F.lli Pietta’s tribute to the other very famous Bat MastersonHero of the B&W television frontier 2/3
During his tenure in Dodge City, which was also the County Seat and home to the Ford County Sheriff’s office, Bat appointed many of his old associates as special deputies when situations became thorny. Ford County encompassed some 9,500 square miles, a large portion of southwestern Kansas; a lot of territory into which outlaws could quickly vanish. In their pursuit Bat called upon Wyatt Earp, as well as appointing his younger brother James Masterson and friend Bill Tilghman Deputy Sheriffs. Bat’s other brother Ed, had been appointed City Marshal.
Wyatt Earp, seated second from the left, and Bat Masterson, back row third from the left, in a photo taken around June 10, 1883 after Masterson, Earp, Charlie Bassett (front row far left) and Neal Brown (front row far right) returned to the city to restore their friend Luke Short (standing second from left) to his position as owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Dodge City politics were unraveling in June and the visit from the famous former lawmen soon restored a sense of order to the cow town. Also pictured are W.F. Petillon (back row at far right) and W.H. Harris, (back row far left). The photo came to be known euphemistically as the Dodge City Peace Commission.
In the TV series Bat kept this all in check, dealing out law and order, which had been quite a bit more difficult in 1870’s Dodge City, Kansas. On TV he faced down countless cowboys on rampages through Dodge, and pursued murders, bank robbers, cattle rustlers and thieves, and like the real life Bat Masterson, Gene Barry’s Bat never killed anyone he apprehended. Many were wounded, but none were shot dead. His reputation for having killed 27 men as a peace officer was all legend. The real Bat Masterson had been wise enough to let the tales stand, as fear of his gun was as effective a weapon as the gun itself. Bat only killed one man in a shootout, Melvin A. King.
As noted by TV Western authorities Doug Abbott and Ronald Jackson, between 1949 and the end of the 20th Century there were more than 145 shows either based in the Old West, about the Old West (anthologies like Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater and Death Valley Days), or shows modernized to the present day but still Westerns at heart, like today’s superb Longmire TV series. Bat Masterson lasted for 108 episodes (which would be anywhere from eight to 10 seasons by today’s standards), but only aired from October 8, 1959 to September 21, 1961. Bat Masterson, like Wyatt Earp, was a natural, especially Masterson, since he had lived long enough to write his own story.
Bat Gets His Gun
It’s a shame that with so much documented history on Bat Masterson and his choice in firearms, no one writing, producing or directing the television series was able to get it right when choosing a gun and holster for Gene Barry’s portrayal of Masterson on the NBC television series.
Masterson’s J.S. Collins holster and cartridge belt and one of his eight known Colt Peacemakers, this one in an unusual non-factory engraving pattern and fitted with mother-of-pearl grips. (Original gun and holster William I. Koch collection)
The real Dodge City lawman carried nickel plated 5-1/2 inch Colts and favored drop loop holsters with a deep recurved throat for a quicker draw. And Masterson always wore his holster cross draw style. That was the only fact that the TV series got right. Gene Barry’s Bat Masterson, properly dressed with cane and derby hat, was armed with a nickel plated 3-1/2 inch (sometimes 4-inch) barrel length Colt throughout the show’s 108 episodes. And adding insult to injury rather than Colt’s handsome black hard rubber Eagle grips, or Bat’s occasional preference for mother of pearl grips, the plain nickel plated TV gun used stag grips.
The latter was one of the most popular features of a hero gun during the great era of B&W and later color TV westerns of the 1950’s and 1960’s. For Masterson and Matt Dillon, among others, stag was unmistakable. Matt Dillon’s blued 7-1/2 inch Colt Single Action and Masterson’s 3-1/2 and 4-inch nickel plated Peacemakers were actually fitted with Franzite (molded plastic) stag pattern grips which were durable, inexpensive and easy to replace if damaged.
Franzite grips were hollow, which made them light and also easily broken if the gun got dropped hard. But they were inexpensive and an extra pair was always on hand for the prop man to replace. Of course, stag grips really weren’t used on Colt revolvers back in Bat Masterson’s day; they were either walnut, ebony, mother of pearl, hand-carved ivory, or the latest Colt hard rubber Eagle and shield grips, introduced in 1882 and offered by Colt’s up to 1896.
More to the point, television westerns (and movies) were just based on history and the characters were just that, “characters”, even the ones who were once real people like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. The subtle impact of that marvelous invention called television was that a lot of people took westerns for historic gospel (especially shows like the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.)
Gene Barry played Bat’s occasional bent for gentlemanly attire to the hilt, and made certain that the stag gripped Colt always got in the shot. Barry was fit and light on his feet, just like Hugh O’Brian, and both actors made use of these abilities in their respective roles.
To create a memorable television character, particularly for a western, it required three essential elements, (aside from a good actor); a memorable gun, an interesting holster, and an even more interesting hat. Bat Masterson’s real life story supplied all three! They almost got it right.
As for the holster Gene Barry used as Bat Masterson, it was strictly a fast draw TV rig with a steep cross draw cant and worn on a narrow trouser-width belt along with the seldom seen ammo slide that carried an extra dozen rounds. Bat was good with his fists and his cane, and reloads were seldom seen. In real life Masterson carried plenty of ammunition for the Colt Peacemaker and for his famous “Big Fifty,” Masterson’s .54 caliber Sharps rifle which was never too far from hand when he left the confines of Dodge City and headed out after an outlaw. Life during the Golden Age of B&W TV Westerns, on the other hand, was a lot less complicated in 30 minutes.