Editor Note: To read the first part of this installment of Cowboy Time Machine: Legendary Bat Masterson, Colt SAs & Wyatt Earp Part 1, click https://www.gunsamerica.com/blog/cowboy-time-machine-legendary-bat-masterson-colt-single-actions-wyatt-earp-part-1/.
By 1880 Wyatt Earp had resigned as assistant city marshal of Dodge City and started out for Tombstone with brothers Virgil and Morgan. Bat Masterson’s tenure as county sheriff had also come to an end with his defeat in the next election. Over the next few years, Masterson was continually drawn between Kansas and Colorado, where he served as City Marshal of Trinidad, Colorado in 1882, but he eventually gravitated back to Dodge to work the gambling tables. He also developed an interest in officiating boxing matches, another trait that he had picked up from Wyatt that oddly enough was to take his life in an entirely new direction by the turn of the century. And, there was one more facet to W. B. Masterson that emerged, to everyone’s surprise, especially his often vocal critics in the press, he liked writing; writing letters to editors, political editorials, and sports commentary. Between writing, gambling, and occasionally serving in his capacity as a U.S. deputy marshal, by 1885 when Masterson ordered the seventh of his single actions from the Colt factory he had become a frontier legend, and he was just 32 years old.
Throughout the latter part of the 1880s Bat was in and out of Dodge, and on occasion, such as in June of 1885, was requested to fill in as a deputy sheriff to help “resolve” differences where his reputation and the inscribed Colt Peacemaker in his holster were generally enough incentive to the wise. This proved sufficient to ward off a mob bent on lynching prohibitionist Albert Griffin who was on a crusade to shut down Dodge’s saloons. Masterson stood in the doorway of the temperance man’s room, his hand resting on the butt of his Colt and ordered the crowd to disperse. Despite their vocal protestations the angry mob began to break up. Although not a fan of Masterson, Griffin later acknowledged that Bat had saved his bacon that day.
In 1888, Bat finally bid farewell to Dodge City taking up residence in Denver, Colorado, where his major income was derived from gentleman’s gambling, fight promoting, and as an official referee for the new Colorado Athletic Association. An 1894 issue of Illustrated Sporting West called Bat Masterson “…one of the best judges of pugilists in America.”
The unsettled West that Bat and Ed Masterson had ventured into in the 1870s as young men was all but gone by the turn of the century, as was Bat’s enthusiasm for the life. In the summer of 1902 be boarded a train in Denver bound for New York City and began a career as a sports writer, journalist and author, penning the series of articles in 1907 about his life that would become the foundation for his book “Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier.”
Lawman and gunfighter William Barclay Masterson turned out to be one of the finest sports writers of the early 20th century, working as a journalist and sports editor at the Morning Telegraph up until his death, still at his desk the morning of October 25, 1921 when his heart gave out and he passed into the pages of immortality at age 67.
There is an old adage that “there are bold gunfighters and there are old gunfighters, but that there are no old, bold gunfighters.” Bat Masterson was one of the few exceptions. Long after Dodge City was behind him Bat kept the legend alive, not as a gunfighter or lawman but as a journalist; proof perhaps, that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, or the gun!
The other memorable Bat Masterson – Gene Barry
Back in the 1950s when Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were cleaning up the Old West on television, TVs were in cabinets, not on top of them, the screens a lot smaller and the characters larger than life. As the Western saga unfolded each week in black and white, we watched wagon trains heading west, cattle being driven, and an endless stream of frontier lawmen standing up against the worst gunmen history could provide, or a writer’s imagination could dream up. As noted by TV Western authorities Doug Abbott and Ronald Jackson, between 1949 and the end of the 20th Century there were more than 145 shows either based in the Old West, about the Old West (anthologies like Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater and Death Valley Days), or shows modernized to the present day but still Westerns at heart, like today’s superb Longmire TV series.
Some shows in the 1950s only lasted a season or two, others a decade or more, and then there was Gunsmoke, which remained on the air for an unparalleled 20 years. A lot of work went into building the shows that lasted the longest, and the best-fictionalized stories were based on history or at least some form of revisionist history. Bat Masterson was a natural since he had lived long enough to write his own story.
Getting a Grip on History
It’s a pity no one bothered to delve too deeply into Bat’s well-documented history when choosing a gun and holster for Gene Barry’s portrayal of Masterson on the 1958 to 1961 NBC television series Bat Masterson. The real Dodge City lawman was known for carrying 5-1/2 inch Colt Single Actions (as shown elsewhere in this article), but the TV series had Gene Barry’s character properly dressed in cane and derby hat, and armed with a nickel plated 3-1/2 inch (sometimes 4-inch) barrel length Colt throughout the show’s 108 episodes. And adding insult to injury rather than Colt’s handsome black hard rubber Eagle grips, or Bat’s occasional preference for mother of pearl grips and hand and engraving, the plain nickel plated TV gun used stag grips.
During the great era of B&W and later color TV westerns of the 1950’s and 1960’s, one of the most popular features of a hero gun was stag grips. For Bat Masterson and for Matt Dillon, among others, stag was unmistakable. Matt Dillon’s blued 7-1/2 inch Colt Single Action and Bat Masterson’s 3-1/2 and 4-inch nickel plated Peacemakers were actually fitted with Franzite (molded plastic) stag pattern grips which were durable, inexpensive and easy to replace if damaged. Franzite grips were hollow, which made them light and also easily broken if the gun got dropped hard. But they were inexpensive and easy an extra pair was always on hand for the prop man to replace. Of course, stag grips really weren’t used on Colt revolvers back in Bat Masterson’s day, it was either standard walnut or a deluxe special order wood like ebony, mother of pearl (which Bat Masterson had on one of his guns), hand carved ivory, or the latest Colt black hard rubber Eagle and shield grips, introduced in 1882 and offered by Colt up to 1896.
More to the point, television westerns (and movies) were just based on history and the characters were just that, “characters”, even the ones who were once real people like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. The subtle impact of that marvelous invention called television was that a lot of people took westerns for historic gospel (especially shows like the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.) Thanks to TV, if you ask most people today, “who was the Marshall of Dodge City?” they’re just as likely to answer Matt Dillon as Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson! James Arness certainly was memorable with the longest running TV western in history.
Like Matt Dillon, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, to create a memorable television character, particularly for a western, required three essential elements, (aside from a good actor); a memorable gun, an interesting holster, and an even more interesting hat. Bat Masterson’s real life story supplied all three! They almost got it right.
As for the holster Gene Barry used as Bat Masterson, it was strictly a fast draw TV rig with a steep cross draw cant and worn on a narrow belt along with the seldom seen ammo slide that carried an extra dozen rounds. Bat was good with his fists and his cane, and reloads were seldom seen. In real life Masterson carried plenty of ammunition for the Colt Peacemaker and for his famous “Big Fifty.” Masterson’s .54 caliber Sharps rifle was never too far from hand when he left the confines of Dodge City and headed out after an outlaw. Life during the Golden Age of B&W TV Westerns, on the other hand, was a lot less complicated in 30 minutes.
Bat Masterson and his “Big Fifty”
From the time Bat Masterson was a young buffalo hunter in his twenties and throughout his years as a Kansas lawman, he always carried a Sharps rifle in his saddle scabbard. In the early 1870s it was the gun his friends called the “Big Fifty” a .54 caliber percussion model that Bat successfully used to help defend the hunter’s settlement at Adobe Walls (East Adobe Walls Creek) in 1874. Billy Dixon who fought at Bat’s side during Adobe Walls wrote, “Bat Masterson should be remembered for the valor that marked his conduct, he was a good shot and not afraid.”
Even as a Kansas lawman Bat deferred to the Sharps when leading a posse, going for the long shot when most lever action rifles would have fallen short of their mark. In his pursuit of murderer Jim Kenedy across the open plains, Bat shot his horse out from under him at a
great distance, a regrettable but often used tactic in pursuing outlaws because a man on foot was easier to catch. In Kenedy’s case the horse fell on him pinning him underneath, and Bat, Wyatt and the rest of the posse made an easy arrest.
While few lawmen eschewed the Winchester lever action for a single shot rifle, Masterson made the Sharps a personal trademark as famous as his 5-1/2 inch Colt single actions.
For more information about Colt revolvers, click https://www.colt.com/Catalog/Revolvers/Single-Action-Army .
To purchase a Colt SAA on GunsAmerica, click https://www.gunsamerica.com/Search.aspx?Keyword=Colt%20SAA.
Sources & Author Note:
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
I very much enjoyed that read! I wish you fellows would publish more historical pieces like that.
Named all the fellows in the photo except one, the fellow second from the right in the front row. Can you I.D. him?
Great article but I was hoping to see something about the number of times he sold his ‘personal gunfighting Colt’ to some poor sap after he had been in New York a while. I have read about this several times but never seen any figures on how often or how much.
Thanks for a great article.
Great article.If you’re ever traveling thru central Kansas it will pay you to go to Dodge City. Stop and see the old side of town. Folks seemed to live modern enough for the 1880’s.
Great true western history. Thank you for the education.
Good read. Thanks.