The Guns of Tombstone: Great Gunfights, Magnificent Mustaches

This classic Western is a movie that defined my youth. My dad is a huge fan of the Western movie genre, and Tombstone was his favorite film. We watched it enough that the VHS wore out on us. Over time we got the special edition DVD set, then the Blu-ray edition, and it’s a bit of a household joke these days. Needless to say, I love it for more reasons than just the guns of Tombstone. Recently, for the first time in a long time, maybe since I left for the Parris Island School for Wayward Boys, I sat down and watched the film.

A Man Comes to Town

Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer in Tombstone.
Kurt Russel and Val Kilmer in Tombstone.

The film establishes the outlaws known as the ‘Cowboys’ as some real bad hombres. They murder, rape, and pillage without a single thought. It’s a short prologue but an effective one.

Wyatt Earp, his two brothers, and all their wives arrive in Tombstone looking to make a new life for themselves. Wyatt Earp is already a bit of a famed lawman who helped tame Dodge City, Kansas. In Tombstone, Arizona, he wants to be a business owner, make money, settle down, and relax. That doesn’t make for much of a western film.

Things go sideways, and the Earp brothers, with Doc Holliday, fight it out with the Cowboys. This leads to the cowboys and Earps trading shot for shot, murder for murder. It’s a violent, bloody movie full of gunfights. In other words, it’s a 90s western.

Unforgettable Characters

Have you ever seen the film, Wyatt Earp? It’s the often forgotten film starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid. In the film, they both deliver amazing performances….and no one will ever remember them. Wyatt Earp and Tombstone came out fairly close to each other, but no one talks about Wyatt Earp.

Why?

Tombstone cast: Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, and Kurt Russell
The film is chock full of talent.

Because the performances in Tombstone are undeniably awesome, Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, and more acted their asses off. They put on the performance of their lifetimes, and it shows.

Val Kilmer, in particular, is the stand-out. If everyone is giving a nine out of ten, he’s hitting them with an eleven. He plays the drinker, gambler, and tuberculosis-afflicted dentist with two guns and a means to use them. He’s cocky and certainly has no fear of dying. His lines and their delivery became legendary and remain a part of pop culture nearly three decades later. 

Guns of Tombstone being used
I got two guns.. one for the each of ya…

Kurt Russell comes in a close second in his portrayal of Wyatt Earp. He does happy, sad, and angry well, and he’s quite optimistic in the beginning. You feel like he doesn’t want what’s coming, but eventually, he has to embrace it.

Powers Boothe and Michael Biehn play the foil and do so in opposite ways. Powers Boothe plays Curly Bill, leader of the cowboys and dangerous loudmouth with an opium habit. He’s charismatic, loud, and violent. Biehn plays Johnny Ringo. He’s quiet but vicious and violent. They come across as good friends, almost a bizarro version of Wyatt and Doc.

The performances in Tombstone are wonderful.

The Gunplay

The gunplay in the film is divided into a number of memorable scenes, with the first being the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The real gunfight was done and over with rather quickly, and the film doesn’t do a whole lot to extend it. What they do is show the same scenes from different angles. This has led many idiots who aren’t paying attention to shame the movie for firearm inaccuracy.

Specifically, most point out the fact that Doc appears to fire three rounds from his double-barrel shotgun. In reality, the film shows him shooting the same guy one time from two different angles. Throughout the gunfight, this trick is used to make the scene a little longer without artificially inflating the scene. This trick makes the fight seem more chaotic and confusing.

Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday with Street Howitzer in Tombstone
The Street Howitzer is all kinds of cool.

This scene is great, though. Before it begins, the film is ripe with tension. Doc gets passed a ten gauge coach gun which Wyatt refers to as a street howitzer. Wyatt and the Earps have their revolvers and the Cowboys are all armed with handguns as well. It’s a stare-down at first, which harkens back to westerns of old, and then it all goes to hell.

Murder Montages

The next bit of gunfighting comes from the Earp Vendetta Ride. I’m not joking when I say murder montage. The film has lots of scenes of the Earp posse shooting from horses, gunning down cowboys, riding, and cowboys dying. We actually get two murder montages divided by the river shootout.

At the river shootout, we see a fair bit of cheesiness. Earp crosses the river with his shotgun under heavy enemy fire, and not a single bullet gets close to hitting him. He kills Curly Bill, making Johnny Ringo the leader of the gang.

Tombstone river shootout
Interrupting our murder montage is the famed river shootout.

After the river shootout, we get the second murder montage with Earp and Doc killing more cowboys. This has one of the best scenes when someone knocks a cowboy off his horse with a rifle buttstroke. The stunt work is really fantastic in these scenes.

The gunplay is fairly solid. People aim, revolvers don’t hold 20 rounds, and long guns are used frequently. Revolver shooting is done with a single hand, which would have been the way it happened back then.

The Guns of Tombstone

Tombstone is full of lots and lots of guns. Some of the guns of Tombstone are accurate, and others not so much. Doc Holliday apparently did use a shotgun at the O.K. Corral. He specifically used a Colt double barrel, but in the film, it’s a Belgian Meteor. We see plenty of Colt SAAs as well as Remington 1875 revolvers and even a Smith & Wesson Model 3. Earp uses a Buntline special, which is a Colt SAA with an exceedingly long barrel.

Sam Eliot as Virgil Earp using one of the many guns of Tombstone
Virgil Earp plays it fast and loose with a Model 3 in the O.K. Corral gunfight

The Buntline has long been associated with Earp, but in reality, he didn’t carry the gun as a lawman and may have never really even owned one. Buntline was a dime novelist who was known for telling tall tales.

Virgil Earp uses a Smith & Wesson No. 3 at the O.K. Corral gunfight, which is a gun many credit Wyatt with using. Although in reality, we have no earthly idea what gun Wyatt carried in the fight. It’s one of those disputed facts lost to history.

Doc carries a Colt Lightning, which according to historians, was his gun of choice. In true Doc fashion, the gun was nickel-plated with pearly grips, and in Tombstone, he carries a gun identical to that in the film. It seems like the filmmakers tried to be accurate with the guns of Tombstone but mixed legend with reality.

Is the movie historically accurate?

The life of Wyatt Earp seems like one that’s mired in controversy. It’s often secretive, and it seems like numerous people had a stake in changing the history of Wyatt Earp, including his second wife. I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of Tombstone and the life of Wyatt Earp.

Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp holding one the guns of Tombstone
Wyatt Earp was a complicated man and the truth of his life is clouded in mystery.

The film seems to try and capture certain events accurately, like the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and it captures the best possible example of Wyatt Earp. Everything he does seems justified. Every decision is the right one, and he’s a great man. It’s the most optimistic view of Wyatt Earp, the situation in Tombstone, and the life and times of the Earp brothers.

Tombstone in 2022

I rediscovered a movie I still love. It’s not a perfect film, and it’s likely impossible that it’s accurate, buts it’s damn sure. Not only are the guns of Tombstone great, but the little bit of cheesiness in the film holds up well. Plus, what other movie gives us murder montages?

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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