns.
In trying to trace Buntline Specials through factory records we run into the problem of just what is a Buntline Special. Does any length of 10" or 12" or more constitute a Buntline, or does a Buntline have to have the folding rear sight to be classified as a Buntline Special?
According to Graham factory records show several shipments of long barreled revolvers without the folding rear sight. When it comes to revolvers with the flat top straps and folding rear sights, Graham pins down the serial number range to that of 28,800 to 28,830, a total of 31 revolvers with only 18 recorded in the factory records. Of these, four are not listed by barrel length, 10 are 16" sixguns, one is a 12", and three are 10" barreled specimens. Three others have been found with what is considered to be 16" barrels. All of the sixguns save three are in .45 Colt chambering. The exceptions are all .44-40's. As one can see we already have a problem with Stuart Lake's having Buntline present five identical long barreled sixguns to the peace officers of Dodge City as there are not five 12" Buntlines found in this serial number range let alone five being shipped in 1876.
The first sixguns to leave the factory in the above noted serial number range occurred in 1876 which jibes with the Ned Buntline-Wyatt Earp timing. Four 16" examples left the Colt factory in December of 1877 and five more came forth in March of 1778. All of these went to B. Kittredge and Co. The first recorded 10" and 12" examples left the factory in 1878, and the last recorded long barreled sixgun, a 16" 'carbine' exited the Hartford plant in 1884.
There is no factory record of five long barreled sixguns going to Ned Buntline in 1876. Does that prove the Buntline Specials were never presented to the five peace officers in Dodge City by Buntline? No. It simply proves that there is no written proof that this occurred. Even today with all our modern computers, as anyone who has ever had to deal with red tape or bureaucracy can attest, records are not always complete. Serial numbers often get mixed up, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. As an example of this, witness the fact that the last serial number assigned to the pre-War Colt Single Actions, those prior to 1941, did not leave the Colt factory until 1972! More than 30 years late as well as 16 years after the advent of the post-War Second Generation Single Actions.
Could Buntline have ordered five sixguns with extra long barrels without the rear sight feature? Could he have ordered these guns through a distributor? Could they have been shipped without being recorded as to their barrel length? All of this is possible.
Did Wyatt Earp have a long barreled sixgun at the O.K. Corral, or even in Tombstone? Earp arrived in Tombstone in December of 1879. Graham records the following letter to the Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company dated January 14th, 1881: "Gentlemen I want a pistol as follows. Colts Frontier Model to take Winchester Cartridges 44 Cal.. the revolver to have a twelve (12) inch barrel, browned, superior finished throughout with carved ivory handle, also send scabbard or belt with everything complete for carrying & cleaning the Pistol answer soon as convenient, stating price and when I can have Pistol by Wells Fargo & Cos. and oblige." What makes this letter significant is that it is signed by Capt N.F. Leslie, known in history as Buckskin Frank Leslie, Box 28, Tombstone Arizona Territory. Did Buckskin see Wyatt's Buntline and want one of his own?
Lake records Earp as saying he could jerk the Buntline Special as fast as his original .45. Speed, of course, is relative. Earp did not have to be fast by today's standards only faster than his peers. In 1957, still a teenager, I bought a "Buntline Special". It was not original of course, simply a pre-War Colt Single Action re-barreled with a 12" barrel. I practiced fast draw with that sixgun using the type of holster that would have been available to Wyatt. I am about the same height as Wyatt Earp, but I found to be able to jerk that sixgun fast, I had to drop my right leg forward and point the knee to the floor to be able to get the long barrel out of the leather. Can you visualize a gunfighter going through such acrobatics? One thing I did learn from this is that if I was going to a gunfight, I would much prefer the short barreled sixgun over the Buntline Special. The 4 3/4" Single Action is probably the fastest from leather for most sixgunners; the 7 1/2" model balances best for me for shooting. The 12" Buntline Special is the hardest to draw and also the worst for shooting off-hand.
Would a savvy lawman actually carry a long-barreled sixgun such as this one and then proclaim that it didn't slow him down at all? Try to visualize Wyatt Earp walking around Dodge City or Tombstone carrying a 7 1/2" .45 on the left hip and a 12" .45 on the right hip. Now try to get an image of him actually drawing the long barreled sixgun. Go a little further and try to visualize Earp sitting at a card table so armed.
Wyatt Earp did indeed go armed when he refereed the Sharkey -Fitzsimmons fight. He entered the ring, took off his coat, and there was his sixgun. The Los Angeles Times reported on December 11, 1896 that Earp was fined the minimum amount of $50 for the infraction. Earp said he carried his sixgun for protection as some from his Arizona days had vowed to kill him and he also worked the race track and was out late at night. Now I can certainly see carrying a single action sixgun concealed under a coat for protection. But a sixgun with a 12" barrel?
In another movie concerning Wyatt Earp, Sunset, James Garner as the aging lawman plays the part of the consultant on a Tom Mix movie about Wyatt Earp. He is often asked; "Is that really the way it happened?" to which he always replied: "Just like that, give or take a lie or two." Perhaps this was the closest to the truth of all Wyatt Earp movies and T.V. shows.
Colt never did refer to their long barreled sixguns of the period as Buntline Specials. Their Single Actions were never officially dubbed Peacemakers either. It was simply the Model P. In 1957 they did tie into the legend of the long barrels with the introduction of the Second Generation Buntline Specials. Instead of the standard barrel marking of "COLT SINGLE ACTION ARMY .45" on the left side of the barrel, all of these modern long barreled .45's are marked "COLT BUNTLINE SPECIAL .45". They are in the same serial number range as other Single Action Army Models however, the early Buntline Specials are numbered on the barrel in front of the cylinder pin also. According to Don Wilkerson's The Post-War Colt Single-Action Army, 1650 Buntlines were produced in 1958, while a total of 4000 blued and 65 nickeled specimens were manufactured totally from 1957 until the last one left the factory in 1974. All Second Generation Buntlines, save one, a 16" model, are 12" barreled .45's. According to George Garton, author of Colt's SAA Post-War Models, 72 Second Generation New Frontier 12" Buntlines were produced, as well as three additional nickel plated but engraved standard Buntline Specials.
It is interesting to note that Buntline Special #15349SA was presented by Colt to a Las Vegas Police Officer in 1959. The officer's name was Walter R. Earp, Jr., a grand nephew of Wyatt Earp. It is also interesting to note the presence of the Buntline Special in the Third Edition of The Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading. The test gun for the reloading data on the .45 Colt is a Bat Masterson/Bill Tilghman style of Buntline Special. The barrel has been cut to 4 3/4"!
The early sales success of the Buntline Special by Colt apparently influenced Ruger. In 1957, two consecutive serial numbered Ruger .44 Flat Tops, #5000 and #5001, were produced with 15" barrels. In 1959, Ruger began producing 10" "Buntline Special" type Flat Top .44 and .357 Magnums with about 1000 of each being manufactured before the end of the Flat Tops in 1963. The Old Model Ruger Blackhawks, produced from 1963 to 1973 were never cataloged with 10" barrels. However, Ruger New Model .44 Magnums are routinely produced in both blue and stainless versions with 10 1/2" barrels. They have been very popular with silhouetters and hunters.
In 1974, Colt stopped production of the Second Generation of Colt Single Action Army sixguns only to return in 1976 with the Third Generation. The latter are marked by a different hammer profile, the lack of a full length cylinder bushing, and a re-designed cylinder ratchet and hand. For some reason known only to Colt, they changed the threads on the barrels cutting off the supply of barrels for all those Colts manufactured from 1873 to 1974 that might be in need of new barrels.
During the first phase of the Third Generation Colts, both Single Action Army and New Frontier Models were available as Buntlines. Today, both the Buntline Special and the New Frontier seem to be a thing of the past with only standard Colt Single Action Army Models being produced in both blue and nickel versions in 4 3/4" and 5 1/2" barrel lengths and in calibers of .38-40, .44-40, and .45 Colt. We keep hearing rumors of 7 1/2" barrels again but I have not seen any.
Buntline Specials may no longer be produced by Colt but they are available. United States Patent Firearms, which occupies the old Colt Armory, is offering Buntline Special replicas. USPFA sixguns are made of Italian parts assembled in this country and beautifully finished.
The Buntline Special is not a very practical sixgun in its 12" barreled Colt Single Action Army .45 version. It is however a piece of history and a lot of fun to shoot. How much a piece of history remains a mystery. It seems that quite often Old West chroniclers subscribed to the credo "When truth differs from the legend, print the legend."