Texas Rangers Backup Guns

Riding behind the bullet-riddled barn, the desperado was counting shots. He knew the Ranger only had a single sixgun, and he’d fired his last round. “One more in the chamber for me,” he reckoned as he came charging around the corner to find the Texas lawman on his knees, his 5½-inch-barreled Peacemaker on the ground with the loading gate open. Advancing boldly and cocking his gun on the move, he was astounded when the Ranger looked him square in eyes and produced a short-barreled Colt from beneath his coat that hurled the foolhardy gunman into eternity.

Surviving a shootout in the Old West was a triumph of instinct over apprehension, a contest in which there was rarely a second-place finisher left standing. In an era when most men carried their six-shooters in a holster or stuck down into their breeches, the hideaway gun was almost always unforeseen.

Texas Rangers shootouts

Surviving a shootout in the Old
West was a triumph of instinct over apprehension

Early Revolvers

By the early 1840s a handful of Texas Ranger companies were being issued the new Colt Paterson revolver. Since reloading the Colt was a bit time consuming, they customarily wore a brace of the five-shot repeaters, but considering that almost everyone else at the time was armed with single-shot pistols and rifles, the advantage most always fell to the Texans. The Paterson revolvers gained fame in the hands of Texas Rangers at the 1844 Battle of Walker’s Creek, where Captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays, Lieutenant Samuel Walker and a little over a dozen Rangers armed with Colt repeaters overwhelmed a superior force of Comanche warriors. The Patersons being carried by Rangers, for the most part, were the last models produced in 1842, the .36 caliber No. 5 Holster
pistol, with either a 7½- or 9-inch barrel.

Samuel Colt had started making his revolvers in 1836, and the first guns had been smaller-caliber No. 1 and No. 2 pocket pistols. When Samuel Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company went belly up in December of 1842, his savvy former treasurer, East Coast hardware merchant John Ehlers, acquired nearly all of Colt’s tooling and remaining guns. The latter were mainly the smaller-caliber pocket models, which were modified and sold by Ehlers as, “Colt’s Repeating Pistols, with the Latest Improvement.” Those improvements consisted of loading levers and round shoulder cylinders, designs that Colt had in the works before his company went into receivership. Ehlers continued to sell Colt pistols until the remaining inventory was exhausted in 1846. Among the bestsellers was the .28 caliber Baby Ehlers Model with a loading lever and the rarer .34 caliber No. 2 Ehlers Pocket Model, either of which, if they found their way to Texas, were likely the earliest revolvers carried as backup guns by Texas Rangers. Of course, back in the 1840s, the use of backup guns was pretty sketchy. “They were uncommon among Texas Rangers,” says Former Texas Rangers Foundation historian Bob Moser, a descendant of Texas Ranger John B. Armstrong. “The old Rangers were kind of an informal, irregular bunch. They were ranging, living out of tents and encampments, and a backup or belly gun was something that most never had. Rangers had to supply their own guns and equipment, and a backup gun back then would have been a spare revolver in a saddlebag. That was a backup in that time.”

During the Civil War, the majority of Rangers were still tasked with guarding the young state’s borders with Mexico and dealing with hostiles attacking settlements. One outcome of the Civil War was a great proliferation of Colt percussion revolvers, particularly 1851 Navy and 1860 Army models, which came into the hands of Rangers along with repeating firearms produced by Remington and other Union and Confederate arms-makers. The Colt 1860 Army, in particular, was ideally suited to barrel length alterations, and a good number of them were cut down to 2 or 3 inches in length. “These were really the first actual backup guns carried by Rangers,” says Moser, “and a lot of them were captured weapons taken from crooks.”

classic Texas Ranger Backup Guns

Three classic Western backup guns used by Texas Rangers at various times in history: a No.2 Ehlers Pocket Model Paterson in .34 caliber (top), a cut-down 1860 Army (right) and an an 1860 Army .44 Colt conversion (bottom left) with a 2-5/8-inch barrel similar to one carried by former Ranger and Deputy U.S. Marshal Dallas Stoudenmire.

After The Civil War

Large- and medium-caliber revolvers with shortened barrels had been around since the last years of the Civil War. Stashed in a coat or vest pocket, or tucked into the waistband at the small of the back, they were guns of last resort. Those same style revolvers appeared again in the post-Civil War era hidden in waistcoat pockets, shop owner’s aprons or stashed in the waistband of a lawman patrolling the city streets. Some were converted to fire cartridges, and a number of new Colt factory cartridge conversions were modified by gunsmiths in such fashion for their clientele. Though not specifically intended for anyone on either side of the law, these cut-down Army and Navy models were well suited to concealed carry, and for Texas Rangers would have been another excellent choice for a backup. In fact, one Ranger, later to become a deputy U.S. marshal and marshal of El Paso, Texas, carried a Richards-Mason 1860 Army .44 Colt conversion with the barrel loped off to just 2-5/8 inches! The short-barreled Colt served Dallas Stoudenmire well, though not well enough on the day he was murdered in El Paso by Felix “Doc” Manning and his brother Jim, who fired the fatal shot at almost point-blank range from a Colt not too different in design fromStoudenmire’s gun.

By the mid-1870s and for what remained of the 19th century, Texas Rangers generally favored Colt revolvers, and those who carried a backup pistol went with what they could find or afford. While ideal for the purpose, the Colt’s Sheriff’s Model, first introduced in 1882 with a 2½-inch barrel and later put into full production in 1888 with a choice of 3½- and 4-inch ejectorless barrel lengths, was one of the best, but according to Moser, “They were as scarce as hen’s teeth. That’s not to say Rangers couldn’t have cut the barrel down on a SAA to make their own, but there were other Colts equally suited to the task.”

Back in 1877, when Colt began production of the .38 caliber Lightening and .41 caliber Thunderer double-action revolvers, they were offered with short barrels anywhere in length from 1½ to 2, 2½ and 3½ inches. Mindful of the need for more easily concealed handguns, in 1889, when Colt introduced its first double-action revolver with a swing-out cylinder, the new model was made available with a short 3-inch barrel. The top-break S&W Baby Russian .38 and later 2nd and 3rd Model spur-trigger revolvers also became popular backups for Rangers. Others looked a little further back. In 1919, Texas Ranger Thomas R. Hickman actually carried a post-Civil-War-era S&WModel 2 Army chambered in .32 rimfire as a backup. This was the same model carried by Wild Bill Hickok in the 1870s.

In 1892, Colt introduced the first of its new transverse cylinder latch models with a spring-tensioned latch replacing the original William Mason design, which used a screw in the front of the frame to secure the cylinder arbor. The 1892 Single Actions were designated as the “smokeless powder frame” (earlier models came to be known as the “black powder frame”), but Colt didn’t officially guarantee its guns for use with the new smokeless powder cartridges until 1900. The somewhat-unusual-looking, circa 1892 Sheriff’s Model shown has the barrel shortened to 2 inches (roughly the same as a contemporary snub-nose revolver), the grip straps rounded off, the hammer slightly shortened and smoothed to avoid catching on clothing, and the face of the triggerguard cut away. Similar designs were seen in the 1880s and 1890s, and well into the early 1900s when the bobbed hammer and cutaway triggerguard finally got a name, the Fitz-Gerald Special. Texas Ranger Captain William Warren Sterling (later to become adjutant general of the Texas Rangers in 1931) carried a 5½-inch-barreled Colt with a shaved-off triggerguard. He claimed the modification made the gun easier to handle.

One of the first Texas Rangers to use a short-barreled Colt SA with cutaway triggerguard was Bass Outlaw. It was not the best name for a Ranger, nor was the snub-nose Colt the best choice as a primary fighting gun, costing the former Ranger and deputy U.S. marshal his life in a quarrel and shootout with El Paso lawman John Selman Sr. in 1894. Tried for Outlaw’s murder, Selman was found not guilty. A year later he shot and killed John Wesley Hardin in an El Paso saloon and stood trial once again. It ended with a hung jury. While awaiting a second trial, Selman was shot and killed by Deputy U.S. Marshal George Scarborough on April 5, 1896—two years to the day that Selman shot and killed Bass Outlaw!

texas Rangers backup Smith & Wesson

The Smith & Wesson options favored by Texas Rangers included the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Model .38 top-breaks (3rd Model shown at top right), the Civil-War-era .32 rimfire S&W Model 2 Army (center) and .38 S&W Single Action 1st Model
(Baby Russian) top-break (bottom left).

20th Century

As the new century rolled around, life in Texas was little changed along the border towns with Mexico, but the types of firearms Rangers were carrying by 1908 certainly were. With the advent of Colt’s semi-automatic pistols, some Rangers were embracing a newer and faster-shooting handgun, while others felt more secure still holstering a Colt single- or double-action revolver. As a backup gun, however, the new Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless chambered in .32 ACP was becoming an interesting option, as would the Model 1908, a variation of the 1903 chambered in the new .380 ACP cartridge. The .32 and .380 Colt Pocket Hammerless models became eminently popular in the early 20th century, not only with Rangers, but lawmen, outlaws and the U.S. military, which began issuing the .32 and .380 caliber pistols as a general officer’s sidearm.

Well into the new century Texas Rangers continued to carry the Colt pocket models as backups to their Model 1911s, while others like legendary Rangers Frank Hamer and “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas preferred revolvers. Gonzaullas carried a Fitz-Gerald Colt Detective Special, while Hammer used a 1st Model S&W .38 top-break double-action revolver. This model was available with a 3¼- or 4-inch barrel. (The example pictured is a factory-engraved 3rd Model). When Gonzaullas finally started carrying a Colt Model 1911, he had the triggerguard cut away like the Fitz-Gerald revolvers. Frank Hamer did the same on his 1911 and also packed a Colt Model 1903 as a backup.

By the 1920s, often regarded as the last years of frontier law in many parts of the Southwest, the history of the Texas Rangers had changed dramatically, but the Ranger’s favoritism for Colt’s revolvers and semi-automatic pistols held as steadfast in the early 20th century as John Coffee “Jack” Hays and Samuel Walker going up against that Comanche war party in 1844.

Some 150 years after the first Colt Army models had their barrels cut down by soldiers, desperate gunmen and savvy lawmen, the snub-nose revolver remains one of the most famous guns of the gunfighters.      

This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.

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