A 12-inch Blue Steel Beauty
By Dennis Adler
Many western guns have become famous because of their equally famous or infamous owners, but few 19th century handguns have become famous solely by virtue of their existence.
The most notable example appeared in the year of our nation’s Centennial Celebration in 1876. That spring, Philadelphia was astir with the excitement of anticipation as a whole nation well prepared by months of publicity, awaited the May 10th opening of the a at Fairmont Park in Philadelphia. As thousands of Americans waited to enter the grounds, they could see the vast Main Exhibition Building. Beyond were the towers and expanse of Machinery Hall, the Gothic “barns” of Agricultural Hall, the arabesque architectural intricacies of Horticultural Hall, the art galleries of Memorial Hall, and twenty-four state and many other buildings covering 236 acres of exhibits and exhibition grounds. The Colt’s Fire-Arms Manufacturing Co. prepared a massive display cabinet featuring 18 specially engraved Single Action Army models arranged in a central pinwheel. Among other new models displayed in the great cabinet was a very special Single Action Army fitted with an exceptionally long barrel. It represented one of several changes made to the SAA during the 1870s. The model has come to be known as the “Buntline Special”.
Among Colt models, the Buntline is a unique, limited edition revolver with its own history and more than a few tales that have become intertwined with the folklore of the American West.
It is named after dime novelist Ned Buntline, a pseudonym for newspaperman and playwright Edward Zane Carroll Judson. Buntline, incidentally, is a nautical term for a rope at the bottom of a square sail. Judson had served as a midshipman and thought the name was catchy. Apparently he was right.
As a newspaper columnist and dime novelist Ned Buntline helped create Buffalo Bill Cody’s reputation through books and short stories. He even wrote and co-starred in the first play in which famed U.S. cavalry scouts Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody appeared in March 1872.
Despite the renown, infamous or otherwise of his 400 odd dime novels, Ned Buntline is best remembered for the celebrity he brought Colt’s special 16-inch SAA models. These unusual, long-barrel Colts with flat top straps, folding leaf rear sights, and detachable skeleton shoulder stocks, were purportedly presented by Buntline as gifts to some of the more famous members of the Dodge City Peace Commission, including Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, Bat Masterson, and Bill Tilghman.
None of them, however, are known to have carried one of these 16-inch models. In fact, there is no actual record that such presentations were ever made. Wyatt Earp did, however, own a Colt Single Action Army model with a 10-inch barrel and it was this recorded fact that inspired the 10-inch barreled Colt SAA carried by Kurt Russell in the film Tombstone, complete with an engraved silver grip cartouche reading: Wyatt Earp Peacemaker From the Grateful People of Dodge City April 8th 1878. That part, unfortunately, was made up for the film.
The real Wyatt Earp nevertheless noted in his biography that he had owned such a gun.
That the “Buntline Specials” existed has never been disputed, the gun can be clearly seen in a photo of the 1876 Centennial display cabinet.
The question is who owned them and what, if any connection Ned Buntline actually had to them. It would seem logical, at least from an historical perspective, that if Buntline had made gifts of these guns to famous lawmen, he would have presented the first to the man whose real life deeds gave him the fodder for his earliest dime novels, Buffalo Bill Cody.
But even Buntline never made such a claim. Colt’s factory records indicate a total of 18 long barreled models being built in the serial number range 28800 through 28830 beginning in 1876. Colt’s also produced SAA models with 10-inch barrels, such as the one owned by Earp, as well as revolvers fitted with 12-inch barrels. As for the so-called “Buntline Specials,” Colt’s more or less officially recognized them as such in the mid 20th century when they began building them by that name in 1957 as part of the 2nd Generation Colt Single Action Army line.
Since 1976 they have also been available within the 3rd Generation series of SAA models. For more than a century the Buntline Special has remained a legendary gun, even if the legend isn’t true. As they said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The EMF GWII Buntline
The earliest Buntline copies produced outside of Colt’s were first manufactured by the Great Western Arms Company of Los Angeles, California, during the 1950s, when, at the time, it appeared that the Colt’s Manufacturing Co. had discontinued the Single Action Army. Actual production ended in 1940 but Colt’s manufactured a limited number of guns from remaining parts shortly after World War II. The first Great Western SAA models appeared in 1954, and remained in production for almost a decade.