We recall Tombstone, Arizona, with its storied Boot Hill Cemetery and Gunfight at the OK Corral. Even though history records several gunfights with more combatants and a much higher body count, the OK Corral shootout is acknowledged by historians to be the most famous gunfight in the history of the American West.
Though Tombstone was quite a metropolitan city for its day and time, its remote location–surrounded by unpopulated desert with no railroad access made it an isolated place. By the 1880s, Tombstone was known as one of the deadliest places in the west–thanks to a bitter feud between a criminal gang calling themselves the “Cow-Boys” and the businessmen, investors and immigrant miners who ran the city and the nearby silver mines. On October 26, 1881, at about three in the afternoon, this simmering powder keg exploded in a hail of gunfire that would come to be known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Virgil and Morgan Earp, their brother Wyatt and the notorious gunslinger, Doc Holliday, shot it out with five of the Cow-Boys that included Ike Clanton and his younger brother, Billy, along with the McLaury brothers, Frank and Tom, and Billy Claiborne. According to a clipping from The Epitaph, Tombstone’s famous newspaper, the trouble began when Ike Clanton was arrested that morning for violating a city ordinance against carrying firearms within Tombstone city limits.
Virgil Earp was Tombstone’s City Marshal, and also a Deputy Federal Marshal for Arizona Territory. Like many lawmen hired to be “town tamers” in that era, the first thing Virgil had done after taking the job was ask the city council to enact an ordinance against carrying guns within the city limits. The charge against Clanton that morning was disorderly conduct. He put up a fight when Virgil asked him to surrender his pistol, and was pistol-whipped, disarmed and fined twenty-five dollars. He paid the fine, was released and left town, after swearing to return and take vengence upon the Earp brothers. Expecting trouble from the Cow-Boys, Virgil had temporarily deputized Wyatt, and Wyatt’s long-time friend, Doc Holliday. True to his word, Clanton returned that afternoon with his brother, Billy, the two McLaury brothers and Billy Claiborne in tow.
The famous confrontation–in which thirty shots were fired in the space of about thirty seconds–actually began in William Harwood’s lumber yard, which was located just down the street from the rear entrance to the OK Corral, and had spilled out onto Fremont Street by the time it ended. Considering the proximity of the combatants to each other, it was a miracle that only three men died that day. Billy Clanton and the two McLaurys were killed. Realizing they would be facing four men–at least two of which had formidable reputations as gunmen–instead of the two lawmen they expected must have put an instant damper on Ike Clanton’s and Billy Claiborne’s tempers. Claiming to be unarmed, Clanton and Billy Claiborne both ran from the fight, and because they ran, both of them survived. Wyatt Earp was unscathed, and Doc Holliday received only a couple of near-miss bullet holes through his coat, but Virgil Earp was shot through the calf of one leg, and Morgan received a severe wound to the shoulder.
Outnumbered 5 to 2, it’s unlikely that Virgil and Morgan Earp would have survived the armed confrontation with the Clanton faction, without the help of Wyatt and Holliday. That didn’t stop County Sheriff John Behan from charging both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday with murder in the incident, however, on the grounds that neither were lawmen at the time of the shootout. But a grand jury would twice decline to indict either man, ruling the shootings were self defense, and the charges were eventually dropped.
Though all three Earp brothers survived the OK Corral shootout, they suffered brutal reprisals from vindictive Cow-Boys afterward. Virgil Earp was shot from ambush and lost the use of his left arm as a result of his wounds. Morgan Earp was shot and killed a short time later, provoking Wyatt Earp to embark on his famous “vendetta ride”, vowing to wipe out the Cow-Boys once and for all.
Ironically, Ike Clanton didn’t die in the vendetta ride. He would die six years later, shot down by lawmen while resisting arrest after he was caught rustling cattle in 1887. Doc Holliday died that same year of tuberculosis at the age of 36 in a Glenwood Springs, Colorado sanitorium. Wyatt Earp lived many more years, moving to Los Angeles in his later years, where he became friends with movie cowboys, Tom Mix and William Hart, and died peacefully in his bed at the age of 81. His funeral was attended by those Hollywood movie cowboys who portrayed him on the Sliver Screen.
Now, on to the guns. There is a lot of conflicitng information about which guns Wyatt Earp possessed and used. Most accounts have him using a Colt Single-Action Army, a Schofield .44 Smith and Wesson revolver, and most likely other guns. Since he was a friend of Dodge City, Kansas Marshall Bat Masterson--himself a fan of the Schofield--it's likely tha t any gifted gun from him may have been a Schofield. In those days, guns were very common, and many people had more than one. T his would be especially true for a well-reputed gunfighter/marshall. In fact, there is very little good historical information as to exactly what guns Wyatt Earp owned.
There is an old, rusty pistol in Juneau, Alaska that was alledgedly checked into the local marshall's office there by Wyatt Earp in 1900, and then forgotten. It appears to be an old Smith and Wesson Schofield, but not an engraved presentation model. Everyone and their brother seemed to have a Colt "six-shooter" of some kind. They were as common in the Old West as cellphones in Los Angeles. Then you have all those fabled tales about the extremely legendary "Buntline Special." Supposedly, Wyatt Earp owned a Buntline with a 12" barrel. It's also been claimed that he shortened the barrel to 5 inches. Unfortunately, not only is there no evidence as yet that he owned one, but there is no evidence that such a firearm even existied. A lot of the reputed claims made by Earp himself were secondhand, maybe even embellished by his biographer, Stuart Lake. Until someone invents quantum teleportation to a parallel universe, (some call this "time travel") we'll never know. Not even the Colt company can verify the existence of a Buntline. As the author of this post, I'm not against the legend of the Buntline, but I'd sure like to see someone actually produce a real one, from the 1880s, and present it to the world.
We offer a replica of Wyatt Earp's engraved Schofield Revolver
Call Us Toll Free in the US and Canada: 1-800-258-5167
Free Link Exchanges are Available for:
War Reenactor Groups
Shooting Group Sites
Firearms Collectors and Enthusiasts
Old West Reenactors
Mountain Man Rendezvous groups
Museums and Historical Societies
Historic Events and Gatherings