Sorry about the length in advance, but I wasn’t totally sure how to structure this one. If there is repeated information, consider it valuable knowledge that you should never ever forget.
Val Kilmer as John “Doc” Holliday, failed dentist, proficient gambler, and excellent gunfighter
Tombstone, AZ, October 1881
Release Date: December 24, 1993
Director: George P. Cosmatos (but really, Kurt Russell)
Costume Designer: Joseph A. Porro
Today is the 132nd anniversary of one of the most infamous shootouts in the history of the Old West, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral!
The fight, a now-legendary face off between a group of Cochise County outlaws known as “The Cowboys” and the deputized Earp brothers. The battle was long overdue, stretching back to the Earps’ arrival in Tombstone nearly two years earlier. The Earps, whom had served sporadically as lawmen between fits of cattle-ranching and pimping (as Tombstone implies), represented some of the first relevant law in Tombstone after the death of City Marshal Fred White at the hands of “Curly Bill” Brocious, a Cowboy outlaw. Unlike we see in the film, Wyatt Earp pursued a career as a lawman upon his arrival in Tombstone, but the job of Pima County Deputy Sheriff went to John Behan, who eventually became Wyatt’s rival for the affections of local performer Josephine Marcus.
Through 1880 and 1881, the Cowboys and the Earps were continually at odds, with the Cowboys committing a crime and the Earps pursuing them and attempting to put them in jail. In turn, the Cowboys would manipulate the system, trying to pin their own crimes on the Earp brothers! In fact, after a stagecoach robbery in the area, Deputy Sheriff Behan and saloon owner Milt Joyce tricked the drunken mistress of an Earp ally to sign an affadavit blaming her boyfriend for the robbery. The girlfriend was best known as “Big Nose Kate”, and her boyfriend was John “Doc” Holliday.
Holliday was born in Georgia in 1851. He initially followed the straight career of a dentist, obtaining his D.D.S. and setting up a practice in Atlanta. He was diagnosed with a severe case of tuberculosis in 1873 while still a young man. To counter the effects of the disease that had also taken his mother’s life, Holliday headed to the warm and dry southwest. He initially tried to keep making his living as a dentist, but patients were turned away from his Dallas office by his persistent cough. Holliday quickly turned the gambling as his main source of income. A few arrests and skirmishes later, “Doc” Holliday was known throughout the west as a feared gunfighter and degenerate gambler, having spent time in the boomtowns of Denver, Cheyenne, Deadwood, and the lawless criminal haven of Dodge City, Kansas. In Dodge City, Holliday befriended assistant city marshal Wyatt Earp, an even-tempered and stoic lawman who countered the more impulsive and vice-ridden Holliday. Wyatt and his brothers moved to Tombstone in December 1879. Holliday followed in September 1880, possibly summoned by the Earps to help back their play in their feud against the Clanton-McLaury faction of the Cowboy gang. Whether they called him in or not, Doc was quickly enmeshed in the local politics and violence that escalated that year to the gunfight.
Ordinance #9 was passed by the Tombstone city council on April 1881, prohibiting anyone from carrying a deadly weapon in town. The Cowboys, rightly so, interpreted this as a direct offense toward them, and the path to the confrontation was steepened.
At dawn on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, the morning after Cowboy loudmouth Ike Clanton insulted and threatened both Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, a card game broke up between city marshal Virgil Earp, Sheriff Behan, and Cowboys Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury. Virgil and Behan left to go to their respective homes, but Ike and Tom had nowhere to go. The bartender tried to convince Ike, who had been drinking all night, to go to bed, but the armed Ike replied that “As soon as the Earps and Doc Holliday showed themselves on the street… they would have to fight.” That afternoon, having been told of the threat, Virgil and Morgan Earp buffaloed and disarmed Ike, taking him before the local judge for violating the city’s firearms ordinance. Ike was fined $25 and left his guns with the jailer. While leaving the courthouse, Wyatt ran into Tom McLaury, who claimed not to be armed despite a revolver in his waistband in plain sight. Exercising his rights as an unpaid city marshal, Wyatt drew his own revolver and buffaloed McLaury. As the afternoon wore on and the angry – and in Ike’s case, drunk – Cowboys grew angrier, more Cowboys rode into Tombstone. By 2:30 p.m., it was known to Virgil that Cowboys Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Billy Claiborne, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury were gearing up to face the Earps in a narrow lot just west of the O.K. Corral’s rear entrance on Fremont Street, next to Fly’s boarding house, where Wyatt was staying.
Virgil armed himself with a short 10-gauge double-barreled shotgun, borrowed from the Wells Fargo office and concealed under his long overcoat. After running into Doc Holliday, whom he deputized that morning, he switched his shotgun with Holliday’s walking stick. Doc, in turn, hid the shotgun under his own overcoat. Now all formally deputized as city marshals, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp joined Doc Holliday as they headed west down Fremont Street. Behan told the Earps he disarmed the Cowboys in an attempt to keep them from starting a fight, but the Earps and Doc were nearly in sight of the Cowboys. There were a few seconds of tension as both parties stood about six feet away from each other. After Virgil called for them to disarm themselves, the Cowboys grabbed their guns. Virgil’s last second peace attempt, calling out, “Hold on, I don’t want that!” didn’t stop a thing.
Two shots rang out first, immediately preceding the intense gunfire from both sides. Thirty shots and thirty seconds later, both McLaurys and Billy Clanton were dead, and Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborn had run from the fight, leaving Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday standing victorious over the dead Cowboys.
The story doesn’t end there. Ike would eventually file murder charges against the Earp faction, but Judge Spicer’s court exonerated them after a hearing. Angry about the decision, the Cowboys were out for Earp blood. After Virgil was wounded and maimed in an assassination attempt in December, the Cowboys managed to kill an Earp with the death of assistant town marshal Morgan Earp in March of 1882. Wyatt Earp, now a Deputy U.S. Marshal, grabbed Doc Holliday and set off after the Cowboys during the notorious monthlong Earp Vendetta Ride, which saw the death of four Cowboys. After riding with Earp, Holliday’s condition worsened and he died of TB in a sanitarium in Glenwood Springs, Colorado on November 8, 1887 at the age of 36.
There’ve been no less than 2,600 depictions of Doc Holliday on film. (Okay, maybe closer to 70, but still…) Actors ranging from Walter Huston, Kirk Douglas, and Jason Robards to Dennis Hopper, Willie Nelson, and Dennis Quaid have played the legendary gunfighter, with almost all depictions showing his friendship with Wyatt Earp. However, it was Val Kilmer’s brilliant portrayal in 1993’s Tombstone that attracts attention as the most accurate and enjoyable performance. Kilmer plays Holliday as a sick but swaggering Southern gentleman, very handy with his weapons but well-headed enough to know when not to use them and pick up a shot of whiskey instead. The film also depicts, in my opinion, the most accurate portrayal of the events of and surrounding the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Kilmer’s Holliday is the epitome of the Old West badass; his Victorian style borders on the foppish with its colored vests and cravats, and he indulges his every vice. However, he is also ready for action and takes his revolvers into battle to defend his only friend (Wyatt, as played by Kurt Russell) to whom he is fiercely loyal. Doc does everything to excess – drinking, smoking, womanizing, killing, and certainly gambling – but he is the only character who can honestly say “My hypocrisy goes only so far.”
What’d He Wear?
Frock Coat In Town
As a “city dude” on the streets of Tombstone, Doc sports a respectable gray frock coat and dark pinstripe trousers. He pairs it with the first variation of his red and gray motif by wearing a silver brocade vest and a deep red cravat.
His frock coat is single-breasted with small but large notch lapels. It fastens with four buttons in the front, but Doc wears it open. Like a good frock cot should, it has a long fit that hangs well on Kilmer’s frame, extending down to just above his knees. There are two flapped hip pockets that sit straight on each side of his waist and a welted breast pocket that slants inward toward the center of his chest. The 3-button cuffs, like the front buttons, are self-covered with the same gray cloth used to manufacture the jacket.
The rear of the frock coat has distinctive shoulder yokes that curve inward from the armpit and cut straight down each side. There are two decorative self-covered buttons that sit at the waistline, just above a long single vent that blows in the dusty winds of Tombstone.
Holliday only wears his frock coat when greeting the Earps upon their arrival in Tombstone. He wears it with a pair of dark charcoal pinstripe flat front wool trousers with a high rise and plain-hemmed bottoms with a half break over his black leather city boots. The pinstripe of the trousers is very narrow and the pants appear solid gray from a distance. The trousers have frogmouth front pockets, which Holliday uses for his Colt Lightning revolver (in the right side pocket) and his pocketwatch (in the left pocket).
After the Earps come to Tombstone, Doc accompanies the brothers and their wives to a night of theater. For this outing, and all of Doc’s nights of debauched gambling, he ditches the frock coat and adopts a more “sporting” black lounge coat. He will later wear this same coat when riding with Wyatt during the famous “Earp Vendetta Ride”. It is single-breasted with peak lapels. The 4-button front and 3-button cuffs, as well as the two buttons over the rear single vent, are all covered by a black grosgrain silk to add a touch of formality to the jacket. Doc wears the jacket open when in town, only fastening the front buttons when he later wears it while riding with Earp’s posse.
The black lounge coat also has flapped hip pockets and a breast pocket. Since he wears the coat more formally when wearing it to the theater, Doc stuffs a dark gray silk handkerchief in his breast pocket.
To be polite, Doc carries his guns slightly concealed in an old fashioned black leather shoulder holster. The gun is holstered on his left side, about six inches below the armpit with the butt facing out. The holster is part of a wide black leather strap that goes up around his left shoulder. It is held into his place by two additional straps: one thin strap that buckles all the way across his waist, and another thin adjustable strap that extends across his back, over his right shoulder, and down to the belt strap.
In keeping with his persona as a decadent gambler of the Gilded Age, Doc sports silk brocade vests in varying shades of gold, silver, and red with contrasting cravats. Unlike the Earps, he never tones down his look with their solid dark grays and blacks, nor does he adopt the more modern necktie and turndown collars that they often wear. If you’re unfamiliar with brocade, go start touching some drapery. You’ll likely encounter some if you make drapery-fondling a habit. Before they became window dressing, however, brocade fabrics were often used for clothing, most notably the colored silk men’s vests we associated with Old West gamblers.
If you’d like a brocade vest of your own, the excellent Gentleman’s Emporium has plenty of styles and colors to choose from, including a light gray and a red that look similar to Holliday’s. The site is a great resource for Victorian and Edwardian fashions and accessories.
Doc has certain colors for his activities and wears his brocade silk waistcoats in an array of shades, sporting gray and red around town, gold for gambling, and black for mourning. All of his vests are single-breasted with notch lapels and five silver-toned buttons. The bottoms are cut straight across with very small notches at the base. Each vest also has four welted pockets – two upper and two lower. Evidently, the pockets are shallow, as Doc prefers to wear his pocketwatch in the left pocket of his trousers rather than in his waistcoat pocket. However, he appears to wear his Colt Lightning in one of the upper vest pockets, so perhaps only the lower pockets are shallow.
Vest #1: Paired with both his gray frock coat and the black lounge coat, Doc wears a light gray silk brocade vest for walking around town. The light gray silk, with a red floral pattern permeating throughout, shines silver under the Arizona sunlight. He also later wears it to the theater when he and Wyatt drool over Josie Marcus’ interpretation of Faust and when idly (and drunkenly) playing one of Chopin’s nocturnes on the Oriental Saloon’s piano.
The red pattern on the gray waistcoat is further enhanced by the deep red cravat that Doc always pairs it with. Like all of his cravats, he fastens it in place with a diamond stickpin.
With the gray silk brocade vest and red cravat, Doc wears a solid light gray shirt with a striped bib. The bib’s stripes alternate with thick gray stripes and thinner white and dark blue stripes, crossing diagonally down from the shoulders toward the center of the shirt. Attached to the shirt is a white detachable “Westminster” wing collar with long but narrow wings that he wears throughout the film. The shirt itself has attached single cuffs, which Doc fastens with silver-rimmed diamond cuff links that match his tie stickpin.
Vest #2: Later, after the gunfight, Doc is seen around town wearing a red silk brocade vest, accentuated with a pattern of gold geometric squares. The vest has a contrasting gray silk lining with an adjustable rear strap.
The gray silk lining is similar to the gray silk cravat, which also has a series of squares, worn with this vest. This cravat is also held in place by a diamond stickpin.
This is the attire featured in the photo above. If you’re looking to make Doc a Halloween costume, this guy I found did a great job recreating Doc’s look from this scene, right down to the nickel-plated Colts.
Vest #3: For his many gambling jaunts, Doc seems to believe he has success when wearing gold. He wears a gold brocade vest, when gambling against Ed Bailey and again when playing poker with Ike Clanton in Tombstone. Both games are fraught with conflict, but Doc still manages to come out on top. If you gargling up blood and having your life threatened on top, that is.
The gold vest has black paisley accents, reflected in the solid black rear lining. The vest serves a double purpose; in addition the gold bringing him luck, he also conceals a small knife under the front of the vest, tucked into his waistband.
During his game against Ike Clanton, Doc pairs this waistcoat with a black cravat that is spotted with lavender and forest green polka dots. For his earlier game against Ed Bailey, Doc wears a solid black silk cravat. Naturally, both cravats are also held in place with a diamond stickpin.
Doc is wearing a different shirt here, the same shirt he will wear for the next day’s gunfight. It is also light gray but with white vertical stripes. The front has a horizontally-striped bib with gray buttons as well as slot tabs for suspenders. Like his other shirt, it is collarless with single cuffs and white gauntlet buttons. When he’s gambling, he wears the shirt with the detachable white wingtip collar.
Vest #4: Finally, after Morgan is killed, Doc goes into mourning and wears a black silk brocade vest with silver accents. This waistcoat is the most formal of them all. Unlike the others, it is double-breasted with large sweeping lapels and six small silver buttons – three to fasten. He wears his pocketwatch through the center of the three functional buttons.
Since it is a funeral procession, Doc wisely wears his black lounge coat and trousers, as well as his plain black cravat from his introductory scene. His shirt is white with a light blue double-striped bib and a white wingtip collar.
Doc always wears a pair of black leather city boots which rise over his ankle.
As always, he also wears his large black hat, lest someone mistake him for a “good guy”. More about this later…
Doc dresses very differently for the urban gunfight and when he goes out on the scout for the Earp vendetta ride. Both looks are much simpler variations of his usual attire and are purely utilitarian.
Stricken with a TB attack the night before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Doc ventures out of his hotel in just a shirt, trousers, hat, and boots, with an ulster draped over him. The ulster’s cape may seem… excessive, but Doc is eventually given the group’s 10-gauge shotgun. In real life, Doc concealed the shotgun under his long coat until they reached the lot behind the corral. Tombstone doesn’t have Doc hiding his weapon, but the ulster certainly adds the “badass long coat” that Holliday needs for the walking-down-the-street scene, channeling The Wild Bunch.
Doc’s ulster is long, black, and lightweight and serves his character appropriately as Doc often dresses in black but would need something lightweight against the piercing desert sun. The length is both form and function, making him look badass and giving him an outlet for concealing a shotgun. Also the fine details, such as its five decorative frog closures, suggest an aristocratic air, especially when worn with such casual attire.
While an ulster was still more informal than the contemporary Inverness coat, Doc wears his very informally, pairing with only a shirt and trousers. The shirt is the same gray striped shirt as seen earlier. Since he tosses off his ulster before the fight, we get a good examination of the shirt. It indeed has a gray ground with white vertical stripes and attached single cuffs, fastened by silver-trimmed cuff links. The front bib, decorated with plain studs, is similar to the rest of the shirt, but it features horizontal stripes rather than vertical stripes. He doesn’t bother attaching collars as this is a gunfight, not a fancy dress ball. The lack of a collar reveals the plain silver button in the front of the neckline, which would be used to hold the collar in place.
The trousers worn for the O.K. Corral shootout are different than the thin pinstriped pants worn earlier in the film. These are charcoal also but with a thin, faded tonal stripe visible. There are two buttons on each side of the front of the waistband to fasten the suspenders. The trousers themselves fasten down a straight button fly. The only pockets are the frogmouth hip pockets, with the right pocket used to house his Colt Lightning. The fishmouth-style rear is fitted with an adjustable rear strap that tightens through a silver buckle. Like his other trousers, these have plain-hemmed bottoms with a short break.
Since he is fighting in town, Doc wears his shorter black leather “city” boots and his black hat.
Following the aftermath of the gunfight, Doc joins Wyatt for the infamous and controversial Earp Vendetta Ride. For this, he wears his black lounge coat with dark gray trousers, high black riding boots, and a scarf in lieu of a vest and cravat. Both because he is intending to fight and to aid his comfort and ease while riding, he wears his gun belt over his jacket rather than a shoulder holster under it.
Underneath, Doc wears only a rumpled white collarless shirt. The shirt is much more casual than Doc’s other shirts and shows that he can dress functionally when necessary. The shirt fastens with large white buttons down the placketless front. The shirt’s single cuffs are fastened by large square silver-toned cuff links.
Doc’s scarf is a large black scarf with white polka dots, tied around his neck over his shirt and tucked into his jacket.
He wears a pair of solid dark gray flat front high rise trousers, which he tucks into his boots. The boots are plain black leather riding boots that extend up his calves to his knees.
During the later stages of the ride, Doc and Wyatt also sport badass dusters, which are like a jacket, but they’re longer, thicker, and far more badass. The duster is light brown – with a gray tint – and single-breasted with six horn buttons down the front. It has a revere collar, a button-flapped breast pocket on the left side of the chest, flapped hip pockets, and 2-button tab cuffs. The hip pockets are slightly slanted, much like hacking pockets, to ease their use when riding, and they fasten with a button on the pointed flap. A short belt is buttoned to the rear of the coat at the waistline.
As I mentioned, Doc wears a gun belt rather than his usual shoulder holster. He wears his Colt Single Action Army – discussed below – in his holster, which is a right-hand-draw cross draw holster worn on his left hip. He wears the .45 Long Colt rounds for it around his belt.
Doc also sports one additional accessory. After he is “deputized” by Wyatt, he temporarily wears a silver Deputy U.S. Marshal badge. He later removes it, pinning it to the body of his fresh kill Johnny Ringo, stating that:
It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds.
Whether he’s strolling through town or riding through the mountains with a posse, Doc always has one constant: his black hat. This wide-brimmed felt “cowboy” hat has a rolled, slightly upturned brim that is curled higher on the left. There is a narrow black satin grosgrain band with a bow and a pinched dent in the crown.
Doc technically also always wears his brown suspenders, but these aren’t nearly as iconic as a black hat. The suspenders, which are often worn through tabs on his shirts, are mostly brown with edge stripes in lighter and darker shades.
Not all of his shirts have tabs for suspenders, which are never seen on modern shirts anyway. His off-white sleeveless undershirt is also devoid of suspender tabs. The undershirt is basically a sleeveless henley, with a few buttons on the chest.
He doesn’t overdo his jewelry, sometimes wearing a diamond ring on his right ring finger. It’s mostly worn when he is gambling, as it would get in the way during gunfights and is flashy enough to fit the gambler persona he has built for himself. He evidently won or fought for the ring during the opening poker game against Ed Bailey. The ring, however, doesn’t look like the rough Ed’s style, so Doc had likely offered it as his own bet before winning it back.
Doc also wears a pocketwatch, naturally, as this was at least 30 years before the advent of the modern wristwatch. He typically wears it in the left pocket of his trousers, although he occasionally fits it into a vest pocket as well.
Go Big or Go Home
Kilmer plays Holliday very true to the original man’s character with many vices. He lives hard, not caring for a second that he has tuberculosis. In fact, Doc intends to be long gone before the TB can actually kill him, hoping to die “with his boots on”. He drinks whiskey continuously, skipping complimentary champagne and heading right for the hard stuff. When he isn’t throwing back shots from his flask, he enjoys Bourbon – served neat, of course – in a small tin mug. The whiskey that Kate pours for him in the first casino appears to be “Old Kentucky” brand.
Although TB is a disease of the lungs, Holliday is also a chain smoker, enjoying unfiltered – and likely hand-rolled – cigarettes.
Despite his many shortcomings, Doc Holliday is still brilliant and can speak Latin fluently, even when he is three sheets to the wind. And not just fluently, he actually manages to joke in the language to get the upper hand on Johnny Ringo in one of my favorite scenes.
Doc’s Latin knowledge is indicative of his urbane intelligence. The fact that he uses it to try and entice another man into a gunfight is pure Doc, using his vast and sophisticated knowledge to put the plebians in their place. Par examplum, he entertains himself by drunkenly playing Frederic Chopin’s nocturnes on a bar room piano late at night. When a Cowboy offers a light but admittedly ineffective insult, Doc counters by referring to the composer as “Frederic fucking Chopin”. Not only is Doc better than you – he is much better than you, you stupid bastard.
How to Get the Look
This might look strange as everyday wear, but then again maybe you’d be just the guy to pull it off. Also, Halloween is right around the corner, so Doc Holliday could be the perfect last minute costume. If you’ve got a special lady friend, why not slap on an old whore’s dress and a fake nose and boom – you’ve got your “Big Nose Kate”.
- Black single-breasted lounge coat with peak lapels, 4-button front, 3-button cuffs, breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, single rear vent under 2 ceremonial buttons
- Dark gray single-breasted frock coat with notch lapels, 4-button front, 3-button cuffs, slanted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, long single rear vent under 2 ceremonial buttons
- Black ulster with five decorative frog closures
- Light brown single-breasted 6-button duster with revere collar, button-down flapped breast pocket, slanted flapped hip pockets, 2-button tab cuffs, and buttoned rear belt
- Single-breasted silk brocade vests with notch lapels and 5 silver-toned buttons in a variety of colors, including:
- Light gray with a red floral pattern
- Gold with black paisley accents
- Red with a gold geometric square pattern
- Black with gold accents
- Light gray solid or striped shirt with striped bib, white “Westminster” long and narrow wingtip collar, and single cuffs
- A cravat, held in place by a diamond stickpin, either:
- Black cravat
- Light gray patterned silk cravat
- Deep red cravat
- Brown suspenders with striped edges
- Black leather boots, either
- Plain knee-high riding boots
- Ankle-high “city boots”
- Black wide-brimmed felt “cowboy” hat with a narrow black grosgrain ribbon
- Gold diamond ring, worn on the right ring finger
- Black leather RHD shoulder holster, strapped across stomach and diagonally across rear of back
- Brown leather RHD crossdraw holster, worn on the left hip
- Off-white sleeveless henley undershirt
Like many BAMF Style characters and men of the Old West, Doc Holliday rarely went anywhere without being well-armed. His preference for Colt revolvers is well-documented, with much dispute about the models he actually preferred.
In Tombstone, Kilmer’s Doc carries two nickel-plated Colt revolvers. When Billy Clanton accuses him of being so drunk that he’s seeing double, Doc replies:
I have two guns, one for each of ya.
So what were Doc’s two guns? Supposedly, Tombstone‘s choices best reflect what is known about Doc Holliday’s actual preference for armament.
While it is known that Doc preferred a Colt 1851 Navy Percussion revolver in his early days as a gunfighter, he quickly adopted the newest weapons as they were being developed, leaving his old cap-and-ball ’51 Navy behind.
Doc’s primary sidearm – in both life and film – was the Colt Single Action Army, introduced in 1873 by the Colt Manufacturing Company to use the proprietary .45 Long Colt cartridge. Known as the “Peacemaker”, the Single Action Army is ubiquitous in cowboy tales, carried by all from Bat Masterson to Teddy Roosevelt. General George S. Patton also legendarily carried an ivory-gripped Single Action Army as he led the Third Army through Europe during World War II.
One of the few documented guns known to have been carried by the real Doc was a Colt Single Action Army Cavalry Model with a 7.5″ barrel. Chambered in .45 Long Colt – although the gun would be developed for almost all revolver (and rifle!) calibers – Doc’s model can be traced by its serial number, #11301, to the second year of SAA production in 1874. Tombstone gives Doc a Single Action Army, but Kilmer’s Doc carries a nickel-plated Quickdraw model with a 4.75″ barrel rather than the longer-barreled Cavalry model.
If you want to see a Single Action Army in action, watch any Western every made. For a slightly rarer piece, let’s look to the secondary firearm carried by Doc.
In January 1877, Colt introduced a breakthrough in firearm technology – the double-action revolver. Before this, nearly all revolvers were single-action, meaning that the user had to draw the hammer before every shot, resulting in the typically inaccurate but cool-looking “fanning” technique you’ve seen in cowboy movies. With a double-action revolver, all a user has to do is point and shoot. Colt, never one for being too clever, named its weapon the Model 1877, but it quickly took on three unofficial names for each caliber: the “Lightning” in .38 Long Colt, the “Thunderer” in .41 Long Colt, and the .32-caliber “Rainmaker”. (The nicknames were introduced by Benjamin Kittredge, a Colt distributor with more imagination than the company itself.) In Tombstone, Kilmer’s Doc is armed with the .38-caliber Colt Model 1877 “Lightning”.
While it was revolutionary as the first successful American double-action cartridge revolver, the M1877 was plagued with problems, which is only natural for the company’s first attempt at something so new to them. The delicate mechanism was prone to breaking, resulted in a failed hammer spring and turning it into a single-action revolver anyway. The M1877 quickly earned a reputation for failure as “the gunsmith’s favorite” because of how much gunsmiths hated working on them. See, people were even sarcastic in the Old West.
So why did Doc Holliday, someone so knowledgable about guns, carry a revolver referred to by Gun Digest as “the worst double-action trigger mechanism ever made”? Well, for one thing, it was flashy and new. Offered in a blued, nickel-plated, or case-colored frame, the M1877 looked like a slimmer version of the Single Action Army, with factory checkered rosewood bird’s head grips. With a nickel-plated Lightning with custom ivory grips in his hand, Doc would look like a fashionable gunman. Secondly, Doc only uses the Lightning as a secondary “holdout” gun, only drawing it when he needs the extra firepower… or at least intimidation factor. When the stakes are down, your SAA is empty, and you’ve got a split second to act, even a pro like Doc doesn’t have time to painstakingly reload six cartridges one-by-one into the Single Action Army. He needs a gun he can grab and shoot without having to worry about cocking first. Failure-prone or not, a backup like a slim and compact (for its time…) Colt Lightning would be just the insurance Doc needs to leave a gunfight as the victor.
Despite its many issues, the M1877 saw a long production, lasting until 1909 when the New Service was quickly taking over as the double-action Colt revolver of choice. 166,849 M1877s were made during this time in a variety of finishes and barrel lengths from 2.5″ to 7.5″. The shorter-barreled versions without the ejector rod were known as “Shopkeeper’s Specials” or “Sheriff’s Models”. This might have been a wise choice for Doc’s holdout piece, but these extremely short-barreled models weren’t developed until after the events of Tombstone and, plus, a longer barrel means better accuracy.
Although they never had the best reputation, the M1877 did gain quite a following, with Old West legend John Wesley Hardin carrying both the .38-caliber Lightning and the .41-caliber Thunderer. “Billy the Kid” also carried a Thunderer when he was killed by Pat Garrett in 1881.
The other weapon shown in Tombstone in Doc’s hands is a Meteor 10-gauge side-by-side double-barreled shotgun, much like the one he supposedly carried during the actual shootout with the Clanton clan. In the film, Wyatt instructs Virgil to give the shotgun to Doc, saying:
Give Doc the shotgun. They’ll be less apt to get nervy if he’s on the street howitzer.
Legend has it that Doc hated shotguns, much preferring the revolver he was proficient with. Whether this was a genuine preference or just a way to deflect the fact that a TB-stricken “lunger” shouldn’t be shouldering a shotgun, Doc still carried a double-barreled 10-gauge Colt coach gun into the O.K. Corral for the fateful gunfight. It figures that if Doc had to carry any shotgun, he would carry a Colt.
Of course, when the going gets rough and the insults start flying, Doc keeps a small but deadly folding knife in his waistband, hidden but just accessible enough to jab an angry gambler in the stomach if he gets uppity.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie. It’s one of my favorite modern Westerns and does as good a job as I’ve seen recreating the legendary gunfight.
This film makes Holliday the most quotable guy of the Old West, with his expressions like “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do” all catching on in popular culture. Much credit is due to Kilmer for bringing Doc to life in such a memorable and – honestly, lovable – fashion.
Maybe poker’s just not your game, Ike. I know! Let’s have a spelling contest.