The bookseller/publisher has an abiding interest in the Old West.
Back in the affluent days of the Roaring ’20s most private gun collectors considered Colts and other firearms of the Old West to be nothing more than used guns. The big-money collectors’ guns of the 1920s were European flintlocks. And since many of these European guns had originally been finished “in the white,” without bluing or browning, the old-time collectors often polished off the original finish of the Old West guns to put them into the same bright metal “collectors condition” as their old flintlocks.
This wanton destruction of the original bluing and patina on Old West guns gave museum curators nightmares for decades. But in the post–Word War II euphoria of the golden years of gun collecting, private collectors began to realize the value of mint condition Old West guns, and prices for these untouched and unused guns soared.
Another school of thought also emerged in the 1950s and ’60s. As nice as the mint condition guns were for investment and eye appeal, the mint guns had never “done anything” but sit in a drawer after they had left the factory. And so, many private collectors began to appreciate the guns that “talked to you,” the well-used guns that had really been the guns that had “won the West.”
Out of this new collecting interest came the realization that many of the Old West guns documented as having been used by famous good guys and bad guys were perhaps the most historically valuable of all the other guns of the “shoot-’em-up” days of the American frontier.
Two of the pioneer gun collectors who frugally saved up their pesos and patiently waited to buy these one-of-a-kind historic Old West guns when they occasionally showed up for sale were John Bianchi, from Temecula, Calif., and Jim Earle, from College Station, Texas. I have known both of these gentlemen for more than 40 years now, and the one thing they have in common is their modesty and “aw shucks” humility about their dedication to preserving the firearms of Old West history.
In 1985 Bianchi’s collection became the nucleus for the gun collection at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles. Bianchi is now famous as a military and police adviser and as one of the biggest manufacturers of Old West and military holsters and accoutrements in the world. And a biography of him, John Bianchi: An American Legend, Fifty Years of Gunleather, was published in 2010.
Jim Earle prefers to stay out of the limelight, and, after all these years, it was not until I was interviewing him for this article that I found out he has a Ph.D. attached to his name. In 1955, after two years of service at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, Lieutenant Earle became a “temporary” faculty member at Texas A&M University, and he ended up teaching there for 30 years. He also began dealing in out-of-print nonfiction books about the Old West, and for decades his Creative Publishing Co. has been printing nonfiction books about the Old West, with titles such as The O.K. Corral Inquest and The Earps Talk (both edited by Alford E. Turner).
As Earle is fond of saying, with awe in his voice when holding one of his historic guns in his hands, “This is not just a gun—it is the history of America.” And he admits that his lifetime pursuit of historic Old West guns has been an “obsession,” but a pleasant and gratifying one.
The most historically significant gun in Earle’s collection is probably the Colt that Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett used to kill Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory, on July 14, 1881. As the story is told, Garrett had just stepped into a darkened bedroom in Pete Maxwell’s house, looking for Billy, at the same moment that the Kid had also stepped into the room, and when Billy asked who it was, Garrett cowardly shot him down in the darkness. The Colt is a .44-40-caliber single-action with a 7 ½-inch barrel, Serial No. 55093.
And the history of this Colt is airtight: In April 1906 Pat Garrett either gave, loaned or sold it to a man named Tom Powers, who owned the Coney Island Saloon in El Paso. In 1933 Garrett’s widow, Apolinaria (Pauline), sued the Powers estate for ownership of the gun. She won the case, and the gun remained in the Garrett family until Garrett’s son Jarvis sold it in 1976 to Texas-based collector Calvin Moerbe, who, in turn, sold it to Jim Earle in 1983.
Interestingly, Earle also owns two guns involved in the killing of notorious bad guy John Wesley Hardin by John Selman in the Acme Saloon in El Paso, Texas, on August 19, 1895. After an earlier spat between the two men, Selman returned to the saloon and shot and killed Hardin at point-blank range with a .45-caliber Colt single-action, Serial No. 141805. At the time, Hardin was wearing a .44-40-caliber double-action Smith &Wesson top break revolver, Serial No. 352, beneath his coat. Both pistols are now in Earle’s collection.
Another gem in the Earle collection is a .45-caliber Colt single-action with a 4 ¾- inch barrel, Serial No. 11247, that belonged to Bat Masterson. Masterson is well-known for often ordering Colts direct from the factory (see the October 2007 Wild West), and the factory provenance on this Colt is so strong that it was used as the model for a Bat Masterson commemorative Colt single-action the factory produced in 1967.
In what is probably the most famous non-bank robbery in the history of the Old West, on October 5, 1892, the Dalton gang tried to rob two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kan. Irate citizens gunned down Grat Dalton, Bob Dalton, Emmett Dalton, Bill Powers and Dick Broadwell, and only Emmett survived. Bob Dalton’s engraved Colt single-action and his .38- 56-caliber Model 1886Winchester, Serial No. 40302, were later sold at public auction, and Jim Earle now counts the Winchester as one of his prized historic guns (see the October 2001 Wild West).
And when Tombstone bad guy John Ringo was found dead, propped up in the fork of an oak tree, in July 1882, he still clutched in his hand a .45-caliber Colt single-action revolver with a 7 ½- inch barrel, Serial No. 222. This gun is also in the Earle collection.
These are just a few of the 40 or so historic guns in the Earle collection. Others were owned by such Old West luminaries as Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Sam Bass, Ben Thompson, Cole Younger, Tom Horn and Texas Ranger John R. Hughes, to name a few.
Jim Earle’s guns are safely tucked away, and they are not available for public viewing at this time. But he has spent his lifetime “rescuing” these priceless historic firearms from oblivion in the hands of the unknowing, the anti-gun faction and even the scrap heap.
And so, thanks to the foresight of collectors like Jim Earle and John Bianchi, we are assured that a part of the real Old West has been preserved for years to come.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.