The long and short of it
Some experts dispute the provenance of the Buntline Special’s famous name.
A Buntline Special is a Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolver fitted with a barrel longer than 7.5 inches. The firearm began as a “revolver carbine” in 1876, when Colt produced a batch of 30 guns that featured detachable metal butt stocks (called skeleton stocks), folding rear target sites, and long barrels meant to improve accuracy. These guns fired .45 Colt and .44-40 rounds, and Colt’s records indicate that the first shipment of four revolver carbines with 16-inch barrels were sent to B. Kittredge and Co. of Cincinnati in 1877.
Dime-store novelist Ned Buntline is said to have purchased five revolver carbines to gift to famous lawmen of the era: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett, and Neal Brown. Buntline apparently wanted to express gratitude for the lawmen’s contributions to history (and to bolster the success of Buntline’s own plays and books). According to biographer Stuart Lake, author of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), Earp told him about the gun in interviews. Colt, however, claims to have no records of an order from or shipment to Buntline, and none of the original five guns are known to exist.
Stuart Lake was the first to refer to the revolver carbine as a “Buntline Special,” and the moniker stuck when Hugh O’Brian prominently holstered one in the 1950s TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp—on which Lake served as an advisor. Many collectors disparage Lake’s conflict of interest and question the validity of his Buntline story.
Firearms historian Lee Silva believes Lake’s account, pointing out that Buntline was a well-known cheapskate, who could have picked up the firearms directly from the Colt factory to save on freight costs. It’s also documented that Buntline gave Buffalo Bill Cody a rifle to encourage him to act in Buntline’s first play. Silva reasons that Buntline would likely have used the tactic to entice the five lawmen to contribute to his new production, as well.