What did a well-known naturalist, a daring mail-coach driver on the hazardous route through West Texas, a fiery newspaper editor,  a tireless peacemaker and  advocate for the Indians, and an amateur tinkerer/inventor all have in common, besides being present in Texas in the 1840ies?  Ferdinand LindheimerWilliam “Big Foot” Wallace, John Salmon “Rip” Ford, Robert Neighbors and Samuel Walker  all served at various times under the command of Jack Hays, the legendary Ranger Captain.

The Rangers of that time were nothing like their present-day iteration… an elite State law-enforcement body. And under Hays’ captaincy, they became more than just the local mounted volunteer militia, called up on a moments’ notice to respond to a lightening fast raid on their settlement or town by Indians or cross-border bandits. They took to patrolling the backcountry, looking specifically for a fight and  hoping to forestall raids before they happened, or failing that, to track down raiding parties, recover loot and captives, and to administer payback. There was only one abortive attempt to have them wear uniforms. Ranger volunteers provided their own weapons and horses, and usually their own rations, although the State ofTexasdid supply ammunition. They were famously unscathed by anything resembling proper military discipline and polish, as the regular Army would discover to their horror during the Mexican War. A mid-19th century newspaper caricature of a typical ‘Texas Ranger” featured a  hairy and ragged  creature resembling “Cousin It”, slumped on a horse and wearing a belt stuffed all the way around with knives and pistols.

All that Hays asked of his Rangers was that they follow him… and fight. And so they did, for Texas attracted young and restless males with a taste for adventure, a bit of ambition and no small propensity for administering violence when called upon. They came like moths to a flame, before, during and after the Texas War forIndependence;  many of them gravitating like a trout going upstream into an enlistment as a Ranger or service in the local militia. During the early 1840s Hays commanded a company of fluctuating size, operating out of San Antonio, which turned out to be extraordinarily effective, and made his name a legend in Texas. Many who had only heard of him were utterly flummoxed upon meeting him in person for the first time. He was slight and short, quiet-spoken and almost shy, appearing to be for the first third of his adult life (a contemporary sketch and various descriptions conform this) about fourteen years old.  In between forays and patrols he drilled his company tirelessly in shooting and horsemanship, copying many of the tricks of fighting from horseback used by the Comanche and other Plains warriors. Meeting the Comanche on anything like equal terms in a fight at short distance had to wait on a single technological innovation, and Hays was the first to put it to effective use.

Until 1844, the Rangers fought primarily with the same kind of weapons that Americans had always used: single-shot flintlock or percussion rifles of various type and design, augmented by single-shot pistols. While such rifles in well-trained hands were punishingly accurate, they were awkward and slow to reload, and nearly impossible to use from horseback in a running fight. Even single-shot pistols took time to reload, time during which  an opponent with a bow and arrow could get off any number of accurate shots. But in 1839, motivated by some mad, god-only-knows, pie-in-the-sky, by-god-it’s-crazy-but-just-might-work impulse, the State of Texas ordered a quantity of 180 patent .36 caliber  5-shot revolvers from Samuel Colt’s factory in Paterson, New Jersey. A portion of them were actually issued to certain Texas Navy fighting ships, where they served about as well as expected, but they began to be largely used by the Texas Army… and increasingly by Ranger units, to astonishing effect.

The early Paterson Colts were delicate, and needed constant care and maintenance:  loading the cylinder and reattaching it to the barrel was a finicky and careful business. To modern eyes they appear over-long in the barrel, and the lack of a trigger and guard is slightly odd.  But in 1843, they were expensive … and worth every penny to the men who carried them into a fight with mounted Comanche warriors. Being able to fire five shots before needing to reload evened the odds considerably; and Hays’s Rangers usually carried two; it was also possible to purchase extra cylinders, have them loaded and change them out quickly. Colt’s reputation in Texas was made, especially after Hays and a party of fourteen Rangers  armed with Paterson Colts charged and  routed a party of eighty Comanche, in a running fight along the PedernalesRiver.

A subsequent design improvement for military use in the Mexican War saw Ranger Samuel Walker working with Samuel Colt on improving the original design.  This new design, a six-shot .44 revolver which weighed a whopping four and a half pounds made Colt’s reputation and his economic future secure. Subsequent iterations of the Colt revolver proved enduringly popular in Texas to this day. Traveling there in the early 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote,  “There are probably in Texas about as many revolvers as male adults, and I doubt if there are one hundred in the state of any other make.”

For all it’s various shortcomings, the Paterson Colt, and its descendents filled a very particular need – the need of a horse- mounted fighter for a repeat-fire weapon that was relatively accurate at short range, rugged, easy to use, and capable of evening the odds of survival against a hard-fighting, and similarly mounted enemy. In the hands of Rangers, soldiers, lawmen and citizens, a Colt revolver was all that. Except on occasions where a shotgun was called for, but that’s another story.

1 Comment

  1. Good historical perspective. I especially like the representation of the Texas Ranger in illustration you found. Good stuff all around.