Doc Holliday's Handheld Howitzer

The Old West's Deadliest Dentist
27

Will’s Parker Brothers 10-gauge coach gun rolled off the lines in 1875
and is likely a decent facsimile of the street howitzer Doc Holliday wielded
during the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

John Henry “Doc” Holliday was born August 14, 1851, in Griffin, Georgia, to Henry Burroughs Holliday and his wife Alice Jane. The young man had a cleft palate repaired by his uncle John, both a physician and his namesake. Holliday subsequently struggled with a bit of a speech impediment as a result. Those who knew him said his blonde hair was nearly white.

Doc was a smart man classically trained. He studied Latin, French and Ancient Greek at the Valdosta Institute. At age 20 Holliday earned a Doctorate from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. The college held his degree for five months as you had to be at least 21 to practice dentistry.

Holliday practiced in St. Louis and Atlanta before settling in Dallas. While there he competed in a dental fair, winning awards for “Best Set of Teeth in Gold,” “Best in Vulcanized Rubber” and “Best Set of Artificial Teeth and Dental Ware.” Throughout his dental career, however, there remained an ever-present specter.

Holliday’s mother died of tuberculosis when the young man was 15. This is likely where he contracted the disease. In this day TB was a death sentence. Holliday gravitated out West in hopes the dry air might offer him some prolongation. However, the paroxysmal coughing curtailed his dentistry.

Many bank guards and stagecoach riders preferred exposed hammers as
the ready status of the gun would be easily seen, or felt in the dark.

A Respectable Profession

Doc Holliday had a knack for gambling. At this time in this place the career of professional gambler was both respectable and accepted. In 1877 he was shot and grievously wounded over a dispute with a fellow gambler named Frank Kahn. Holliday had previously beaten the man with his walking stick. With the assistance of a cousin, Holliday eventually recovered.

Doc Holliday first met Wyatt Earp in Fort Griffin, Texas, while Earp was pursuing a ruffian named “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh. Later Earp and Holliday found themselves in Dodge City, Kansas. A group of rowdy ne’er-do-wells led by cowboys Tobe Driscall and Ed Morrison rode into town and shot up the place. When Marshal Wyatt Earp confronted the men in the Long Branch Saloon he found himself badly outnumbered.

Holliday was playing cards and observed the local Marshal’s dire situation. Doc surreptitiously slipped up behind the cowboy leader Ed Morrison and put his gun to the back of the man’s head, thereby disarming the unruly mob. Holliday had Earp’s friendship ever after.

A vintage Parker shotgun is a simply beautiful thing.

The Old West’s Seminal Gunfight

On October 26, 1881, Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp was having some trouble with a group of local cowboys from the Clanton and McLaury clans. Earp simultaneously served as the Police Chief of Tombstone, Ariz. When things came to a head, Virgil deputized Doc Holliday and gathered his brothers Morgan and Wyatt for assistance in disarming the violent men.

Expecting a serious fight, Virgil dropped by the local Wells Fargo office and borrowed a 10-gauge side-by-side coach gun. Concerned he might inadvertently alarm the local townspeople, Virgil passed the heavy gun to Holliday so he might conceal it underneath his long duster coat. The ad hoc lawmen confronted the belligerent cowboys in a modest lot on Fremont Street.

The details are disputed. However, it is generally understood Doc Holliday killed Tom McLaury with a shotgun blast to the chest before being grazed by a bullet fired by Tom’s brother Frank. Frank purportedly yelled the challenge, “I’ve got you now!” to the cool gunman dentist. Holliday was said to have responded, “Blaze away! You’re a daisy if you have!” I have no idea what it means, but it sure sounds cool.

When the smoke cleared Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. Tom and Frank McLaury lay dead alongside Billy Clanton. This tidy little bloodbath precipitated its own modest war.

The “T-latch” locking system consists of this odd pushbutton located just
ahead of the trigger guard. Upward pressure releases the action for loading and unloading.

The Gun

In the peculiar world of firearms history there yet remains a fair amount of controversy concerning the shotgun Doc Holliday wielded the fateful day at the O.K. Corral. There are allegations it was an inexpensive Belgian Meteor or perhaps a more conventional Remington. I found a reference to an auction wherein Holliday’s gun was to have been sold in 1999 but was unable to determine any resolution, photographs, or follow up.

At the time of this famous gunfight Doc Holliday weighed all of 122 lbs., his disease having wrought a severe toll. He therefore purportedly did not care much for shotguns given their prodigious recoil. During the 30-second gunfight he was said to have discarded the heavy scattergun and completed the exchange with his sidearm. Regardless, when I tripped over an auction for a vintage Parker Brothers 10-gauge coach gun made in 1875 I had to make it mine.

Will used a machine screw and his drill press to manufacture this front sight bead.
Note the nifty wooden plug some long-dead artisan crafted to fill the void between the pruned barrels.

Parker Shotguns

Some names just carry a certain intrinsic gravitas. Among automobiles brands like Bentley, Jaguar and Rolls Royce reliably command respect. The scattergun equivalent is Parker.

Charles Parker was the 11th of 12 children born to a destitute family in Connecticut in 1809. After working as a farm hand and subsequently in a factory, Mr. Parker took $70 and in 1832 opened his own facility making coffee mills. His first metalworking machines were actually driven by horses. In 1844 Mr. Parker upgraded to steam power and expanded his catalog to include tools, lamps and dinnerware.

With 1861 came the American Civil War and the Parker Company began making rifles for the Union. As a military contractor business was booming. At the terminus of the war Charles Parker joined his brothers John and Edmund to begin making Parker Brothers shotguns. Those earliest side-by-side scatterguns employed a “T-latch” system of locking.

The T-latch consisted of a prominent pushbutton located ahead of the trigger guard. Upward pressure on this device released the barrels to pivot open. This same model was also called the “lifter action” as a result. Twin triggers and associated exposed hammers completed the design.

Parker shotguns came in a variety of grades, gauges and styles. While Parker became known for expensive top-end guns crafted for royalty and folk of comparable means, their consumer guns were titled “Old Reliable” as a reminder they were not out of financial reach of the Common Man. In 1889 Parker introduced their first hammerless shotgun design.

Nothing screams tactical overmatch like a cut-down 10-gauge coach gun.
In October 1881 John Henry “Doc” Holliday used such a piece to put down
Tom McLaury at the famed O.K. Corral.

Will’s Parker

My 10-gauge Parker is fairly well preserved given its 145 years. At some point in the distant past somebody very professionally pruned the barrels back to 18″. They never bothered replacing the front sight bead.

Trimming the barrels pretty much ruins any collector’s value the gun might have, so I just whipped up a replacement bead in my workshop. I turned a steel machine screw in my drill press and shaped the end into a ball using a hand file. I then sited the mounting hole, drilled it and tapped it by hand. A little thread locker keeps everything sturdy. Whoever originally cut the barrels back also crafted a nifty little wooden plug to fill the resulting void between the barrels.

A dapper man, Doc Holliday left few photographs behind. This is one
of only a few photos of the dentist with verifiable provenance.

The Rest Of The Story

Doc Holliday was rumored to have been a cold-blooded killer and pure death with a gun. Despite apocryphal rumors he killed as many as 16 men, his only historically confirmed kill was Tom McLaury in October of 1881. Regardless, at the time of his death Holliday had been arrested 17 times and survived ambush on five separate occasions.

Doc Holliday ultimately succumbed to tuberculosis in a hotel room in Glenwood Springs, Colo., on November 8, 1887 at age 36. He had always expected to meet a violent demise. Realizing the end was near, Holliday looked at his bare feet—knowing he was about to die with his boots off — and flatly said, “This is funny.” Those were his final words.

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