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Wyatt Earp and the Buntline Myth
by Dennis Adler
In the John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, newspaper editor Maxwell Scott has the most memorable line in the film: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” However astute that remark may have been in the 1962 John Ford western, when it comes to dime novelist Ned Buntline and the long-barreled Colts he purportedly had built and then gave away to famous Western lawmen, the “legend” has become the fact.
The Earp Buntline Myth
Wyatt Earp is arguably the most famous western personality outside of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok.
No other trio of real life individuals have had so many stories written about them or movies made about their lives, and in each telling of the tales the facts have become more and more obscured; the casualties of literary license.
In the absence of any documentation that Buntline contracted with Colt’s to make the first 16-inch barreled models, introduced in 1876, or any proof that he purchased guns from Colt’s to present to famous frontier lawmen like Earp, Charlie Bassett, Bat Masterson, Neal Brown and Bill Tilghman, or any corroboration that these men ever carried or owned such a gun, the Buntline tale becomes nothing more than a story.
Considering that Buntline built his early literary reputation on his writings about Buffalo Bill Cody, it seems all the more curious that Buntline never made mention of presenting one to Cody, who would have been the logical choice.
That said there is no question that Colt’s built the guns which were first shown at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. The original guns are rare by any measure of comparison, only 28 are listed as having been manufactured in the 1870s with the first shipment of four being delivered to B. Kittredge & Co. of Cincinnati in December 1877.
That in itself dispels Buntline’s claim of having presented guns to Earp and others in 1876.
There is, however, one truth in all of this, that the Buntline publicity, manufactured or not, prompted Colt’s to build a “Buntline” model in the 20th century, first in the 2nd Generation line from 1957 to 1975, both in standard and target variations, the latter from 1962 to 1967; the Wyatt Earp Buntline in 1964; and within the 3rd Generation “New Model” SAA line, the Ned Buntline model introduced in 1979.
Currently the Buntline Special is back in production as part of a special two gun Wyatt Earp/Hugh O’Brian cased commemorative set.
In his 1976 book, Wyatt Earp & the “Buntline Special” Myth, author William B. Shillingberg took the Buntline tale to task at every possible turn disproving any connection between the long barreled Colt revolvers and the lawmen to whom Ned Buntline claimed to have presented them.
“It is accepted by many as historical fact inexorably liked to Wyatt Earp’s actual life,” wrote Shillingberg. “We are told again and again of dime novelist Ned Buntline giving such guns to Earp and four other worthy Dodge City peace officers sometime during the summer of 1876.
The talented journalist Stuart N. Lake, who understood the value of dramatic devices, first published this story [in 1931] and countless persons have been retelling it since.
Dare question the tale’s authenticity in some circles and you are greeted with gasps of disbelief and shown, as an antidote to your foolishness, passage after passage from Lake’s highly controversial book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.” Adding further credence to the Buntline story, Stuart Lake was the historical consultant on the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp television show starring Hugh O’Brian, which finally made the Buntline iconic in the American narrative of the Old West.
The only factual truth is that Wyatt Earp did, at one time, own a Colt Single Action with a 10-inch barrel, one of several barrel length variations made by Colts after 1876.
Earp never mentioned another long barreled Colt and none was found among his possessions at the time of his death in 1929. However, in Lake’s book he quotes Wyatt as having said, “There was a lot of talk in Dodge about the special slowing us on the draw. Bat and Bill Tilghman cut off the barrels to make them standard length, but Bassett, Brown, and I kept ours as they came. Mine was my favorite over any other gun.
I could jerk it as fast as I could my old one and I carried it on my right hip throughout my career as a marshal. With it I did most of the six-gun work I had to do. My second gun, which I carried on my left hip, was the standard Colt’s frontier model forty-five caliber, single action six-shooter with the seven-and-one-half-inch barrel, the gun we called the "Peacemaker"
As it turns out, Lake made up a lot of what was in his book, and Wyatt Earp died two years before it was published. There is no factual proof that Ned Buntline ever met Wyatt Earp, and if he did, it wasn’t in 1876. One thing is for certain; both of the Buntline Special’s champions were authors looking for a way to make Wyatt Earp larger than life. And it seems they succeeded, though Earp certainly didn’t need the help.