Texas Rangers Were Once Volunteer Minutemen

Robert M. Utley is a historian that appreciates the part that firearms technology had in transforming the Old West into what we know today. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate arena in which to study the impact of innovation on a society than Texas in the Eighteen Hundreds. The story of innovation in the design of pistols and rifles contributes a great deal to the story of how Texas acquired its renowned character as a state.

Until 1874, Mr. Utley tells us, Texas Rangers were true citizen soldiers that armed and equipped themselves, fighting Indian, Mexican and outlaw alike with little or no pay. Some of these Rangers were men that just enjoyed a fight enough to go looking for it and many had little discipline beyond natural outdoor skills, superb horsemanship and the ability to fight with any weapons available. After 1874, the Frontier Battalion was established as a permanent fixture of law enforcement in Texas, the primary purpose of which was to fight outlaws.

Mexican authorities granted Stephen Austin civil and military power over Anglo-Texans, mostly Southerners, that colonized Texas under contract with Mexico in 1825. The Mexican rationale was to create a buffer between Mexico and Indian raiding parties from the North.

The governor authorized ten paid volunteers to serve as militia. The Ranger concept had roots in the colonial militias that ranged the frontiers even before England’s war with France in the New World. The bands of fighters would give up “ranging” at harvest time but, as the Anglo society in Texas grew, so did the number of citizens with experience in patrolling the frontier and the concept of permanent units was proposed; thus, the Texas Ranger tradition was gradually conceived in Texas.

John Coffee Hays probably arrived in Texas early in 1838. Jack and his brother, William, came from Mississippi and introduced themselves to Sam Houston as surveyors. To survey the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio was to make oneself a target for Comanche raiders. Fighting Indians and surveying toughened Hays and developed the young man’s leadership skills. In 1839, the people of San Antonio made Hays the captain of a band of “Minutemen” ready to answer the alarm when the Comanches struck. Units were formed on an ad hoc temporary basis (as the need arose) but by 1844 there were many veterans that had served quite a few enlistments under Hays.

The Rangers, as they gradually came to be known, wore their own frontier clothing, carried two or three pistols, preferred a short rifle and a bowie knife. A Mexican blanket, salt, ammunition, tobacco and dried corn were among the few provisions carried by each Ranger. They borrowed from Mexican vaqueros, employing heavy Mexican bits (the better to manage weapons) and the hair rope called a cabrista, rawhide riata (lariat) along with Mexican saddles.

They constantly practiced horsemanship, imitating the Comanches by tricks like hiding on one side of a horse and shooting from under the horse’s neck with a pistol while galloping full-speed. The rangers could run their horse full-speed, hit a marked post with a rifle and then, switching to pistol, hit the mark on another post 40 yards away without slowing down. Before you all decide to go out and manage your gunfights like that you need to need know that when the lead started flying, the Ranger normally got off his horse. Dismounted is the best way to get good results with a rifle or a pistol unless you are in Hollywood!

Their early rifles were mostly flintlock Kentucky long rifles and shorter, heavier Tennessee rifles, in 1843 converted to percussion cap in 1843. The calibers were often .55 caliber and some barrels were forty-two inches long. Handling a flintlock pistol or rifle on horseback is no easy feat and the caps provided by the government were unreliable. In combat most of the actual fighting was done by Rangers that had dismounted and the men fired in volleys. Comanche could repeatedly shoot arrows in less time than it took to separately ram a ball and patch down a tight fitting barrel.

In 1844, Hays obtained 130 Paterson Colts, the .36 caliber Colts that became available when the President of Texas, Sam Houston, disbanded the Texas Navy. Incidentally, the author does a good job of describing the difficulties of reloading the five-shot Paterson Colts on horseback. The test for the new equipment came at Walker Creek, June 8, 1844. Hays, his lieutenant and fourteen men went looking for Indian sign and found ten Comanches following the Rangers’ trail. The Comanches acted as decoys but unable to draw Hays into an ambush, about seventy warriors attacked.

Hays, outnumbered five to one, led his men into a ravine out of view of the enemy, raced three hundred yards down the ravine and then made a flanking charge, emptying rifles and then deploying Samuel Colt’s revolving pistols. Hays pursued the Indians for a distance but, sensing that the chief was about to turn the tables on his men, ordered anyone with a round remaining to shoot the chief. A careful dismounted shot from Ad Gillespie’s rifle dropped the chief and resulted in the Comanches fleeing from the battlefield, leaving twenty-three dead Comanche and at least that many wounded. Hays’ unit lost one with very few wounded. At Walker Creek, the Colt revolver and the Texas Rangers both began down the road toward legend.

Lieutenant Sam Walker was one of those legendary Rangers that routed the Comanche warriors at Walker Creek. In 1846, after outstanding service in the Mexican-American War, Walker became a captain in the regular U.S. Army. Samuel Colt, approaching the captain in order to promote Colt’s revolving pistols within the ordinance department, heard the story of Walker Creek. At that time Captain Walker proclaimed, “With improvements, I think they (Paterson pistols) can be rendered the most perfect weapons in the World for light mounted troops.”

Despite the usual bureaucratic opposition from the ordinance department, Walker proceeded to assist Colt in obtaining a contract and worked with Colt to develop the first six-shooter.

Named the Walker Colt and weighing four and one-half pounds, it had a nine inch barrel and fired heavy .44 caliber rounds. It was easier to load than the Paterson and packed the power of an army rifle at 100 yards.

In 1847, one month after the fall of Mexico City, Jack Hays reached Vera Cruz with five companies of Texas Rangers. Their task was to deal with guerilla warfare and Hays’ men had Model 1847 Walker Colts, 394 of them, to be exact, and a number of the five-shot Patersons. The Walkers were supposed to go to Captain Walker’s regular mounted units but the ordinance department sent Walker single-shot pistols instead. Walker died at the Battle of Huamantla shortly after the ordinance department punished him by diverting the pistols that were named after Walker to Hays’ Rangers.

Hays’ regiment of Rangers was assigned to anti-guerilla operations in Puebla in November, 1847. Thirty men of Hays’ Rangers under Ranger Captain Jacob Roberts were attacked by two hundred of Santa Ana’s lancers but put the Walker Colts to such good use that a Mexican retreat ensued. Next confronted by five hundred lancers, Ranger firepower prevailed once again. They were a motley, independent bunch, but the Rangers’ reputation was that every insult would be returned with a slug from a Walker Colt. In fact, the episode at Walker Creek was repeated over and again many times, with Colt revolvers overcoming impossible odds in the hands of irregular Texan militiamen.

John B. Jones, like Jack Hays, wasn’t a big man. He dressed impeccably and was religious, abstaining from tobacco and alcohol. The governor named the former Confederate officer as commander of the Frontier Battalion in 1874. Jones transformed the Battalion by discipline, including diligent attention to administrative matters that had previously received casual treatment.

Rangers spent their own money on rifles and pistols but the State of Texas was insisting on mostly .50 caliber Sharps carbines. Compared to the .44 caliber repeating Winchesters, however, the single-shot Sharps, was better for buffalo hunting than Ranger duty.

It was easy to see why a 12 shot lever action carbine in .44 caliber with center-fire cartridges might come in handy and the Winchester ’73 and Colt “Peacemaker” became the Ranger weapons of choice.

During Jones’ leadership, the Rangers focused more on law enforcement. The characteristics of Texan culture seemed to dictate violent feuds that lead to violent death and protracted warfare that stemmed from ethnic, family and political rivalry. Feuds like the Sutton-Taylor feud gave rise to men like John Wesley Hardin. He may have gunned down as many as fifty men, including Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. Hardin left Texas for the Florida panhandle. After the murder of Webb, the Texas legislature had voted a $4,000.00 reward for Hardin.

A Dallas police officer with a reputation as an investigator was recruited as a Ranger and proceeded to “work up” some detective strategies that led to Hardin’s capture as he disembarked from a train in Alabama. Hardin was extradited from Alabama, stood trial and was convicted. Sentenced to twenty-five years in Huntsville Penitentiary, Wes Hardin went from being one of the most violent prisoners to the study of law and theology and even wrote his own autobiography (well worth the read). In 1894, Hardin was pardoned and set up a law practice in El Paso. Hardin was gunned down (three slugs from a .45 revolver) in a saloon by a constable, John Selman, himself a vicious outlaw, according to Mr. Utley. In violent times, El Paso was a violent town in a violence prone state.

Incidentally, El Paso is now one of the most crime-free cities in the U.S.. Right across the Rio Grande, Juarez is awash in blood and police officer’s severed heads are showing up in unexpected places. Gun control is so strict in Mexico that the police often have to leave their service weapons behind when they go off duty even though many of them have a price on their head! Meanwhile, the drug dealers in Mexico have state of the art guns and the Mexican government blames the U.S. for not curtailing the flow of weapons into Mexico. When the violence starts flowing across the border, history may repeat itself when the Texans start showing the world that a well-armed citizenry is still something to be reckoned with. Remember the Alamo?

Thus, we have see in Utley’s lovely little prose-poem how the not so graceful equation of pre-Civil War “triggernometry” created the formula for the modern state we call Texas. In a sense, this is the history of every “civil” society. Men carve law and order from chaos. Those of us that ride on the shoulders of men like Hays and Walker and Jones can easily forget that, but for such men, less civilized warriors like Wes Hardin and Santa Ana and Comanche raiders would be butchering, raping and looting everything we have worked for.

It can be objected that many of the Rangers were not far removed from their opponents when it came to “racial profiling” and dispensing a slug at the slightest provocation but ultimately they were led by men like John B. Jones and placed under institutional control. Hopefully, warriors with the right combination of independence and respect for legitimate social institutions will always be ready to range the borders wherever disorder tempts lawless and violent predators to cross legitimate boundaries.

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