Doc Holliday’s Gun: Everything You Need to Know About the Legendary Gunslinger

Doc Holliday's Gun

The Wild West has made lawmen, criminals, and cowboys the stuff of legends, not only in books but also on the silver screen. It has also created legends of the weapons that these famous and infamous characters carried. And just like the legends that made them famous, these guns now emit an aura of mystery that has only made them more powerful in the mythic imagination over the years.

The Legend That Was “Doc” Holliday

One of these legendary figures from the Old West is John Henry “Doc” Holliday. A dentist by profession, he became more renowned for his knife skills and his prowess with a gun than for his medical skills. When he moved to the town of Tombstone, Arizona, he became friends with the Earp brothers, a friendship that would later involve him in the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral. This shootout, which involved a gang called the Cowboys, the Earp brothers, and Doc Holliday, was immortalized as one of the most iconic events of the American frontier. 

Doc Holliday was sickly when he was born, but he was a good student who graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. He was not the most popular man in town; he had a reputation for being a gambler, a drunk, and a gunfighter who had allegedly killed at least one man before he moved to Tombstone. However, he was admired because of his courage, skills, and loyalty to his friend, Wyatt Earp. Furthermore, despite suffering from tuberculosis, he made sure he would make a reputation for himself in the West.

Was Doc Holliday a feared gunfighter?

His skills as a gunfighter gave him the reputation as the West’s deadliest doctor, and his weapon of choice has also grown into legend. There are various reports that have circulated about the different Doc Holliday guns and weapons, but there is only one documented gun confirmed to be his: a cap and ball Model 1851 Navy Colt revolver with a standard 7-and-a-half inch barrel that his uncle gave to him after the Civil War.

Colt Navy Model 1851

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How fast was Doc Holliday with a gun?

Doc Holliday was a close friend of Wyatt Earp, who reportedly said that Doc Holliday was the deadliest and fastest man with a six-gun he had ever seen, and that’s saying a lot. Earp was a lawman who’d seen his share of gunslingers, cowboys, and gunfighters, but he knew that Doc Holliday was something else. 

The Doc had used several types of guns in his lifetime, and he was known to favor a few. He used some of them in many gun duels, some of which he reportedly won. Though whether these gun battles really happened has to be taken with a grain of salt, it was no fantasy that Doc Holliday was quick to the draw.

What kind of gun did Doc Holliday use in Tombstone?

In the film Tombstone (1993), Doc Holliday was portrayed by Val Kilmer. The method actor’s portrayal of Holliday put the legendary gunslinger in the same league as the dark, brooding, and violent post-modern heroes of today. His sarcasm revealed a dangerous man whose violence was controlled and focused through the barrel of a gun.

The film showed Kilmer carrying a .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army and a .38 caliber double-action 1877 Colt Lightning with ivory grips. Both guns were nickel-plated. However, during shootouts, Kilmer used replica Doc Holliday revolvers.

What kind of gun did Doc Holliday use in real life?

The real-life Doc Holliday used several kinds of guns during his lifetime, but his weapons of choice were the 1877 Colt Lightning, an 1880 Remington, a street howitzer, a bowie knife, and the Colt Single Action Army revolver, also known as the Peacemaker.  

The Peacemaker: 1851 Colt Navy

This gun was also called the Equalizer and the Frontier. It was considered one of the best-designed guns of the era. The 1851 Colt Navy instigated the production of multi-shot guns in the United States. It was primarily used in the Civil War, and so Doc Holliday received one from his uncle who served in the war. 

The 1851 Colt was manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut. It was based on an earlier model known as the Walker Colt. The Colt Single Action Army revolver is a .45 caliber revolver, with an 8-inch barrel length. This model was called the “Peacemaker” because of its iconic, unmistakable appearance and how its users could “settle disputes” using it.

1873 colt Peacemaker. LA County Museum of Natural History.
An example of the Colt “Peacemaker” model. This one, courtesy of LA County Museum of Natural History, was made in 1873 and could well have been used by Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp.

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Doc Holliday used it for about three years, but he didn’t acquire it until he was already a well-known gunslinger and gambler with a reputation for being quick on the draw. Before that, he carried a .41 caliber Remington 1858 revolver.

Le Mat Revolver

This was supposedly the revolver that Doc’s father used during the Civil War, and many assume that it was the gun that Doc Holliday used to work on his shooting skills. The originals were made in France, and included nine shots in the cylinder and a 16 gauge shotgun. 

These guns were produced in limited numbers, but there are modern replicas of Le Mat revolvers manufactured by the Pietta Company in Italy since 1985. These are distributed by several companies in the United States and Canada.

Colt 1877 Lightning

Colt 1877 Lightning, believed to have been used by Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral

This was known to be the revolver that Doc Holliday used during that infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral. Witnesses reported it as the “nickel-plated” shooter that Doc used to shoot at Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, after shooting Tom McLaury dead.

The Lightning was a .38 caliber with six shots, and the first double action pistol, or “self-cocker.” This meant that the wielder could pull the trigger while the gun rotated the cylinder, enabling the user to fire a round. Meanwhile, the .41 caliber was called the Thunderer, and the barrel length ranged from two to six inches. 

Actor Val Kilmer used a replica of this one (similar to the one pictured) for his role as Holliday in Tombstone. The same Doc Holliday gun has been used and replicated by people who collect these guns, along with the other shotguns and pistols that Doc allegedly carried or used.

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1866 Remington Derringer 

The Remington Derringer was .42 caliber single-fire, spur trigger with an oscillating firing pin. The one that Doc Holliday used was an 1866 model from his common-law wife, “Big Nose” Kate Horony-Cummings. It was a back-up gun that Doc carried with him. This gun was great for short-range firing and had a very nasty hit when shot up close.

The actual gun that belonged to Doc was found in the possession of a Glenwood Springs, Colorado bartender, who passed it on as a family heirloom. The gun has an inscription, “To Doc from Kate.”

1862 Henry Rifle

The Henry Rifle has a much longer barrel than carbines, and the original was a .44 caliber rimfire. The Doc was known to have carried one, though it was unwieldy to carry on horseback due to its long barrel. There are military versions of this rifle, and modern ones are in the .44 to .40 caliber range. 

1873 Winchester

The 1873 Winchester had a steel receiver in the 40 to 44 centerfire. Though there is no documentation that Doc Holliday owned a Winchester, he did tell Ike Clanton the night before the shootout in Tombstone that he had killed Ike’s father with an 1873 Winchester.

Street Howitzer (coach gun)

This black powder sawed-off shotgun had barrels that were about 20 inches long; the front trigger was the right barrel, found in the rear. It was often loaded with buckshot, and was very deadly. Virgil Earp traded one to Doc Holliday shortly before he arrived at Hafford’s Corner, before the shootout at the Corral. The Doc did not own this gun, but it was carried by guards on wagons, trains, and stagecoaches for its firepower. During the gunfight, Doc Holliday used this one to shoot and kill Tom McLaury. 

The Doc’s Other Weapon: The Bowie Knife

It has also been reported that Doc Holliday had very good knife skills, and that he carried a Bowie knife as part of his weaponry. He allegedly cut up a gambler almost to death in 1878 using one of these. 

The Doc’s knife was from his cousin Tom McKey, according to historian Gary Roberts. It was made from a meat cleaver and shaped to be long-bladed and double-edged like a bowie knife. 

There are Michael Price-made bowie knives that are replicas of the alleged real knife that Doc Holliday carried. The knife was said to have been given to a miner by Doc Holliday after the former treated his injury. Though the story is questionable, Michael Price was the legendary knife maker who created the gentlemen’s fighting knives for Confederate soldiers, so it suits the Doc’s aristocratic Southern background. 

Where are Doc Holliday’s pistols now?

The myth of Doc Holliday and his weapons still attracts a following, especially among those who love the Wild West for its history and romance. So much so that there are museums dedicated to these mythic gunfighters and the weapons they wielded. 

One of them is the Doc Holliday Gun Museum in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Managed by the Glenwood Springs Historical Society, it has the 1866 Remington Derringer Doc Holliday gun as its collection centerpiece. 

Besides the Doc Holliday gun, the museum has a number of memorabilia related to Doc. These include photos of what were supposedly weapons that he had carried or used sometime in his 36 years on earth. Fortunately, photos are enough for recreators and fans to create replicas of his guns. Many tourists often go back to see the rumored and reputed Doc Holliday pistols, including the ivory-gripped Colt Lightning that was reportedly the Doc’s weapon of choice. 

The Myth of the O.K. Corral Lives On

Link to Tombstone clip when Virgil hands Doc the coach gun. 

Doc Holliday died in a hotel in Glenwood Springs, and his remains are buried somewhere in the cemetery’s Potter’s Field. Very much like his weapons, we know where Doc Holliday has been, we just don’t know where he is now, which is another mystery that historians and admirers have kept wondering about over the next hundred years. 

Despite the decades, the myth of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday fighting it out at the O.K. Corral lives on. Even though the myth has grown beyond the facts of the real events, what remains true is that the weaponry and the firepower these men used defined the West, and built the image of the gunslinger and lawman as the ultimate symbols of the American frontier that once was.

Image credits: Hmaag, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

4 thoughts on “Doc Holliday’s Gun: Everything You Need to Know About the Legendary Gunslinger”

  1. Pingback: Wild West Guns - Crucial in Pioneer Days - Did They Win the West?

  2. There is a picture of Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday in the Hampton Inn Lobby in DODGE CITY, KANSAS. Awesome photo and signed by Val Kilmer

  3. I met Doc Holliday grandson of the original in Kingman, Arizona. He was a cashier at Safeway is I D said Doc Holliday. He and his wife invited us my wife and I to dinner. Steve Robinett

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