Mike Searson gives us some history of the Buntline Special Pistol with a bonus review of the Cimarron Wyatt Earp Buntline revolver.
USA – -(AmmoLand.com)- While most of us are happy with our semiautomatic striker-fired pistols these days, the old tried-and-true revolver seems to keep poking its head up and making a comeback of sorts. Either as a small concealed carry model or in a large frame Magnum more suitable for hunting.
With some sporting barrels in excess of 8″ in length, these modern-day hand cannons owe their lineage to a firearm that never quite existed known as the “Buntline Special” and tied to the frontier lawman, Wyatt Earp (1848-1929).
Buntline Special Pistol: Origins
In 1931, Stuart N. Lake wrote a mostly fictional biography of Wyatt Earp titled Frontier Marshall. According to this book, dime novelist Ned Buntline commissioned the production of five “Buntline Specials”.
These were Colt Single Action Army revolvers made with 12-inch barrels that were equipped with detachable walnut shoulder stocks so that they could serve double duty as a rifle and hand-tooled holsters. The stocks had a buckskin thong to carry it on a belt or saddle horn and Ned Buntline’s first name carved deep in the wood.
Buntline allegedly gave them to five lawmen, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett and Neil Brown in the Summer of 1876 in Dodge City, Kansas, as a gesture of thanks for “the color they supplied” to his western novels.
It sounds cool, but there are a few problems with this story.
In the Summer of 1876 Wyatt and Morgan Earp were prospecting for gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory and Wyatt was under indictment for murder in Dodge City, so he was in no hurry to show his face there.
Bat Masterson had some fame at the time for his role in the Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874 and as a Scout for the Army but would not become a lawman until 1878. Neil Brown would not be appointed as a Marshall until 1879 and Tilghman not until 1884, two years before Buntline’s death in 1886.
None of these figures were particularly well-known outside of Dodge City or Ford County in 1876 and none of them were the subjects of pulp novels. Most significantly was that Ned Buntline’s books were mostly about adventures on sailing ships and the extent of his Western work had to do with promoting Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
You might think, “If the book was written 50 years after the fact, maybe some of the finer details were incorrect”. That is a valid point, but of all the old-time firearm manufacturers, Colt has probably kept the best records and Colt’s records show no purchase of revolvers of this type by Buntline.
Furthermore, personal journals kept by Buntline only reveal that he traveled west of the Mississippi once in his life and that was in 1869, four years before the invention of the Colt Single Action Army Revolver.
In Frontier Marshall, Lake goes on to say that Earp carried the Buntline throughout his career as a lawman, including the Clanton-McLaury gunfight that took place on October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona. This shootout took place in a vacant lot behind C.S. Fly’s photography studio down the street from the OK Corral and may be the most documented gunfight in history, even if they got the name wrong.
Lake writes of this incident:
‘Fast as the two rustlers were at getting into action from a start with guns half-drawn, Wyatt Earp was deadlier. Frank McLaury’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 McLaury squarely in the abdomen, just above the belt buckle.’
According to court transcripts, Earp was armed with an 1869 Smith & Wesson Model 3 in 44 Russian that Mayor John Clum had given him. There is no mention of any revolver referred to as a Buntline Special in Earp’s hands or anyone else’s prior to Lake’s 1931 story.
In another excerpt Lake writes that Earp forgot he was wearing his Buntline when asked to referee the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight in San Francisco in 1896:
‘I had completely forgotten how I was dressed,’ Wyatt recalled, ‘and there on my right hip, the old Buntline forty-five with its twelve-inch barrel and the walnut butt, stuck out like a cannon. I know I turned red to my heels as I unbuckled the gun and handed it to Police captain Whitman, who sat at the ringside.’
Lake never expected anyone to dig up a 35-year-old article from The San Francisco Examiner at the time his book was published, but they reported on December 4, 1896: “The offending weapon is of the pattern known as the ‘Frontier Colts.’ It is of 45-caliber, single action and has an eight-inch barrel.”
The Modern Buntline Revolver
Some historians believe that the origin of this revolver came from the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 where a few longer barreled Colts were on display. An interesting Tombstone connection is that Buckskin Frank Leslie is said to have ordered one with a 16” barrel and shoulder stock and it may have been on display in a Tombstone gun shop.
Colt did manufacture longer barreled revolvers. They were few and far between but could be had in 10″ and even 16″ lengths. Some were sold as buggy rifles such as Frank Leslie’s with the detachable shoulder stock and according to factory records, about 30 were made and none were ever shipped to Buntline, Earp, Masterson, Brown, Bassett or Tilghman. Colt never referred to them as Buntline Specials, however until 1957 when they released one due to the popularity of the television show The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp and Hugh O’Brien, portraying Earp, carried a 12″ model.
Over the years, other manufacturers such as Ruger, Uberti, Heritage, Cimarron, Pietta and even Smith & Wesson offered longer barreled revolvers. In the cases of Ruger and Smith & Wesson, these were intended to be sporting revolvers relying on the longer barrel for improved Magnum cartridge performance and improved sights or scope mounts for better accuracy.
They are a bit unwieldy for daily carry by a lawman.
Recently we looked at the Heritage Arms Rough Rider with a 16” barrel and had a great time shooting it.
Next we will take a look at one of the finer Buntline recreations: Cimarron’s Wyatt Earp Frontier Buntline
Cimarron’s Wyatt Earp Frontier Buntline
If you have ever seen the 1993 movie, Tombstone, you have seen this revolver used on the screen. Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell, removes it from a box and you know it is a different revolver than all others by its barrel length and by the silver badge inlaid in the right side of the grip, suggesting it was a retirement gift to Earp from the people of Dodge City.
It’s a cool movie addition, just not one based in reality but Cimarron has reproduced this firearm down to the last detail.
The frame is the “Black Powder” type, meaning it requires a screw as opposed to a button to remove the ejector rod for disassembly because it would be correct for the period. It is case hardened along with the hammer and trigger with the barrel and grip frame being blue.
It balances well for its size and is one of the few single-actions you get a pass on for shooting with a two-handed grip.
As it is a clone of the original Single Action Army, only fire SAAMI approved loads through this revolver. Leave the Buffalo Bore and “Ruger Only” loads at home or you will end up with a bag of parts and a blown cylinder and top strap. I used some Aguila 200 grain Cowboy loads which are loaded to 600 fps out of a 5.5″ bbl and found them traveling at just over 1000 fps with this longer bbl.
I tried it out at 75 feet (25 yards) wondering if the longer barrel on such a mild load would help it at all.
My first group was shot one-handed and while standing. It measured about 3.75” apart at the widest points and 5-6” lower than my point of aim. This is common with Colt SAA’s and their clones, as well as with Ruger Vaqueros. When you find your ideal load and range, you file down the front sight to raise the point of impact.
Keeping in mind where my point of impact was, I adjusted my point of aim to compensate and tried the next few strings with a firm two-handed grip. Eventually, I shrunk my 5-shot group down to 1.68”.
It may come across as a bit impractical to use as a SASS gun or wear around the ranch for use against varmints, but it is actually a well balanced and accurate revolver. Its most realistic application may be in the hands of fans who love the 1993 Tombstone movie or the Western genre as a whole.
- Caliber: 45 Colt
- Barrel Length: 10”
- Frame: Old Model Case Hardened
- Finish : Standard Blue
- Grips : 1 Piece Walnut with Silver Inlaid Medallion
- Weight: 2.69 Lbs.
- MSRP: $873.83