My dad’s favorite film is Tombstone. We watched it so much as kids that the VHS tape was worn out. Seriously, it’s a film I’ve seen hundreds of times, and it’s one I still enjoy.
I can accept that it is truly a fictional tale of real events, and I enjoy it as a Hollywood action film, not a historical drama. The film clings to the more fictionalized stories of Wyatt Earp, stories made famous by dime novelist Ned Buntline.
Part of the Earp legend created by Buntline was Wyatt’s gun.
Welcome to Tombstone
The film Tombstone follows the Earp brothers and their friend Doc Holliday as they arrive in Tombstone, Arizona. They sought to make their fortune, become business owners, and avoid trouble.
As we all know, that isn’t exactly what happened…
In Tombstone, they clash with an outlaw gang known as the Cowboys. Wyatt already had a history of being a lawman at this time, and his reputation followed him.
Along the way, Wyatt, his brothers, and Doc stumble their way into law enforcement and the famed gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The film then documents the Earp Vendetta Ride.
It’s an action-packed and fun film. It mostly ignores the dark side of Wyatt Earp and his somewhat anti-civilian gun ownership attitude to portray him as the hero who hunts down the bad guys.
Wyatt carries a rather large revolver, a classic single-action army with quite the long barrel in the film. The barrel is 12 inches long, much longer than the standard models or even the cavalry models.
This is where legend and fact clash.
In real life, Ned Buntline supposedly commissioned five Buntline Specials to gift to legendary lawmen, one being Wyatt Earp.
The Buntline Special, its presentation to Wyatt Earp, and its use are debated widely.
Accuracy is Final
Regardless, the revolver is what Kurt Russell’s Wyatt carries throughout the film. It features a 12-inch barrel, a case-hardened frame, and wood grips with a decorative badge implanted in the grips signifying it was presented for his service in Dodge City.
The downsides of a revolver with such a long barrel are evident. It’s heavy, off-balanced, and likely slow to clear leather. One of the legends about Wyatt Earp concerned him being more of a man of accuracy than speed.
The longer barrel would grant a longer sight radius. This would make it easier to shoot the weapon accurately. Its longer barrel would also yield some velocity to the big fat .45 Colt it fired…with less recoil and muzzle rise due to the revolver’s weight.
In the film, it also acts as a hero gun — a gun that stands out.
The O.K. Corral gunfight is one of the film’s big scenes and was the moment that made Earp a bit of a legend.
We get the famed scene of the men in black walking to the fight. Doc is carrying his street howitzer and mustaches that are more manly than most.
It’s tense, with the cowboys outnumbering the Earps and Doc. Eyes narrow, extreme face closeups. Then it begins. It’s fast and brutal.
The fight is chaotic and crazy. People are getting shot; smoke hangs in the air, and everyone moves and shoots like madmen.
The cowboys draw first, but Wyatt shoots last. Kurt Russell wields the gun with confidence, and the film does an interesting cut of showing the fight from different angles.
Doc appears to shoot his double-barrel shotgun three times because it shows two different angles of him shooting the same man one time.
The editing makes the shootout appear longer because, in reality, it was over quite quickly. Kurt Russell wields the Buntline Special well throughout the gunfight and the rest of the film.
He uses a standard one-handed shooting style which would have been popular at the time. He aims the revolver, or at least appears to, and we never see any six-gun foolery.
Wyatt also uses a long gun for a good portion of the film, which is a better choice for gunfighting all around.
The gunplay is fairly tight, especially for a western of the time. The odd, very Hollywood occurrence is Wyatt walking across the water under fire and not being hit a single time.
This is another legend that apparently happened, but we can never really know.
Legends Never Die
Wyatt Earp is a controversial figure and likely wouldn’t be seen as a hero without Ned Buntline and films like Tombstone.
Still, as a movie, it’s great. It’s good versus evil and righteous revenge. It’s also a western chock full of cool guns, including the Buntline Special.