He supposedly commissioned the Colt firearms manufacturer to make a customized revolver, which came to be known as the Buntline Special, but no evidence of his involvement in its production has been found.
Judson was born in Harpersfield, New York, near Stamford. He moved with his parents to Bethany, Pennsylvania, in 1826 and Philadelphia in 1834. His father, Levi Carroll Judson, was a lawyer and wanted his son to be a clergyman.
Naval and military service
In November 1834, Judson ran away to sea as a cabin boy and the next year shipped on board a Navy vessel. A number of years later he rescued the crew of a boat that had been run down by a Fulton Ferry in New York's East River. As a result, he received a commission as a midshipman in the Navy from President Martin Van Buren on February 10, 1838, and was assigned to the USS Levant.He later served on the USS Constellation and the USS Boston.
As a seaman, he served in the Seminole Wars, but he saw little combat. After four years at sea, he resigned. During the Civil War, he enlisted in the 1st New York Mounted Rifles and rose to the rank of sergeant before he was dishonorably discharged for drunkenness.
Early literary efforts
Judson's first publication was an adventure story in The Knickerbocker in 1838. He spent several years in the East starting up newspapers and story papers, only to have most of them fail. An early success that helped launch his fame was The Mysteries and Miseries of New York, a gritty serial story of the Bowery and slums of New York City. He was an opinionated man and strongly advocated nativism and temperance; he also became a leader in the Know Nothing movement. In 1844, he adopted the pen name "Ned Buntline" (buntline is the nautical term for a rope at the bottom of a square sail).
In 1841 Buntline's father, Levi Carroll Judson, his wife and his daughter moved to Pittsburgh where Levi set up a law practice and his wife and daughter Irene opened a select school in the basement of the First Baptist Church. It was here that the Judson family and the Allen family became acquainted. Rebecca Allen and Irene Judson were both teaching at the time and became social friends. Through this connection William and George Allen, Rebecca's brothers, became friends with Buntline when he arrived in Pittsburgh in December 1843, ostensibly to study law with his father, but in reality to start a literary magazine. Buntline published just two issues of Ned Buntline's Magazine in Pittsburgh in 1844 before it failed. William and George were a co-owners of the steamboat Cicero and they invited Ned to go along on a January 1844 voyage to Cincinnati. On this cruise Buntline told the Allen brothers of his recent marriage in St. Augustine, Florida, to Seberina Escudero, whom he described to the two brothers in glowing terms. Seberina joined her husband in Pittsburgh in May 1844 and apparently lived in an unhappy situation with her in-laws. In August 1844 Buntline and Seberina relocated to Cincinnati where Ned partnered with Lucius Hine and Hudson Kidd in an effort to purchase the Western Literary Journal. This magazine also failed. Estranged from his family and in financial straits Buntline borrowed money from the Allen brothers and pawned his wife's jewelry to meet living expenses. In October William Allen hired Buntline as a hand on his steamboat where Ned accepted a counterfeit $10 note and lost a barrel of whiskey. While her husband was steam-boating, Seberina was sewing shirts in Cincinnati for 12 1/2 cents each. In October 1844 the Knickerbocker published an article of Ned's titled "Running the Blockade" in which the hero of the story was William Allen. In January 1845 with the assistance of the Allen brothers Buntline relocated to Nashville where Hudson Kidd secured temporary living quarters for Seberina while her husband went off to St. Louis for a time. By January 1846 Seberina was living in the Gordon House in Smithland, Kentucky. Buntline started a third magazine Buntline's Own at this time. It is usually stated that it was published in Nashville, but the Allen brothers' journals suggest that the early issues at least were printed in Smithland. George Allen's journal of January 25, 1846 said that upon his return to Smithland he went to visit Seberina and learned that she had died there days earlier. William Allen later stated that she was buried in Smithland.
In 1845, his Cincinnati venture, Western Literary Journal and Monthly Magazine, was facing bankruptcy, and he fled from Ohio. In Eddyville, Kentucky, he collected a $600 bounty for single-handedly capturing two murderers. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and used the money to start a magazine, Ned Buntline's Own.
Judson had a romance with the teenaged wife of Robert Porterfield in Nashville in 1846. On 14 March 1846, Porterfield challenged Judson to a duel, and Judson killed him. At his trial for murder, Judson was shot and wounded by Porterfield's brother and, during the chaos, escaped from custody. He was subsequently captured by a lynch mob and hanged from an awning but was rescued by friends. The Tennessee grand jury refused to indict him for murder.
In 1847, the Boston publisher and dime-novel author Maturin Murray Ballou paid Judson $100 to write The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main: or, The Fiend of Blood, a melodramatic and violent pirate novel. This was followed the same year with The Red Revenger; or, The Pirate King of the Floridas. Buntline moved Ned Buntline's Own to New York City in 1848.
Through his columns and his association with New York City's notorious gangs of the early 19th century, Buntline was one of the instigators of the Astor Place Riot, which left twenty-three people dead. He was fined $250 and sentenced to a year's imprisonment in September 1849. After his release, he devoted himself to writing sensational stories for weekly newspapers, and his income from this source is said to have amounted to $20,000 a year. He was later involved in a nativist riot in St. Louis, while he was a member of the Know Nothing Party.
Although a heavy drinker, he traveled around the country giving lectures about temperance. He was an ardent Republican until the election of 1884, when he refused to support James G. Blaine. It was on one of his temperance lecture tours that he met William F. Cody ("Buffalo Bill").
Wild Bill Hickok
Buntline was traveling through Nebraska when he heard that "Wild Bill" Hickok was in Fort McPherson. Buntline had read a popular article about Hickok and hoped to interview him and write a dime novel about him. He found Hickok in a saloon and rushed up to him, saying, "There's my man! I want you!" By this time in his life, Hickok had an aversion to surprises. He threatened Buntline with a gun and ordered him out of town in twenty-four hours. Buntline took him at his word and left the saloon. Still looking to get information on his subject, Buntline took to finding Hickok's friends. It is likely that this is how he first met Buffalo Bill.
Buntline took a train in 1869 from California to Nebraska, where he had been lecturing on the virtues of temperance. It was there that he met William Cody, who was with a group of men who had recently participated in a battle against the Sioux and Cheyenne. Traveling with the gregarious Cody, Buntline became friends with him and later claimed that he created the nickname "Buffalo Bill" for the hero of his serial novel Buffalo Bill, the King of the Border Men, published in the New York Weekly beginning 23 December 1869. Originally, Buntline was going to cast Cody as a sidekick of "Wild Bill" Hickok, but he found Cody's character more interesting than Hickok's. Buntline presented Cody as a "compendium of cliches"; however, this did not stop the New York playwright Frank Meader from using Buntline's novel as the basis of a play about Cody's life in 1872. In the same year, Buntline and James Gordon Bennett Jr. invited Cody to New York City, where Cody saw the play at the Bowery Theater. In December of that year, Buntline also wrote a Buffalo Bill play, Scouts of the Prairie, which was performed by Cody himself, Texas Jack Omohundro, the Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi, and Buntline. For some time, six-year-old Carlos Montezuma also was featured in the show as "Atzeka, the Apache-child of Cochise", being the only genuine American Indian on stage, while his adoptive father, the Italian photographer Carlo Gentile, was hired to produce and sell promotional cartes de visite of the cast members.
Cody at first was a reluctant actor but came to enjoy the spotlight. Scouts of the Prairie opened in Chicago in December 1872 and starred Cody. It was panned by critics but was a success nonetheless. It was performed to packed theaters across the country for years. Cody served as a scout for the Army in the summer; when campaigning stopped for the winter, he would head to the stage. Buntline's play served as training for Cody's later Wild West show.
Buntline continued to write dime novels, but none was as successful as his earlier work. Later in life, he embellished his military career, claiming to have been chief of scouts in the Indian Wars, with the rank of colonel, and to have received twenty wounds in battle. He also used the following pseudonyms: Captain Hal Decker, Scout Jack Ford, and Edward Minturn. He settled into his home in Stamford, New York, where he died of congestive heart failure in 1886. He was once one of the wealthiest authors in America, but his wife had to sell his beloved home, "The Eagle's Nest," to pay his debts.
Buntline's novels may have had unintended consequences. Some avid readers became thrilled with the exploits of western outlaws and to them, the novels glamorized crime. The female bandits Little Britches and Cattle Annie, for instance, read dime novels which allegedly aroused their interest in the Doolin gang and may have propelled them into a youthful life of crime.
The Buntline Special
Stuart N. Lake, in his largely fictionalized biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), wrote that Earp and four other well-known western lawmen—Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett, and Neal Brown—each received a Colt Single Action Army revolver as a gift from Buntline, in thanks for their help in contributing local color to his western yarns. The revolvers were said to be chambered in .45 Colt with 12-inch barrels, removable shoulder stocks, standard sights, and wooden grips into which the name Ned was ornately carved. These revolvers came to be known collectively as the Buntline Special. According to Lake, Earp kept his at the original 12-inch length, but the four other recipients of the revolvers cut their barrels down to 7½ inches. Modern researchers have not found any evidence in secondary sources or primary documents of the gun's existence prior to the publication of Lake's book.
Lake expended much effort trying to track these guns through the Colt company, Masterson, and Earp's contacts in Alaska. Researchers have not found any record of an order received by Colt and Buntline's alleged connection with Earp has been largely discredited by William B. Shillinberg, who presented a detailed case to confute the Buntline Special legend. There is also no evidence that Buntline wrote about the occasion although Buntline wrote about everything.
Massad Ayoob, in Greatest Handguns of the World, stated that "historians debate whether Wyatt Earp owned a 'Buntline Special' (author is inclined to believe that he did), but Colt manufactured many in the latter half of the 20th Century." 
Portrayals in popular culture
C. Lindsay Workman played the role of Buntline in the ABC/Warner Brothers western television series Colt .45, in the 1959 episode entitled "A Legend of Buffalo Bill," with Britt Lomond as Cody. In this episode the series character Christopher Colt, portrayed by Wayde Preston, while investigating a series of raids on the railroad, meets Cody, who offers to sell Colt .45 pistols. The episode falsely implies that Colt gave Cody his nickname of "Buffalo Bill.
Cordwainer Smith's novel "Norstrilia" quotes a short poem by Judson.