History: October 26, 1881: Gunfight at The O.K. Corral, The Weapons

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A Brief History

On October 26, 1881, Tombstone, Arizona saw the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday faced off with the Clantons and  the Cowboys in perhaps the most famous gunfight in US history, The Gunfight at The O.K. Corral.

Digging Deeper

This notorious shootout has been the subject of numerous major motion pictures as well as books, articles, and all sorts of cultural references.  But what of the guns involved in the gunfight?

The most famous character involved, Wyatt Earp, was not in charge.  He and Morgan Earp were appointed “special policemen”  assisting their brother, Virgil, who was the city‘s Marshall. Wyatt carried a Smith and Wesson model 1869  American .44 caliber single action revolver, carried in his pocket. (Law enforcement back then commonly carried their pistols discretely.)  Well, that is one story.  In 2014 a Colt .45 Single Action Army revolver was sold at auction for $225,000 reputed to used by Wyatt at the O.K. Corral.  A shotgun, supposedly used by Doc Holliday was sold at the same auction for $150,000.  It seems history is not that clear about exactly what guns were used.  Virgil and Morgan Earp probably carried and used single action revolvers, most likely Colt’s, although they could have been Remington or Smith & Wesson Schofield revolvers.  Like Wyatt, their pistols would have been carried in a pocket or waistband.  Doc’s shotgun was a 10 gauge double barreled (short, 18 inch barrels) coach gun that Virgil borrowed from the Wells Fargo station in town, a devastating close range weapon.

The Earps had set out to disarm the Cowboys who were carrying guns in town against local ordinance, the main cause for the confrontation (though other animosity between the groups existed).

The losing side of the gunfight consisted of Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne.  Apparently Ike and Claiborne were unarmed, and were not shot, both fleeing the scene.  Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, both killed in the shoot out, were armed with Colt Frontier 1973 single action revolvers.  Tom McLaury was claimed by witnesses for the Cowboys to be unarmed, though the Earps claimed he was also armed with a pistol.  (Tom was also killed.)  In scabbards on the horses of the Cowboys were 1873 Winchester lever action repeating rifles (most likely in .44-40 caliber), weapons the Cowboys did not get the chance to use.

All the guns used during the shoot out were black powder weapons firing fixed ammunition (as opposed to muzzle loaders), among the most modern of their time.  The black powder would have made tremendous amounts of white smoke, hampering visibility during the fight and causing confusion in witness reports.  The heavy bullets used could cause devastating wounds.  Along with the 3 Cowboys killed, Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded, and Doc Holliday was grazed.  Only Wyatt was untouched.  (Along with Ike and Claiborne who fled, unarmed.)

Much has been made about the moral ambiguity of the Earps, but certainly the Cowboys were a bad bunch, probably cattle rustlers and general ne’er-do-wells.  The Earps did have badges, and they were exonerated in court.  What do you think about the most famous gunfight in American history?  Should the Earps have tried to disarm the Cowboys, or just left them alone?  Let us know what you think!

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.