50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
The Buntline Special is kind of like a unicorn. It’s a mythical entity that exists in literature and has been brought to life in films. After all, if there is one thing that Hollywood does well, it is create legends and, in so doing, make them real.
Cimarron Fire Arm’s replica of the 10-inch barreled Buntline Special used by Kurt Russell starring as Wyatt Earp in the motion picture, Tombstone. It is shown with an original first edition of Stuart Lake’s book that started the Buntline legend.
By common definition, a Buntline Special is an otherwise standard .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army that has a longer than average barrel, usually 12 inches, but also sometimes seen as 10 inches. However, a few Buntline Specials—primarily commemoratives—have been made with 16- and 18-inch tubes, which qualifies them, under modern gun laws, to be outfitted with detachable skeleton shoulder stocks, as were some of the “originals.”
The legend of the Buntline Special was first brought to the public’s attention, in 1931, with the publication of author Stuart N. Lake’s widely-read book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, a biography that Lake wrote after interviewing the aging ex-lawman shortly before his death in Los Angeles, California. In his book, Lake recounts Earp telling him that, back in the 1880s, a flamboyant writer of dime novel adventures named Edward Zane Carroll Judson, who used the pen name Ned Buntline, presented Earp and four other Dodge City lawmen—Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett and Neal Brown—with identical, specially ordered Peacemakers, all of which bore walnut grips and were fitted with foot-long barrels.
Unfortunately, the facts don’t quite substantiate the story. While it is true that customers could pay a dollar an inch for any Colt Model P barrel length over 71⁄2 inches, and approximately 31 such guns with barrels ranging from 10 to 16 inches were produced by the factory from 1876 through 1884, there is no record nor evidence that Earp or any of the other four lawmen were recipients of these “Buntline Specials,” as they have come to be called. Moreover, historical facts suggest that not all four of these individuals were in Dodge City at the same time, which would have made such a group presentation impossible.
Nonetheless, the story was too good to ignore. It was during the golden years of television Westerns, with back-to-back nightly showdowns on various networks between the likes of Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, and Maverick that the legend of the Buntline Special was revived. Specifically, it was with an extremely popular TV series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which aired from 1955 until 1961 and starred Hugh O’Brian as Marshal Earp. In one of the episodes during the second year of the series, the marshal is presented with a special 12-inch barreled Colt single-action by Judson, played by actor, writer, and director Lloyd Corrigan.
By the next episode, Earp’s double buscadero rig, in which O’Brian had previously packed two 43⁄4-inch Colt .45s, now featured a highly exaggerated drop on an elongated right-hand holster to accommodate clearing leather in a timely manner with the elongated hogleg.
Colt’s made Buntline Specials with 12-inch barrels in both second (shown) and third generation guns.
Marshall Earp wasn’t the only one who had to have a Buntline Special. We all wanted to be like Wyatt Earp—or at least own the same stretch-barreled sixgun Hugh O’Brian was able to draw with amazing dexterity on the show. Thus, just as the TV Westerns and the resultant sport of fast draw had corralled Colt’s into bringing back its Model P, in 1955, the Earp-mania phenomenon caused by The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp had created a growing market for the Buntline Special. After all, there were already Buntline Special cap guns for kids—why shouldn’t adults have something to play with, too?
Finally, in 1958, Colt’s again yielded to demand and brought out the Buntline Special, a .45-caliber Single Action Army fitted with a 12-inch barrel that was roll marked “Colt Buntline Special .45.” The guns were serial numbered in the same SA suffix range as standard second generation Peacemakers, but, up through the late 1960s, the underside of the barrels had a three- or four-digit special BB (Buntline Barrel) assembly number on the underside of their barrels; this has no relation to the Buntline’s serial number. Most of these guns were blued and case hardened with rubber stocks, but some had two-piece walnut grips, and 65 of the guns were nickeled. The Buntline Special remained in the line until 1975, with a total of 4,060 second generation Buntlines produced. It continued to be made as third generation guns, finally being discontinued in 1988.
Hugh O’Brian shows off one of the few Buntline Colts produced, in 2010, as a very limited edition Hugh O’Brian-Wyatt Earp Tribute Buntline cased set, which came with a matching 43⁄4-inch Peacemaker. John Bianchi made an equally limited run of special two-gun holsters.
Later on, a few commemoratives were produced to use up leftover parts, and some Buntlines were also chambered in .44-40. During the 1980s and ’90s, a number of Buntlines had their barrels swapped out to become lengths of 43⁄4, or 71⁄2 inches, as, at that time, those barrel lengths were bringing more money on the used gun market. Of course, that makes finding original Buntlines a little more difficult nowadays.
Although Colt’s is not currently producing the third generation Buntline Special, in 2010, it made a very limited edition Hugh O’Brian-Wyatt Earp Tribute Buntline cased set, which came with a matching 43⁄4-inch Peacemaker. Then, inspired by the 1993 film Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell, Cimarron brought out a 10-inch barreled .45-caliber Wyatt Earp Buntline, complete with sterling silver-inlaid grip presentation plaque. Interestingly, the 10-inch version used in the movie sported a brass plaque engraved by craftsman John Ennis, and there were actually three, consecutively numbered Buntlines used in the movie, one of which is now owned by Kurt Russell, who played Wyatt Earp. Like the movie guns, Cimarron’s Buntline is made by Uberti (the movie guns used Colt’s barrels).
Whether Cimarron or Colt’s, everyone should have a Buntline Special, just for the nostalgic fun of it. Admittedly, it’s not a six-shooter you’ll be packing around a lot, and, if you do, you’ll have to get a custom holster made for it. But even though there is a bit of a perceived “whip” to the barrel when you pull the trigger, they are accurate plinkers, definite conversation starters, and help us relive the glory days of the TV West.