Bat Masterson’s Colt Single Action:Pietta recreates one of the most famous Guns of the Old West -1/3
“Courage to step out and fight to the death with a pistol is but one of three qualities a man must possess in order to last very long in this hazardous business. A man may possess the greatest amount of courage possible and still be a pathetic failure as a ‘gun fighter,’ as men are often called in the West who have gained reputations as ‘man-killers.’ Courage is of little use to a man who essays to arbitrate a difference with a pistol if he is inexperienced in the use of the weapon he is going to use. Then again he may possess both courage and experience and still fail if he lacks deliberation.”
— W. B. Masterson, 1907
By the time Bat Masterson received this handsome, nickel plated six-shooter from Colt’s he was already a legend, as famous as his friends Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, and Bill Tilghman. While most only knew Masterson by his reputation as a Dodge City lawman, or a high-toned dressing gambler, old friends like Earp and Tilghman, who had known Bartholomew Masterson in his youth, remembered him as a roughneck, buckskin clad buffalo hunter, skinner, and Cavalry scout, long before his days as sheriff in the Queen of Cowtowns, and fully a decade before he wrote the letter to Colt’s in July 1885 placing an order for the seventh of eight single action revolvers he would own.
Born in Quebec, Canada, in 1853, the Masterson family had moved to Kansas by the time of the Civil War and both Bat and his older brother Ed would eventually end up in Dodge City as lawmen, but long before Dodge they had made a name for themselves as buffalo hunters, Bat in particular distinguishing himself as a marksman with the Sharps rifle while defending the little hunting settlement of Adobe Walls in 1874 against a combined Comanche and Cheyenne raiding party led by the infamous Quanah Parker.
After a five day siege, Bat and 27 other hunters prevailed and the Indians withdrew. Adobe Walls, an old trading post on the Texas Panhandle, was already famous for a decade old battle during the Civil War where Col. Kit Carson and the men of his expeditionary force had thwarted a Comanche raid on U.S. Cavalry forces sent west to protect settlers on the frontier. Masterson’s Adobe Walls settlement was only about a mile and a half from the site where Carson had been victorious in 1864.
It was during the early 1870s that Bartholomew had decided to change his name to William Barclay Masterson. Most folks already knew him by then as Bart (short for Bartholomew), but he preferred Bat, and the nickname stuck. Still in their early twenties Bat and Ed Masterson befriended several other famous buffalo hunters who were also destined to make a name for themselves in Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, William Tilghman, and Neal Brown. Their lives would be intertwined for decades, particularly Bat’s and Wyatt’s.
The buffalo trade in the early 1870s eventually took the Masterson brothers to an emerging Kansas encampment named Buffalo City, where the Santa Fe railroad would soon pass through to take on shipments of buffalo hides being sent east. A.A. Robinson, the chief engineer of the Santa Fe railroad, had laid out the streets for the little Hell on Wheels Kansas tent city in the summer of 1871 and renamed it Dodge City. It became a hub for buffalo hunters in the spring and in winter a safe haven from the rugged plains. It was here that Bat learned another trade, gambling, and in this too, he excelled.
The Scout and Lawman
Bat had proven himself with both the Sharps rifle and the Colt revolver by the early 1870s and his experience as a buffalo hunter and Indian fighter had made him an ideal choice as a U.S. Cavalry Scout. In 1874 he was hired by Col. Nelson A. Miles.
Masterson scouted for the cavalry until the spring of 1875, when he returned briefly to buffalo hunting. A year later he was involved in his first shootout in Sweetwater, Texas, with a cavalry sergeant named Melvin A. King. The fight was over a woman named Mollie Brennan and as Wyatt Earp wrote of the event, King walked into the Lady Gay saloon and opened fire on Masterson and Brennan, killing her and hitting Bat in the hip. Masterson managed to get his gun into action and cut King down with a clean shot to the heart.
There are several versions of how the shootout unfolded, some with King ambushing Masterson and Brennan, other as a standup gun fight in the Lady Gay, but they all end the same, with Mollie Brennan killed, Bat severely wounded and King dead. The injury left Masterson with a permanent limp and thus the need for what would become his famous cane.
Return to Dodge City
In his absence Dodge City (now part of Ford County, Kansas) had grown from a rough-hewn buffalo camp into a bustling cow town. When Bat returned in the late spring of 1876 he found an unruly city with little law enforcement, a town that the Hays City Sentinel had christened “the Deadwood of Kansas….Her corporate limits are the rendezvous of all the unemployed scally-wagism in seven states. Her principal is polygamy, her code of honor is the morals of thieves, and decency she knows not…” The Kinsley Graphic newspaper was somewhat less kind, naming Dodge the “…the Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the frontier.” And it was in Dodge City where Earp, Charlie Bassett, and the Masterson brothers would earn their early reputations as lawmen settling this unsettled berg.
It has been written that Bat first served as a Dodge City policeman in 1876 under Wyatt Earp, but if so it was short-lived because Masterson spent most of the early part of the year in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where it is possible he purchased the J.C. Collins gunbelt and holster that was one of several rigs he wore as a lawman. Bat’s interest in Cheyenne, however, was strictly the gaming tables where he made a haul before heading back to Dodge.
En route he ran into Wyatt and Morgan Earp in Sidney, Nebraska. They had pulled up stakes in Dodge and Wyatt suggested that if Bat was going back he should run for county sheriff, but no sooner had he arrived than Bill Tilghman and Neal Brown asked Bat if he wanted to take one more run at buffalo hunting. He agreed to team up with them taking his trusty Sharps out of retirement and strapping on his latest Colt six-shooter.
It was during this hunt that Masterson demonstrated his skills with both a revolver and a rifle to the delight of Tilghman, who was no slouch with a six-gun himself. “I’ve seen Bat shoot at a tin cup thrown in the air, with his six-shooter, at twenty-five cents a shot, and make money at it.” As much as he enjoyed trick shooting Bat took the skills of the shootist seriously and noted in one of his 1907 magazine articles, that “…looking through the sights is a very essential thing to do when shooting at an adversary who is returning your fire.”
Masterson’s belief in using the gun’s sights and not shooting from the hip, as he was so often reported to have done, is supported by the first of many written orders for guns sent to Colt’s. In 1879 he requested a custom-tailored, personally inscribed single action, further noting that it be silver plated with Mexican eagles carved in pearl handles and have a front sight slightly higher than normal, his personal preference.
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