The territorial lawmen also carried large-caliber Colts.
Shortly after World War II a panoramic photo started showing up in Western magazines and advertisements that depicted 25 men standing in a row, wearing badges and mostly holding Model 1895 Winchester carbines. At first identified as legendary Texas Rangers, these lawmen were, as Old West historians soon pointed out, all but one of the 26-man force of the lesser-known Arizona Rangers, who, on June 11, 1903, posed during a mine strike at Morenci, Arizona Territory (another photo taken at the same time of the same 25 men appears above).
Just two years earlier, on March 21, 1901, the Territorial Legislative Assembly had created the Arizona Rangers, primarily to police the Mexican border against cattle rustling and other crimes. The ranger force was originally limited to 14 men—one captain ($120 a month salary), one sergeant ($75) and 12 privates ($55). On March 19, 1903, the force was expanded to 26 men, with one lieutenant and another sergeant added. The pay scale was now $175 for captain, $130 for lieutenant, $110 for sergeants and $100 for privates. Detailed records were kept of each enlistee and the individually numbered badge that he wore until the short-lived Arizona Rangers were disbanded for political reasons. The “Last Ranger,” Harry Wheeler, the third captain, left office on March 25, 1909.
In eight years 107 men served as Arizona Rangers, 44 of them from Texas and only nine native Arizonans, according to M. David DeSoucy’s 2008 photo history Arizona Rangers. “About a quarter of them had previously served as Texas Rangers, deputy sheriffs, and peace officers,” DeSoucy writes. “Well over half had been cattlemen, cowboys, or stockmen. Several had previously served as soldiers during the Indian wars and the Spanish-American War [seven had been Rough Riders with Teddy Roosevelt].”
In addition to their salaries the Arizona Rangers received “stipends” for basic expenses like feed. But they had to supply their own horses, tack and weapons. The first captain, Burton C. Mossman, also stipulated that their long guns be the latest Model 1895 Winchester smokeless-powder carbines in .30-40 Krag “Army” caliber, and their six-guns be of “Army size.”
The Model 1895 Winchester was the last of the repeating lever-action rifles designed for Winchester by America’s most prolific firearms inventor, John M. Browning. All of the previous Winchester repeaters, including Browning’s designs, had one thing in common— tubular magazines under the length of the barrel. So each cartridge rode in the magazine tube with the nose of its bullet pressing hard against the primer of the cartridge ahead of it. This design “flaw” sometimes caused the nose of the bullet of one cartridge to accidentally fire off the cartridge ahead of it if the rifle was jostled hard or the butt or barrel was knocked against a hard object. The result was usually a blown-up magazine tube, or worse, the loss of a few fingers. And with the development in the 1890s of smokeless-powder, high-powered cartridges with high-velocity pointed bullets in them, the danger of cartridges in a tubular magazine setting off one another was even greater.
So Browning resolved that seldom publicized problem by eliminating the magazine tube and designing a box magazine in the bottom of the mechanism of the Model 1895. The box magazine stacked its capacity of five cartridges on top of each other instead of them being end to end with each other. This unique design also created an expanded lower frame that visually distinguishes the Model 1895 from all other lever-action Winchester rifles.
Ranger sidearms were also distinctive. Most lawmen of the Old West preferred to use ordinary, plain, workhorse Colts rather than fancy, engraved, pearl- or ivory-gripped ones.Yet based on known photographs, at least some of the men of the Arizona Rangers seem to have preferred the fancy ones.
In 2001 San Diego historical antiques dealer Richard Angelo stumbled onto the estate of ex–Arizona Ranger William Sparks. Richard and I bought from it a treasure-trove of Ranger cabinet photos, some of which show Sergeant Jeff Kidder wearing his engraved, pearl-handled .45-caliber Colt, which is now on display at the Arizona Rangers Museum and Archives in Nogales, Ariz. And just recently, Arizona historian Scott Dyke located cowman Dick Siebeck, the grandson of former Arizona Ranger William Parmer, who wore badge No. 12. Siebeck still has his grandfather’s engraved .45- caliber Colt Single Action Army, Serial No. 311387 (see photo below), which has original ivory grips with a steer head carved on the right grip. So it is presumed that, in addition to the Model 1895 Winchesters, most of the other Rangers complied with Mossman’s orders and carried the trusty Colts in .45 smokeless-powder caliber, either fancy or workhorse plain.
In 1970 I had an antique gun store east of Los Angeles. One day I learned that one of the last of the original Arizona Rangers was living in nearby El Monte. But when I visited him, my efforts to get him to talk were no more successful than trying to float a horseshoe in a bucket of beer. “No,” he explained politely, “I had to kill some men, and I’m not proud of that. I’ve never talked about it to my family. And I’ll never talk about it to anyone!” I tried to explain that I only wanted to record his lawman history before it was lost forever, but he still refused to talk.
He did mention, with ice-hard anger in his voice, that he had recently loaned his favorite Colt revolver to an“old friend” who had never returned it. But he still had his original Arizona Rangers badge hanging in a frame above his sofa. I don’t even remember his name now, but I do remember that he was one of the Mexican-American Arizona Rangers, and he was damn proud of it.
There was also very little in print from the mouths of others Rangers. But the tales about them are many and bloody. The first to die in the line of duty was Private Carlos Taffola, shot down on October 8, 1901, in a gunfight with the unglamorously named Bill Smith Gang. Probably the most colorful Ranger was Jeff Kidder, who got into a controversial gunfight with Mexican police on April 4, 1908, in a saloon on the Mexican side of the cross-border town of Naco and died the next day.
Thomas Rynning, the second captain, wrote about some of the Ranger exploits in Gun Notches (1931), as did Joseph Miller in The Arizona Rangers (1972). And in 1987 legendary Old West historian Bill O’Neal published his definitive The Arizona Rangers. He lists every man who served as an Arizona Ranger and includes enough anecdotes and photos to make any Old West aficionado as happy as a hog in a wallow when he’s reading it.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.