Wyatt’s weapons

A few days ago, somebody paid $225,000 for a revolver carried by Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, perhaps the one he used in the O.K. Corral gunfight. The gun came from the estate of Glenn Boyer, a controversial Earp researcher and collector who died last year.

Was this the revolver Earp carried to the Old West’s most famous gunfight? Maybe, maybe not. The serial number’s been removed, but X-ray tests indicate that it matched a weapon Earp owned. That doesn’t mean he used it at the O.K. Corral, of course. Western researcher Bob Boze Bell writes, “Wyatt Earp owned over two dozen weapons while he was in Tombstone.” Still, any Earp-owned gun is an extremely cool thing to have.

Probably the only eyewitness description we have of Earp’s weaponry on the day of the gunfight comes from a Tombstone butcher named Bauer who witnessed some of the events leading to the shootout. At a hearing held a few weeks later, he claimed under oath that Earp was carrying “an old pistol, pretty large, 14 or 16 inches long, it seemed to me.”

Wyatt Earp in the 1880s. Wikimedia Commons

That’s pretty darned long for a revolver, and way too long for the standard single-action Colts that most people associate with frontier gunslingers. Maybe Bauer was mistaken. Or maybe his testimony reveals a kernel of truth at the core of some gunfighting folklore.

Stuart Lake, one of Wyatt’s early biographers, claimed that dime novelist Ned Buntline was so grateful to Earp and a few fellow Kansas lawmen for providing him with material that he gave each man a custom-made Colt revolver with an extra-long barrel. Put a ten or twelve-inch barrel on a Colt, and you’d end up with a gun long enough to fit Bauer’s description.

The problem is that Lake was to Wyatt Earp what Parson Weems was to George Washington–a biographer who wrote down as much legend as fact. There’s no solid evidence that the “Buntline Special” existed, let alone that Earp had one with him in Tombstone. Colt has no records of any such order.  Some folks have accused Lake of making the whole thing up, but he apparently believed the Buntline story, because he tried to track down the pistol’s whereabouts.

Interestingly, a Tombstone gunfighter named “Buckskin” Frank Leslie ordered a special long-barreled Colt in 1881, the same year as the Earps’ showdown near the O.K. Corral. Did he see Wyatt carrying an extra large pistol and decide he wanted one of his own? Some writers have raised the possibility.

Bauer also testified that Wyatt was wearing a short coat that day, and that he drew his pistol out of one of its pockets, which indicates that he had the gun tucked in his waistband and pulled it through a special pocket slit. But at least one O.K. Corral researcher has argued that Earp put on a specially modified overcoat before the gunfight, one which had deep, customized pockets lined with leather to make a less conspicuous holster for a longer pistol.  And some Earp scholars think he didn’t use any kind of Colt six-shooter at all during the Tombstone shootout, but a Smith & Wesson instead.  As you can tell, there’s quite an extensive secondary literature on the O.K. Corral gunfight, with incredibly minute analyses of who carried which type of gun, who was wearing what, who shot when, and who said what before the shooting started. I’ve seen reconstructions of the armaments and tactics in that tiny Arizona lot that are so painstaking and thorough they’d put any study of Antietam or Gettysburg to shame. It’s a fascinating little historiographical niche.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether Earp owned a souped-up Colt, or which of his guns he used at the O.K. Corral fight. But the uncertainty hasn’t stopped showbiz from customizing Wyatt’s sidearms on the big or small screen. ABC’s Wyatt Earp TV series featured the Buntline, and in the movie Tombstone Kurt Russell’s Earp goes to the shootout armed with a special long-barreled revolver.

Many years ago I got to hold the six-shooter Russell used in the movie, one of many singular experiences that resulted from having a mom who enjoys researching about gunslingers. Maybe someday I’ll blog more about all that. For now, I’ll just say that if you think the Civil War enthusiast community is colorful, you should spend some time in Earpdom.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Wyatt’s weapons

  1. On top of all this, Wyatt Earp had a penchant for exaggeration, as well.

  2. The shootout in Tombstone has probably generated more books and articles than all but the largest Civil War battles, and no shooting event has been so thoroughly examined/analyzed/deconstructed as that, save one that happened in Dallas in 1963. I guess it’s a good example of how, no matter how far you dig into something, there’s always something new to learn (or at least argue about).

    • Michael Lynch

      I think the most intensive reconstructions of the gunfight I’ve seen are in MIchael Hickey’s books. If I recall correctly, his ideas about who shot when differ from most other accounts–Wyatt Earp claimed he and one of the cowboys fired the first shots almost simultaneously, but I think Hickey has Doc and Morgan firing the first shots. I could be wrong about that; it’s been a long time since I read that stuff.

      • You’re trying to make me buy another damn book, aren’t you?

        • Michael Lynch

          Another three books–Hickey wrote a whole trilogy on the gunfight.

          My mom used to have a whole wall of Earp and gunfighter books, but she culled her library years ago, and now it’s down to a few shelves. She managed to get a signed copy of Stuart Lake’s Earp bio somewhere.

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