History of the 1873 Buntline Special

June 1, 2019
History of the 1873 Buntline Special

The now-infamous 12-inch barreled .45 Colt Single Action Army revolver has a murky history. The revolver rifle was supposedly manufactured especially for Ned Buntline, the pseudonym of witty writer Edward Zane Carroll Judson. However, upon further examination, it seems that Colt manufactured these firearms as showpieces, and the barrel lengths weren’t as large as the rumors claimed them to be.

Nevertheless, the Buntline Special Colt model persisted as a legendary gun given to some of the most ruthless gunfighters in history, including Wyatt Earp. Colt took advantage of this notoriety surrounding the firearm and officially debuted the Buntline Special in 1957. This is the gun that is featured in historically lauded TV shows such as Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and The Restless Gun.

Ned Buntline

Ned Buntline was born Edward Zane Carroll Judson in Harpersfield, New York on March 20, 1821. As a boy, Edward displayed a penchant for marksmanship, which was fostered by his father who purchased a seven-pound rifle for Edward when he was just eight years old. However, his father was also an authoritarian figure with very little humor for rebellion or disobedience. This caused Edward to act out more.

Edward’s father was determined to have Edward follow in his footsteps as a lawyer, but Edward was increasingly disillusioned and bored by legal studies. At 11 years old, he ran away from home and became a cabin boy for a ship that sailed around Cape Horn. He returned home to visit, but his father disowned him in anger, and Edward became Ned and apprenticed to become a sailor.

After rescuing the occupants of a small craft when he was just 13 years old, Ned was awarded a commission as a midshipman with the Navy by President Van Buren. Ned served in this position from 1838-1942. Ned began writing and sending his work to various publications, and his first story was published in Knickerbocker Magazine in 1838 under the penname “Ned Buntline.”

Pre-war, Ned became a prolific writer and editor and is rumored to have made a healthy living of $20,000 a year by his own pen. He joined the Union Army during the Civil War but is said to have been dishonorably discharged for perpetual drunkenness before the end of the war.

After leaving the military, Ned was involved in a series of legal woes and indictments, while continuing to edit and write for his publication Ned Buntline’s Own. He shot and killed a man named Robert Porterfield in 1845, and a lynch mob attempted to kill him in revenge. During the melee, Ned did not successfully make a jump between two buildings and fell 50 feet to the ground, permanently crippling his leg. Ned managed to escape after being hanged and shot and later returned to court to plead self-defense, which he won.

When he returned to New York City to edit his publication, he began to write in support of political uprisings. Police say he was one of the primary instigators of the Astor Place Opera House riots in 1849, which resulted in 23 deaths.

Ned Buntline as a Western Pulp Fiction Writer

Ned Buntline met William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody in 1869 at Fort McPherson, Nebraska. He was so taken by Buffalo Bill’s persona that he turned him into a character for four Buffalo Bill adventure stories. The first one he titled, Buffalo Bill, the King of Border Men! in 1869. These novels were later expounded upon by other authors.

Ned also wrote a play about Buffalo Bill’s life titled, Scouts of the Prairie, which Cody starred in. While critics generally disparaged it, it was a popular success and helped push forward the romantic notion of the Wild West.

During this timeframe, Ned was married no less than six times. Because records were so spotty, there were at least three marriages that did not become officially recorded until after the Charlestown Advertiser accused Ned of bigamy. He married his final wife, Anna Fuller, in 1871, and she remained his wife until he died of congestive heart failure in 1886.

Buntline’s dime stories became a legend, building the romanticized ideal of the Wild West and the famous outlaws who roamed it. He glamorized murder and other crimes and may have inspired the likes of the Doolin Gang.

The Buntline Special

While Buntline never explicitly wrote about the mythical Buntline Special, he is rumored to have talked about commissioning five 12-inch barreled .45 Colt Single Action Army revolver rifles for five special Western gunfighters: Wyatt Earp, Neil Brown, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Charlie Bassett. This rumor was put in print in 1931 by Earp biographer Stuart N. Lake, although his biography is now thought to be largely a work of fiction. According to Lake, Buntline gifted these revolver rifles to the lawmen for their contributions to his Western stories. Buntline is supposed to have presented these firearms to the men in Dodge City, Kansas in 1876.

The Buntline Special had removable shoulder stocks, and the wooden grips had “Ned” ceremoniously carved into them. Biographers, historians, and other firearm enthusiasts have been unable to substantiate this claim. Furthermore, historians have been able to document that Ned spent the years of 1876 and 1877 east of the Mississippi, while only Earp, Bassett, and Masterson were reportedly in or near Dodge City during that period.

Nevertheless, Lake’s biography about Wyatt Earp became a national sensation and inspired a renewed interest in Earp’s cult of personality. The Buntline Special became the forefront of the stories about Earp, especially as he took down rogue cowboys while protecting Dodge City.

While the use of the Colt Buntline Special cannot be corroborated, Earp did favor long-barreled pistols. The infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881 highlighted Earp’s preference for the revolver rifle genre when he used a Smith & Wesson .44 caliber 1869 pistol with an eight-inch barrel. However, this gun was gifted to him by John Clum, Tombstone, Arizona’s mayor, and newspaper editor.

However, that is not to say that Colt was not manufacturing revolver rifles during this period. In fact, they displayed Single Action Army revolvers with 16-inch barrels regularly at trade shows and gun shows throughout the country. However, these were never sold to the public and only used as show items called “Buggy Rifles.” It’s thought that about 31 of these “rifles” were produced solely for presentation purposes.

The Reemergence of the Buntline Special

Stuart N. Lake’s biography of Earp catapulted Earp into the realm of Wild West heroes. At the time of Lake’s publication, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was the most well-known Western folk hero of his time. In fact, Buntline himself is rumored to have sought out Wild Bill to interview him for his paper, but in his eagerness, he snuck up on Hickok and startled him in a saloon, prompting Hickok to threaten Buntline if he didn’t get out of town.

This prompted Buntline to leave town, and he ended up in Fort McPherson, Nebraska, where he met Buffalo Bill Cody. Buntline found Cody to be far more intriguing than Hickok, and thus Buffalo Bill became the star character of his writings.

Lake, wanting to propel Earp forward as a better hero than Hickok, likely saw the Buntline-Buffalo Bill-Earp connection as a unique way to bring Earp to the forefront of Western folklore as the primary hero. By working the legend of the Buntline Special into his biography of Earp, he also propelled the legend of the revolver rifle into the public eye.

Lake’s biography titled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was turned into a movie called Frontier Marshal in 1934. His story was continued in the 1946 movie, My Darling Clementine, and later in 1957 in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In 1955, the ABC TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp debuted and ran with wild popularity for six seasons.

Colt, still one of the most reputable name brands in America, saw the opportunity to manufacture a real Buntline Special, based on the legend, and attach it to the reemerging popularity of Wyatt Earp’s life. In 1957, they began manufacturing replicas of the storied handgun.

The 1957 Buntline Special Reissue

In 1957, Colt began a production rollout of the Buntline Special, featuring a 12-inch barrel with .45 caliber ammunition. Due to the popularity of Wyatt Earp movies and TV shows, they became the gun of choice in many Western movies, TV shows, books, and other American Old West tales. They remained highly popular throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Colt ceased production on these models in 1992.

1873 Buntline by Uberti

Gun manufacturer Uberti USA began production of the 1873 Revolver Carbine and Buntline model, featuring a 16-inch barrel instead of a 12-inch barrel. Uberti specializes in recreating some of the most legendary firearms known in history. They feature four models of the gun:

  • Revolver Carbine
  • Revolver Carbine Target
  • Buntline
  • Buntline Target

All models feature a case-hardened frame, backstrap, and trigger guard. The Buntline has both a ramped front target sight and an adjustable rear blade sight. The Revolver Carbine comes with fixed sights.


Cimarron Wyatt Earp Buntline

Cimarron currently produces a Wyatt Earp Buntline revolver rifle styled after the 1993 movie Tombstone, a movie about Wyatt Earp and his brothers who have to rid the town of Tombstone, Arizona from an unlawful gang of Cowboys, led by “Curly Bill.” This firearm still remains one of the most popular handguns for sale on the market, largely due to its continued connection to the Wyatt Earp folklore.

The Cimarron Wyatt Earp Buntline features an old model hardened case frame with a 10-inch barrel. The gun weighs in at 2.69 pounds, and the grip is walnut with an inlaid silver medallion. It continues the .45 caliber tradition and can hold six rounds. It has a traditional blued finish with fixed sights.

While it’s not a particularly cheap handgun, it packs a lot of punch for the price. The finished, sleek look of the grip combined with the 10-inch blued barrel makes it look quite rich. For a historic replica, the price is actually quite right.

The 31 Buggy Rifles

The Colt Single Action Army “Buggy Rifles” produced in the early 1870s are extremely rare. Of the 31 known to have been produced by Colt, only 18 remain documented in collections around the world. Of those 18 revolvers, only 10 are documented to have 16-inch barrels, making them extremely rare.

Occasionally, one or two of these original 31 Colt Single Action Army revolvers will come up for sale at auction, usually netting between $200,000-$600,000, depending on their rarity. Because of the difficulty in finding these original gems, they are often thought of as the “Holy Grail” of revolvers and likely bolstered in their infamy by the legend of Ned Buntline.

Final Thoughts

While historians and gun enthusiasts have been unable to substantiate the claims that Ned Buntline did indeed order and present these fabled revolver rifles to the five famous Western lawmen, the legend persists, nonetheless. There are some true believers out there still, who maintain that because Colt did not keep sale records, there is no way to disprove that Ned did not order five such handguns for these men.

Likewise, they argue that the high annual salary Ned Buntline was said to have been making from his writing and editing would have allowed him to purchase such extravagant gifts for the lawmen. Although Ned died in relative poverty, he was still pulling down an excellent salary in 1876.

Even though the movements of Wyatt Earp and Ned Buntline don’t show their paths crossing in Dodge City in 1876, the folklore and romance of this old, Western meeting still reside in the minds of fans of the men, movies, and genre. Likely, the tall tale-teller Ned Buntline would want nothing less than to have his memory revered in the stories, even if they aren’t true.

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