Ask any Old West aficionado to name the most legendary lawmen of the Old West, and Bat Masterson will always be mentioned. Ask the aficionado if he has ever seen a Colt six-shooter that bore absolute proof it had belonged to one of those legendary lawmen, and he will probably shake his head.
That brings us to Colt single-action Army serial number 126770, which was shipped from the Colt factory on July 5, 1888, with its purchaser listed in the factory shipping records as “W.B. Masterson.” As Old West buffs know, W.B. was none other than Bat Masterson, one of Dodge City’s finest.
Bat apparently liked to special-order his Colts direct from the factory rather than buy them across the counter from a local gun dealer. There are several 1880s letters to Colt from Bat in the Colt factory collection at the Connecticut State Library, each letter an order for a gun with “extra” features. The most famous letter—famous because he hand wrote it on letterhead from the Opera House Saloon in Dodge City on July 14, 1885—is signed “W.B. Masterson” and asks: “Please send me one of your nickel plated short .45 caliber revolvers. It is for my own use and for that reason I would like to have a little extra pain taken with it. I am willing to pay extra for extra work. Make it very easy on trigger, and have the front sight a littler higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this kind. Put on a gutta percha handle and send it as soon as possible. Have the barrel about the same length as the ejector rod is.”
Another letter requests the same basic features, except with a longer barrel, the same barrel length as serial number 126770: “Send to my address C.O.D. one of your 45 caliber pistols Nickel plated. Make the barrel a little longer than the ejector rod. Make it very Easy on trigger and Make front sight rather high and thick. Send as soon as possible.”
According to the shipping records, Colt No. 126770 left the factory in .45-Long Colt caliber, with a 51⁄2-inch barrel and standard black rubber grips, and was ordered with “special features” listed as “sights higher than usual.” The only discrepancy between the specs in the factory letter and the gun itself is that the letter says the gun had blue finish, but the gun itself is still basically unused and retains most of its original nickel finish, not blue. I have had the privilege of inspecting the gun, as have a dozen Colt authorities, and the unanimous consensus is that the gun’s nickel finish is definitely factory original. The person who hand wrote the entry for the gun in the shipping records erroneously wrote “blue” instead of “nickel,” probably out of habit, as most Colts in those days left the factory with blue finish. So there is no question whatsoever that Colt No. 126770, with its extra-high front sight, is the gun that was shipped directly to Bat Masterson, with his address listed on the shipping record as “Unavailable.”
What makes this particular Colt even more historically significant is that it is still accompanied by its custom-made “Mexican loop” holster and belt, with the initials “W.B.M.” hand-tooled on the belt by its maker, the fabled frontier leather crafter F.A. Meanea, of Cheyenne, Wyo.
In the late 1880s, Bat was living the life of an itinerant gambler, and it’s a wonder that his special-ordered guns ever found him. But at about the time he ordered Colt No. 126770, he owned and operated the Palace Theatre and Saloon in Denver, which is not all that far from Cheyenne. The Colt factory would not have supplied the holster and belt with the gun, so the monogrammed holster and belt are solid evidence that the gun and holster rig combined did find a home on Bat’s hip.
Contrary to the Hollywood myth of the “fast draw” and “shooting from the hip,” most Old West lawmen tried to take a split second to point and shoot if forced into a gunfight. So one speculation about Masterson’s fondness for extra high front sights might have been that it caused him to aim lower for the sure hit of a body shot rather than the possible miss of a head shot.
During his colorful career, Masterson wore many hats— buffalo hunter, lawman, gambler, writer and sporting man. Some accounts say he was called “Bat” because he batted badmen over the head with a cane that he carried after a gunfight injury. But in his 1979 biography Bat Masterson, acclaimed historian Robert K. DeArment says that Bat’s original birth name was Bartholomew, and over the years his family shortened it to Bart, and finally to Bat. And William Barclay (where the initials W.B. came from) was the name that Masterson adopted because he hated “Bartholomew.”
One of the 20th-century legends about Bat Masterson is that in his last years, when he was a sportswriter in New York, he used to go to the local pawnshops and buy old Colts to give or sell to people who wanted a “genuine” old Bat Masterson Colt. Whether the legend is true of not, it makes this factory-documented Colt No. 126770 even rarer than rare as one of the guns that Masterson actually did use.
It is not known whether Bat ever had to fire the gun in self-defense. But what adds a touch of intrigue to this historical Colt is that it turned up in southern California in 1995—a place where Masterson was never known to have hung his hat—and was sold for just the value of the gun itself, with its priceless history unknown until the next purchaser obtained a factory letter on it. Masterson undoubtedly packed the six-shooter for a while himself. But where did it go after that, when its historical ownership was lost to its mid-20th-century owners? Unfortunately, that part of the gun’s history will probably never be known.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West.