Since the passing of our Old West, legends concerning famous western characters have become so distorted and overworked, they appear more like myths and historical fiction then true history accounts. Case in question – Wyatt Earp, famous U. S. Marshal of Tombstone, Arizona. His outstanding feats and accomplishments both good and bad have been damaged almost beyond belief and reason.
To most historians of western history Wyatt Earp was a courageous man of action and wore his white hat proudly. His legendary feats were quickly lifted to preposterous proportions and he seemed to be the greatest western lawman to pin a tin badge on his shirt. Colorful newspaper and magazine accounts further aided the legend and his reputation rose to greater heights.
But there supposedly was another side to the stories. Over the years more detailed information has surfaced hinting that maybe Wyatt Earp was not so great after all. In fact instead of a hero of the western frontier he was nothing more than a gunfighter, itinerant gambler and a hard-headed saloon keeper. I have my own opinions and remain on the fence. As for further information, I’m sure it will simply add a few more pages to western fiction.
The Old West produced a large number of different varieties of legendary gunfighters. Most of them, good and bad, have received the same treatment as Wyatt Earp. Overnight they became heroes and were headlines in a newspaper. Of course, there were exceptions. Bill Hickok had a somewhat of a mild beginning. So one can have his or her mythical hero anyway they prefer. It depends on what kind of literature you choose to read and feel good after reading. One thing for sure, Wyatt Earp was damn good with a six-gun.
Earp is most often portrayed as a sleepy-eyed, laid back kind of fellow, very fast with a gun, and he knew how to use it to his advantage. You did not want to tangle with the badge totin’ lawman unless you were looking for trouble and had a death wish. Several men tried him but it was Earp that died in his old age. That tells it all.
It is also true that Wyatt Earp came from a large family of fighting men. His father served in our bloody Civil War and later became a lawman. Earp’s brothers, Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren were handy with firearms as well. Some of them later shared in Wyatt’s notoriety as a lawman.
In his personal writings Earp claimed he kept his family in fresh meat due to his ability as a hunter of wild game. His rifles were a variety of cap and ball weapons, Colts, Remington, Starr, and others. At this time in history, weapons were as much a part of a man’s apparel as his broad-brimmed Stetson hat, high-heeled boots, and long spurs. A firearm was needed to bag game for the table and self-preservation. There is no positive information as to what kind of weapon Earp used in his early years that I could find.
In later years after Earp became a lawman and his name begin to appear in newspapers on a regular basis, controversy raised its ugly head. It concerned Earp’s status as a lawman and his actual rank. He was a member of the Wichita, Kansas, law enforcement in Dodge City. He and two of his brothers later went to Tombstone, Arizona, where they opened a saloon.
Wyatt received some praise for his law work in Kansas where he supposedly was well liked by the citizens. This report appeared in the July 7, 1877, Dodge City Times: “It is not a good policy to draw a gun on Wyatt Earp unless you got the drop and mean to burn gunpowder without preliminary talk.”
Earp traveled throughout the west during his lifetime, his rip-snorting escapades as a gunman following him like a dark cloud. There was always some fool-hearted, young buck ready and willing to face the famous Wyatt Earp to further his own reputation. Few of them actually gave it a try, for looking into Earp’s cold eyes was to see death itself.
Lawless cow towns, mining camps and railheads such as Wichita, Dodge City, Deadwood, and Tombstone gave birth to other men such as Wyatt Earp. There were the Masterson brothers, Bill Tilghman, Doc Holiday, Luke Short, Hardin, William Boney, and a host of other gunfighters. Wyatt Earp’s outstanding career intermingled with most of them at one time or another.
About this time in our western history a new and note worthy weapon came on the scene. It was the Army Colt Single Action Pistol,.45 caliber. It became known by other names-such as The Frontier Six-Shooter, Peacemaker, Equalizer, and The Weapon That Won the West. Like other gunfighters, Wyatt Earp quickly used the gun to further enhance his reputation.
In Wyatt Earp’s biography it states that Wyatt spent some time in Kansas City’s Market Square, a meeting place for men to talk about guns, models, methods of shooting, and how to carry them. Earp’s preference was to tote a pistol on each side of his body in an open holster slung low on his leg. His favorite weapon was his noted “Buntline Special.” Ned Buntline, alias Edward Z. E. Judson, was a well-known pulp writer for the Wild West Magazine. Also he was a promoter and press agent for the famous Buffalo Bill Cody.
In Stuart N. Lake’s biography of Wyatt Earp, Lake said the Buntline presented five twelve-inch barrel Colts to well-known Kansas lawmen: Wyatt Earp, Neal Brown, Charlie Bassett, Bat Masterson, and noted Oklahoma lawman, Bill Tilghman. It was Earp who made the Buntline pistol famous. The movies and TV added to its reputation. It was more than anyone could have dreamed in 1876.
Now, deception rears its ugly head again. It was said the five Buntline weapons were accompanied with a walnut shoulder stock. The Colt factory has no evidence to back up this claim. They do list Colt pistols being shipped with a ten and a sixteen inch barrel. It is more likely Buntline bought the sixteen-inch barrel Colts and had the dealer cut them to twelve inches. Of course this is my personal view. As for the shoulder stock, Colt had a skeleton type stock made from cast bronze and nickel plating. This could also have been done by a dealer using walnut wood and at Buntline’s request.
The never-forgotten fight at the O K Corral in Tombstone added blazing immortality to the legend of Wyatt Earp. The incident has been written over and over from every viewpoint possible. Therefore, I will not attempt to repeat it here in detail. It was a historic gun battle involving Wyatt, his brothers, and their friend and fellow gunman, gambler Doc Holliday. Wyatt Earp was a peace officer in Tombstone at the time. Now and again he rode shotgun for the Wells Fargo Company. He served with devolution and great respect. As for his so called shady past, I can only rub my chin and smile with wonder.