Cowboy Time Machine: Legendary Bat Masterson, Colt Single Actions & Wyatt Earp – Part 1

Courage to step out and fight to the death with a pistol is but one of three qualities a man must possess in order to last very long in this hazardous business. A man may possess the greatest amount of courage possible and still be a pathetic failure as a ‘gun fighter,’ as men are often called in the West who have gained reputations as ‘man-killers.’ Courage is of little use to a man who essays to arbitrate a difference with a pistol if he is inexperienced in the use of the weapon he is going to use. Then again he may possess both courage and experience and still fail if he lacks deliberation.” — W. B. Masterson, 1907

The Dodge City Peace Commission. Wyatt Earp, seated second from the left, and Bat Masterson, back row third from the left, in a photo taken around June 10, 1883 after Masterson, Earp, Charlie Bassett (front row far left) and Neal Brown (front row far right) returned to the city to restore their friend Luke Short (standing second from left) to his position as owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Dodge City politics were unraveling in June and the visit from the famous former lawmen soon restored a sense of order to the cow town. Also pictured are W.F. Petillon (back row at far right) and W.H. Harris, (back row far left).

The legendary Bat Masterson was a prominent lawman, gambler and sports writer of the American West. He was a good friend of famous lawman Wyatt Earp.

By the time William Barclay “Bat” Masterson received the handsome, nickel plated and hand engraved six-shooter pictured, he was already a legendry lawman, as famous as his friends Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett and Bill Tilghman. Most only knew Masterson by his reputation as a Dodge City lawman, or a high-toned dressing gambler, but old friends like Earp and Tilghman, who had known Bartholomew Masterson in his youth, remembered him as a roughneck, buckskin clad buffalo hunter, skinner and Cavalry scout, long before his days as sheriff in the Queen of Cowtowns, and fully a decade before he wrote the letter to Colt’s in July 1885 placing an order for the seventh of eight single action revolvers he would own.

Born in Quebec, Canada, in 1853, the Masterson family moved to Kansas by the time of the Civil War and both Bat and his older brother Ed would eventually end up in Dodge City as lawmen. Long before Dodge, however, they had made a name for themselves as buffalo hunters, Bat in particular distinguishing himself as a marksman with the Sharps rifle, a reputation he earned while defending the little hunting settlement of Adobe Walls in 1874. After a five-day siege by Comanches and Cheyenne led by the infamous Quanah Parker, Bat and 27 other hunters prevailed, and the raiding party withdrew. An old trading post on the Texas Panhandle, Adobe Walls was already famous for a decade old battle during the Civil War where Col. Kit Carson and the men of his expeditionary force had thwarted a Comanche raid on U.S. Cavalry forces sent west to protect settlers on the frontier. Masterson’s Adobe Walls settlement was only about a mile and a half from the site where Carson had been victorious in 1864.

In town, where most everything happened at close range, Bat wore his Colt cross draw style, butt forward and covered, making it almost impossible for anyone to disarm him from behind. He had seen many lawmen gunned down, some with their own guns taken from behind and turned on them. Note the special wide, raised front sight ordered by Masterson from Colt.

It was during the early 1870s that Bartholomew had decided to change his name to William Barclay Masterson. Most folks already knew him by then as Bart, but he preferred Bat, and the nickname stuck. Still in their early twenties Bat and Ed Masterson befriended several other famous buffalo hunters who were also destined to make a name for themselves in Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, William Tilghman and Neal Brown. Their lives would be intertwined for decades, particularly Bat’s and Wyatt’s.

The buffalo trade in the early 1870s eventually took the Masterson brothers to an emerging Kansas encampment named Buffalo City, where the Santa Fe railroad would soon pass through to take on shipments of buffalo hides being sent east. A.A. Robinson, the chief engineer of the Santa Fe railroad, had laid out the streets for the little Hell on Wheels Kansas tent city in the summer of 1871 and renamed it Dodge City. It became a hub for buffalo hunters in the spring and in winter a safe haven from the rugged plains. It was here that Bat learned another trade, gambling, and in this too, he excelled.

This is a copy of the letter written by Bat Masterson to Colt on July 24, 1885. The F.lli Pietta reproduction is based on that order and engraved in the style of Masterson’s serial number 53684 gun. (Gutta percha grips were provided by Cowboy Emporium.)

The Scout and Lawman

Bat had proven himself with both the Sharps rifle and the Colt revolver by the early 1870s and his experience as a buffalo hunter and Indian fighter had made him an ideal choice as a U.S. Cavalry Scout. In 1874, he was hired by Col. Nelson A. Miles.  Masterson scouted for the cavalry until the spring of 1875, when he returned briefly to buffalo hunting. A year later he was involved in his first shootout in Sweetwater, Texas, with a cavalry sergeant named Melvin A. King. The fight was over a woman named Mollie Brennan and as Wyatt Earp wrote of the event, King walked into the Lady Gay saloon and opened fire on Masterson and Brennan, killing her and hitting Bat in the hip. Masterson managed to get his gun into action and cut King down with a clean shot to the heart. There are several versions of how the shootout unfolded, some with King ambushing Masterson and Brennan, other as a standup gun fight in the Lady Gay, but they all end the same, with Mollie Brennan killed, Bat severely wounded and King dead. The injury left Masterson with a permanent limp and thus the need for what would become his famous cane.

Return to Dodge City

In his absence Dodge City (now part of Ford County, Kansas) had grown from a rough-hewn buffalo camp into a bustling cow town. When Bat returned in the late spring of 1876 he found an unruly city with little law enforcement, a town that the Hays City Sentinel had christened “the Deadwood of Kansas … Her corporate limits are the rendezvous of all the unemployed scally-wagism in seven states. Her principal is polygamy, her code of honor is the morals of thieves, and decency she knows not … ” The Kinsley Graphic newspaper was somewhat less kind, naming Dodge the “ … the Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the frontier.” And it was in Dodge City where Earp, Charlie Bassett, and the Masterson brothers would earn their early reputations as lawmen settling this unsettled berg.

A historical image of Dodge City, Kansas.

It has been written that Bat first served as a Dodge City policeman in 1876 under Wyatt Earp, but if so it was short-lived because Masterson spent most of the early part of the year in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where it is possible he purchased the J.C. Collins gunbelt and holster that was one of several rigs he wore as a lawman. Bat’s interest in Cheyenne, however, was strictly the gaming tables where he made a haul before heading back to Dodge. En route he ran into Wyatt and Morgan Earp in Sidney, Nebraska. They had pulled up stakes in Dodge and Wyatt suggested that if Bat was going back he should run for county sheriff, but no sooner had he arrived than Bill Tilghman and Neal Brown asked Bat if he wanted to take one more run at buffalo hunting. He agreed to team up with them taking his trusty Sharps out of retirement and strapping on his latest Colt six-shooter.

It was during this hunt that Masterson demonstrated his skills with both a revolver and a rifle to the delight of Tilghman, who was no slouch with a six-gun himself. “I’ve seen Bat shoot at a tin cup thrown in the air, with his six-shooter, at twenty-five cents a shot, and make money at it.” As much as he enjoyed trick shooting Bat took the skills of the shootist seriously and noted in one of his 1907 magazine articles, that “…looking through the sights is a very essential thing to do when shooting at an adversary who is returning your fire.” Masterson’s belief in using the gun’s sights and not shooting from the hip, as he was so often reported to have done, is supported by the first of many written orders for guns sent to Colt’s. In 1879 he requested a custom-tailored, personally inscribed single action, further noting that it be silver plated with Mexican eagles carved in pearl handles and have a front sight slightly higher than normal, his personal preference.

The engraving on the F.lli Pietta Bat Masterson single action is based on the pattern found on the seventh of Masterson’s Colt revolvers. This pattern is not a Colt factory design and was likely done by an engraver in Dodge City. The inscription on the backstrap, however, was typical of guns ordered by Masterson from Colt.

One of Eight

The first gun featured in this article is a custom-built Pietta SA (single action) based on one of the eight Colt Peacemakers owned by Bat Masterson. It has a 5½-inch barrel length with hand engraving copied from one of Masterson’s original guns and duplicated in Italy by the renowned firm of Dassa. The grips are reproductions of the hard rubber Colt Eagle grips of the period. The original gun, in a private collection, was also fitted with hand carved mother of pearl grips. The hand engraved example is a one of a kind reproduction.

During the course of his career as a lawman and gambler, Bat ordered all of his single action revolvers directly from Colt. The most notable was an order made from Dodge City and written on Opera House Saloon stationary in July 1885 which stated,

Gents

Please send Me one of your nickel plated short .45 calibre revolvers. It is for my own use and for that reason I would like to have a little Extra pains taken with it. I am willing to pay Extra for Extra work. Make it very Easy on the trigger and have the front Sight a little higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this Kind. Put on a gutta percha handle and send it as soon as possible, have the barrel about the same length that the ejector rod is. —Truly Yours WB Masterson

P.S. Duplicate the above order by sending 2

The bright nickel finished Bat Masterson single action pictured is a hand engraved model executed by renowned Italian engravers Sergiao and Mauro Dassa. The original gun and holster shown were the influence for both the Pietta single action and the Chisholm’s Trail reproduction of Masterson’s J.S. Collins holster and cartridge belt. (Original gun and holster are from William I. Koch collection.)

By 1885 Bat had already served as under sheriff of Ford County for Charlie Bassett, replacing him in 1877 after Bassett had served two consecutive terms (under Kansas law a country sheriff could not hold office for three consecutive terms). Bat’s first act after becoming county sheriff, not surprisingly, was to appoint Charlie Bassett as under sheriff, the two essentially exchanging badges. During his tenure in Dodge City, which was also the County Seat and home to the Ford county sheriff’s office, Bat appointed many of his old associates as special deputies when situations became thorny. Ford County encompassed some 9,500 square miles, a large portion of southwestern Kansas. It was a lot of territory into which outlaws could quickly vanish. In their pursuit, Bat called upon Wyatt Earp as well as appointing his younger brother James Masterson and friend Bill Tilghman deputy sheriffs. Dodge City also had its own city marshal, Ed Masterson, and a local police force. Dodge was a tough town, and it needed every lawman it had.

As county sheriff, Bat’s rule of thumb was to buffalo an armed man first and then ask questions later, a technique he had learned from Wyatt in which the barrel of a six-shooter is firmly applied to the head of miscreants. It was a controversial practice but Wyatt and Bat always defended its use. And it was clearly posted on the way into Dodge that no guns were to be worn within the city limits. Often ignored by cattlemen, a great part of every law officer’s duty was to enforce the rule. And at times, with a bunch of liquored up cowboys running rampant, it could be a deadly job. In April 1878, Ed Masterson was shot at point-blank range doing just that, disarming a drunken cowboy who had openly ignored the rules. Ed returned fire and downed two men before he stumbled across the street and collapsed. He died 40 minutes later. Bat’s friend, deputy sheriff Charlie Bassett took over as city marshal and Wyatt assumed the position of deputy marshal the following month. Bat had not been in Dodge the night Ed was murdered.

His brother’s death hit Bat hard because he always had believed Ed was too easy going and not as deliberate as he should have been. Bat had seen many lawmen gunned down, some with their own guns taken from behind and turned on them. He wore his Colt crossdraw style, butt forward and covered, making it almost impossible for anyone to disarm him from behind. It has also been written that he carried two guns, and in some instances he did when heading up a posse or on the open plains, but in town where everything happened at close range, it was the short barreled Colt carried crossdraw that Bat preferred over any other.

In 1879, Masterson began his last office as a lawman in Kansas being appointed a U.S. deputy marshal. Ironically, though he had faced down countless cowboys on rampages through Dodge, and pursued murders, bank robbers, cattle rustlers and thieves, in his entire career as a lawman, Bat never killed anyone he apprehended. Many were wounded, but none were fatally shot. His reputation for having killed 27 men as a peace officer was all legend, and Bat was wise enough to let the tales stand, as fear of his gun was as effective a firearm as the gun itself. Bat only killed one man in a shootout, his first and only, Melvin A. King.[1]

Range Testing the Bat Masterson E.M.F. Great Western II

The 3½-inch Pietta was a perfect fit, quick to draw and reholster. The gun’s construction is excellent and comes right out of the box with a tuned action. Hammer draw averaged a genteel 4 pounds, 3.6 ounces, with an equally light (but not too light) 4 pound, 8.5 ounce average trigger pull.

While the hand-engraved pistol featured in this article is a one of a kind (or at best a very special order item), the Bat Masterson E.M.F. Great Western II built by Pietta is available for a reasonable $705 with the very fine imitation stag grips, bright nickel finish and the W.B. MASTERSON name engraved on the backstrap.

The author found the Pietta replica to group well during accuracy testing.

To put the new Pietta model (which is actually a custom version of their standard 3½-inch model), I borrowed an exact copy of Gene Barry’s holster and belt from legendary western holster maker Jim Lockwood, who has duplicated nearly all of the famous TV and Western movie rigs over the years. The Bat Masterson rig is old and worn; much like the one Gene Barry wore on the TV series. The 3½-inch Pietta was a perfect fit, quick to draw and reholster. The gun’s construction is excellent and comes right out of the box with a tuned action. Hammer draw averaged a genteel 4 pounds, 3.6 ounces, with an equally light (but not too light) 4 pound, 8.5 ounce average trigger pull. The hammer hits the four clicks when you thumb it back just like a Colt Peacemaker, and the sights are as true as any short-barreled SAA (Single Action Army), and that means the gun shoots low. Bat Masterson had special squared top sights on his guns. There were no windage issues with the gun. Once I got a handle on the aiming correction, which was 6 inches above where I wanted the rounds to hit, (short of filing down the sight on the E.M.F.) the gun delivered very predicable accuracy with consistent five-shot groups measuring 1¾ to 2 inches and always with at least a pair almost overlapping.

I shot the entire test using Ten-X 165-grain hollow base flat points (HBFP) smokeless powder cartridges. These are a lighter weight (manufactured) round suitable for Cowboy Action Shooting competition or just plain down on the range banging away at paper or steel. All tests were done firing duelist style (draw, aim and fire one handed) and for a 3½-inch barrel with rudimentary SAA sights, nine out of 10 rounds were in the 10 and X. It’s not a target pistol, but at 10 paces (between 25 and 30 feet) it gets the job done, just like short-barreled Colt Peacemakers did back in Bat Masterson’s day.

For more information about Colt revolvers, click http://www.colt.com/Catalog/Revolvers/Single-Action-Army.

For more information about Bat Masterson Derby, click goldengatewesternwear.com.

For more information on the E.M.F. GW II line and the Bat Masterson model, click emf-company.com or call 800-430-1310.

To purchase a Colt SAA on GunsAmerica, click https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?Keyword=Colt%20SAA.

 

Sources & Author Note:

[1] In the Battle of Adobe Walls it is not known how many Comanches and Cheyennes were killed by Masterson and his Big Fifty Sharps, but in standup gunfights or the pursuit of outlaws there is only one documented killing attributed to Bat Masterson.

Early-style Colt gutta percha grips by Lewis Ezsak, Cowboy Emporium.

“Bat Masterson The Man and the Legend” By: Robert K. DeArment, 1979 University of Oklahoma Press.

“Guns of the American West” By: Dennis Adler, 2010, Chartwell Books

“Bat Masterson – The Lawman Series” By: R. L. Wilson, Colt’s Inc. 1967

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Barry July 7, 2017, 1:14 am

    Back in the early nineties, a gun collector from San Antonio was set up at a local gun show in Odessa TX. He had on display a Nickel 45 Colt SAA that belonged to Bat Masterson. He had a factory letter from Colt stating that was a special order that was shipped to Masterson @ the Ford County Sheriffs Office in Dodge City KS. He also had a photocopy of a handwritten letter that Masterson sent to Colt ordering the gun. I was fortunate that the collector allowed me to hold that beautiful gun, even though I couldn’t buy it. The asking price was $23,000.00. I read somewhere a few years ago that the.Colt sold for many times that amount.
    At the 2015 Shot Show, Pietta had a copy of a Colt Python on display. After reading a glowing review by an over eager gun writer, I wanted one for a shooter. Since EMF was to be the US distributor, I called them and was told that they expected the first shipment in a month or two. Several months later, I contacted Alessandro Pietta in Italy and was told that they ran into production problems & he didn’t know if they’d ever get the gun into production.

    Once again we have been bamboozled by an overzealous gun writer. EMF, Cimarron, nor Taylors do not have any Pietta Bat Mastersons in stock. I won’t hold my breath this time. I don’t understand why the writers can’t hold their reviews until the distributors have the guns in stock.

  • Seth July 3, 2017, 11:26 pm

    Having worked at the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, and personally having had the opportunity to handle a believed Colt of Masterson’s (he had several) along with Tilghman’s among others you might say I have a decent grasp on the history. That being said this was as excellent article that highlighted a man that is seldom in the spotlight in comparison to some of his friends (Earp, Holliday, etc.). Thanks for the read and as a heads up the Peace Commission photo used was doctored. Petillion (top far right) wasn’t in the original, but it made for a good story once he had himself added in.

  • Caretaker July 3, 2017, 6:32 pm

    Excellent article. Looking forward to many more!

  • JS July 3, 2017, 10:34 am

    Until now, I had always thought the cane was for the \”gambler-dress effect\” and maybe Hollywood\’s version of the truth. Thanks for the article, enjoyed reading it. Waiting on delivery of a Doc Holliday style Thunderer now.

    • Seth July 3, 2017, 11:28 pm

      He was also found of playing baseball, and is also known to have used his cane as an impromptu bat/baton. Hard to say exactly which one got him the nickname!

  • Paul B July 3, 2017, 1:50 am

    Hi
    I lived in Brazil as a child and I used to watch “Bat Masterson” on TV, in Portuguese, all the time. I was a pleasure to read this article about him and his guns, and the reason for him using a cane.
    Cheers

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