Bat Masterson: The Gunfighter Who Lived

Bat Masterson in 1879, age 26

Old West characters who were good with guns were often killed, hanged or jailed, but not Bat Masterson. Like his friend Wyatt Earp, Masterson lived a full life.

Masterson, one of America’s famous Old West figures, was actually born in Henryville, Canada East, Quebec, in 1853. But by the time he was 18, Masterson’s parents chose to take Bartholomew, or “Bat,” and his four brothers, to live on a Kansas farm, near Wichita.

Bat began his life of adventure as a buffalo hunter in southwestern Kansas, after recruiting two of his brothers to go with him. Although his brothers eventually went home, Masterson followed the buffalo herds down to the Texas Panhandle, and was at Adobe Walls when warriors from three different tribes, Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne, attacked the settlement.

The hide hunters’s big guns, most famously, the Sharps .50, gave them the advantage. The Indians eventually gave up and left the area. But Masterson stayed on the Southern Plains, scouting for Col. Nelson Miles during the army’s 1872 Indian campaign.

Masterson Shot in His First Gunfight, in Sweetwater, Texas

Bat was not responsible for his first gunfight. He and a woman of questionable character, Molly Brennen, were in a saloon in Sweetwater, Texas, when her former lover saw the couple together. U.S. Sergeant Melvin King opened fire on Bat, and Ms. Brennen supposedly threw herself in front of Bat to protect him.

The bullet that killed Ms. Brennen passed through her body and lodged in Bat’s pelvis. King was cocking his pistol, readying himself to fire again, when Bat shot him. King died the next day, in camp, and Bat began carrying a cane to help him walk. The wound healed, but Bat kept the cane, which became one of his trademarks.

In 1877, Bat traveled to Dodge City, supposedly wearing a sombrero, a red silk neckerchief, Mexican sash, and gold mounted spurs, among other colorful items. Ed and Jim Masterson were already in Dodge. Jim owned a combined saloon/dance hall and Ed was the town’s assistant marshal.

Bat Won Election as Ford County Sheriff

After other adventures, Bat ran for county sheriff and was endorsed by the Dodge City Times, which said “Bat is well known as a young man if nerve and coolness in cases of danger…” Bat won the election and the town council appointed Ed as its marshal.

Bat abandoned his colorful clothes, began wearing black suits, patroled Ford County with a team and buggy, and had a long career as a lawman. Although most lawbreakers did not openly defy him, Bat took no chances, often practicing with his guns.

In later life, Masterson wrote he filed the notch on the hammer of his gun “’till the hammer would pull sweet, which is another way of saying that the blamed gun would pretty near go off if you looked at it,” according to Paul Trachtman, in The Gunfighters.

Ed Masterson Killed

Ed Masterson was killed in 1878, while attempting to disarm drunken cowboys. Bat ran to help him, and Ed, who did not recognize his brother in the dark, turned to fire at what he thought was an enemy, only to be shot by one of the cowboys. The cowboys were shot and killed.

Ed’s body was laid out at “The Dodge City Fire Company, to which he belonged and the firemen conducted his funeral. A choir stood at the coffin and sang ‘Lay him low, lay him low, In the clover or the snow; What cares he, he cannot know,” Trachtman wrote.

Bat eventually traveled further West and became a gambler in Creede, Leadville and Trinidad, Colorado, as well as working as a lawman.

Masterson’s Later Career

When he was older and his eyes were weaker, Bat managed a saloon and variety theater, and married an actress. He then began promoting prize fights and lost his money when he bet on them. Ending up in New York, Masterson began sports reporting.

President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1905, offered to appoint him as a U.S. marshal for the Oklahoma Territory, but, Trachtman wrote, Bat told the president if he took the job, “I would be bait for grown-up kids who had fed on dime novels. I would have to kill or be killed. No sense in that.”

Wyatt Earp, one of Bat’s oldest friends, died in California, in 1929, at 80, after selling real estate and working in the movie business.


  1. The Gunfighters, by Paul Trachtman, Time-Life Books, 1974, pages 118, 119, 122, 124,125
  2. The Online Encyclopedia Britannica, Where was Bat Master Born?