Bat Masterson was back living in Dodge City in 1885 though his role as a lawman was “occasional” being deputized at the needs of the city or county Sheriffs. On July 24, 1885 Bat placed an order with Colt’s for two revolvers which, according to factory records, were completed for shipping on July 30, 1885.
By the time Bat Masterson received this handsome, nickel-plated six-shooter from Colt’s he was already a legend, as famous as his friends Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, and Bill Tilghman. While most only knew Masterson by his reputation as a Dodge City lawman, or a high-toned dressing gambler, old friends like Earp and Tilghman, who had known Bartholomew Masterson in his youth, remembered him as a roughneck, buckskin clad buffalo hunter, skinner, and Cavalry scout, long before his days as sheriff in the Queen of Cowtowns, and fully a decade before he wrote the letter to Colt’s in July 1885 placing an order for the seventh of eight single-action revolvers he would own.
Born in Quebec, Canada, in 1853, the Masterson family had moved to Kansas by the time of the Civil War. Both Bat and his older brother Ed would eventually end up in Dodge City as lawmen, but long before Dodge they had made a name for themselves as buffalo hunters, Bat in particular distinguishing himself as a marksman with the Sharps rifle while defending the little hunting settlement of Adobe Walls in 1874 against a combined Comanche and Cheyenne raiding party led by the infamous Quanah Parker. After a five-day siege, Bat and 27 other hunters prevailed and the Indians withdrew. Adobe Walls, an old trading post on the Texas Panhandle, was already famous for a decade-old battle during the Civil War where Col. Kit Carson and the men of his expeditionary force had thwarted a Comanche raid on U.S. Cavalry forces sent west to protect settlers on the frontier. Masterson’s Adobe Walls settlement was only about a mile and a half from the site where Carson had been victorious in 1864.
On June 29, 1885 Bat was wearing a Deputy Sheriff’s badge having been asked by Dodge City Sheriff Pat Sughrue to personally handle a touchy situation with a prohibitionist sure to be hung by an angry mob. Bat stood in the doorway of the hotel and ordered the crowd to disperse. It is unlikely anyone, outside of Wyatt Earp, could have single-handedly braced such a mob.
It was during the early 1870s that Bartholomew had decided to change his name to William Barclay Masterson. Most folks already knew him by then as Bart (short for Bartholomew), but he preferred Bat, and the nickname stuck. Still in their early 20s Bat and Ed Masterson befriended several other famous buffalo hunters who were also destined to make a name for themselves in Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, William Tilghman, and Neal Brown. Their lives would be intertwined for decades, particularly Bat’s and Wyatt’s.
The buffalo trade in the early 1870s eventually took the Masterson brothers to an emerging Kansas encampment named Buffalo City, where the Santa Fe railroad would soon pass through to take on shipments of buffalo hides being sent east. A.A. Robinson, the chief engineer of the Santa Fe railroad, had laid out the streets for the little Hell On Wheels Kansas tent city in the summer of 1871 and renamed it Dodge City. It became a hub for buffalo hunters in the spring and in winter a safe haven from the rugged plains. It was here that Bat learned another trade, gambling, and in this too, he excelled.
Bat had proven himself with both the Sharps rifle and the Colt revolver by the early 1870s and his experience as a buffalo hunter and Indian fighter had made him an ideal choice as a U.S. Cavalry Scout. In 1874 he was hired by Col. Nelson A. Miles. Masterson scouted for the cavalry until the spring of 1875, when he returned briefly to buffalo hunting. A year later he was involved in his first shootout in Sweetwater, Texas, with a cavalry sergeant named Melvin A. King. The fight was over a woman named Mollie Brennan and as Wyatt Earp wrote of the event, King walked into the Lady Gay saloon and opened fire on Masterson and Brennan, killing her and hitting Bat in the hip. Masterson managed to get his gun into action and cut King down with a clean shot to the heart.
In town, where most everything happened at close range, Bat wore his Colt crossdraw style, butt forward and covered, making it almost impossible for anyone to disarm him from behind. He had seen many lawmen gunned down, some with their own guns taken from behind and turned on them. Note the special wide, raised front sight ordered by Masterson from Colt’s.
There are several versions of how the shootout unfolded, some with King ambushing Masterson and Brennan, other as a standup gun fight in the Lady Gay, but they all end the same, with Mollie Brennan killed, Bat severely wounded and King dead. The injury left Masterson with a permanent limp and thus the need for what would become his famous cane.
Return to Dodge City
In his absence Dodge City (now part of Ford County, Kansas) had grown from a rough-hewn buffalo camp into a bustling cow town. When Bat returned in the late spring of 1876 he found an unruly city with little law enforcement, a town that the Hays City Sentinel had christened “the Deadwood of Kansas….Her corporate limits are the rendezvous of all the unemployed scally-wagism in seven states. Her principal is polygamy, her code of honor is the morals of thieves, and decency she knows not…” The Kinsley Graphic newspaper was somewhat less kind, naming Dodge the “…the Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the frontier.” And it was in Dodge City where Earp, Charlie Bassett, and the Masterson brothers would earn their early reputations as lawmen settling this unsettled burg.