Doc Holiday's mystery shotgun: October 26, 1881 OK Corral
On this date in a small town in Arizona named Tombstone, in a 30 second shootout, mysteries of the Wild West unfolded in an otherwise insignificant event becoming one of the most heralded in that history.
It was called the gunfight at the OK Corral, even though it was not even in that nearby location, it lasted only seconds, and it has never been clear who fired the first shot, nor how it all took place. Yet there have been so many books, movies, articles on this event and its characters than most other of those times.
One of the most confounding mysteries has been exactly what type guns were carried by the figures in this dramatic gunfight, and most notably, the shotgun used by 'Doc' Holiday.
We know that Virgil stopped by the Wells Fargo office and grabbed a 'coach gun' on the way to the confrontation, it was said he was concerned Doc might not effectively shoot if something happened, as his health was pretty bad.
From most accounts, Doc did not especially care for shotguns, but took it anyway. When the fight broke out suddenly, in the exchange of fire Doc fired one blast which hit Tom McLaury in the side. McClaury had been standing next to Billy Clanton's horse reaching for the rifle in the scabbard. With only one shot of the 'guage' Doc threw it down and pulled his Colt out of his pocket to fire again.
The question has been....just what type of shotgun was this. We know it was a 'coach gun' from the Wells Office, so then in 1881, what kind of gun would that have been?
Both Wyatt and Virgil had been employed at times by Wells Fargo as 'shotgun messengers' (guards) so were familiar with the guns.
One account I read claimed the gun Doc used was a 10 gauge by Wm. Moore & Co. but all other accounts say the gun type (other than 'coach gun') remains unknown.
In reading through material on Wells Fargo & Co. I found that it was held the 10 gauge was a bit unwieldy so 12 guage more likely used. One reference claimed the shot in McLaury corresponded to 12 guage.
Apparently ALL guns used by Wells Fargo were purchased from San Francisco dealers as this was their headquarters. From 1860s, coach guns were all muzzle loaders, and thus until mid 1870s. By 1874, E. Remington &Sons introduced a cartridge breech loader and by 1880s other makers such as Parker Bros. and L.C. Smith were making these, 12 ga.
As it was 1881, it seems likely that one of these Remington's may have been the type we might consider.
Naturally, a locally acquired gun might have been obtained, but these were standard length shotguns (coach guns were 18-24" barrels). Not every coach had a shotgun guard, only those with valuable Wells Fargo shipments.
Also, there were not that many 'official' Wells Fargo 'messengers' (guards) at this time. Given the number of stage robberies in the time there, both Wyatt and Virgil may have simply filled in.
Still, I would suspect that Well Fargo might have furnished a coach gun for use as required.
I acquired an old coach gun years ago, 12 guage, and has markings
W.RICHARDS NORWICH CONN.
This name is not an actual maker but a spurious name (alluding to the famed Westley Richards in England) often used as a 'brand' in Liege, who made many guns for the American west.
The barrel is 18" so within the 'coach' specifications.
This is probably about an 1890s version produced in Connecticut by the Crescent Firearms Co.. This firm was taken over by H.D. Folsome in 1893, and they imported many weapons from Liege, so that would account for the W. Richards name.
By this time, these 'coach' guns were still used by guards, but mostly with shipments on train cars.
Just an example, but of 'the type' we are seeking for Doc Holliday in 1881.
Photos are : Tombstone in 1881; Doc Holiday; the W. Richards coach gun; and Wells Fargo shipment (in wagon, many did not ride in coaches) with the men all 'shotgun messengers'.
I have a couple of things to contribute here. One is that as a teen in 1971-72 I saw and handled a "Coach Gun" with Wells Fargo engraved on the midrib. Double barrelled, Damascus twist and hammers. For the life of me I cannot remember if it was pin, centre or rim fire, I vaguely think pinfire... and very short barrelled. My small town, Shrewsbury UK had 5 gun shops, and two of them were run by people who also collected, and this was in the one that was run by one of the more enthusiastic collectors.
Regarding Doc's gun, I remember an article in "Guns and Ammo" where they reckoned he carried a sawn-off DB, both ends cut down to 12 inch and a pistol grip, on a strap under his coat and balanced so that it levelled when he threw his coat back. Apparently it was a copy of Mormon Bodyguard, Porter Rockwell's piece. (I have another reminisce that I can share about cut down shotguns, but don't want to clog up this thread.)
David thank you for the great input!!!! and for heavens sakes DONT worry about 'clogging up' this thread!!! I am grateful for these kinds of details and quite honestly am just learning on all this stuff myself.
I have wondered if Wells Fargo weapons were so marked, and assumed they were but obviously there would be a huge market for fakery. I have still not found any examples marked and with provenance, so the notes you recall on the one you saw are most interesting.
From what I found on these coach guns, since they were now breech loading cartridge guns, with my limited knowledge I would assume they were center fire. I had seen the reference on Doc having a sawn off gun with swivel etc. and while interesting...…...considering that Doc had no particular fondness for shotguns, as well as the fact that he was handed the shotgun by Virgil ...who had grabbed it out of the Well Fargo office.....that is most unlikely.
Much of this is standard 'witness syndrome' in which witnesses seem to have a wide spectrum of details either inaccurately recalled; mistaken, made up or assumed. With this investigators rely on cross comparison of separate accounts, and presume the most aligned details corroborated to be accurate.
The 'shotgun messengers' had no reason to conceal their shotguns, so Well Fargo would not have had such 'rigs' for their messengers as the sawn off and swivel set ups.
While Rockwell was the 'Mormon Avenger' I think the gun he used (also called that) was actually a Colt with the barrel cut way down. I never found anything on a cut down shotgun, but with his penchant for 'alteration' would not be surprised.
Thanks very much David!
In more research into the shotgun used by Holliday, it seems there are far more notions and contrary accounts than anticipated. Even in the Rosa book, "The Age of the Gunfighter" it is claimed that Holliday's FAVORITE shotgun was a WW Greener from Birmingham, England.....but that more recent claims say he had a cut down 10 gauge 'meteor' shotgun (Belgian) and called it his street howitzer.
Looking more into the idea of Wells Fargo shotguns, it seems that while San Francisco was the headquarters, local agents in various places would acquire their own guns. I read through many accounts of 'authentic' and marked Wells Fargo shotguns, and all are expectedly faked.
One source says that few guns were ever marked, and if each local agent bought his own gun, why would there be 'Wells Fargo' property notices on them?
Also, it is noted that 'messengers' were also known to carry rifles, and that the short barrel was not necessarily the norm on the shotguns.
So most of my previous thoughts seem well rescinded for the most part at this point.
How sure are we that Virgil actually furnished Doc's shotgun? If not, then the idea of a cut down 10 gauge Meteor or whatever seems possible after all.
We do know that Doc did hit Tom McLaury fatally, but it seems it was his 2nd barrel. The first barrel was at Ike Clanton who had made his run for it.
It was then he threw the shotgun down (so it does not seem to have been on the swivel rig suggested). Also, it is noted that Frank McLaury fired at Doc and hit Doc's holster...….suggesting he was indeed wearing one.
Other accounts claim he had a Colt Lightning in his pocket.
So as always, with OK Corral 'versions', which is it?
Actually there is not even agreement on whether Wyatt actually had a Smith & Wesson #3, as the Gilcrease one said to be Wyatt's has been discredited. However, apparently in Juneau Alaska, a Smith & Wesson belonging to Wyatt was checked in and left (June, 1900).
The mystery (s) continue.
You have set yourself quite a challenge here..................sorting fact from years of fiction!
I can add nothing as to what Doc used in the way of a shotgun, and we do know that every inventive soul out there have added their ideas to the list.
All I can say is that from a practical point of view, Wells Fargo guns would Probably be double barreled hammer guns, of (as you stated ) 10 or 12 bore , with 12 getting the nod, and barrels not too short, so say 24" as a guard may have to engage a target at a longer range, say within 40 to 50 yards at times.
As for the buttstock, it would be much more serviceable with a proper (full)length , than one cut down and not allowing it to be used from the shoulder.
If it were me "back then" this is the type of shotgun I would be looking for, and no fancy gimmicks. :-) (except I'd go for barrels a tad longer, say 26")
As for markings, I would imagine Wells Fargo arms to be stamped or branded on the stock, in other words marked cheaply and easily, for aid in recovery if 'nicked".
So, Nothing concrete here, just what I Think may have been the case!!
All the best Jim and all,
Regarding barrel lengths, the Wells Fargo gun I handled 40 odd years ago had 18 inch barrels, which is the average for coach guns. I have a SB muzzle loader of such, and the barrel is that length as well. They are not for long range use, but made to be quick to get into action, aim, and deliver a wide spread to make up for the lack of time to aim.
Back in the day, I was an avid collector of American gun books and magazines, and they often had contemporary photo's of, and articles about, gunfights and Posse's. In those circumstances the standard DB full length 12 bore looms large in the hands of the protagonists, especially local men deputised for the occasion . They all had one, they were all used to using one, and did not expect to be surprised by the perp' they were chasing. It looks very much like if a shoot out was expected, it was the weapon of choice even for a sheriff or marshal.
Two different scenarios, two different demands on the weapon.
back in the States I had a Two-hole hammered shootsgun in 20ga. short barrels, choked full and modified, was good for small game in the brush and woods, birds, not so much tho. Was a favourite. A 12ga ex police riot gun, short barrelled pump with an extended magazine tube & web sling lived under my bed. Justincase. No choke at all. Not terribly good for ducks...unless you were standing on them.
The load makes a big difference as well, buckshot rather than bird.... Or even Buck and Ball!
Something I think worth pointing out, short barrels are not just for, and often nothing to do with, concealment. It's more to do with handling in confined spaces, as in indoors, in a trench or on a coach drivers position. Getting a wide spread of shot, like a blunderbuss. Speed of bringing it to bear. Ease of carry. The WWI US military shotgun, did not need to be hidden.
Richard, David and Wayne, thank you guys!!!!
Great perspective and much appreciated.
As someone who is not a 'shooter' it helps to see the pragmatic side of the aspects of these guns.
Still holding to the idea of the Wells Fargo gun from Virgil to Doc, the material I have been finding reveals mostly;
1. There were no 'standard' Wells Fargo shotguns, nor were they accordingly
marked or stamped. The only instance perhaps possible for such practice
may have been their headquarters areas in California, but no records thus
far that I can find. I'm awaiting the book "Company Property" by James
Bartz (1993) hoping for some info.
2. Another source says local agents bought their own guns from hardware
stores, but then suggests they had store mark guns Wells Fargo?? Why?
It was not as if they were outfitting an army, there were not that many
'messengers' and they only rode with Wells Fargo express boxes, not
on every stage (Well Fargo used private coach lines to convey boxes).
3. There seem to be no official records or inventory reflecting purchase
nor issue of guns for agents or messengers, so thus far no example
with clear provenance to compare to. The only references or examples
address the volume of 'fakes' to the point I have yet to find reference
to an authentic Well Fargo gun of any kind.
Again, I have not found any corroborating record of Holliday ever using or 'favoring' any shotgun, and as far as I know the only reference I have ever seen toward a WW Greener was in "True Grit" with John Wayne. The cut down 10 gauge Meteor would be a beast to hold onto, and certainly was never a coach gun. The notion of a swivel also seems nonsense, and Doc threw the gun down after firing both barrels, so what did he do, take time in a blazing 30 second close range fire fight to unfasten it?
Still searching for more on Wells Fargo gun markings, and as seen in the photo I posted earlier, Wells Fargo used wagons for shipments, and on these the 'messengers' (as many as 4 to 6) had not only coach guns but rifles.
One reference said Wyatt called coach guns 'street howitzers', and it is known he used one in his vengeance ride after the OK Corral. This suggests he may have been as other lawmen who often used these in duties in town, and they were not just used on 'coaches'.
If you are trying to identify a coaching gun, as opposed to a sawn-off, there are things to look at.
Barrel taper, if it is made as a short barrel gun, then it will have a fast and elegant taper, rather than an abrupt end with an awkward profile and excess metal at the muzzle.
The rib, either as midrib or under-rib will have a finished end rather than being open, which is the dead giveaway of a home made alteration.
It will balance, with the but-stock proportioned to the length and weight of the barrels.
In other words, whatever the calibre and age, think more on the lines of a carbine, rather than a sawn down musket or rifle.
In the Middle East, you can find quite a few mini-pieces made as serious weapons for the saddle boot, sometimes called knee-guns because they were braced on the knee rather than the shoulder. More like a shoulder stocked pistol than a cut down shoulder arm.
There has always been a demand and a use for a handy sub length long arm. They were issuing mini AR15's (?) for vehicle personnel in Vietnam... or so I have been told.
I also remember a shooter (British) bemoaning the change in the law that meant the handy DB gun at 23" barrel length was no longer legal, because it was so good in dense reed and marsh hunting.
Oh, as for marking guns... If the firm paid for them, it wanted to keep them and not have them "walk"!
And another edit, a Wells Fargo Depot would store valuables. They would need guns to protect such from the scalawags and bandits that abounded in the Old West.
Thanks very much David, there is a great deal to understanding the dynamics of these coach guns and shotguns themselves. Getting back to the subject at hand, I am hoping to find more detail on the gun of Holliday, and if indeed Virgil did get it from the Wells Fargo office.
It does make sense that they would mark it Wells Fargo as it would be less likely to be stolen, and as you note, the office itself had to store valuables. With that it would seem the guns would not be likely to 'walk away' as there must have been a guard on duty at all times.
I would have posted a photo earlier, but had to wait for this to come back from the Gunsmith. A muzzle loading percussion Coaching Gun in my collection. The barrel checks out as having been made at that length, 18 inches, rather than sawn down from longer. The lock started life as a flintlock, and was than made into a percussion. The bore is at least 12 bore, hard to tell with these old barrels. Lots of wear and repair, but I like it.
David, thank you so much for posting this!
This is a fantastic gun, and all the more so having been converted from flintlock suggesting it early use indeed on coaches. While the Doc Holiday shotgun was of course from a later time in the 'wild west', the early coach guns have amazing history of their own.
Thank you for posting it on its own thread as the old coach guns are a story in themselves from 18th century into 19th with the highwayman tales of England and the Continent. This shotgun type evolved in such use from the blunderbusses it would seem, but that's for the new thread.
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