Like almost everything else in the history of Pat Garrett, there is a controversy about the gun he was carrying the day he was murdered.
Historians are certain he was not carrying the .41 Colt Thunderer given to Garrett by his associates in the US Customs in 1902. Nor was Garrett carrying the Colt .44-40 Peacemaker he had used to kill Billy the Kid at the Maxwell Ranch in 1881. Both pistols are still around, and the Garrett family is certain that Pat had neither in his possession when he was murdered on February 29, 1908.
Garrett was riding a two-horse buggy from his ranch east of the Dona Ana Mountains (see photos of his ranch here) into Las Cruces, about a four-hour trip. Traveling with him was Carl Adamson, who wanted to buy a ranch Garrett owned (as long as the current lessor of the property could be convinced to move his herd of goats off the land). After the two men had journeyed west of the mountains through San Augustin Pass, Adamson stopped the buggy, got out and walked up beside the horses and began to relieve himself. Garrett picked up his shotgun, got out of the buggy and walked to the rear of the buggy, where he was urinating into the desert sand when a bullet slammed into the back of his head, killing the famous lawman instantly.
There were five good suspects, and a good case could be made for any of them. The only man ever tried for the murder was acquitted after a brief trial despite his having confessed. The trial was a farce, since the only witness, Carl Adamson, was not even called to testify. The murder case is still listed as open with the Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Office, and likely to remain so for all eternity. (Or maybe not: About a year ago, a clerk at the County’s record office discovered documents—including the long-lost coroner’s report—that had never been archived. Who knows what will show up next?)
Almost all of the contemporary reports of Garrett’s death mention that he carried a shotgun with the barrel and forearm detached. According to the records at the court house, and recollections of the Garrett family, what Garrett was actually carrying was a Burgess shotgun, a gun so rare that most people have never even heard of it. (And due to the gun’s unique folding stock, it could easily have been mistaken for a disassembled shotgun).
Andrew Burgess wanted to design a repeating shotgun, but a patent had already been issued for a shotgun with the pump mechanism on the gun’s forearm. Undaunted, in 1894 Burgess began marketing a new shotgun with a pump mechanism using a metal sleeve fitted around the shoulder stock’s wrist behind the trigger. To anyone familiar with the modern pump action shotgun, this seems bizarre, but there is no mechanical reason why the pump action has to be forward of the trigger. The very few who have actually fired a Burgess claim it actually works as well—a few say better—than the traditional method.
Since all of the gun’s working mechanism is located the shotgun’s chamber, Burgess installed a sturdy hinge just below the shotgun’s chamber, allowing the gun to fold in half. The folded gun could even be holstered on the hip, under a coat, then drawn, and as the gun was moved up to the shoulder, the barrel would swing up and lock into place. The whole action could take place in less than a second, and then the pump action would allow the shooter to fire six rounds so fast that the last round might be fired before the first shell hit the ground.
Burgess hired an accomplished trick-shot artist, Charlie Damond, to help sell the weapon. Damond made an appointment with the New York City Police Commissioner (who also was in charge of the state prisons) and arrived in the commissioner’s office with the holstered shotgun concealed under his coat. After introducing himself, the salesman suddenly drew the concealed weapon and rapidly fired six blank rounds in the ceiling. The impressed police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, immediately ordered a hundred of the shotguns.
The guns proved to be popular with prison guards, sheriffs, bank guards and the like, probably because the Burgess was one of the first shotguns designed for combat, as opposed to other shotguns which were primarily designed as hunting weapons. Salesman bragged that the gun would consistently fire buckshot into a respectable three-foot pattern at forty yards.
Though the gun’s concept was sound, and the guns were well made, they came out in 1894, which meant that their chief competition was the Remington Model 1897 pump shotgun, an extraordinarily popular shotgun. Burgess tried to widen his line by offering fixed-stock sporting shotguns, and even a few, very rare folding rifles, but he faced stiff competition from larger and more established firearm companies.
Winchester Repeating Arms Company developed its own version of a pump shotgun in competition with Remington and wanted to eliminate some of its rivals. As it had previously done with other small firearms companies, Winchester bought the Burgess Firearm company in 1899 and stopped production of the folding shotgun. Today, a Burgess in good condition sells for around $10,000 at auction.
Curiously, in a day when replicas of vintage “Cowboy” guns sell quite well, no one has ever offered a reproduction Burgess. Today, the Burgess is a forgotten weapon—and it's Pat Garrett's fault. If the venerable lawman hadn’t been so preoccupied with taking a leak in the New Mexico desert, he might have defended himself with six rapidly fired rounds of buckshot, which would have made the Burgess Folding Shotgun famous. (Famous enough that they might still be in production).