I covered this legend briefly in my previous post Gun Myths and Legends and decided it needed a more in depth look.
I know this story has been covered by numerous authors, but few of them ever ask the question of why.
The story of the Buntline Special starts with a little lie told by author Stuart Lake. Mr. Lake wrote a not so accurate biography about the life and times of Wyatt Earp
The book was called: Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshal.
From what I know of Wyatt Earp's life, he was a pretty interesting fellow, so I am not sure why Mr. Lake took so much liberty with the truth.
The story contained within the book tells about some gifts bestowed upon Wyatt Earp, Charlie Basset, Bat Masterson, Neal Brown and Bill Tilghman. According to Lake, a writer by the name of Mr. Ned Buntline ordered a quantity of five Colt Single Action Army model of 1873 revolvers, chambered in 45 Colt outfitted with 12 inch barrels and clamp on wood butt stocks, something like the one below. The frames had special knobs for attaching the upper part of the stock.
The grips were adorned with three letters: "Ned". The guns were supposedly given freely as gifts to the five men.
So who was Ned Buntline? For starters his real name was not Ned Buntline, it was Edward Zane Carroll Judson. Mr Judson was a writer of "dime novels" (what could be considered the tabloids of the time), in 1844 he adopted the nom de plume of Ned Buntline.
Where he picked up his new pseudonym is not known but being a former sailor may have influenced it. A "buntline" is the rope found at the bottom of a square sail.
Introducing Mr. Ned Buntline
Why did Ned supposedly spend a healthy some of money to buy five custom Colt Single Action Army Revolvers for these men? According to Lake it was to "repay" them for adding "color" to his stories.
The problem with that explanation is that not one of these men ever appeared in Buntline's stories, most of his characters were fictional. The second problem is that Ned Buntline died three years before Stuart Lake was born, meaning that any information about this gifting of the revolvers had to have come from someone other than Buntline.
The third problem with the story is that there is no record of anyone ordering these guns. A custom order for five identical 12" barreled guns with custom engraved grips would not have gone unnoticed at Colt, they kept pretty detailed records.
So where did Lake get the idea that Buntline (or someone else) gifted these Colts (or perhaps a different gun) to these men (or perhaps some other well known western characters)?
Colt did indeed make some long barreled revolvers and carbines. According to experts they made somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 of the long barreled guns in 1876. However.....they came in 9, 10 and 16" lengths...not the 12 inch length reported by Lake. Perhaps Lake got the barrel length wrong and they were actually 10" barreled guns?
Colt called these "Buggy Guns" and all of them ended up in the hands of Colt executives and other "friends" of the company. None were sold to members of the general public.
A Colt like the one below was on display at the 1876 World's Fair (with a 16" barrel).
To further muddy the waters is the belief by many that Wyatt Earp used this non-existent 12" barreled Colt in the famous Shootout at the OK Corral (which happened in 1881). This belief stems from nearly 70 years of "Hollywood Propaganda", but it just isn't true.
To add more mystery to the story, the 1993 movie Tombstone shows Wyatt Earp (played by Kurt Russel) retrieving his 12" barreled Buntline Colt from a handsome felt lined walnut case. The camera clearly shows a silver (or brass?) plaque on the grip which makes it appear the gun was a gift from the "grateful people" of Dodge City, with the date of April 8, 1878. The gun is not shown with the shoulder stock and the frame of the movie gun does not have the provisions for mounting the stock.
Were the "people of Dodge City" actually Ned Buntline?
While there is proof that Ned traveled throughout the West, I found nothing about him living in or staying in Dodge City. Furthermore, Wyatt had not yet moved to Dodge City in April of 1878, he was still living in Wichita at that time.
....poetic license I suppose: a screen grab from the movie Tombstone:
Kurt Russel as Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral Shootout with the Buntline Colt from the movie Tombstone
The issue was further muddied when some enterprising collector put a Colt Single Action Army up for sale at an auction, claiming it was the gun used by Earp at the famous gun battle.
The gun (pictured below) is a common 7.5" Calvary model. The serial numbers had been obliterated, but were recoverable. Colt records indicated that the gun was purchased by Wyatt Earp, but no proof exists that this was the gun he used on that fateful day in Tombstone, in fact evidence shows it was not the gun he was armed with.....
This happens a lot with old west guns, it seems everyone has a gun that was once owned by a famous gunslinger.
The mother of Jesse James is famous for having offered guns for sale that she claimed once belonged to her infamous son. In reality they were second hand relics she purchased just to make a few bucks off of gullible tourists.
As as side note, there is a tavern in New Mexico that once had a rifle mounted over the bar with a sign that said, "This is the only gun in New Mexico that was NOT owned by Billy the Kid"......
So is there any truth to Lake's story? Actually there is, at least a little bit.
Wyatt Earp DID carry a long barreled revolver at the OK Corral gunfight, but it was NOT a Colt. It was an 8" barreled Smith & Wesson model 3 (see below) that WAS given to him by friend: John Clum, who happened to be the mayor of Tombstone at the time.....
Wyatt was given a long barreled revolver, He did use that long barreled revolver at the Shootout at the OK Coral..but it was not a Colt, did not have a 12" barrel and it was not given to him by Ned Buntline.
The S&W model 3 with an 8" barrel
Perhaps Stuart Lake heard about the gift of the long barreled revolver, but did not have the specifics of which gun and who gave it to Earp, so he "filled in the blanks" (pardon the firearm pun), added the extra recipients and a unknowingly created a legend. Hollywood ran with the story and history, as we know it, was rewritten.
Ned Buntline and the five supposed recipients of the guns were dead at the time Lake wrote his book, I suppose he could have checked with Josie (Wyatt Earp's widow), but from what I have read the only help she provided the biographer was in making sure Wyatt was made a hero, not much in the way of specific details.
Now we know where the legend came from and why the guns are popular. Here is the rest of the story.
Following the re-introduction of the Colt Single Action Army in 1956, Colt added the 12" barrel as an option. Hollywood's portrayal of Wyatt Earp along with Stuart Lake's book (published in 1931, two years after Wyatt Earp passed) no doubt made buyers clamor for the option.
What then, is the definition of a "Buntline Special"? Does it have to have a 12" barrel? Does it even have to be a Colt?
Seeing as the real "Buntline Special" was actually a Smith & Wesson and only had an 8" barrel, your guess is as good as mine.
Many companies produce long barreled revolvers, some even provide stocks for them (I'm a little fuzzy on the legality of this, I think Thompson/Center Arms sued the BATF about this??.....).
Some even use the name "Buntline" to describe the guns. I don't believe Colt or anyone else ever trademarked the name.
I think a safe definition would be any revolver (preferably single action, but not necessarily so) that has a barrel of 8 inches or longer. I don't know who created the graphic below but it makes sense....
A guide line of Single Action Army models?
Sheriff's model/Shop Keeper = 2" - 3.5" barrel
Gunfighter = 4" - 4.75" barrel
Artillery = 5.5" barrel
Calvary = 7.5" barrel
Buntline Special = 8" - 16" barrel
One thing not often talked about is the difficulty in shooting a revolver with a barrel that long, adding the shoulder stock would not necessarily help as you have no forearm (and for good reason) to support the weight.
Regardless of the origin of the model, it remains popular today.
Uberti offers their Buntline as a revolver or a rifle (note the finger rest at the bottom of the trigger guard....a smart shooter never supports the barrel with their other hand for two reasons: 1. It gets hot real quick and 2. the hot gases & burning powder coming from the cylinder gap will cause a nasty burn and could catch clothes on fire.
Cimarron Arms offers their copy of the Tombstone movie gun
Turnbull manufacturing has offered high quality tribute guns as well
Ruger has offered their Single Six revolver with a 9.5" barrel for a long time now
Ruger's .44 Super Blackhawk also comes with a long barrel, except it is 10.5" long:
Magnum Research makes a 10" barreled version of their BFR
While not currently in their catalog, I would venture to guess that the Colt Custom Shop could build you a 12" barreled Buntline Special
(a 3rd gen Colt Single Action Army)
Smith & Wesson at one time offered their Schofield revolver in a Buntline confirguration
Hollywood has used the Buntline Special in a number of movies that weren't necessarily westerns
Joe Piscapo as Danny Vermin with his "88 Magnum" from the movie Johnny Dangerously
Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier AKA the "Joker" with his 21" barreled S&W model 15 revolver from the 1989 version of Batman
Judge Doom aims a nickle plated Colt Buntline from behind the curtain in the movie Who Framed Rodger Rabbit
Clint Eastwood with his Colt Buntline from the movie City Heat
Here is a collection of pictures of other long barreled "Buntline Specials"
The pictures above were found freely on the world wide web and are used under the guidelines of Fair Use, per Title 17 of the U.S. Code. Where possible the source has been credited.
If you own the copyright to any of these images and wish them to be credited or removed, please contact me immediately.
Guns - Turnbull
Guns - Buntline Special
Sturm, Ruger & Co.
Rock Island Auction
Internet Movie Firearms Database
Internet Movie Firearms Database
Kansas Historical Society