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.
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, often in a specially reinforced pocket in their coat, vest or pants.) 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 1873 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.)
Here are some quick stats about the weapons alleged to have been used:
Colt Single Action Army revolver (M1873) and Colt Frontier Model 1873:
6 shots, .45 Long Colt caliber, bullet weight 235 to 255 grains, muzzle velocity about 1000 feet per second. Possible alternative caliber .44-40 WCF with similar performance. Less likely other calibers also possible.
Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver (Model 3):
6 shots, .45 S&W caliber, single action, bullet weight 230 grain, muzzle velocity about 750 feet per second. This revolver, though not quite as powerful as the Colt, could be reloaded in less than half the time of the Colt, and its slightly less powerful round made for more accurate follow up shots.
.44 S&W American (Model 3):
6 shots, .44 S&W caliber, single action, bullet weight 200 to 218 grains, muzzle velocity 650 to 700 feet per second. Wyatt Earp allegedly carried an 8 inch barreled version in the gunfight.
.45 Remington Model 1875:
6 shots, .45 Long Colt, .44-40 WCF or .44 Remington caliber, bullet and velocity similar to the other revolvers listed. Quite similar to the Colt Single Action Army pistol.
Winchester 1873 rifles:
7 shots, .44-40 WCF caliber, lever action rifle, bullet weight 200 to 225 grains,, muzzle velocity about 1200 to 1300 feet per second.
10 Gauge Wm. Moore & Co. “Coach” Shotgun.
2 shots, double barrel break top shotgun in 10 Gauge caliber, probably with approximately 18 inch barrels. A devastating close range weapon that would normally be loaded with 10 to 12 pellets of 00 Buckshot, about 1.25 ounces of .33 caliber lead balls with a muzzle velocity of about 1000 to 1200 feet per second. Larger shot size, such as 000 Buckshot may have been used, with perhaps 7 or 8 .35 caliber pellets. Other firearm manufacturers, such as Colt or Ithaca may have built the shotgun used at the gunfight. Wyatt Earp is known to have used such a weapon in other gunfights.
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. Question for students (and subscribers): 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? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Guinn, Jeff. The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West. Simon & Schuster, 2012.
Sturges, John, dir. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. WarnerBrothers, 2014. Blu-ray.