The Movie Guns of Wyatt Earp
The legendary lawman has been portrayed by a lot of actors. Take a look at what they carried, compared to what the real Earp likely had in his holster.
Famous American lawman and frontiersman Wyatt Earp has been a part of American cinema almost since its inception. Over the decades he has been depicted a number of times on the screen, both big and small, and the man himself consulted on some of film’s earliest westerns starring Tom Mix in the early 1900s.
The fact that Earp and his brothers were involved in one of the most famous and most often dramatized shootouts in history hasn’t hurt his popularity as a larger-than-life film character—from Henry Fonda’s portrayal in the 1940s up to Kevin Costner’s take on Wyatt in the 1990s.
While westerns are seeing a bit of a resurgence thanks to HBO’s sci-fi show Westworld and rumors of a Deadwood movie, Wyatt Earp hasn’t seen a big-screen depiction in some time. Since everything old is new again, we’ll probably see one come down the pike in fairly short order.
So, in preparation for the inevitable, let’s take a look at the guns the fictional Wyatt Earps have carried on-screen over the years. But first…Colt or Smith & Wesson at the O.K. Corral?Most movies show Earp carrying a Colt Single Action Army revolver, with varying barrel lengths, when he stepped into the street with his brothers Virgil and Morgan along with gambler and outlaw Doc Holliday and faced off against Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury.
More recently, it was believed Earp carried a Smith & Wesson Model 3 Schofield top-break revolver during the 30-second gun battle that has resonated to the present day, and this has been debated back and forth.
According to truewestmagazine.com, the chances are slim that Earp was carrying a Smith & Wesson at the time, and was more likely carrying a Colt SAA.
The site quotes the late Lee Silva, author of Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend:
“The myth that Wyatt Earp used a Smith & Wesson during the 1881 shootout was perpetuated by the late Earp historian John Gilcrease, who owned an engraved Smith & Wesson American Model revolver (the model was sometimes referred to this way because it was chambered for the .44 S&W American cartridge) with homemade wood grips that he claimed was the gun Wyatt used in the shootout. But two other early Wyatt Earp historians saw this Smith & Wesson when Gilcrease first bought it from descendants of the John Clum family, when the gun had original pearl grips presentation-inscribed to John Clum. This evidence establishes the gun belonged to Clum not Earp. By 1881 the American Model and its ammunition were obsolete, and it is doubtful Wyatt Earp would have trusted his life to such a gun. Based on the description by butcher Apollinar Bauer of the gun Earp used to buffalo (hit over the head) Tom McLaury on the morning of the shootout, the gun was probably a 10-inch-barrel Colt Single Action.”
Fittingly, Earp has never been depicted in a movie carrying a S&W revolver during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, though he does carry one briefly in Tombstone, as you’ll see below:
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Henry Fonda – Colt Single Action Army
One of the earlier depictions of Earp was delivered by Henry Ford in the 1946 film My Darling Clementine which was a retelling of the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. The film was directed by western legend John Ford.
As with most westerns of the period, Earp, Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), and Morgan Earp (Ward Bond) all carry Colt Single Action Army “Artillery” model revolvers with 5.5-inch barrels, chambered in .45 Long Colt.
The gun was a staple of the old west and examples were fairly cheap and easy to come by in the early 1900s, and especially in the late 1940s when the firearm market was full of inexpensive surplus guns from two world wars. So, a number of westerns had almost every character armed with an SAA, sometimes with the sheriff getting peal grips or the black hat getting something more menacing to set them apart.
Doc Holliday is often characterized as carrying a nickel-plated, pearl handled SAA. In real life, Holliday’s firearm of choice was a .38-caliber 1877 Colt Lightning and he was also fond of short-barreled SAAs, but historians don’t know exactly what he was carrying at the O.K. Corral.
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Will Geer – Winchester 1873 Rifle
1950 saw a somewhat unusual depiction of Wyatt Earp in an inventive western called Winchester ’73, directed by Anthony Mann and starring Jimmy Stewart. The story is about the journey of a prized rifle from one ill-fated owner to another—as one cowboy searches for a murderous fugitive.
The movie is also notable for early performances from later films stars Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis.
The titular rifle was a Winchester Model 1873 “One of a Thousand” lever-action which was described in the film as being very rare and finely tuned so as to be unique and exceptionally accurate.
In the movie, the town of Dodge City, Kansas holds a shooting contest in celebration of the country’s centennial in 1876, with the Winchester as the prize.
Before the contest, an somewhat elderly-looking Wyatt Earp, played by Will Geer, holds up the rifle to display it to the shooters vying for the prize and talks to them about it as they take turns shouldering the handsome gun.
In real life, Earp formed the first half of his legend as a lawman in Dodge, where he arrived in 1876 after he followed his brother James there. He quickly became an assistant city marshal. In the winter of 1878, Earp went to Texas to track down an outlaw and met John “Doc” Holliday, whom he credited with saving his life.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
Burt Lancaster – Colt Single Action Army “Quick-Draw”
One of the most famous depictions of Wyatt Earp from the huge swath of westerns released in the 1950s was Burt Lancaster’s portrayal in the movie with the cutting-to-the-chase title of Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), alongside Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, John Hudson as Virgil Earp, DeForest Kelley of Star Trek fame as Morgan Earp, and Martin Milner as James Earp.
The story, of course, focuses on the years the Earp brothers spent in boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona. A feud between the Earps and the Clantons and McLaury brothers came to a head with the infamous gunfight.
Again, the SAA gets a starring role, carried by several characters, including all four Earp brothers, who carry artillery models. Holliday uses an SAA at one point, and Ike Clanton (Luke Bettger) and Billy Clanton (Dennis Hopper) carry 4.75” barrel SAA Quickdraw models.
Holliday’s primary pistol is a nickel-plated Remington Model 1875 “Frontier Model” with a 5.5” barrel and pearl grips. As previously stated, the real Doc preferred Colt revolvers and was known to carry both a double-action Colt .38 Lightning and a .41 Thunderer, as well as a Calvary-length SAA at times. In the movie, Doc carries the Remington concealed in a shoulder holster under his left arm while in town, but goes for a blued SAA when he’s expecting trouble.
During the gunfight at the OK Corral, the movie has both Wyatt and Virgil carrying double-barreled shotguns while marching down the street. In reality, only Doc Holliday was armed with a shotgun.
The movie also includes what might be the first on-screen depiction of Wyatt Earp’s legendary revolver known as the Colt Buntline Special. Lancaster briefly handles the specially-crafted Colt SAA with a 12-inch barrel, made for him by Ned Buntline.
Charlie Bassett: “Hey, where’d you get the new gun?”
Wyatt: “Buntline made it for me, special.”
Charlie: “Isn’t the barrel too long?”
Wyatt: “No…good balance, just right.”
After which Wyatt attaches a buttstock to the revolver and aims it like a carbine.
There’s just one problem: the Buntline Special probably never existed.
Many of the early screen depictions of Earp are based on the extremely popular but highly fictionalized 1931 biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by Stuart N. Lake. The book turned him into an Old West superman and contributed to many of the larger-than-life stories spun about Earp in the 20th Century. It also introduced the legend of the Buntline Special.
In the novel, Lake writes that dime novelist Ned Buntline commissioned the production of five long-barreled revolvers from Colt dubbed Buntline Specials and presented them to five lawmen in appreciation for their help with his western stories. Lake had one of these guns going to Earp. The problem is, no modern researchers have been able to find any supporting evidence or secondary sources indicating the gun ever existed before the book was published.
After the book took off, various long-barreled Colts were called Buntline Specials, including those made by Colt as part of its second-generation of SAA revolvers made after 1956.
Additionally, Buntline, though a real author, only ever wrote four westerns, all about Buffalo Bill Cody, and none mentioned Earp.
Hour of the Gun (1967)
James Garner – Colt SAA “Calvary”
A decade later, Hour of the Gun was released in 1967 starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in yet another retelling of the events surrounding the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Oddly enough, the film was directed by John Sturges, who also directed 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The movie was based on the non-fiction book Tombstone’s Epitaph by Douglas D. Martin and was an attempt at a more historical depiction than most movies and TV shows that depicted the events up to that point.
In this film, Ike Clanton is shown to, accurately, have survived the gunfight, whereas previous films all showed him dying. The movie also goes on to explore what happened after the incident at the O.K. Corral, when Earp and his posse ruthlessly hunted down and killed various members of the Clanton and McLaury gang, including Ike.
In this film, Earp carries a Colt SAA “Cavalry” model with a 7.5-inch barrel as his primary sidearm in a black leather thigh holster while serving as city marshal of Tombstone and during his vendetta ride.
As usual, every other character, including Holliday, carry Colt SAA “Artillery” models with 5.5-inch barrels, though Holliday’s is a nickel-plated version with ivory grips.
Wyatt and Doc also keep Winchester Model 1873 carbines on their horses, as do other characters.
James Garner – Colt SAA “Calvary”
As Jason Stuges took two stabs at directing movies about Earp, more than a decade apart, James Garner played Earp twice in his career, in two very different portrayals.
In 1988, Garner starred in Sunset, at a time when westerns had become decidedly unpopular among American movie audiences. Consequently, Sunset isn’t really a western, but actually a mystery action film set in 1929 and starring a young Bruce Willis as legendary Western actor Tom Mix.
In the film, Mix teams up with an aged Wyatt Earp to solve a murder in Hollywood.
Colt Official Police revolver
The movie was only Willis’ second film, and struck a strange chord with reviewers and audiences, who weren’t quite sure if Sunset was supposed to be a straight mystery, or an action comedy—but it was also a period piece, and revisionist history. In short, it didn’t do very well at the box office.
For the movie, Garner again carries a Colt SAA “Calvary” just as he did in Hour of the Gun. Mix (Willis) carries the same model while portraying Earp in the movie-within-a-movie. In reality, Tom Mix never actually played Wyatt Earp.
Since it’s set in 1929, there are also some later model guns present, and Earp briefly holds a Colt Official Police revolver.
Bruce Willis as Tom Mix as Wyatt Earp
Kurt Russell – Colt Buntline Special (EMF/Uberti replica)
The 1990s saw a resurgence in the western genre, as films attempted to portray the old west stories in a new light, with more grit and a bit more historical accuracy when it comes to set pieces, costumes, stories, and guns.
Clint Eastwood’s seminal Unforgiven opened the door when it was released in 1992 and a modern retelling of the Earp story came a year later with the action classic Tombstone (1993) starring Kurt Russell as Earp, Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, and Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp.
On the other side of the fight, Powers Boothe starred as Curly Bill Brocius, Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo, Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton, and Thomas Haden Church as Billy Clanton. The McLauery’s take a bit of a back seat in this one.
While the movie does get some historical details correct that most previous movies got wrong, when it comes to Earp’s gun, Tombstone veers into the land of historical fiction just like so many others.
For the first half of the movie, which depicts the Earp brothers arriving in town and setting up various business ventures, Wyatt Earp doesn’t go heel, meaning he doesn’t carry a sidearm. He’s no longer working as a lawman, and his fame tended to attract gunfighters wanting to make a name for themselves, so it became safer for him not to carry generally, so the movie goes. It also makes his beatdown of Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thorton) all the more badass.
In the movie, when Earp goes out for a ride in the country, he straps on a Smith & Wesson New Model No. 3 with a nickel finish and pearl grips, which is usually carried by Virgil. Wyatt gives it back to him when he rides back into town and discovers Virgil and Morgan serving as deputies. The choice of firearm may have been a nod to the aforementioned story that Wyatt carried a Smith during that time.
When it comes to the famous gunfight, the filmakers decided to have Wyatt carry the mythical Buntline Special, though the gun’s lineage has been changed for the film and it’s never referred to as such. So technically, he’s just carrying a “special” 12-inch Colt SAA.
When he realizes a fight likely can’t be avoided, Wyatt takes the long-barreled revolver out of its case in preparation, and we get a good look at a small plaque on the gun’s grip that indicates that the “Peacemaker” was presented to Earp by the town of Dodge City in gratitude for his service as a lawman in 1878. As the film never refers to the gun as a Buntline Special, the change in history doesn’t have to be explained.
The gun in the movie is one of three EMF/Uberti replicas custom-made for Tombstone with 12-inch barrels.
Earp continues to carry the long revolver during his crusade to hunt down and kill all the members of the Cowboy gang after they kill his brother Morgan and severley injure his other brother Virgil following the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Earp uses a couple more guns in the movie—when he arrests Curly Bill after the Fred White shooting, Wyatt carries a Colt 1878 Double-Action revolver, which he uses to threaten Ike Clanton by pressing the muzzle to his forehead and saying:
Colt 1878 Double Action
Wyatt: “They may get me in a rush, but not before I make your head into a canoe, you understand me?”
Gang member: “He’s bluffin’”
Ike: “No. He ain’t bluffin’. Go on, get back.”
Wyatt: “You ain’t as stupid as you look, Ike.”
Ike: “Go on get back. Billy! He’ll kill me…”
That gun doesn’t show up again in the film.
Stevens 10 Gauge Side-by-Side Shotgun
During his vendetta ride, beginning with the shooting of Frank Stilwell (Tomas Arana) at the train depot, Wyatt carries a three-triggered Stevens 10-gauge double-barreled, side-by-side shotgun. Since the shotgun features external hammers, there’s no room for an action release lever, which is the purpose the third trigger serves.
Ike and Stilwell were hoping to ambush Earp and his brothers as they took a train out of town, but Wyatt and his posse were ready.
As the two Cowboys approach the train, Wyatt sneaks up behind them with the double-barrel.
“Hey Maddie, where’s Wyatt?”
“Right behind you, Stilwell.”
He unloads one barrel on Stilwell, which causes Ike to drop to the ground, cowering in fear. Earp then uses the 10-gauge to intimidate Ike before cutting his face with his spur and delivering what might be his most famous line:
“Alright, Clanton. You called down the thunder, well now you got it. You see that (reveals a badge on his vest)? It says Unites States Marshal. Take a good look at him, Ike. Cuz that’s how you’re gonna end up. The Cowboys are finished, you understand me? I see a red sash, I kill the man wearing it!”
“So run, you cur. Run! And tell all the other curs that the law is comin’. You tell ’em I’m coming! And hell’s coming with me, you hear?! Hells coming with me.”
Earp also uses the 10-gauge when he finally tracks down Curly Bill at Iron Springs and performs his shootout miracle. In the photo above, Wyatt and his posse seem to be overwhelmed by Curly Bill and his men, pinned under cover by withering fire. Earp performs a tactical reload with the shotgun as his men yell for him, not knowing what to do. Even Doc seems rattled.
But the anger bleeds back into Wyatt, he closes the action, and stands up, simply repeating, “No.” and marches toward the muzzles firing at him. Through some miracle, nobody is able to hit him, despite his closing range. Earp locks eyes with Curly Bill, shoulders the big shotgun, and shoots him dead, as his men flee into the woods.
Texas Jack: “Where’s Wyatt?”
Doc: “Down by that creek…walkin’ on water.”
Wyatt Earp (1994)
Kevin Costner – Various
While Tombstone was more of a high-energy, action type movie with slick dialogue that focused only on Earp’s time in Tombstone and the following vendetta ride until Doc Holiday’s death in Colorado—the following year saw Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp attempt to put the broader story of the legend’s life on film, before and after Tombstone, beginning with the Earp family’s journey West and including Wyatt’s time spent as a buffalo hunter and as a lawman in Dodge City working with Bat Masterson (Tom Sizemore). It didn’t just come out the following year, but it hit theaters just six months after Tombstone.
The reason is a Hollywood quagmire that you can read about here. In short, Costner was involved with Tombstone during its development, but dropped out after the filmmakers refused to flesh out the character. That might be an indication of why Wyatt Earp has a more than three-hour runtime compared to Tombstone‘s tight two hours.
The film, which follows Wyatt’s transformation from a soft-spoken young man to an Old West legend, frames Wyatt as a tortured, stern man, who keeps what he says short and to the point, much as the real man was said to be.
Starr 1858 Army
The story begins with Wyatt as a child, yearning to go off and fight in the Civil War like his older brothers. After growing into manhood, Wyatt works for a time as a wagon driver and as a bare-knuckle boxing referee, and can be seen carrying a Starr 1858 Army in his belt.
Later, he is confronted by a man named Ed Ross who tries to bait Wyatt into a gunfight over an extremely trivial manner in a tent bar. Wyatt, instead of drawing the Starr in his belt, grabs a billiard ball from a table throws it at the man’s throat. He then takes the man’s Colt 1851 Navy with a Richards-Mason conversion revolver while he is on the ground, incapacitated.
He takes the gun outside and fantasized about his future, while pretending to shoot the fireworks exploding in the night sky with the pistol.
Colt 1851 Navy (w/ Richards-Mason conversion)
Colt SAA “Artillery”
After his stint as a buffalo hunter, Wyatt finds himself almost accidentally pulled into the work of a lawman. When he wakes up one morning, a bullet comes through his window. He goes outside to find the town marshal hiding behind cover, not wanted to confront the drunken maniac in the saloon, shooting his gun from the windows randomly at the town.
The town sheriff gives Wyatt his 5-1/2-inch “Artillery” SAA, which Wyatt uses to charge the saloon and shoot the drunk in the leg before dragging him out into the street.
He seems to adopt the gun as his left-hand gun for the rest of the movie, when he’s carrying two guns, that is.
Colt SAA “Calvary”
As the film progresses, it follows Wyatt into the same events depicted in Tombstone. Wyatt switches to a SAA Calvary during this period as his main sidearm, and unlike this film’s predecessor, Costner’s Wyatt never wields the mythical Buntline Special.
He carries the Calvary at time when working as a saloon owner in Tombstone and carries at all times after he gets involved in the ongoing fight with the Clantons and the McLauerys.
He also keeps it as his main sidearm as he embarks on his vendetta ride after his brothers are attacked in Tombstone.
While in one of the ramshackle hunting camps, a man becomes offended when Wyatt refuses to drink the whiskey he buys for the bar. He tries to explain that he doesn’t drink and that he’d be much obliged if he’d pay for his coffee. The man goes for his pistol, but as his hand gets to the butt, Wyatt is already cocking his Remington 1875 revolver in his face.
“Take off your gunbelt, and go away.”
You can always spot the Remington Model 1875 and its cap-and-ball predecessor, the Remington 1858 (New Model Army), from their distinctive fin below the barrel. On the 1858, it held the integrated ramrod needed to load the lead balls into each chamber. On the metallic cartridge 1875, it’s only for show.
The Remington 1875 had an excellent reputation for stoutness and reliability and was a direct competitor for the Colt Single Action Army (Peacemaker). However, Colt beat Remington to the lucrative government contracts, relegating the Model 1875 to the civilian market. Between 25,000 and 30,000 were manufactured between 1875–1889.
Colt Model 1878 Shotgun
The same 10-gauge Sevens shotgun from Tombstone is seen in this film. In Wyatt Earp it is given to Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid) by Virgil Earp (Michael Madsen). In reality, the same model was borrowed from Fred Dodge by Wyatt Earp and used during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral by Doc Holliday.
However, in this film, Wyatt never uses it. When he goes for a scattergun, he chooses a Colt Model 1878 double-barrel coach gun.
He first uses the shotgun to break up the groups of criminals and ruffians when first working as a lawman in Dodge City, Kansas.
This is a routine he performs again later when he and his brothers crack down on things in Tombstone.
Wyatt again uses the shotgun during the shootout in the canyon with Curly Bill at the culmination of his vendetta ride, but not nearly in the same dramatic fashion as he did in Tombstone. He is shown miraculously not being shot, with a round even going between his legs and putting a hole in his long coat, but he simply remains calm and aims throughout the shootout.
Sharps 1874 Long Range
While working as a buffalo hunter, we see Wyatt take a few shots with a Sharps 1874 Long Range rifle. The gun was a single-shot gun chambered in .45-70 with a Vernier peep sight, a Lyman Beach front sight, and a 34-inch octagonal barrel. The gun is definitely a buffalo hunter on the plains would have used at the time.